By Scot Noel
Illustrated by Jane Noel
“It’s very much like defusing a bomb,” Karol explained.  The older of the two at 20, Karol moved with studied motions, pushing back the curtains of the black lacquer carriage as if the length of the trip annoyed him, all while hiding his apprehension behind a haughty, “chin-up” pose.
“What’s a bomb?” asked the scullery boy.  Four years Karol’s junior, Jake had never before seen sunlight glitter across a community of mansions such as paraded past the carriage window today.  A decorous but ill-fitting armor had been hurriedly applied over apron and grease-stained trousers, and he fidgeted inside.  At his knees a tower of spell boxes jostled as the carriage made its way down the road, and Jake held on with a death grip to the varied cases, receptacles, and cartons in his care.
“A bomb?  Yes, well.  An explosive,” Karol tried to explain without revealing his own knowledge rested on a foundation of overheard conversations.  “Something very dangerous, my boy.  You would need years of training to understand.  A magic not even of this world, but of the other planes traveled by our master.”
“Have you ever been?”
“Ever been what?”
“To the other planes?” asked Jake, picking at his nose.
“Stop that!  You are not a scullery boy today, but an assistant to the master’s apprentice.”
“I thought you was the apprentice’s apprentice.”
“The assistant to the apprentice’s apprentice?”
“Listen, you!” Karol interrupted sternly.  “When a powerful mage dies, do you know what happens to the spells he’s mastered?  To the curses, daemons, banes, and enchantments festering inside?  Think, now!  They may have built up over lifetimes unnatural, over generations of thieving and conniving, robbing and bullying?  But now that he’s dead, what’s next?”
“Well?” asked Jake, eyes wide as the carriage turned up a rough cobbled lane to their destination.  “I dun’no.  What?”
“They explode!” Karol cried out, making an expansive gesture with his hands. “That is to say, once the binding magics decay to a certain point, with the mage himself no longer around to renew them, all infernity breaks loose.  Heck, it could turn a fine, ladies and gentlemen paradise like this into a wasteland!”
“And they called for you?” Jake asked incredulously, his jaw open so wide Karol could smell the stink of the scullery boy’s unbrushed teeth.      
“They called for the House of Mordane,” explained Karol, fixing his countenance back into its haughty, unruffled pose.  Still, as the carriage slowed, a hint of uncertainty built up like a tear in the corner of his eye. “But our master has the flu.”
“And the apprentice?”
“Called to the Crimattea district to solve a haunting.”
“The apprentice’s apprentice?”
“Saving a beached dragon, so I hear.  Look, are you going to do as you’re told or not?”
“It’s kind of a chance for you to prove yourself, ain’t it?  Well, count me in on that!  I guess I can’t do no lower than washing dishes and floors and scrubbing crap holes, even if I get exploded all over, eh?  I’m with you, Karol.”
“Master Karol, from now on, if you please!”
Stepping from the finely equipped carriage were two very young men. One was round of face and pudgy in the hands, with sharp eyes that took everything in at a glance.  He wore a robe bearing three arcane symbols at the shoulder and his frayed shoes were hidden below a tattered hem. The second was tall and lanky, fair and blue eyed, his long, yellow hair bound back and braided in a tail which had flipped over one shoulder of the stained, beaten armor that jangled as he walked. He smiled broadly and looked about as if amazed at his location. 
As they looked about to get their bearings, Karol and Jake found themselves greeted by a fine looking gentleman dressed in a suit of nine buttons, sleeves of silver brocade, and shoes that rivaled the black lacquer sheen of the carriage.  At first Karol took him to be the master of the towering columns and high flung arches behind him, but no relation was he to the inhabitants of the mansion.
“You mean you’re just a servant!?” Jake asked with an amazed exclamation once the introductions were done.  Then, more softly and with circumspection “do they know you’re wearing them clothes?”
“I believe there has been some mistake,” the man who named himself Foss said gravely. “We are expecting the master of the house of Mordane.  You boys—”
“Are here in his stead,” Karol interrupted firmly, looking away as if matters far more important than the qualms of a mere house servant, no matter how finely dressed, were his to consider.  
“The master of Mordane is temporarily indisposed. I have already told you who we are; we need no further bona fides.”
“Look here, Mister Foss,” Jake chimed in.  He had already unloaded all of the spell boxes from the carriage and now was trying to spit-clean a spot of mildew from the mismatched gauntlet on his left wrist.  “S’truth we ain’t sent into the finer places like this, not often enough to count, anyways. ‘Cause him and me, we’re always set after the worst of the doom cutters, if you take my meaning, scum daemons rising right out of infernity.  You can come down to the catacombs runnin’ beneath the Crimattea to find us most days.”
Bringing fist to mouth, Karol cleared his throat in a manner the servant Foss clearly understood as an attempt to interrupt Jake’s enthusiastic bluster.  It was an understanding Jake did not share.
“Now this man here,” Jake jabbed a chain-mailed finger at Karol, “I’d follow him into infernity itself and have done more than once.  He can speak fine enough; hold himself well enough for any master of yours.  As for me, you go on looking down on me all you want, ‘cause my job ain’t nothing to do with that.  It’s wrestlin’ daemons back to hell is my concern.”
“This is most irregular,” complained Foss.
“So it is,” Karol parried.  “Having enjoyed your reception, we shall retire.  With our Master ill and our staff hard pressed, there is no time for a fool’s errand.  If the Master is required, so be it.  He shall return in two or three days.”
“At twice the price,” Jake improvised, smiling.
“Three days!”  Foss breathed sharply.  “The burial party arrives at four!”
“Then, we’d best start immediately,” Karol clapped his hands.  “Jake, bring those spell boxes.  Mister Foss, I expect you’ll lead the way for us?”
A small, unadorned side door led down a walled walkway then through one sharp angled turn before opening onto a spacious courtyard of statuary and flagstones open the to the sky.  Here an elaborate gateway festooned with colorful marks of heraldry greeted them.  They walked past columns of marble, steaming baths, and one large ice blue pool on their way to the southern balconies of the estate.
“Pardon if I am unfamiliar with local society,” Karol said as they began their ascent through a terraced garden, “but your master was what, a dream lord, child slaver?  A dealer in kivas and trillium, perhaps?
“Banker and financier,” Foss said coldly.
“Ah, I hadn’t thought of that.  Jake, we’re going to need the big box tied in the bunch on the left.  Try not to jostle it.”
A step or two further up the terraced way, a dark shadow passed overhead, casting the courtyard in a temporary eclipse.  All heads turned upward at once, but there was nothing to see, only a momentary chill which came in the wake of the passing.
The room was prepared as the master of Mordane had decreed in the correspondence delivered by courier that dawn.  Fresh straw covered the beautiful cherry wood flooring, there to deal with spillage and to provide warmth in the event of an endothermic event.  The body lay on a centrally positioned table, bare but for a single white sheet draped from head to foot. The three windows in the room had been barred but left open to the air, and everything from candles to the placement of amphorae of water and oil seemed correct.
What startled Karol was the corpse. The name he had been given was Bibi Kalon-Agatha, an appellation the young conjurer had associated with an aging mass of corpulent manhood, something bald and jowl cheeked, waxy and with fat hands. Instead a woman of auburn hair and alluring dimension lent a pulchritudinous grace to the sheet draped across her.   
Karol swallowed hard.  “A tragedy,” he said weakly.  
“A viper found its way into madam’s bed chamber,” Foss explained.  “There will be an investigation.”
“I see,” said Karol.
“Lucky snake,” Jake whispered from the corner of his mouth, dropping his load of spell boxes onto the straw.  At that same moment the windows darkened, the air grew still, and a strange smell bearing the weight and character of old tobacco introduced itself into the room.
“We must begin,” Karol said firmly, looking about as the shadow passed, seeing if he could discern the source of the manifestation.  “The time for niceties has slipped through our fingers, I’m afraid.  Mister Foss, can you assure us of absolute privacy?”
“The house has already been cleared by the constabulary,” said Foss.  “Several of the madam’s guests are being questioned, as they say.  The house itself-”
“Yes, I noted the warding spells as we entered,” Karol assured the manservant.  “So the Patrol left those, eh?  Well, we shall not be disturbing the scene of the crime.  Our duty is quite specific.  Now go, please, and bolt those doors behind you.”
Foss cleared his throat.  “Uhmm hmm.  The doors, they, well, they bolt from the inside, if you’ll notice.  Are you boys sure—”
“Yes,” Karol said impatiently, “of course.  Jake, please show Mister Foss out and take care of those doors.  We shall be done shortly, Mister Foss.  I assure you, everything is under control.”
As the scullery boy did as he was bade, Karol turned to the pile of spell boxes, sliding back the lid of one receptacle without removing it from the ropes and ties which connected it to its companions.  By the time Jake threw the bolt and turned to address Karol, he was greeted by a lightning strike of minor proportions, violet smoke and light biting into the scullery boy’s chest and throwing him back against the door with a thud.
“Let that be a lesson!  I don’t need this, whatever you’re doing; all I need is for you to follow orders and keep your mouth shu—” Karol had just launched into a hastily prepared harangue about Jake’s improvisations, when he realized the scullery boy’s armor, however old, was proof against electrical shock.  Karol’s second realization was that Jake could move fast and knew the rough skills by which street boys measure their rank.  Jake swept Karol off his feet with a simple two step movement and ended by sitting square on his new master’s chest.
“Can’t breathe—” Karol complained.
“You brought me here to help, didn’t you?” Jake asked accusingly.  “So far I’ve done nothing but back you up!”
“Is that,” Karol choked out “what you’re doing?”  With eyes closed, he concentrated on a simple fragment of levitation magic, not enough to float the scullery boy free, but given an easing of pressure, just a wee bit more, he waited for the moment of leverage and threw all his effort into tossing Jake back.  It worked, and from that second on the wrestling match began.  
A minor spell or two that could spasm muscle and blur vision worked to Karol’s advantage, but strong magic required both implements and concentration, luxuries Karol did not have as Jake’s fists bore home.  Straw flew, the collection of spell boxes were knocked awry, and an amphora of water was shattered as two writhing bodies fell into it, a happenstance that immediately proved its worth, as a candle brushed from a low table but moments before had already set the straw aflame.  Still, neither young man gave ground until the room grew cold, the spilled water froze, and the fire and all the remaining candles went out at once.
“Enough funnin’,” Jake finally admitted, stumbling and out of breath as he rose to his feet.  “It might be time for some runnin’.”  He lent down a hand and helped the disheveled Karol to his feet, the latter bruised, wet, and wringing ice water from his robe.
“I thought you were good at ‘wrestlin’ daemons back to hell’?”  Karol chided as he caught his breath and kept his eye on the woman’s body they had been sent to disarm.
“Gave you a good tossin’,” Jake asserted, breaking into a wide smile that instantly transformed itself to laughter.  It was a contagion that soon had Karol laughing too, even though it caused a stitch in his side.
“Look Jake, this is supposed to be an easy case.”  Unsaid was “or the master wouldn’t have sent me, even with the apprentices out on call.”  
“So why’d you think to bring me along, Master Karol?”  asked Jake, deliberately overemphasizing the title of address. 
“You know why,” Karol broke forth with honesty.  “How would it look, me carrying all that by myself?”
“Just wanted me to haul stuff and keep my lips stitched, eh?  Yeah, well, don’t blame you that, but Jake Vechon ain’t that way.  You see, I could mean what I said about following you to hell, if it comes to it, as I suspect the good road up might has a few low steps before it turns my way.  Partners?”
Jake held out his right hand, fingers wide.
Seeing no alternative to quiet the scullery boy and gain whatever measure of assistance might yet be his, Karol reached back and grasped the hand firmly.  “Partners!” he proclaimed, forcing a wide smile as he did so.  It would have to do until the job was done.
“Lord, what a tragic waste this is,” Jake proclaimed, whistling softly as he grasped the silks over the body with both hands, raising them slightly away from the shapely form of Bibi Kalon-Agatha.  “Can’t see where that snake did his business, Master Karol.  Hey, have you ever… well, ‘animated’ a body such as this?”
“Well, you know.  If we could get something like this movin’…”
“Another time, Jake,” said Karol impatiently as he finished drawing a hexagram and within it the union of opposites, using a blue stick of chalk to dot the last of the fire symbols.  The symbology was not placed exactly where he would have liked, but half the floor was wet or covered in ice from the spilled amphora, and even as Karol finished he could see his breath congealing on the air.
“Is it supposed to get this cold?”
“No, Jake.  It’s not supposed to get this cold!  Now get those sheets off and come over here and do as I say.”
Jake whipped the funeral shroud away like a magician pulling a table cloth from under a place setting.  Then, quietly, without even a last leering comment, he strode over to stand behind Karol.  At the same moment the scullery boy reached his position, a dance of firefly lights began to coalesce above the body, and from the way Karol touched and fidgeted with his chalk drawings, it appeared the young conjuror was in control.
“The blue and the red candles,” Karol commanded.  “Blue on either side of her head, red below her feet.  And try not to catch the body on fire!”
Once in place and lifting their nascent flames into the still, cold air, the candles contributed to Karol’s magic in their own special way.  Ribbons of smoke, the slenderest tendrils of black carbon, rose up into the squadron of firefly lights as they hung above the corpse.  The smoke itself wove through the lights like threads in an ethereal tapestry, giving the whole a depth it could not otherwise hope to have.
“Ah, look,” Karol explained as he rose from his knees to stand over the corpse draped in its new magical shroud.  “Look at her nails.  The toes too.  That blue scintillation.”
“Whadya call it?”
“Never mind.  The cat’s cage works!  That’s her binding magic its showing us, and we can measure it.  Here and here.”
“There’s more excitin’ things on the table than that, master Karol,” said Jake, alternately bending at the knees and rising to tip toes in an effort to see past the ethereal lines of the spell.  “I can’t see where no snake got her.  Are we gonna catch them that done it?”
“Not our job.  We’re just here to defuse the body.”
“So when does she explode?”
“Not right away.  It looks like we’re in time.”
“Well then, was she a wicked cold witch, Master Karol?  It’s like to snow in here soon.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Karol said, his fingers playing across the soft lights and moving through the smoke trails at strategic spaces.
“And that smell, like an old man’s pipe,” Jake observed, “Are you sure-“
“Jake, I need the LSR, it should be in that long green box.”
“Lodestone Sequencing Rod,” Karol clipped the words impatiently. “Come on, come on!”
Why didn’t you say so, was in Jake’s expression as he unpacked a needle tipped baton of rough metal, a rod as long as a man’s arm from elbow to fingertips.
“Master likes to call things by their letters,” Karol explained as he took the device and fussed over a spell that soon set it to glowing.  “Good.  Now, take this line from the LSR and place it in one of the amphora of oil.  And then…”  Karol described a sequence of steps, including the opening of half a dozen of the spell boxes, the dissolution of strange capsules in both jars of water and oil, and the lighting of candles and incense that sparked with magnetic auras.  All this time he was moving the lodestone sequencing rod through the smoke trails and the firefly lights, working it over the body as a surgeon might work a scalpel in search of a gall bladder.
“Fool, heed these words,” the pale beauty hissed, “Find a trader out of the deep south, Gillian of Ellisore by name. There will you find cheques of carriage and coins of household gold.  These can be traced to Foss, along with a selection of poisonous beasts he did not engage to his purpose.”
“I’ve almost got it.  Damn!”
“That doesn’t sound good, Master Karol.”
“This last one is a tricky one.  I can’t remember if I’m supposed to cut the blue aura or the green one.  It looks to me like her youth spell, and I’d rather not be caught in an “age rage” if I get it wrong.”
“Let me see,” said Jake.
“Now what in the name of the gods difference will that make?”
“I said, I wanted to see.”
“There’s nothing to see!”
Then, suddenly, as they argued, a third voice entered the room. “The green one!”  
Both boys started and took half a step back, Jake waggling his fingers before him as if deploying a magic shield, but it was only fright.  The dead woman on the table had spoken.  “The green one,” she said again, turning her head to fix them in eyes still glassy and unaware.
“She ain’t dead!” cried the scullery boy.
“I assure you she is,” said Karol.  He turned to fall upon the mound of spell boxes in a panic.  Carved symbols, colorful incantations, and fanciful containers flew through his fingers as he searched for the one he should have prepared when the first of the shadows passed over.
The box Karol wanted had an interwoven cord design, a colorful Gordian knot gracing its lid.  Inside were two separate liquids, each in a clear vial the size of a thumb.  Beside them lay a small pewter bowl called an aspersory (the one the Master used was golden) and a short stick for mixing and throwing the liquids called an aspergillum.  
Karol had seen the master use this spell once, through the keyhole of a massive door, but the great man had had twice the supply of miscible liquids and a wand of pure jade to augment his powers.
“Don’t you dare!” said the dead woman, raising a pale but perfect hand to point threateningly at Karol.
“Hey, who was it killed you?” Jake asked, recovering nicely from his initial shock.  “Wouldn’t want them, you know, to get away scotchfree, as they say.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” the corpse choked out the words, forgetting to breathe and finding a lungful of air was necessary to continue.  A rattling cough sent spasms down the length of her eesome frame.  After recovering, the glassy-eyed beauty solved the crime.  “The houseman did it.”
“Foss? That butler guy!” said Jake. “Really?  I wouldn’t have pegged him for the type.”
“He’s always wanted to peg this,” the corpse made a flourishing gesture starting from her breasts and proceeding down her torso. “A murderous envy and a sense of self far in excess of his station, and this is the result.”
“Do we get a reward for bringing you back to life?”
“Fool, heed these words,” the pale beauty hissed, “Find a trader out of the deep south, Gillian of Ellisore by name. There will you find cheques of carriage and coins of household gold.  These can be traced to Foss, along with a selection of poisonous beasts he did not engage to his purpose.”
In the meantime, with Jake to distract the talking dead, Karol had combined his ingredients with what sleight of hand could be managed under the circumstances.  Perhaps the proportions were not quite right, perhaps the aspergillum had not been dipped in quite the correct way, but Karol had his weapon and rose to employ it.
“And as I said,” the corpse added casually, “it’s the green aura and you’re done.”
“Anaal-nathturka, urthude vasuude,” the frightened apprentice began to chant. “Doktuuth delnive!”  Lightning cracked between the aspergillum and the corpse, and the eyes of the dead went wide.
“Impudent boy!” shouted the remains of Bibi Kalon-Agatha, though the voice had suddenly gone three registers deeper.  “You shall pay…”  But even as a single pale finger at the end of one long, sculpted arm fixed Karol as its target, the corpse fell back without another word, motionless on the cold table.
“Now we need the Baal binding straps; help me find them!”
“Take a breath, will ya.  I think you’ve got it handled, oh Master.  She’s stiff as a fish on ice again.”
“We don’t have anything handled!” Karol said desperately. “That’s a major daemon, of the order Sama-Gamathutra.”
“I thought she was just some money changer,” Jake said easily, bending over the corpse in a relaxed manner, as if he might see beyond those perfect, tear drop breasts into the workings of the trapped beast within. “Didn’t seem too grateful to you, for bringing her back to—”  
At that point the room shook, trembling as if some foundation stone beneath the estate had suddenly shattered.  Plaster fell from the ceiling.  The sullen, waning candles about the body shot high with flame, consuming themselves in the space of one long, indrawn breath.
“Anaal-nathturka!” Karol commanded, addressing his chants not to the body but to some unseen entity he sensed trying to surround them on all sides.  “The shadows, the smell, Jake!  You noticed it yourself.  A daemon followed us here; it just took over the corpse to gain a voice!”
“But it told us who the murderer was.”
“Tricked us more like.  The straps, Jake!  And we need exorcism beetles - if these old boxes have any live ones.  Ono-pareemus Madum!”
The scullery boy circled the table and fell to among the now disheveled boxes, trying to find the symbols Karol was hurriedly describing between desperate waves of the magically imbued aspergillum. The room shook again and more plaster fell. 
“We saw those shadows when we was walkin’ up here,” Jake observed. “Why didn’t you say somethin’ before?” 
“Say what? I thought the murderer sent it!”
“Why would—”
“To curse her wandering spirit, steal secret memories,   I don’t know!  I thought it would let us be as long as we kept to our job.”
Jake’s fingers moved quickly through the overturned spell boxes, his words stuttering out alongside the clatter and fall of the string bound cases. “Why did you go ‘n piss the damned thing off?  It was just talkin’!”  
The question seemed to catch Karol off guard.  “I, ahh.  Well, it’s said ‘let a daemon speak and it befuddles the brain.’”
The scullery boy paused, drawing in one long, sarcastic breath. “That worried you, eh?”  Next, Jake found the vials with the exorcism beetles, but only one of the six legged beasts didn’t have its forked tail curled over its bulbous head in a rictus of death. He handed the living one over. “Here ya go, master!”
“And the Baal bands.  Find the Baal bands!”  
As Jake continued plunging through the pile of spell boxes, a section of the floor opened up and stole away two amphorae of oil.  The bars on the windows gave way, and a sickly gust of wind, rich with the scent of old blood and burned tobacco fell in upon them.
Karol worked swiftly to open the vial containing the ugly little beast in its pocket sleeping spell, but his trembling hands betrayed him and the apprentice’s apprentice had to smash the vial against the table to free its contents.
The three inch long beetle rolled out on the table beside the body, and Karol bent toward it, bringing his lips close as he whispered an awakening spell and blew gently on the compound eyes of the thing.  Dazed, the desert dwelling bug began to stir.  Two sets of antennae waved in the stinking air.  The abdominal segments flexed.
Concentrating, Karol next extended an aura from his fingertips, using it as a prod of flickering blue energy to coax the hefty insect to its task.  The beetle turned, encouraged by the push of Karol’s aura, with the young mage cupping his hands close by and making gentle upward motions.  
Close by, a bolt of lightning split the growing dark, followed by a violent quake that shifted the table and the floor beneath it a few inches to the right.  
Thrown from his feet for a second and banging his elbow badly against a stonework vessel, Karol recovered to see the black sheen of the beetle as it struggled to mount the left breast of the corpse.  It had already begun to glow purposefully, eager to feed on the daemonic energies within.  For a hundred thousand generations, its kind had fed on the powers of the desert kings and all the magic buried in the great tombs and pyramids of the Waste.  But would a single, long imprisoned bug be enough?
Karol had his answer when the eyes Bibi Kalon-Agatha opened once again.  Her head snapped forward, both orbs wide and focused in dead horror on the advancing predator, on the tiny, pestiferous bane of all things ectoplasmic.
 The arms of the corpse rose stiffly as the beetle crested the rise of the pale breast.  The mouth of the corpse spread wide in a cavernous, silent scream as the insect reached the nipple and its ample, pincer-like jaws opened in anticipation.
By now Jake had liberated the restraining bands Karol had called for, and both boys were struggling in a panic to untangle them. But it was too late.
From the central point where the beetle’s jaws drove together, an explosion of icy magnitude, like the blast of a glacial wind or the clap of a mountain god’s hands erupted into the moment, setting all other considerations aside.  The concussion blew the boys back, away from the table and toward the great doors Jake had bolted earlier.
 In the choking blackness to follow, neither could see a hand before his face, but the daemonic shriek that filled their ears threatened to deafen the both of them eternally.  Jake was the first to make it to his feet, the first to smack his head into the wall he sought, thankfully running his hands over the rough, freezing surface until he found the bolts to the passageway and pounded eagerly upon them until they moved and the weighty door gave way.
While the scullery boy’s feet launched him forward at a run, his heart had more mettle than panic could bend.  Jake turned and reached blindly into the darkness, back through the door and into the inky cold, shouting and thrusting about with his hands until the robes of his compatriot filled his grasp.  He pulled Karol to his feet and backwards into the twilight beyond the shuddering door.
Once outside they made their way through falling stone and the odd lightning strike, down across marble stairs and out through a courtyard now shrouded in fog, a malevolent mist rising from the pools and baths that had become bubbling maelstroms in the dark.
Their carriage was gone and the houseman named Foss nowhere to be seen.  On all sides there was daylight, but as they watched the estate behind them collapsed in upon itself, engulfed in a charcoal fog.  Sharing a single terrified glance, the pair turned to run headlong down the street.  Keeping shoulder to shoulder, they were almost out of range when the center of the maelstrom erupted into a hurricane of shattered glass and flying stone.
“Good to see you well again, Master,” Karol said lamely, realizing it had taken him far too long to show concern for more than the status of his own, uncertain future.
“Is it?” asked Lord Alfred Rohmer, the Master of Mordane.  Hands as roughened as a boxer’s tapped out an uncertain rhythm on the arms of the great chair in his study, an elephantine desk sitting like an oaken bulwark between himself and the two bandaged boys who had been excusing themselves creatively for quite nearly an hour.  Karol leaned on a cane.  Jake had one arm in a splint.
“We saved all but one house,” Jake asserted. “The whole neighborhood could have been lost.”
“Really? What makes you think that?”
“Well, at the beginning, when he was tellin’ about the bombs and all-”
“Bombs!” Rohmer interrupted, half rising from his chair as if ready to launch himself across the desk at them. “Who is this he who was speaking of the other world?”
Jake stiffened but did not flinch. “No one,” he demurred. “Must’ve… must have been a word I heard through a door, one time or other.”
“I see,” said Rohmer stroking his craggy cheeks and the gray beard that descended liberally from them.  “Is that how it was, Mister Nicholormo?”  He employed Karol’s family name.
Silence followed.
“Mister Nicholormo?  There was a question.”
“I’ve heard the word too,” Karol said at last, his voice trembling. “I may have used it while explaining our task, preparing Jake, I mean mister, mister…”
“Vechon,” Jake whispered.
“Explaining to Mister Vechon, about—”
“So it was Mister Vechon who was unprepared?” Rohmer asked. Now the tall, robed figure stood before his desk, using a finger to magically push papers this way and that. “Well?  Did that scullery boy’s bumbling cause this?”
“No, Master!  Jake…ah, Mister Vechon saved my life.”
With a weary exhalation, the Master of Mordane once again took his seat.  The action had something of the grace a king might demonstrate in reclaiming his throne.  “Saved your life, eh?  I hope it was worth it, Mister Nicholormo.”
“Master, we fought a daemon of the first order,” Karol said as if he had not already made the point twice before.  “That’s got to count for something.”
“Umm hmm,” Rohmer mused. He waggled a finger near his nose and a scroll on the desk unfurled. The scratchings on its surface glowed as if attempting to convey the anger of its many words.  “Thirty thousand cestercia in damage. One set of household spells lost. Charges of interference with a constabulary investigation.”  Rohmer sighed.  “And you were so close.”
“Master?” Karol asked. A cold sweat had begun bathe his undergarments in misery.
“The blue or the green aura?” asked the master.
While the apprentice’s apprentice stared back in confused silence, Jake remembered the first words of the daemon as it spoke from the lips of Bibi Kalon-Agatha. “The green aura.  It should have been the green aura he cut with that… rod thing.”
“Correct,” said Rohmer, smiling.  “That done and you would have been successful, our household paid, and the both of you home in time for tea.”  
Puffing his lips, the master shook his head wearily, yet both Jake and Karol caught the twinkle of amusement in his eyes when at last Rohmer’s gaze returned to them. “And then there is the matter of the angry daemon.”
“Destroyed,” Jake returned quickly, with more certainty than he felt.
“There was only the one beetle,” Karol said, eyes closed, teeth clenching.  “The potions were old.”
“Didn’t you notice that the daemon followed you there?” asked Rohmer.
“Yes,” Karol admitted.  “But I thought—”
The Master of Mordane silenced the young mage with a single impatient gesture.  “Perhaps it is my fault.  You see, I sent an aid after you today, to facilitate the operation.  I didn’t trust that you could… I didn’t expect the two of you…Not on your own.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” Karol asked, incredulous.
“Why didn’t it say something?” Jake asked, his temper rising.
“Ahh,” Rohmer sighed dismissively, “the fog of war, I suppose.  Easy to see what should have been after the fact, eh?  But an entire estate lost!  A murderer free to escape justice!”
“We’ll track him down,” Jake improvised, receiving a killing glare from Karol even as he did so.
“Only if you want to remain in my employ, the both of you.” Leaning forward, Rohmer took a quill from the ink well and began scratching at a piece of parchment as if deciding their fate. “By the way, nice work standing together like that. Lesser men would have blamed one another from the start.”
“Then,” Karol ventured, “you’re not angry at us?”
“Well, that’s hard to say, exactly.  Let’s just admit that I see an opportunity for advancement awaiting the two of you.  After the daemon gets through with you, that is.”
“After the—”
At last Karol became aware of the heavy, dark shape slouched in a pose of bent knees and hulking shoulders behind the master’s great seat. As the conversation had continued, it appeared to peek farther and farther from its hiding place, as if eager for something. And there was that aging, acrid smell of tobacco. Karol nudged the oblivious scullery boy and gestured with a slant of his eyes.
“Yes,” said Rohmer, noticing the focus of their attention, “that would be, well… you haven’t earned the right to a daemon’s name yet, have you boys?”  The Master of Mordane reached a hand back into the shadows, as if petting something that wasn’t quite there.  “Just wants to teach you a lesson or two, he does.  Kind of a “who’s the boss” lecture and practicum.  Might lay you up for a bit, but after that you’ll all be working together, soon enough.”
“You’re not just going to let it,” Karol began.
“Come after us?” Jake finished, his voice rising uncomfortably at the end.
“Oh, no,” Rohmer said with relaxed authority. “And I’m sure that our friend here would agree; you’ve performed well enough today that you deserve, at the least, a fifteen minute head start.”