The Masters file into the high-vaulted chamber with its ceiling of clear, faceted crystal. The rainbow light cast by the sun finds its echo in their robes, fine silks in all the shades of their titles: sky-blue, steel-grey, rose-red, blood-red. The thrones upon which they seat themselves are carved from impossibly large blocks of the stones for which they are named. Kings covet thrones as fine as these, but anyone who thinks to conquer this place and take them as a prize will soon have a thousand reasons to regret his error.
In the center sits the Opal Master, resplendent and stern. Without a single sweep of her hand she raises the wards that will shield this room from sight and sound; they mute the light from the crystal ceiling, and in the gloom the Masters and their thrones glow all the more vividly.
She declares the thirteen convened, and the most junior among them, the Turquoise Master, asks the first question. “Who stands before us?”
The words are ritual. For weeks the halls of the academy have echoed with whispers, rumors and speculations and more than a few wagers. Everyone knows who. Everyone knows why. But no one knows what—or how it will play out.
He steps forward, wearing the undyed muslin of a candidate, and halts on the block of dull granite that marks the center of the floor. “I am Harrik Neconnu, and I stand before the Masters.”
“For what purpose do you come before us?” Jasper, second most junior. The more interesting questions are reserved for the senior Masters.
“I come before you to submit myself for examination.”
Now comes the first chance for something unexpected, with the question of the Lapis Master. “What degree do you seek?”
“I seek the degree of vīs faciendī.”
A soft rustle of silk, as the Masters shift in their seats.
They are not surprised. To achieve the degree of vīs sciendī requires examination by only three Masters, and vīs mūtandī requires seven. They would not be here, all thirteen of them, if they had not known how Neconnu would answer.
But still: ambition is always noteworthy. Vīs faciendī is the most difficult of the three degrees, and the most rarely bestowed.
The Hematite Master says, “Do you understand that if you fail this test, you will be put out of the academy, and not permitted to return?”
He is not a remarkable student, Neconnu. Some among more senior Masters—those not required to take on teaching duties—did not even recognize his name when they found it entered into the lists for examination. But this is not as unusual as one might think; magi are not known for their humility. Already this year three candidates have overreached themselves, and been sent away.
Odds are high that Neconnu will be the fourth. But he must have his chance.
The Obsidian Master asks the question that pulses behind every serene expression. “What act will you perform, to prove your right to the degree of vīs faciendī?”
Harrik Neconnu says, “I am going to return the dead to life.”
He isn’t the first to try.
Countless magi, hoping to earn the highest of the three degrees, have turned to myths and legends for inspiration. In stories great heroes have brought the sun to a halt, traveled backward in time, transformed themselves into stars in the sky; why should it not be possible for magi to do the same? They command the forces of existence. Surely nothing is beyond their reach.
And sometimes they are correct. The academy cultivates such hubris because from time to time it produces results; some of the invocations that now form part of the standard examination for vīs sciendī were once the means by which someone earned the degree of vīs faciendī, in the early days when the academy was new and few forms of magic were known.
But resurrecting the dead… that, no one has yet achieved. Invoking ghosts, yes. Raising corpses as shambling puppets, yes.
A true return to life?
That has always remained out of reach.
The Masters relax on their thrones. No one laughs, or even smiles; they have too much dignity and self-control for that. But now they know how exactly to classify the young man in front of them: a mediocre student, his ambition far in excess of his skill, hoping to make his name in one dramatic stroke. Vīs faciendī means a guaranteed position among their ranks in due course, once a seat becomes available; the Alabaster and Opal Masters both earned their titles that way. But this foolish boy is unlikely to join them.
The Carnelian Master is not quite as well-controlled as the rest. A hint of indulgent amusement creeps into his voice as he says, “Where do you intend to perform this act? We have no body here for you to raise.”
“We will have to leave this room,” Neconnu says. “My method requires us to visit the grave.”
There is precedent. Although the examinations for all three degrees are customarily conducted in secrecy, some effects cannot be performed in the confines of this chamber. The Opal Master earned her degree on the rocky crag that rears up behind the academy’s halls, splitting the heavens with the lightning into which she had transformed her body.
“What tools will you need?” the Agate Master asks.
This time he has surprised them. There are things a magus can do without needing material assistance from herbs or candles, bells or diagrams, feathers or the stones for which the Masters are named. But most of them are smaller effects, simple matters like manipulating objects at a distance or conjuring water or fire. Greater things can still be done unaided, as the Opal Master demonstrated in raising the wards, but this requires great skill and power; she holds the degree of vīs mūtandī as well as vīs faciendī. An unremarkable student like Neconnu is unlikely to be capable of any such thing.
The traditions of this examination allot only one question to each Master, but Agate cannot hold back from saying more. Not bothering to hide his skepticism, he says, “You expect us to believe you can raise the dead by will alone?”
“No,” Neconnu says. “But the one thing I need, I hold within myself.”
This is more plausible. Blood, breath, hair, flesh—the components of the body have countless uses in a magus’s work. To achieve something as significant as restoring the dead to life without a great array of paraphernalia seems unlikely… but others have brought in wagonloads full of tools and still failed. Perhaps the answer will turn out to lie in simplicity after all.
They return to the questions, with Chrysoprase leaning forward in her curiosity. “How much time do you need to prepare?”
“None,” he says again. “I have already begun.”
Something about him irks them all, and has done so ever since he entered the room. Perhaps it is the arrogance with which he stands there, this mediocre student, so unremarkable in his classes that half of them could not have named him or even known him for one of their own. He does not smile, any more than the Masters do, but they can all see him not smiling, as if he is too magnanimous to gloat over the accolade he has not yet earned… but not so magnanimous that he doesn’t want them to know that he is holding back.
And their irritation finds just cause in that reply. Each Master has only one question to ask, but free rein to condemn the answers they receive. Chrysoprase slaps one palm against the arm of her throne, blue-green as the shallow sea and carved with intricate knots. “I deny the degree. You condemn yourself from your own mouth: we must see you demonstrate the power of creation in order to judge it. To begin without us is trickery.”
Neconnu bends his head, graciously but without apology. “There is precedent. Two hundred years ago Ajan Eixt earned the degree of vīs faciendī by causing a severed limb to regrow, despite having begun before the examination, because his working began by accident.”
This reply creates an opening for Alabaster, whose alone among the Masters does not have his words dictated by ritual. His role is to ask the question that cannot be planned for, because it is unique to the circumstances at hand. Now he tilts a measuring gaze at Neconnu and says, “Do you claim yours began by accident as well?”
Neconnu’s path would be smoother if he says yes. But the magi who seek the highest degree are even less known for their humility than their lesser brethren. He says, “No. I name Eixt only to show that there is precedent. I began my working in full knowledge of what I was doing… but had I told anyone at the time, it would have ruined the attempt.”
“Explain,” Alabaster says. Commands are not questions.
Neconnu hesitates for just an instant. But here in this room he has no liberty; he must answer the questions and obey the commands of the Masters, or suffer consequences far worse than expulsion. He says, “My working relies on… intent. Not only my own, but in a sense, that of those around me. For them to know what I am doing would affect their responses, and thus risk destroying what I seek to create.”
A pause as the Masters consider. Then Neconnu speaks again, without being bidden. “You will understand when you see my working. And I am sure that when you do, you will judge that I too had sufficient cause for beginning before I entered this room.”
The collective intake of breath around the room says that more than a few of the Masters are less certain than he. But when Alabaster looks to Opal, she nods. And so the ritual continues on, to the Sardonyx Master.
He says, “How long will you need to… complete your working?”
The word is supposed to be “perform.” But Neconnu has already begun, and Sardonyx judges it more important to ask the correct question than to adhere to the precise phrasing.
Now a hint of the smile begins to show through, as if Neconnu cannot hold it back any longer. He answers both the question asked, and the one it should have been. “My working has been in progress for one year. Today it will conclude, and once we reach the grave, that should take no more than a few minutes.”
A year and a day! Half the Masters look to their leader, as Alabaster did a moment before. They have never heard of a working that takes so long, but if anyone among them has, it will be the Opal Master.
She, however, does not meet anyone’s gaze. She is rigid on her throne, the shifting colors of her robe lending the illusion of movement, but the woman herself is as still as death.
Malachite, failing to realize the significance, asks his question. “Who is the target of your working, that you intend to raise from the dead?”
The smile breaks free, beatific and smug.
Neconnu says, “Voland Eleir.”
The Masters need no reminder of her name. She is known to them all, and even those who disliked her on personal grounds could not deny her potential. At first they shrugged it off as the advantage of her birth and upbringing, giving her an early start compared to her fellow students. But as time passed and others showed their promise, Voland kept ahead of them all. She did not merely possess talent; she had dedication, determination, the will to apply herself to her studies and the intelligence to see how they could be taken further. Vīs sciendī would surely be a mere formality, for her memory was prodigious. Vīs mūtandī, a certainty, for she had the knack of adapting known magic to variant ends. Vīs faciendī… if anyone in this generation could earn that degree, surely it would be Voland Eleir.
It broke their hearts when she died.
A year and a day, since the accident that claimed her life. One of the senior students, ambitious to earn the degree of vīs mūtandī, experimented with the Opal Master’s achievement, seeking to transform himself into flame instead of lightning. His most successful attempt failed to achieve any change in his own body; he only created a firestorm that burned Voland to bone on the spot.
They can heal, the magi of the academy. The first bestowment of vīs faciendī was for that discovery. But no power can restore life once it has fled, and so the brightest star of the next generation was snuffed out like a mere candle.
He is gone now, the student who killed her. Not just exiled, but the spark of his power torn out of him so he can use it to harm no more. Not that it does any good. It won’t restore Voland Eleir to them.
If Neconnu can do what he says, though… that star will shine again.
And the Opal Master will have her granddaughter back.
The Opal Master is on her feet, hands rigid as stone. That final question properly belongs to the Jade Master, but no one begrudges her this break in ritual. It is no secret that the current Opal dreamt of her granddaughter someday occupying the same throne. Whether Neconnu can return Voland to the world of the living or not, he has already brought life where it has not been seen for a year and a day: the Opal Master blazes with all the bright fire of her namesake, after twelve months of cold resignation to her duty.
They can feel his satisfaction. A mediocre student? He has their attention now; none among them will ever forget his name again. Whether they will remember him for his success or for his failure is a different matter, of course… but he shows not the slightest flicker of uncertainty. Neconnu has labored for the last year to bring about this end. If he were susceptible to doubt, he would not have made it this far.
He tips a bow toward the Opal Master, shallower than it should be, but her mind is on matters other than etiquette. “Accompany me to her grave,” he says, “and I will tell you.”
No eyes see them go. These examinations are not public spectacles, to be witnessed by all the students and servants of the academy; they are not for entertainment. No one outside the thirteen Masters and one candidate will know anything of what transpires until after it is done.
The Opal Master does not maintain the wards that hide them. The Jade Master does that for her, without question or complaint.
Voland’s grave lies to the south. In theory this cemetery is only for those who have earned a degree, and she had none. But a unanimous vote of the Masters held that, although she was never examined for vīs sciendī, she had demonstrated all the knowledge necessary and more; they awarded her the degree posthumously. A thing never done before in the history of the academy, but those who complained had enough sense to do so quietly.
The Opal Master would not accept her granddaughter being buried in the unmarked grave of a student who fell short.
Her headstone is a simple one, carved only with her name, her posthumous degree, and the emblem of the academy, a thirteen-pointed star. Neconnu approaches it, and the Opal Master’s breath hisses between her teeth as he lays a familiar hand on the stone, smiling down at Voland’s name. His expression manages to convey sadness and anticipation, all at once.
He says, “Do you remember the tale of the Maiden of Sorrow and Joy?”
Some of them do not, and their brows furrow as they try to place the reference. Some do, and their brows furrow as they scowl. The twelve questions have been asked, and they have left the chamber; ritual does not bind their words now. Lapis snorts. “A folktale?”
Neconnu’s smile remains unchanged. “Her wicked suitor struck down her true love on the first day of spring. She begged for a year in which to mourn, before he brought her to the circle for marriage, and he granted it to her.”
Now the others remember. It is a story told to children: how the Maiden of Sorrow and Joy went to her lover’s grave every day and wept for her loss, through the summer, the autumn, the long nights of winter, in which her tears froze like diamonds on her lips.
He claimed he began his working a year ago. Alabaster says, “You have been mourning Voland all this time?”
Malachite scoffs. “Foolishness. This is not any true invocation; crying cannot raise the dead. If it could, no loved one would ever be lost.”
Neconnu’s fingers whiten against the stone. “It is not mere crying. Only the truest grief will suffice, and it must be sustained, without fail. Only I had the dedication to do this for her. Only I loved her enough.”
The Opal Master is torn between hope and fury. “Do you suggest I did not love my granddaughter?”
“You asked how my working has been and will be performed,” Neconnu says. “This is how.”
At first it was easy. He had only to cast his thoughts on Voland for the tears to come. In those days he was not the only one who wept… but he visited her grave in secret, because alone among the students and Masters at the academy, he grieved with purpose. And, as he would tell the Masters when he came before them on his examination day, for others to know that purpose might ruin its intent.
Wherein lay his challenge. He must mourn Voland, while at the same time hoping for her return.
During her life he had written her poems. He re-read these obsessively, sinking his mind into the passion of the past, contrasting it with the hollow emptiness of the present. When those lost their power to move him, he wrote new poems, tormenting himself with the thought that their object was gone. He counted every day since her death as a day in which he could not behold her beauty, another day before he could caress her smooth skin and kiss her flawless mouth. He wept for the absence of Voland from his life.
He rationed out his grief with care. Each memento he had of her was brought out in turn—a note in her hand, a ribbon with her scent—and studied, kissed, clutched to his breast as he huddled in the shelter of her headstone, until use rendered it too familiar, the note smudged, the ribbon frayed. He lamented that he had not more relics to remember her by, and used that lack to flagellate himself into a few days more of tears.
By such means did the months roll by… but there were months yet to go.
He set out to collect more relics of Voland. Those who held them did not value them, did not value her; they had moved on from their grief, revisiting it from time to time, but not making their home within it as he did. A beloved book, a dried wreath of flowers, a scarf loaned to a friend. An opal pendant, a gift from her grandmother. No one would begrudge those things if they knew why he took them—and if they did, why, then they were no true friends to Voland, but traitors who would abandon her to the cold embrace of the grave.
The hardest part was to grieve alone. His solitude was fuel for a time—proof that even in life, she had not been loved as she deserved—but as the year of mourning drew on, he knew he needed aid. And yet he could not explain his working to anyone, or their own hope might destroy his chance.
So he found ways to remind them of what they had lost.
Her favorite song, hummed under his breath, so that a friend picked up the melody without realizing, then wept at the memory. Those tears did him no good—they were not shed on Voland’s grave, and the friend had ceased her daily sobbing months before—but the sight of another’s grief freshened his own.
A tome laid open at the very spot in the library where she was wont to sit. A half-eaten apple left on the sunny stone where she used to meditate. He knew her writing by heart, and so he copied the style of her hand, slipping messages under pillows or between the pages of books, until rumors spread among the students of a haunting. The robe he had reclaimed served good purpose, when paired with a wig of black horsehair and a simple illusion; people began to swear they had seen her ghost.
Until one of the senior students caught him. That one beat him without mercy, accusing him of cruelty, malice, tormenting everyone for no better reason than ill will.
He did not try to argue or explain. Being misunderstood served his purpose, and so did the pain. He submitted to the beating, then killed the senior student before any whisper of his activities could reach someone else’s ears. That night he dragged himself to Voland’s grave and wept more easily than he had in weeks, even as he knew his triumph was near.
A year and a day. He could suffer that long for her sake, knowing that in the end, they would be together at last.
A blast of wind slams Neconnu against the headstone, holding him pinned.
“You,” the Opal Master snarls, her fury breaking loose at last. “You dare stand before me—not just admitting, but boasting that you are the one who has tormented us all this time. Stealing the necklace I gave her, making people believe her ghost lingered—tearing our wounds open, day after day—”
“If you truly loved her,” Neconnu rasps with difficulty, fighting against the wind, “you would tear those wounds open yourself. I am the only one here who cares! I am the only one who will do whatever it takes to bring her back! And I will not let you stop me!”
The other Masters see what Opal is blind to. Her rage is exactly what Neconnu needs: the final insult, the proof—to his mind—that even Voland’s own grandmother did not love her as much as he.
Tears slip from the corners of his eyes. The force of the conjured wind flings them into the distance, and Neconnu is not magus enough to free himself from Opal’s attack… but with a twist of his hand, sheltered behind the headstone, he is able to give his grief the freedom his body lacks.
Drop by drop, his tears fall upon Voland’s grave.
This is how the tale ends:
On the last day of her mourning, the first day of spring, the Maiden of Sorrow and Joy arrayed in herself in her bridal clothes and went to the grave one final time, as she had done since his death.
But this time when she wept, her tears called forth the spirit of her lost love. He rose in ghostly form and she clasped him to her breast, and when they kissed, the grave released its grip. He became solid and warm; breath moved in his body, and blood flowed through his veins once more.
This is how the Maiden of Sorrow and Joy conquered death: with a year and a day of grief, and true love’s kiss.
The wind dies as the Opal Master staggers, eyes wide and brimming, staring at the ghost of her granddaughter. Her tears fall, unneeded and ineffective, to the earth of the grave below.
Neconnu slumps to the ground, smiling up at Voland. “My love,” he whispers, so softly it is almost inaudible.
Her gaze drifts downward and alights on him. Her brow furrows. And she speaks.
“Who are you, that has disturbed my rest for so long?”
He scrambles to his knees, clutching at her spectral robe. “I am Harrik Neconnu.”
The name sparks no more recognition than it did in the senior Masters. “I do not know you.”
“I left flowers at your window,” he breathes, gazing up at her. “I let you use my paper fan one day, when yours tore. You smiled at me once during the ritual dance for purification, you—”
The words continue to pour out of him, an increasing flood, a litany of tiny encounters soon forgotten—but not by him. To Neconnu, they are proof of the bond between him and Voland Eleir, a destiny that brought them together, a love that transcends even death.
He climbs to his feet as he speaks, never tearing his eyes from the woman he has adored from afar. The Masters recoil, but none of them speak: however unorthodox this working may be, to interrupt it is a violation not only of protocol but of common sense.
If Harrik Neconnu can bring Voland back to them, not one among them wishes to stop him.
At last he runs out of words. Her ghost stands there, still unmoved. “All those things are things of life,” she says, “and did not matter to me even when I breathed. I do not know you. Return me to my rest.”
His mouth knots into an ugly line. “I have suffered a year and a day so that we can be together! I may not have mattered to you in life, but I have torn myself apart since your death to have you by my side—I have killed someone for your sake—who else would do that? No one! I am the only one who cares! None of them love you as I do! And I will prove it by bringing you back!”
“You cannot give me life.”
“I can,” he says, chest heaving. “All I need is one kiss. You owe me that much.”
Now, for the first time, she seems to see him clearly. “One kiss.”
“One kiss, from my cold lips.”
“I will warm them.”
“For this kiss you have wept for a year and a day, and kept me from my peace.”
“You belong with me,” Neconnu says. “One kiss, and you will see.”
The ghost of Voland Eleir measures him with her gaze. The air itself seems to hold its breath.
“Very well,” she says. “One kiss you seek, and one kiss you shall have.”
She takes him in her spectral arms, and joins her mouth to his.
Carnelian says, “I deny the degree.”
Alabaster shakes his head thoughtfully. “I am not certain. He did something that has never been done before.”
“Vīs mūtandī at best,” Malachite says. “Raising ghosts has been done before, though not by this method. But he chose to submit himself for vīs faciendī, and on that point, I think we can agree he has failed.”
The body of Harrik Neconnu lies in a heap at the foot of Voland’s grave. It is icy to the touch—as cold as the grave he sought to take her from.
“True love,” Agate muses, circling the area. “Not a component anyone has ever worked with before, that I am aware of.”
“Nor have they done so now,” Jade says. He straightens his sleek green robes with a careful hand. “But we have established that obsession is not an effective component for this effect. That is more than we knew before—and I have never heard of a ghost killing in such fashion. Was it because of Voland’s talent in life, or Neconnu’s working, or the murder he committed, or some other cause? We have both new information and new questions, thanks to this day.”
Jasper nods. “And perhaps in the future someone will pursue this line of inquiry, to better result.”
Chrysoprase turns away, looking up the slope to where the Opal Master has drawn apart. She is upright, stone-faced, showing neither grief nor vindictive satisfaction. She is simply alone, as she was before.
“Someday long in the future, perhaps,” Chrysoprase murmurs. “There is no one left now who shows such promise.”
(Editors’ Note: “Vīs Dēlendī” is read by Erika Ensign and Marie Brennan is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on The Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 27B.)
© 2019 Marie Brennan