Authors: Stephanie Beavers
“No, Dad,” Esset said, shaking his head and looking over at him. “I think I’m almost out of time. I need to go.” He could feel heat inside him, like a vibration.
“No!” his mother objected, taking his arm in her hands. “Please, stay.”
“Sorry, Mom, I can’t. I love you.” He kissed her on the forehead. He got to his feet and glanced at his summoner’s tome, then decided to leave it there. “I love you both.”
Mr. Esset stood and stepped into his path.
“Jonathan, I’ll keep looking for an answer, and when I find it, I’ll do what I can,” he promised.
“Just not at a cost to you,” Esset said. “Take care of yourselves first. Contact Sergeant Warthog, and maybe she can do something, but don’t put yourselves at risk. We knew what we were getting into, Toman and I. We didn’t want it to end like this, but we knew it could. Promise me you’ll try to stay safe.” He locked eyes with his father, ignoring the burning symbols of the phoenix’s summon as it flashed across his vision again. His father stood against him for a moment, then bowed his head.
“I promise. But I won’t give up, either. I’ll look for an answer.”
“I know.” Esset embraced his father. “Who knows, maybe I’m not gonna die. Maybe I’ll be able to help. But now I have to leave the city.” He didn’t want to endanger anyone if something went wrong.
“Good luck,” his father said. His mother sat helplessly on the bed; she seemed to have lost the will to move as tears streamed down her face once more. The sight raised Esset’s protective spirit again.
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll fight,” he promised. Unable to stay a moment longer, he turned and left. The burning summon flashed across his vision again, and by the time he summoned a fiery flying mount in the back yard, he’d seen it yet again. He saw it twice more on his flight outside the city walls, into the empty rolling hills away from the trade roads. He landed the bird and banished it, then bowed his head to seek a moment of inner peace.
What he found instead was fire.
The symbols of the summon for the phoenix burned across his vision and remained, not to be denied. Esset could feel the heat surrounding him, and he knew that flames were dancing in the air around him. He could smell them, as if fire itself had a scent, and not just the things it burned. Esset dismissed his fear and his sorrow, his anger and frustration, and stood with the will to fight instead. Then he summoned the phoenix.
As liquid syllables fell from his lips, Esset felt a rushing sensation within him, and a building heat. Then the heat seemed to culminate and flow out of him. His vision cleared and he saw the fire around him, great sheets of red and orange flames that flickered and flared in the air. The bits of vegetation around him twisted and blackened from the heat, but they didn’t catch fire.
Most of the fire seemed to be coming from his chest, emerging in one long stream. That was the brightest fire, the flames yellow-white instead of pale orange and red. Then the fire flared, and two great wings unfolded from the fiery stream. The phoenix took shape in the space of a few moments. Unlike his other summons, the phoenix had no body like cracked coals; it was far more ethereal, consisting entirely of shifting, flickering flames. In fact, Esset felt awe at its beauty. Its wings waved slowly, hovering it in position. Its slender head was pointed at him, and to Esset’s shock, it spoke.
“Well, Summoner, you’re a rather stubborn one, aren’t you?” it—she? The voice sounded feminine—said in a very cultured, articulate voice. “I came immediately when you called, but the same cannot be said for you, can it?”
“I—uh, I…” Esset was stunned speechless. He’d never encountered or heard of an intelligent summon before. His summons were often vicious, disobedient, dangerous, and occasionally even cunning, but they were all animalistic attributes. Intelligence anywhere near a human level was something totally unexpected.
“An excellent first impression,” the phoenix remarked, but her lack of emotional inflection disconcerted Esset. Was she angry? Ambivalent? Joking? Critical? He hadn’t figured it out before she spoke again. “Next time, please summon me sooner after I call you.”
“Next time?” Esset asked. He cleared his mind and found that the pounding in his head had stopped.
“Ah yes, I suppose we must sort that out first,” she replied. “I would like to propose some modifications to the Contract.”
“You can do that?” Esset asked, once again surprised.
“Of course. You and I forged it to begin with,” she replied. “But of course you wouldn't know with whom you were interacting. Are you willing to enter negotiations?”
“May I ask a question first?” Esset requested.
“Ah, there is the scholar. Yes, you may,” she replied.
“Why am I still alive?” he asked.
“That was my choice. When you summoned me, your life was forfeit, but instead of taking all of your remaining years, I chose to take only two. I did it for two reasons; first, the purpose for which you summoned me went unfulfilled. As far as the Contract is concerned, that point is irrelevant, but as you are witnessing, I am intelligent, and the choice is mine. So I saw an opportunity. You are indebted to me, a debt which can be cleared by accepting the new Contract, which I believe you will find mutually beneficial regardless.” She waited for him to respond.
“I am willing to enter negotiations,” Esset replied. Remembering the original forging of the Contract, he was aware that his particular wording could be very important.
For all that the summoners of his line could call a summon on a whim, they knew very little about the creatures themselves. Even when they entered the Contract when they came of age, they simply followed a pre-written script, with no actual conversation with the other party. It was unlikely that the phoenix would try to trick him, but as his father had originally warned him, it was a good idea to stay on the good sides of such inhuman creatures. Caution was better.
“What changes do you propose?” he asked.
“Our plane of existence is very different from yours. I have experienced yours a handful of times before, but it has been generations since the last time I was called. I am inquisitive by nature, and I desire to know more. If we reforge the Contract, I would be able to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel through you. You would be unaware of me but for my telling you. I would not be able to control or influence you, I would simply observe. In exchange, I would waive many of the summoning requirements and lend you a select few of my magical abilities. I have given you a sampling of this already.”
“The bird.” Esset caught on immediately. “It looked different, and it flew much faster. It was more obedient, too. I was so tired that it should have tried to disobey me several times, but it didn't try at all.”
“Indeed.” The phoenix inclined her head, acknowledging his observations. “There are others as well. I will leave you to discover the particulars. As before, you will glean knowledge from your tome.”
“And this fire that I can’t control? Is that you too?” Esset asked.
“Hm, yes. It appears your lack of inborn magical ability is causing some problems in that quarter. Unfortunately I can do nothing about that. It is part of the terms. However, there are likely measures you can take to control it.” The phoenix sounded unapologetic.
“Are those all the terms?” Esset inquired.
“No. The final terms are these; when you see the symbols for my summoning incantation, you must call me without delay. Beyond that, I am not available to be summoned any longer. Clearly, any past cost associated with calling on me will also be revoked,” the phoenix replied.
Esset considered that; this was all so much more than he’d expected. It wasn’t ideal, but what was? He disliked the idea of being watched—or watched through—all the time, but this would give him the chance to help Toman. Maybe he could even pull off a rescue.
“Will you also be reading my mind?” Esset asked.
“Your thoughts, no. Your emotions I will be able to sense.” The phoenix spoke without emotion, like she was commenting on the weather. Esset shifted uncomfortably. Her answer was better than it could have been, but worse than he’d hoped.
“I’m still not sure what you’re getting out of all of this,” Esset said. Less than ideal or no, he was getting a whole lot of power and the phoenix didn’t seem to be getting much at all.
“What motivates me is different than what motivates you, but I still would have thought you, of all people, would understand. You are a scholar, after all,” the phoenix said, blandly.
“How so?” Esset asked.
“What would you give to see
world?” the phoenix asked.
Esset was taken aback. “A lot. But still…”
“The power I lend you is not so great a power in my world, nor often used. Additionally, opportunities to see this world are brief and rare in the order of centuries. Do not undervalue what
,” the phoenix replied.
“I see,” Esset said. There was a brief silence as he considered her response before asking another question.
“How long are these new terms in effect for?”
“Indefinitely,” the phoenix replied.
“Might the terms be renegotiated in the future?” Esset inquired.
“Such is not impossible.”
“And if I need to speak to you?” Esset wanted to know.
“You should not.”
“But if I do?” Esset pressed.
“I will be observing through you. Make the fact known and if I decide to, I will bid you to summon me,” the phoenix finally replied. Esset nodded.
“And if I refuse these changes in the contract?” Esset asked.
“You are indebted to me,” the phoenix replied. She didn't sound angry or offended; her tone was still neutral.
“I know. But if I refuse?” Esset pressed. He wanted to know if he truly had a choice.
“That is your prerogative.”
“But the cost?”
“Your indebtedness will continue,” the phoenix replied. Esset wasn’t sure if he should press further—the phoenix was quite inhuman in its behavior, and it was difficult to tell if she was being duplicitous, or if she was trying to threaten him. He didn’t think so, but that didn’t negate the possibility. Finally he decided not to pursue it, since he had every intention of accepting anyways.
“I accept the terms that you have outlined,” he replied.
“That is wise,” the phoenix replied. Amidst the flames around them, ashen symbols appeared and rotated slowly around the pair. Esset couldn’t read them, but he knew their meaning. Also, thanks to the original Contract ceremony, he knew what to do. He raised his hand in front of himself, palm-out, and spoke.
“I, Summoner Jonathan Esset, accept the modifications to the terms of our Contract. I willingly accept any and all costs associated with my actions, as agreed to therein.”
“We agree to the new terms of the Contract,” the phoenix echoed. The symbols flared through the colors of fire, starting with red and changing through to blue and finally white before vanishing. The flames around them dissipated as the phoenix pulled its wings in close and lost its corporeal form as well, leaving Esset standing on a slightly scorched hilltop, alone.
Esset just stood there for several minutes, adjusting to the massive changes to his world. Two years of his life were still gone, and he still didn’t know what had happened to Toman, but now he had a chance to find out, to do something. He had
. He wondered if he would ever take life for granted again. And the phoenix—Esset wondered if she was watching through him right then. He couldn’t tell, but then, she had said he wouldn’t be able to tell. For a moment, his skin crawled, but then he shook himself and promised himself he would ignore it; right now, saving Toman, if he still lived, was the most important thing.
His parents had been watching for him, hoping against hope that he’d come back, so when they saw the bird in the sky, they met him in their small back yard. He’d barely banished the fiery bird when his mother was hugging him again.
“Don’t ever do that to me again,” she scolded him.
“I love you too, Mom,” Esset replied, hugging her back and smiling at his father. Then his smile faded as they stepped apart.
“But we have work to do. We need to look into geas spells,” Esset said, looking at his father.
“I sent Toby up to the library with a note for the head librarian to start pulling reference material,” Mr. Esset replied. “We can—”
“No,” Mrs. Esset interjected firmly. “Jonathan, you are resting. You need food, and you need sleep, and then you can go bury your nose in a book. No!”
Esset had begun to object, but his mother stopped him.
“No arguing, I’m not losing my boy to ill health, not after all this. No complaints, no arguing. I’ll catch you up on what you’ve missed, so it’s not like it’ll be a waste of time.”
“Time with you is never wasted, Mom,” Esset replied. Esset couldn’t say no, seeing her spirit back like that.
“Don’t worry, son, I’ll get a good start and bring some of the books back here,” his father said. “I’ll be back before dark. We’ll burn the midnight oil if we need to.”
“Thanks, Dad.” The two men hugged and then the elder of the two headed back into the house to grab his coat and head up to the royal library.