March 2018

Apprentice Gone Bad
Death is not fair.
Or I would not be lying here in a fiberglass coffin lined in purple satin.
Once, years ago, I was not only young and brave, I was also a powerful sorcerer.
Not your everyday sorcerer, no, I was not a scrawny, clumsy, homely male, round-shouldered and pasty-faced from long hours bent over mortar and pestle.
I was a handsome man.
As do many of my kind, I took an apprentice, and of course and foolishly, I chose a woman.  She was young. Apprentices almost always are.  But unlike most, she was beautiful, with hair like fire, skin like flower petals, eyes as clear as a mountain stream.  She stood no higher than my shoulder, such tiny hands, and yet, she had no trouble mimicking every gesture I taught her.  Soon she was almost as quick as myself.  Or so I thought.
I confided my secrets of magic to her.  She confided her secrets of the heart to me.
“My father wants me to marry soon,” she said.  “He has picked a wealthy friend's son.”
“And will you?”
She traced from my brow to my jaw line with her silken fingertips.  She tilted her lovely face and glanced up at me with her star bright eyes.  “Will I marry the rich man's son?  He is not as handsome as you. Or as powerful as you.  And he has no magic.”
“You wish to marry magic?”  I admit, I did not always understand the ways of women.
She put her hands on either side of my face and pulled me down until her mouth was against mine.  And for that one night, I forgot what little I had ever known.  I imagined myself in love with my apprentice. 
Like a fool in love, I gave her the most powerful item I had ever perfected, a gold amulet that increased any magic it touched.
“Keep this always as a token of my love,” I told her.
She held it in her palm and closed her fingers around it.  “I will keep it always.”
I thought she meant that she would stay with me always.
Instead, a few days later, she announced her engagement to the rich man's son and she thanked me for the wedding gift. 
“The amulet was not a wedding gift,” I cried.  “The amulet is a token of my everlasting love for you.”
She titled her head and looked up at me from the corners of her clear eyes.  “You need not stop loving me,” she said.  “The man is a lout.  I am marrying him for his wealth, not his charm.  This need not change the way you and I feel about each other.”
I was appalled.  Grief stricken.  Furious. 
After her marriage, she continued to stop by my rooms.  She would reach out her hands and try to tempt me into her arms.
“You know you want me,” she would say.
I did, of course I did, but I wanted the woman I once thought she was.  “Why did you marry him?”
She shrugged and said simply, “He is rich.”
Driven by sorrow, I turned my concentration to my sorcery.  Love could diminish my powers, I decided, and had no place in my life.
Indeed, it was not until I met another that I realized my error.  I met Liana, a tall young lady, slender as a willow, with golden hair that hung to her waist. But it was not her beauty that won me.
She was all things my former apprentice was not.  She was sweet and gentle and loving and kind.  She had no ambition at all, other than to help others.  As for love, she loved everyone but most especially, she loved me.
To her, love meant providing me with peace and comfort.  She could turn away interruptions at the door.  And when I staggered out of my work room after a nighttime of developing a new potion, it mattered not what the hour.  There was always a meal waiting. 
You can guess what happened. 
One day she was gone.  I asked everywhere for her. No one had seen her.  Finally I went to the home of my former apprentice.
“Do you know where Liana is?” I asked her.
“I have missed you,” she said, and ran her fingertips along the side of my face as she had done when we were lovers.
Trying to control my irritation, I asked again, “Have you seen Liana?”
“Come in,” she said, and caught my hand and led me down a long hallway to the kitchen at the back of her home.
She glanced out the doorway at the kitchen garden.
“Lovely, is it not?  So very private.  I especially enjoy the flowers on my new tree.”
In the corner was a slender tree.  From its branches hung long stems of golden flowers.
“What have you done?” I cried. 
But I knew.  She had the amulet I had given her.  This made her magic far more powerful than mine. I spent hours and days and weeks trying to break the spell because I knew quite well where Liana had gone.  Of course I tried to force the secret from my former apprentice.  In my fury I wished to destroy her. 
She laughed at me. 
When I had exhausted every spell I knew, I said, “Bring Liana back.  I will give you anything you want.”
The woman smiled that secret smile.  “I want your heart.”
What were my choices?  I could chose to live alone with my beloved locked into a tree or I could chose a life locked to my apprentice and give my beloved her freedom.
“Take what you want.” 
She did exactly that.  She gazed at me with her star shine eyes, and touched my face and ran her hands slowly downward from my shoulders until her fingers pressed hard above my heart.  If she thought she could attract me to her, she was wrong.  Biting my lip, I set my mind to accept her,  but never again to love her.
Moving her small hands in gestures she had certainly never learned from me, she whispered chants. Her fingers ripped inside me, cutting through my flesh as sharply as a knife. 
She drove me to my knees, sobbing with pain.
And when she was done, I looked the same, no different, no hole in my body, but I knew.  After touching my wrists and then my throat, I knew.
There was no pulse to be found. 
She had removed my heart.  It no longer beat within me. 
Worse, when we went into her garden, the tree was still there.
“You promised!” I cried.
“Go to the gate,” she said and waved a hand at me and returned to whatever useless thing she was doing.
I hurried to the back gate of her kitchen garden and looked out. Across the road my beloved walked away, her long golden hair shining in the sun.
When I called her name and started after her, she hurried off.
“Have pride,” my former apprentice told me.  “She left you to marry another.”
“Without  telling me?  I cannot believe you.  You did this.  You took her from me.”
“Did you think I turned a woman into a tree?” my former apprentice said.  “How foolish you are.”
I should have angered, but without a heart, I found that I no longer loved Liana.  She was free.  Whatever she chose to do was her own choice and mattered not to me.
Instead, my ambitions bent me to my craft and made me the apprentice. My former apprentice became my instructor.  She taught me priceless magic.  She taught me how to stop the hearts of enemies and how to control the lives of powerful men.  The one thing I never mastered was her trick of removing a heart and leaving the victim alive.
Knowledge was my greatest desire.  In the seeking, I followed where she led.  Now she led me always to her work rooms, never into her bed.
“Why?” I asked her once.
With her hands on my arms, she turned me toward a mirror.  She shone, my mistress.  Even without a heart, I was drawn to her.  Her hair was like flame, her skin milk-white, her eyes as clear as water. 
“Look at yourself,” she said. 
And I saw.  I had withered.  My skin was the gray of death, my features skeletal.  My hair, which had once been shining and thick, now hung in dull wisps around my face.  Without a heart, I was no longer human.
“Why did you want my heart?”
“If you had given it to me willingly, I would have loved you,” she said.
What could I reply?
“Now I need wealth and power and an heir,” she said.  “You can give me none of these.”
“Do you love your husband at all?”
She laughed at me.  “He is easy to control and will do as I tell him.”
“What will become of me?”
“Ah.”  She tilted her head and glanced at me with those diamond bright eyes.  “I want you always by my side.”
She had outwitted me, yes, and in a way, I had no regrets.  She had changed me into what I was meant to be, a true sorcerer, a master of magic, free to work out my spells with no interruptions.  I could work day and night without needing sleep or feeling hunger.  Emotions no longer tore at me.  Passion was gone.  Love was no more than a memory.
Sometimes I felt a chill in the hollow where once my heart had been.  Sometimes she whispered new magic to me and I felt a longing for the unobtainable.
Otherwise, I was satisfied with my fate. I could work tirelessly.  It seemed that my only shortcoming at all was an odd allergy.  I could not touch any synthetic materials.
“How very odd,” she said, laughing at me.
“You may find this amusing,” I complained.  “Let me tell you, there is nothing amusing about touching a plastic dishpan and burning my hands.”
“You don't need plastic containers in your work space, my dear.  We will replace everything with glass and metal.  Now stop grumping at me and concentrate on developing that new spell.”
Together we increased the power of the amulet and learned new ways to use it to control our fate.
Until the day when her husband died suddenly, my life was satisfying enough.
If I had thought she loved him at all, I would have offered words of consolation.  Knowing better, I said, “Now we can work together with no interruptions.”
“You do not understand!” she screamed at me.  “I may have magic, but it is not strong enough to protect me from my husband's enemies.  They will take away everything he left me.”
“Use the amulet. It will give you power.”
But this time, the amulet was not enough. 
She did indeed lose everything, her home, and her reputation and all of her riches. 
Without a goodbye to me, she fled to another city.  Some said she took with her wealth that was not hers to take.  Perhaps. I didn't want her wealth. I wanted what I had lost.  My greatest triumph and most powerful possession was the amulet.
When I realized she was gone, I followed in her trail, bound to her by the amulet's pull.  I could feel the humming of its power and trace it. My journey took me to another city.  The amulet continued to pull.  I wandered, lost, unable to locate my mistress. As there was nothing to which I cared to return, I stumbled on.
Too long had I hidden away in my work rooms, out of touch with the world.  Now it confused me.  So much time and energy were required to deal with buses.  Planes were not an option, with all their security systems.
Nearer.  Nearer.  The amulet called me and I knew it was in the possession of my former apprentice.
I could feel it, knew it was near.  It hummed loudly in my mind whenever she attempted to use it.
What I misjudged was her cunning, but then, I always had. 
I traced her to her new home, knew well the limits of her magic, or thought I did.  Those weeks and months of tracking her had given me time to recall all the spells within her sphere of power.  For each I now had a counter spell.
The woman's magic was limited to the known spells, that much was true. But what she had beyond magic was so much worse.
What she had was a house filled with plastic.
This material is beyond comprehension, made of nothing of nature, no herbs or soil or rain or snow.  Without a heart to pump blood and carry away poisons, I have no defense. 
When I attacked her, she threw a plastic bowl at me.  It burned like fire.  And then she hit me with a plastic water bottle and it left a trail of flame across my face.
However, that was not my downfall.
Like so many magics, indeed, like my old self, she  now had an apprentice. 
Just as I  reached out to touch her heart, not remove it, not stop her life, simply give her a shadow of the pain she had caused me, I heard a footstep behind me.
I swung around and saw a young man, arms upraised, holding a large gun in his hands.
It didn't matter.  He could shoot me.  Bullets could not damage me.  Without a  heart to pierce, there was no blood to lose, no way to harm me.
My former apprentice, now bound by my counter spell, cried, “Focus!”
Focus on what?  And then I found out. 
Her apprentice concentrated all his power in crashing the gun down on my head.
He so surprised me, the blow he gave me rattled my thoughts.  And then he continued to rain blows, as though the very sky were falling, over and over in a shattering of sound and power until I lost consciousness.
When I awoke, I was captured.  And handcuffed.As though that was not enough, they put me in this coffin.
“That's fine.  Put him there.  I bought it recently. It's fiberglass,”  she said.
“This is fiberglass?  Why do you have a coffin here in the basement?” her apprentice asked.
“Ah, a dear friend died recently.  It made me realize that we should all be prepared.  Perhaps I would not have thought to buy a coffin in advance, but it was on sale at a discount store.  Excellent quality fiberglass.  Such a bargain!”
She lied, of course. Lies were always much of her magic.  She had the coffin ready, knowing one day I would follow her.
The lid closed above me.  I reached out to stop it and touched a material that scalded my hand. 
Without a heart, I cannot die.  But enclosed in plastic, I also cannot live.
She imprisoned me inside this coffin, and I do not know which is worse.  Is it more terrible to lie forever in a coffin made of a material that poisons me, or is it more terrible to spend eternity in a coffin that is lined in purple satin?
Copyright© Phoebe Matthews
This story first appeared in Wicked Good Stories anthology.
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