[This story was first published in AFTER HOURS, Number 15 (Summer 1992).]

Cold Magic

The vial felt like a lump of ice in Devora’s open palm. Her empty hand, clammy with sweat, mechanically smoothed her tawny hair, as if a single strand out of place might betray the ferment inside her head. Did she dare to drink, unsure of the potion’s side effects?

I dare not do otherwise. If I surrender to Tyras, my life will be worthless in any case.

Flicking dust from the vial, whose minute weight dragged at her like a lump of lead, she glanced down into the secret drawer from which she had taken the potion. The compartment held her scant hoard of magical treasures — her ceremonial knife, a couple of rings, a few scrolls. Her father had presented her with this chest, concealed niche built in, out of a playful delight in secrecy that she shared with him, rather than any serious fear of thieves. The potion was the only dangerous item in the cache, the only one Devora had never used. Her father, the late Lord Guardian, a more accomplished sorcerer than she could hope to become, had given it to her as a curiosity.

Tears stung her eyes. She clutched the vial, its chill searing her skin. How Lord Girvan would grieve if he knew what had befallen his Ward! That’s why I must do this. Tears are a waste of energy.

A rapping sounded at her door. With a start that almost made her drop the vial, Devora sprang to her feet. Hastily she fumbled the bottle back into its hiding place and snapped the drawer shut. The latch on her chamber door lifted. She stepped over to her oval mirror of polished silver and pretended to inspect her pale violet gown.

An auburn-haired boy in his late teens, younger than Devora herself, entered the room. His eyes roamed insolently over her bare shoulders. “Lady Devora, Lord Tyras directs that you meet him in the antechamber to the great hall as soon as you’re dressed.” The servant’s tone, as usual, held no respect. Tyras did not encourage his men to show her any.

“Haven’t I ordered you to wait for permission before entering my quarters?”

Ignoring the rebuke, the boy said, “I’ll inform Lord Tyras that you will be down immediately.”

Shutting the door after him, Devora felt her hand shaking with anger, another indulgence she could not afford. The servant would doubtless assure Tyras that Devora was resigned to going through with the evening’s charade, and she had to maintain that illusion. Her plan depended on lulling the usurper into complacency. Tyras, her father’s cousin, had several times asked to marry Devora. Even as a child, she had disliked Tyras, a blunt, unimaginative man who could never share her scholarly interests. She had refused him. Her father, Lord Girvan, had backed her up, well aware that Tyras, as Lord Guardian of the adjoining Ward, wanted Devora only because she stood to inherit her father’s holdings.

At Lord Girvan’s death, Tyras had shown up with his retinue to pay his respects. Once more he had asked — no, demanded — that Devora become his wife. He must have expected the rejection he got, for his “ceremonial” retainers, unmasked as armed knights, had overrun the keep. They had easily overwhelmed Devora’s guards. Her family, ruling a small, quiet Ward, devoting themselves for generations to scholarship and the theory of magic, had little experience in warfare.

When Devora had not struck him down with a bolt of lightning on the spot, Tyras had apparently decided that her magic was as useless a trifle as he had always assumed. She had feigned surrender, awaiting her chance. This evening Tyras had summoned the leading knights and freeholders of the Ward to a banquet, where he planned to announce his betrothal to Devora, sealing his lordship in the eyes of his new subjects. She counted on the celebration to keep him occupied while she carried out her plan. That diversion, however, depended on her using the potion.

Again she removed the bottle from the secret drawer. This elixir was one of two items her father had bartered from a colleague in the eastern mountains. The other, she meant to unearth from its hiding place and use to strike at Tyras. But first she had to drink the potion, which would sunder her from herself, enable her to be in two places at once. A double, a shadow-self would hang on Tyras’ arm like a puppet and smile at the assembled guests, while Devora’s real self would creep through the castle corridors.

Lord Girvan had never planned to use the potion, nor would he let Devora experiment with it. The mage who had given him the liquid could not say precisely how long a dose lasted or how many doses could safely be taken at one time. A sip might keep the drinker divided for a few heartbeats or half a night, and too many sips might lead to madness or death. Still, Devora saw no alternative. Though she had managed to send off a messenger to the overlord of the Principality, she placed little faith in aid from him. Their overlord might decide that the affairs of so small and remote a Ward were not worth meddling in, that Tyras, holding power, might as well keep it for the sake of peace.

Slipping into her wardrobe, wedging herself between dusty winter cloaks, Devora uncapped the vial. The fumes stung her nose like the icy, thin air of the mountain where the stuff had been brewed. She reassured herself that she did have some control over the potion’s magic. Lord Girvan had taught her the word to activate the initial doubling, along with a counterspell to undo the division before the potion wore off, if necessary.

She hesitated with the vial at her lips. What would happen if I drank the first dose without saying the word? She dismissed the frivolous thought. This was no time to experiment; already she took too great a risk. She downed a mouthful of the liquid.

Cold scalded Devora’s throat and stabbed behind her eyes. She gasped out the power word. Instantly the agonizing chill melted. Her head reeled. She closed her eyes against the dizziness. Hugging the cloaks on the wall to keep from falling, at the same time she groped for the door of the wardrobe.

How? I don’t have that many hands.

She stumbled out of the wardrobe, slamming the door behind her. Not a moment too soon, for she heard footsteps in the hall. Perhaps Tyras had grown impatient and sent a lackey for her. Somehow the room rippled in her sight like a scene under water. Of course, my eyes aren’t open.

That made no sense, for she was seeing, however imperfectly. Nevertheless, she forced her lids wide open. Simultaneously she saw the blurred contours of her furniture and the darkness inside the cabinet.

Her stomach lurched as it would on a small boat in a storm. It worked! There are two of me! The bedchamber door opened, and Tyras himself stepped in.

His square-chinned face contorted in a malicious smile. “I trust you’re ready for the feast? We mustn’t keep our guests waiting.” He wore a tunic and cloak of the family colors, green and silver. With his wavy cap of copper-gold hair, just slightly feathered with gray at the temples, he would look passably handsome to an unbiased woman.

Devora gritted her teeth against a spasm of nausea. “I’m ready.” The way her shadow-self echoed the words she mouthed made her skin prickle.

When Tyras offered her his arm, she caught sight of her father’s seal ring on his hand. Staggering, her double clutched at Tyras for support. His eyes raked her. “Don’t even think of trying to fake illness. You won’t squirm out of this.”

Devora forced her double to stand straight, mouth set in a disdainful line. “I wouldn’t consider trying. You have my parole. Shall we get on with it?”

Once assured that her puppet was safely in motion, striding down the main staircase on Tyras’ arm, the real Devora focused her attention on the wardrobe where she hid. Quietly she slipped out. For a moment she stood listening. She heard no sound of movement in the corridor. Throwing on a lightweight gray cloak over her gown, she dropped the corked vial into one of the cloak’s pockets and took the ceremonial dagger out of the concealed drawer. Slender-bladed, set with gems, it was not meant for self-defense. But since its razor tip could draw blood painlessly from a bird or rodent, or from the mage’s own hand at need, doubtless it would cut a man’s throat. Provided, Devora thought, she could remember anything of her few lessons in knife fighting.

With luck she would not have to test her skill. Perhaps all Tyras’ guards would be stationed at the gates or in the banquet hall. She knew little of the usurper’s arrangements, since she had been confined to her chambers almost constantly since the funeral. At Tyras’ “celebration” she would appear in public for the first time. If he thinks he can wear me like a mask in the sight of my subjects, it’ll be a pleasure to convince him how wrong he is.

Thwarting him required that she first make her way to her father’s bedroom. She knew Tyras had claimed it for himself, one reason why she could not pursue her goal until he was safely occupied downstairs. Opening her door a crack, she saw no one. She edged into the corridor, where she glided along the wall opposite the dimly-burning lamps, trying not to hug the shadows too obviously.

Every few paces a ghostly image of the banquet hall flashed before her eyes. The flickering visions made her head ache. She rounded the first corner, wishing the Lord Guardian’s quarters did not lie so far from her own. She forced herself not to scurry.

She silently commended herself for that discipline when she heard footsteps approaching around the next bend. Devora thrust both hands into her cloak pockets to conceal the knife she gripped. To her relief, one of her own house servants, an old woman bearing an armful of dirty linen, shuffled into view. The servant merely gave Devora a puzzled glance, with a deferential murmur of “Milady.” Fighting to keep her breathing steady, Devora returned a cool nod.

As soon as the woman disappeared from sight, Devora leaned against the chill stone wall. Her head spun with renewed dizziness. Abruptly the hallway vanished, and she found herself seated beside Tyras at the head table. She spared a moment to survey the carefully bland expressions of the guests. Would any of them protest her clearly coerced betrothal? She doubted that. Aside from attending major festivals and dispensing justice when custom demanded, Lord Girvan had sought little contact with his people. While they had no cause to hate him, neither had they any motive to risk their safety for the late Guardian’s daughter. For the first time the defects in her father’s style of ruling occurred to Devora. A stab of indignation surprised her. He left me to this, unprotected, without a scrap of training! Did he think he would live forever?

She thrust aside the disloyal thought. If I live through this, I’ll have time enough to correct his mistakes. As if through a muffling layer of blankets, she heard Tyras whisper, “What ails you, Lady? At least make a pretense of paying attention!”

The potion — it’s wearing off! Without giving herself time to dread the icy liquid, Devora took a gulp of the potion. Her two halves snapped apart with an ear-scraping twang like an ill-tuned harp string. She had to hurry. Praying that she would meet no one else, she strode through the corridors as fast as she could without actually running.

Her pace slackened only when she passed the small memorial chamber that enshrined her ancestors’ ashes. Through the doorless arch she glimpsed her father’s urn in its niche, the votive lamp casting a dim glow upon it. Choking back tears, she hurried on.

She gritted her teeth in frustration at the endless angles and cross-corridors she had to traverse. She knew, of course, that the castle had been built this way in her distant forebears’ time to confuse and delay invaders. Little good that had done her!

At last she paused at the corner nearest her father’s bedroom. Her head pounding, she peered around the bend, trusting the shadows to hide her gray-cloaked shape. In front of the door stood a guard in Tyras’ livery.

Devora held her breath, closing her fingers on the dagger she had brought for just such an obstacle. Could she kill a man?

Don’t be a squeamish fool, she told herself. What I’m looking for will do worse than cut down one soldier.

More to the point, would her meager skill suffice against a trained fighter? Not without trickery. Too bad I didn’t have an invisibility potion on hand. Throwing back her hood, she stepped into the middle of the corridor.

Startled, the sentry blinked and stood a bit straighter. Still, his relaxed stance altered little, legs apart, hands clasped behind his back. Why should he expect a challenge from the girl who had meekly yielded to his master? “Milady,” he said in a tone just short of contempt, as Devora walked up to him.

With the aloof manner she habitually used with Tyras’ men, she said, “Stand aside. Lord Tyras sent me to fetch something he left in his chamber.” That excuse sounded feeble, she knew, for normally the lord would send a servant on such an errand. The pretext, however, enabled her to approach the door without open hostilities.

“What?” the guard asked.

“Has your Lord given you leave to question me? Stand aside, I said.”

Even though she stood within touching distance, the guard showed no wariness. “Tell me what he wants, and I’ll find it for you.”

Fists clenched in her pockets, her right hand clutching the dagger’s hilt, she fought off a surge of faintness. When she staggered, the guard caught her sleeve. “Milady, are you ill?” Doubtless he feared Tyras’ displeasure if the Lord’s prize came to harm on his watch.

As her faintness ebbed, she seized upon the inspiration it presented. She let her full weight slump onto the guard. At the same instant, she whipped out the knife and sliced open his throat.

She leaped back and watched him topple to the floor. Silently she thanked the Goddess and Lord Girvan’s spirit for all those lessons in anatomy and the painless killing of sacrificial beasts.

To her dismay, she felt another attack of vertigo. The dim corridor faded to a sharp image of the banquet hall. Beside her, Tyras stared into her face. His fingers closed on her wrist, and it seemed they sank into the flesh. He gave her a puzzled frown, as if disbelieving his own sensations.

Gasping a prayer for help, Devora wrenched her consciousness back to her true body. In trembling haste she downed another dose of the elixir. This time the redoubling sent pain lancing through her from forehead to bowels.

She knew she had no time to waste. She couldn’t squander it dragging the guard’s body out of sight — no telling how much longer she could safely use the potion. Trying the door of her father’s chamber, she thanked the Goddess that it wasn’t locked. Now, if only Tyras had not found the hidden closet —

Devora thought that unlikely. If he had, surely he would have demanded an explanation of the contents. Therefore the relic she wanted must still be stored in its usual place.

She had seen it only once, a ten-sided box carved of a single gem, a white crystal that looked like a lump of ice from the mountain where its former owner dwelt. Lord Girvan had accepted this thing, like the potion that had come with it, as an exotic artifact, not for use. It represented the kind of destructive sorcery he never dabbled in. Aside from pure theory, he had practiced only benign magic such as giving the spring rains an encouraging nudge and presenting spectacles of colored light at the Midwinter feast.

All Devora knew about the gem was that it constituted a weapon. Somehow it was supposed to defend its owner. Whether she could command it, she did not know, only that it would not harm her if she followed her father’s instructions. With the chamber door bolted behind her, she crept to the hearth. A simple, obvious secret entrance, she reflected. How fortunate that Tyras’ avarice lay in directions that left him too busy to search for arcane hiding places.

Her fingers deftly probed the trigger point under the mantlepiece. The seldom-used door to one side of the fireplace slid open with a groan. Flinching, she ordered her racing heart to slow down. Noise is the least of my worries now.

She left the secret door ajar to admit light from the single lamp into the cubicle. She let out a long breath of relief when she glimpsed the gem wrapped in satin, lying on the shelf where her father had stashed it years before. Snatching it up, she ripped off the cloth and discarded it where she stood. Numbness spread up her arm from the hand that gripped the gem, as if she had plunged the limb into near-freezing water.

She darted into the bedchamber and pushed the concealed knob that closed the secret door. Another wave of nausea and faintness swamped her. Casting away all caution, she swallowed the rest of the potion. For an instant she stood beside Tyras, listening to the assembled knights and merchants toast her health. Then the dimly-lit bedroom surrounded her once more.

She struggled to remember exactly what her father had told her about this artifact. She turned it in her hands, a white crystal slightly bigger than her fist, with a hairline crack showing where the lid was attached and a slender gold chain to keep the two halves from becoming separated. Blood — it had to be bound to its holder by blood. With shaking hands she wiped the dagger clean. Then she nicked her wrist to anoint the gem with a few drops of her blood. Now whatever power lurked within the box would pour out when she removed the lid.

She tiptoed to the bedroom door. With the pulse hammering in her skull, she lifted the latch.

Directly in her path, a man knelt beside the guard’s body. A man in Tyras’ livery.

Glancing up at Devora, he leaped to his feet. She recognized him as the insolent lackey who had brought her the message earlier. For a second his mouth hung open. Before he could draw breath to raise the alarm, Devora wrenched the lid off the crystal box.

What happened astonished her almost as much as it did the servant. A cloud resembling white smoke billowed out of the gem. It did not smell like smoke, however, instead emitting a sharp aroma that stung her nose and eyes. Nor did the cloud give off heat. Rather, a numbing chill radiated from it.

Instead of drifting, the cloud — pounced — on the servant. It enveloped his head and shoulders, swallowing any scream he might have attempted. Devora backed into the doorjamb. The man crumpled to his knees, then toppled over and lay still.

The white mass floated up to hover near the ceiling. Devora covered her mouth to hold back the scream that threatened to burst forth. After taking a few ragged breaths to calm herself, she bent over the servant. Dead — no possible doubt. His open eyes stared like painted stone. His ruddy skin had turned grayish-white. With a grimace of revulsion, she touched his hand. It felt cold and brittle.

The — creature — had sucked the warmth out of his body.

She felt her mouth twist in a mockery of a smile. So this was her weapon, a quasi-living thing of coagulated mist? She had to choke down hysterical laughter at the fantasy of her cousin sending his swordsmen against such a foe.

She strode down the corridor, with the gem cupped in her hands. The creature glided ahead of her like a well-trained hound.

She met no one on the way to the main staircase. For that she was grateful, since she had no desire to see one of her own servants drained to death. At the head of the curved staircase she heard the rumble of voices from the great hall. Picking her way down the polished stone steps, for a moment she cast her awareness into her other body, at the head of the high table. Tyras gazed upon her with a proprietary smirk. Around her the servers bore away trays of scraps and circled the table with flagons of after-dinner wine.

Looking through the eyes of her puppet-self made Devora lightheaded. She was about to switch her attention back to her real body when the guests’ conversation abruptly died. Over Tyras’ shoulder she glimpsed the icy cloud floating down into the hall.

Tyras half-rose, turning to seek the cause of the sudden silence. “What is this? Some of your damned witchery?” His eyes darted between the hovering thing and the woman beside him. He grabbed her wrist cruelly hard. Devora suppressed a shriek; she hadn’t known her shadow-self could feel pain. Tyras cast another look at the stairs, and his eyes went wide with the first sign of fear she had ever seen in him.

Gazing past him, she saw herself descending the steps. With a bruising jolt, she forced herself back into her proper body. She had no instructions for controlling the thing she had unleashed. Fortunately, it seemed to need no commands. It surged into the dumbfounded crowd.

The first person in its path was a maid carrying a platter full of dishes. Too bewildered to move, she stared at the creature as it billowed into her. The platter fell out of her hands with a crash. A moment later the cloud flowed away from her. She lay on the floor, white in death.

That sight broke the guests’ paralysis. They backed away from the center of the room, clearing a path for the creature. Devora stopped at the foot of the stairs to watch.

“Fools — cowards!” Tyras roared. “Are you all afraid of some sorcerous trickery?”

One of the guards at the main door, rasher than the rest of Tyras’ men, drew his sword and charged the thing. The cloud swept over him even faster than it had drained the maid. When he dropped his sword, it shattered like a pane of glass.

Knots of people shoved each other to get at the side doors. “Fire!” Tyras shouted over their frightened babble. “Try burning it!” He let go of Devora’s double and shouldered his way toward the nearest wall. “What are you, witless children? Somebody give me a torch.”

Meanwhile, Devora noticed, the cloud was already tearing like a miniature cyclone through the nearest group of people. After each kill it moved faster. A scarlet-gowned matron plucked a lighted torch from a wall sconce, to be passed hand over hand to Tyras.

Brandishing the torch before him, he marched across the floor to the thing. Devora fancied that it paused at his approach, like a beast sniffing the air for prey. It shifted course and floated toward Tyras.

He charged it with the torch. Devora could almost hear its gratified snarl. Fool, she thought. He’s feeding it!

It sucked up the flame instantly. Then it poured over Tyras. He managed a tortured gurgle before it shrouded his face.

When it oozed away from him to seek its next victim, Devora knew from the terror in the watchers’ eyes that no one else would contest her right as her father’s heir. Her legs felt weak. Swaying, she leaned on the wall. “Stop!” she cried. “Come back!” She held the crystal box aloft.

The creature did not respond. An elderly knight and his dame fell before it. Devora’s throat tightened at the realization that she knew no word of command to recall the thing. She tried to scream orders at it, and only a hoarse whisper came from her mouth. Trembling with weariness and horror, she watched the cloud sweep through the room. Now, instead of taking victims as they stumbled into its path, it pursued the fleeing guests, darting from one to another like a hunting-cat picking off the weakest members of a grazing herd.

Within minutes, the men and women left alive had streamed out the side exits, slamming the doors shut behind them. Devora and her double faced each other across a huge room littered with frozen bodies. The creature, though sated enough to drift slowly now, made no move toward the open crystal. It floated in the direction of the main door — the door that led into the courtyard and thence to the open road.

Scanning the wreck of the banquet hall, Devora saw her own servants and subjects among the dead, outnumbering Tyras’ henchmen and declared allies. The thing she had loosed did not stop with killing her enemies. Left free, it would rampage through her Ward — for how long? Would it ever rest? What could she expect of an icy whirlwind with the sentience of a wild beast?

Too weak to move, Devora threw her consciousness into her shadow-self. If the thing would not harm her, perhaps she could block it with her duplicate body. Her double raced to the portal and stood in the cloud’s path, her arms raised above her head. “Halt!”

The creature did pause, hovering less than an arm’s length away from her. Devora sensed hesitation in it, as if uncertain whether or not her double was legitimate prey. It drifted closer. Her double began to quiver with the fatigue of holding the defensive posture. Even if the cloud would not force its way past her, how long could she maintain this stance? And eventually the potion would wear off, anyway.

The creature floated nearer until it almost touched her. It extended a tentacle like an icy tongue, tasting her flesh. The skin it brushed went numb. Devora’s chest, or her double’s — she could no longer tell the difference — ached with holding her breath.

The cloud began to flow over her. It apparently decided that this magical puppet had no power it needed to respect; the double was not “really” Devora.

Cold crept up her limbs, along her veins to her heart. Blackness clotted before her eyes. Still gripping the gem in one hand, she searched her befogged brain for a way to force the thing back into its prison.

She had been given no incantation for that. But she did know the command word to reunite her divided self. She stammered the word.

Her sundered half arced toward her like lightning blasting a storm-whipped tree. Agonizing cold speared her. Everything went dark.

When consciousness returned, she wondered if she were dead. After an interval of silence, though, her nerves woke enough to let her feel stone against her back and the needle-prick of returning sensation in her face, breast, and arms.

No, this can’t be death. Then why can’t I feel my legs?

Trying to flex her cramped fingers, she felt the gem in her right hand. Fumbling, trying to ignore the stabs of pain caused by movement, she replaced the lid on the crystal box.

It worked. The thing came back into the gem when I recalled my other self.

Tentative footsteps teased her ears. Opening her eyes, she blinked in the glare of a lamp. When the bearer moved the light aside to help her see, she recognized her father’s old steward.

“Milady — you’re alive! Thanks be to the Mother!” He slipped an arm under her shoulders. “That — thing — they were yelling about? It’s gone?”

She managed a weak nod. “Gone,” she whispered. The steward raised her to a sitting position. Still her legs hung limp, with no feeling. When the man tried to help her stand, she said, “I can’t. My legs — they don’t work.”

He lifted her in his arms, as no one had done since her early childhood. Devora gave him a smile in return for his pitying look. The price she had paid was little enough.