I have found him! The one Pirhah foretold, who will make clear the purpose of my enforced continence, the purpose of my life really…
His name is Dedi. I was heading to Philon’s class this morning, after a scribing all-nighter that nearly sent me blind. And just outside Serapeium on Canopic, there was a small crowd gathered, and I stopped to look at the man doing magic on the steps. Now this isn’t that unusual here. You can’t go down the market or the port without getting begged on by a bunch of jugglers or star-readers, though by now the regulars knew better than to ask me for anything. I’d never seen this one before, though.
He was old, like very old. His Sun-black flesh was shrunken, almost transparent over his tiny bones; his head bore a red skull-cap and a few wisps of white hair, though his sparse beard came down to his waist. His robe was worn and patched, but its colour was the brightest green, almost dazzling in Ra’s rays, that might have been dyed an hour before, and bound with buckles of — pure gold?
“Who is he?” I asked, and ten people looked at me like I was the veriest dolt in town. “Dedi’s back,” said one, as if that said it all. The name sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it, so just settled back to watch the show. And it was some show, no doubt about it!
“Now watch!” he commanded in a high reedy voice. “I, Dedi, cast this spell before King Cheops Himself, when I was helping him in his great work at Memphis. I know you know how Dedi made the mighty building blocks of his great Pyramids lighter than a feather, so one slave could carry ten on his head and lay them down tight. That spell is gone, but this one, you will see now, endures. Like Dedi! Dedi is the rock in the Nile of Time, that flows past Dedi, and around Dedi, but Dedi heeds not her ebbs and her flows. Peoples and kings rise to glory and fall to dust, but Dedi endures! Somebody pass Dedi a chicken.”
Somebody did, and he took her in his two hands, speaking softly to her, blowing gently in her face, then seized her by the neck and ripped her head right off in a spurt of gore! The crowd gasped as he held up the headless bird, still twitching in his gnarly old hands.
“Let all know that Dedi holds in him Life and holds in him Death, that no wizard in this or any land can be greater than this Dedi here and now, and this chicken is the proof. Live again, happy hen!”
He held up the head he had torn away and jammed it back on the chicken’s neck. And that bird looked up and around at the crowd, and we all cheered. He handed her back to her owner and removed his tiny cap. This he passed around and the people dropped in their coins, but however many they put in, it never filled! People who had dropped in one dropped two, three, four and more, but they disappeared as soon as they hit the cap, and it seemed to me that nothing could be so magical as this.
I didn’t have a penny to pay, so when he approached me, I tried to slip away in the crowd. But his gaunt hand grabbed mine, and he pulled himself close to my ear and whispered something in a tongue I knew not, then moved on to the next donor. I felt suddenly faint and stumbled over to squat against the nearest pillar to clear my head. What was I doing? I had to get to Akademy fast or Philon would kick me out for sure. And I would have too, if I hadn’t seen something. Something white, feathered, beady-eyed… in the dust before me, behind Dede’s magic pack, lay the chicken’s head! And yet… not ten feet away strutted the fowl herself, alive and clucking!
I grew dizzy. I shook my head in wonder. Did she have two heads? Or what…? What could it mean? Class forgotten, I reached over and picked up the head, then stood back to watch as Dedi carried on with his feats of magic. Some I knew, for they were like unto those of my Ba Adonis, involving disappearing coins, sudden flames, perception of hidden thoughts and objects, and I wondered if he too had studied with the Bookitoons… But no, he had served Cheops 2000 years past, and according to Ba the Brethren were barely 1200. Perhaps Dedi had been among their founders? Ba said they couldn’t accept payment for their magical services, yet here was Dedi passing the cap. What can I say? It’s Egypt. They do things different here.
This, I knew, was why I was here. The one foretold was before me in the flesh. And he knew it too; when he announced his last feat, he pointed right at me and beckoned. I walked up front slowly and he turned me round to face the lookers, took a quill and dipped it in a jar of blood, then traced a single line around my neck. His rheumy red eyes gazed deep into mine, piercing me to the soul, and I couldn’t have resisted if I tried.
A long knife appeared from nowhere in Dedi’s hand. “That’s sharp,” said he, and passed it around, and all agreed that yes indeed, it was just about as sharp as sharp could ever be. He picked up a burlap bag and pulled it over my head. Through the rough fabric I could barely see him raise high the nasty-looking blade. The onlookers held their breaths in awed anticipation. I myself was sweating arrows. Yes, he was Dedi, and yes, he’d already shown he could take off a head and put it back without ill effect. But the lore is full of tales of spells gone wrong. He was so old; might not he flub a word or gesture? Suddenly in the musty dark I saw Uncle Khain drilling me for the Fest, and thought how mad he’d be if he found out someone else got to slit my throat. I smiled at that, and a sudden and strange nostalgia filled me for that world I came from, so different from this, all the people and places I’d never see again if Dedi fucked this up.
Luckily he didn’t. At least I came out of it in one piece, and the crowd was suitably impressed. As I’m sure I’d have been too if I’d seen what happened, but truth to tell I don’t know what happened. As the knife touched my throat I felt no pain at all, but I did feel another touch to the back of my neck, and it seemed my head flopped right off, attached to me by only flesh, no bone at all, dangling free as a something-or-other, and I fell to the ground numb and weak as the sorcerer held high the bag containing… my head? But that was on the ground… I think… that’s where my eyes were anyway…
And then the bag was back on my neck, and that neck snapped up stiff again, he pulled me to my feet and tore away the bag, and I blinked in sudden blinding daylight. The audience was ecstatic and plied him with coins and comestibles–including the glamoured chicken, whom he kissed before placing into a large sack. A sad-faced old lady came up to me and hesitantly touched the drying blood on my neck.
“Healed so fast too,” she marveled. “What was it like?”
“What was what like?”
“Death’s realm. What didst thou see? Was it like they say?”
Well, if they say it’s like your head falling off and being two places at once, I guess it was. They say a lot of things about Death, and in this place they’re all different. When Philon asked me that time what happens when you die where I come from, I knew the answer. But the yellow hills of home and their Lords are far from here, and it’s becoming more and more conceivable that Mot’s Place (under the next mountain but one from Gitta) might not–do I blaspheme? be the ultimate destination of every soul in this whole wide world.
That woman was still staring at me, leaning close for a revelation from beyond the veil. I paused dramatically and hollowly imparted my answer:
She squealed in delight.
“I knew it! Get ready, Ampelios; we’ll be doing it again soon!”
She skipped off like a girl. I was glad she was glad, but certain others seemed less so, eying me cautiously. I knew what they were thinking; I too have heard tell of certain folk of the western desert, ripped from Death’s bony grip through necromancy or worse but leaving their spirit behind, so that they become as ravening beasts, wandering the wastes devouring all they meet, until the spell be broken and they find peace once more. I was tempted to lunge at them growling, but restrained myself. I’m good at that.
My resurrection was the last feat of the morning, and Dedi begins packing up his accoutrements as the crowd disperses, chattering excitedly. I watch him in silence. What marvels can I learn from him, what part of his great power can I gain for myself? For we are bound now, he and I. He has killed me and he has remade me; my life is his life. All I can do now is wait for him to tell me what to do.
Dedi finished up – how could so much stuff fit in such a tiny bag? – and started back down the avenue. I followed some steps behind. He used a serpent-headed cane to support him, but was remarkably spry for a duomillenarian (which is to say still not very). We made our way slowly west, then north through Agora into the heart of the native quarter.
He stopped at a tiny hut and entered. So did I.
It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected: a true sorcerer’s den replete with exotic charms and mystic devices. No, it was just a hut like any other, humble and sparsely furnished; nice rug though. Dedi dropped his pack and reached for a skin, sucked back a long draught. I looked at it enviously. I’d had nothing to drink in an hour, and here in Egypt you can’t let yourself get dry.
“Please…” I started, and he jerked around with an ancient oath, raising his cane as if to defend himself. His eyes narrowed and he lowered it.
“Thou, boy, why art thou here?”
I held out the chicken’s other head.
“You tell me.”
He stared at it.
“Who knows this?” he asked.
He snatched the head and stashed it in his magic pack. We looked at each other for a minute.
“Dost want money?”
Was this a test?
“I want to learn your secrets.”
“I don’t need a boy,” said he, reaching into his pouch. “I give thee 2D. You shut up.”
“And I don’t need your money. You summoned me, I’m here. As foretold.”
He seemed confused. Had he forgotten already? Was that ancient mind finally decrepitating?
“I called thee… Yes. All right. Go now, come back Sundown. I show thee good tricks.”
“Thank you, Master!” I would have embraced him but feared he might crumble to dust in my arms, so I just turned and left in a hurry. There was still time to get back to class, if only… yes! my scribings were still where I’d left them outside Serapeium, and I scooped them up and hied me to Akademy as fast as I could.
When I got there, the seminar was half done, and I quickly scurried about distributing the sheets. But I needn’t have rushed. Apparently last night as he meditated on some or other holy text, Philon was rapturously transported into the presence of the Divine Radiance, and is determined to take as many words as necessary to impart that ineffable encounter unto the rest of us (just what is it about the word “ineffable” that he doesn’t get?). So I’m sitting here pretending to take notes, but instead writing up this account of my day so far. I know I shouldn’t get too excited. I remember in Tyre so looking forward to my first sea-voyage, and the nightmare that turned into. Maybe this thing with Dedi is not it after all. Or maybe it is. Gods, I hope so. This old fool can stuff his mystic crap. I’ve found the real thing!
After class I spent the afternoon so excited, more than I’ve ever been. Dedi, Dedi was all I could think. I’m going to learn all his secrets! Maybe I’ll be his heir; is it time for him to retire? No, he said he was eternal and would endure forever, so how can I take his place? Ba told us it took many years to reach the proficiency of the Brethren, and Dedi has 800 years (at least!) on them; how long must I serve him before gaining the smallest part of that knowledge? But surely it’s worth it.
So I was back at Dedi’s hut just as Sun kissed Earth, and found the great magician naked and senseless in the middle of that very attractive carpet, black belly distended with the contents of the several wineskins scattered about his abode. In all Ba’s tales, a Man of Knowledge must (like me) be abstinent in all things. But perhaps when you reach a certain level you can indulge. Something to look forward to maybe.
I wasn’t sure what to do, or what to expect if I bothered him. But he had promised to receive me and teach me, and a man of such power can afford to keep his word. /* Such an innocent lad was I! /sm */ I bent and touched his chest. “Master Dedi,” I said. No response. I repeated it louder. Nothing. I took and shook his bony shoulder. He squirmed and farted, but didn’t awake. I shook again, harder. Wake up! I need you! Are you dead? He may as well have been for all the rise I got out of him. I looked around the hut and found a skin with something left in it, shoved it between his toothless gums and squeezed. His eyes flew open as he choked and puked purple out and over the carpet I had admired. I grabbed his robe that was laid over the pack in the corner and mopped it up, as he succumbed to a fit of coughing.
When he recovered, I passed him the robe and he donned it, heedless of the stinky wet stains. He was probably used to it.
“Well?” said I.
He glared at me blearily, then sighed.
“Pass my pack,”
I did. He took out a bag of tiles and handed it to me.
He closed his eyes, stuck his hand in the bag and without hesitation pulled out three tiles, rolled them round and about in knotty, deft fingers, muttered a spell and cast them true. My mouth fell open and I started back in wonder. For there, face-up on my rug, were the very figures, in the very order, I had specified!
I cannot say all the thoughts that filled me in that moment. The first, of course, was strictly practical, namely how such power might best be applied to the nightly gaming sessions at Aboud’s, and the pleasure I would surely take in sharking certain classmates who had treated a poor acolyte less than respectfully. By the Baals, the tiles would dance in my fingers, and their daddys’ coins should surely feed my rapidly depleting pouch!
This pleasant fantasy lasted several seconds longer than it should have, suddenly replaced by hot burning shame. These powers were not, I knew, for unfair gain. It was all right for Dedi to perform for pennies; it was his only skill, after all, and from his surroundings he was certainly not profiting from it unduly. No matter what he’d said about enduring eternally, the centuries were catching up to him, that was plain, and what was plainer was that I was his intended heir. But now I thought on it, if this is the life I may expect as successor to the most powerful wizard in the land, do I really want it? Pissed every night in a shack in the slums? Have I even the strength for the necessary training? But Pirhah had thought so, and Dedi seemed to too. So I resigned myself to whatever may come. It’s a beginning.
I picked up the tiles and handed them to Dedi. He winked and handed them back.
“Close thine eyes. Feel,” said he.
I did so, and opened my soul to receive the enchantment by which the magician must have infused the lowly tiles, with which I myself must surely learn to align, to feel its flow, to combine the essence of the tiles with my own and make them part of myself, so that I may move and manipulate them as easily as my own fingers…
Of course I felt nothing like the above, nor did I really expect to–though naturally I hoped. It would take time to build up the requisite sensitivities. How much time? I opened my eyes and attempted some stumbling apology for my lack of whatever, but he’d have none of that.
“Feel tiles. Only tiles. No bullshit.”
So I try again, this time to feel only–but all of–what’s actually between my fingers. I don’t know how long I turned them round and round in my hands, taking in the sensuous smoothness of the age-yellowed ivory, like warm hard flesh; the worn, nicked edges, slightly rounded through centuries of manipulation; every detail of the figures and characters engraved thereon. I continued until the light had long faded, but the darkness only heightened my sensitivity, and slowly I began to distinguish with a touch the sharp arc of Scorpion from the soft curves of Sandcat, Hipsu’s oblique intersections from The House’s angles, Natronicos from The Three (that was easy anyway!). And there’s something else about these tiles of Dedi’s too: when I turn them some ways they seem to subtly resist the company of their fellows, but in other ways they are almost eager to unite. And when I let them fall, they tend to favour certain alignments, unless–Dedi had started to guide my hands by this point–flipped or tapped in a specific spot in the course of tossing. He seemed genuinely pleased with my progress, and I felt a thrill whenever he nodded in approval.
I left Dedi’s shortly after daybreak, still buzzing on all I had learned under his guidance. My fingers yet manipulated tiles of air, feeling in their tips those subtle variations… Obviously I haven’t learnt all the secrets of the tiles, and to actually put those secrets to useful purpose will take more than a single night’s instruction, and many, many nights of practice.
No class today, and I hadn’t slept since Gods, when? and when I hit the tomb I crashed hard into dreamless slumber. I just woke up now to write all this. But already Sun is almost down again, and I must return to Dedi’s to continue my instruction in the
magical arts. That’s what I was going to say. But they’re not, are they? With the same instruction and sufficient will, might not anyone with half-dextrous fingers accomplish the same? This is not what I need from Dedi. Does he think to fob me off with trickery? Of course now I think on it, tricks are all he promised. He yet conceals the real magic: the materializations from thin air and disappearances back into it; the decapitations and restorations, the
Shit. They’re all tricks, aren’t they? If he can throw any configuration of tiles, he can surely flip a coin in and out of a sleeve. And the hen’s second head… no wonder he offered me money to shut up! But he couldn’t have faked the heart-reading, the clear-seeing, the spirit-talking… Friend Dedi has secrets yet, and I will know them all!
Got there at dusk. This time he was awake and ready for me. He held out the bag as I entered.
“Shitbug/Scorpion/Long Boat,” said he, and I plunged in my hand. The first two were easy, but the last had too much in common with Liver Jar, as he well knew. I hesitated, felt again, but still couldn’t tell for sure.
I pulled the two I knew and the one I didn’t, and cast them. All good! I looked up triumphantly, but Dedi just smiled sadly.
“Thou wert lucky. Good luck today, bad luck tomorrow. Thou gotst to know.”
He named a harder arrangement, and of course I didn’t get but one. But at least it wasn’t quite good luck this time. So he set me learning those I found hardest to tell apart: manipulating them behind my back; in fullest light and deepest dark; with toes, nose and everything between, over a full week (reluctantly interrupted by my scribal duties; I still need to eat) until every part of me knows every nook and cranny of every tile in Dedi’s bag of tricks, and I can indeed make them dance to my desire.
At this point the old temptation returned, to get me to Aboud’s game-table and make a killing. I tried to force such base thoughts from my mind, but Dedi saw them. He was rather less condemning than I had expected.
“Wouldst practice the Art with pros? They’d catch thee out in a flash. Thou wantst to win? Learn to lose. Just a little less than win. Win when it’s right. And most important, never let them know thee a winner. Who’d ever play Dedi?”
“But anybody’d play thee, a dumb barleypicker from Hickopolis. Lose quiet, win loud, like it never happened before in thy life. Or maybe lose loud and win quiet? Whatever. Thou’lt find thy way. And now…”
He collected the tiles and deposited them in their bag.
“…thou’st learnt well. These are thine, a gift from Dedi. Go thy way.”
“I need to know,” said I boldly, “the real magic. As it was foretold.”
“I know not who told that. Dedi deals no more in that. Yes, once, long ago, maybe, no more. Dedi’s a trickster now. He goes not outside this world any more. Right here is fine.”
“Come on. You told that woman her dead man’s name, and we all heard his message. You read a sealed paper you couldn’t possibly see. And the rising rope… the floating fire..?”
“Tricks, all tricks! Go away, thou’st got the price of thy silence.”
“No. Show me all.”
“I’ll show thee the rest of thy life as a toad.”
“Yeah? Do it.”
He raised his serpent staff and pointed it right at my belly.
“Go now or I surely will.”
I trembled, but stared him in the eyes. He sighed and lowered the staff.
He made to turn, but instead swung it right at my head before I could react. But my skull was uncracked, for that staff dissolved in smoke and reformed intact on the other side.
“Now that’s magic,” said I, still shaken. “No Earthly way you did that.”
He laughed out loud.
“Yet Dedi did it, and it’s easier than the tiles. Look.”
And he showed me, and damned if it’s not a lot easier than the tiles. In fact, a simple… you know what? I’m not saying any more. You want to know how Dedi’s magic works, find him and ask him. He probably won’t tell you, but I think right now he’s actually happy to share with someone, anyone, after all those centuries of secrets. And so my initiation continues…
Some of his feats are just easy but truly effective, like the staff, and some take perception and perseverance, like the tiles, and some need long and careful preparation. The floating fire is one such, requiring the gathering of very specific ingredients and their combination in exact proportions to avoid either a lost finger or a dud (the former being preferable for the true performer).
The subtlest effects involve the perception of the thoughts and feelings of an audience member, to divine their innermost fears and desires, the names and words and pictures floating through their guts. “I can’t teach this,” says he, but he can give me some general principles which I must try to apply, and confirm if possible, whenever I’m around other people. “But thou’rt not reading their soul,” he reiterates, “and don’t try. Just face, voice, hands, body, smell. It’s all there if thou canst but take it in.” It’ll take much practice, many failings and learnings before I can truly
Ba. Fuck. The old faker! I just now had a flash of him pulling coins from our ears, reading hidden texts, knowing our minds… there’s not one of his magicks I couldn’t do now myself eyes closed, probably better. What a liar! Was anything he ever told us true? All those tales of far-off wonders, did he dream those up for kicks on his travels? Maybe he never even went anywhere, just spent his time away screwing around and doing Baal-knows-what for money in Sebaste or someplace, listening to travel stories from people who actually went somewhere, and coming back and spewing them over us. Damn him anyway.
You know we laugh in class at the Epicurean boys, who say Kosmos has no mind, things just happen because they happen, and the Gods are far and away and don’t give a shit about us mere mortals, if they even exist at all. When you’re dead you’re dead, say they, and all that is is what’s right before before our eyes, and once you accept that you’ll be a lot better off. So is there no real magic? Was Pirhah wrong? Or did she maybe send me to Dedi to learn just that?
No, I don’t believe it. Dedi’s given up on it, that’s all. Why? Well I know it can be dangerous. Maybe something happened, something that scared him off, made him give up the Art forever. I’ve tried to ask him but he all he says is, “Don’t go there.” I want to go there!