Aspiring Magician

Aspiring Magician
Kaloyan Zahariev

Translated from the Bulgarian by Desislava Sivilova and Kalin M. Nenov

Selling your soul is not as simple as it seems in this hell-raising comic short story…

Artwork by Katie Barrett

            A horned head rose out of the smoke cloud above the pentagram, followed by a fit of asthmatic coughing.

            “Blast and damnation! Haven’t you people … cough cough cough … ever heard of range hoods?!”

            “O, Mammon, Ruler of the Netherworld, Lord of Destruction, Master of Pain—”

            “Right, right, right. After ten thousand times or so, all of this somehow loses its appeal. So, go ahead—” The demon fell silent and peered around the empty dark room beyond the pentagram. “Erm…” he ventured.

            “Look down,” the voice said.

            Mammon did. “Erm…”

            “Lower down!”

            Chin pressed to his armored chest, Mammon gaped at the puny figure draped in a black hooded robe and clutching something that would have been a staff had it not been a broom handle plastered with beads and painted black.

            “Who the hell are you?!”

            “I summoned thee, Mammon, Ruler of—”

            “Yes, I heard that already,” the demon said. “Now lose the hood for a bit, will you?”

            “Oh, but I can’t, master. The hood’s… y’know… part of the ritual and it’s forbidden to remove it… y’know… The rules are explicit…”

            “They are, are they?” The demon scratched his chin in demonic disbelief. “Who said so?”

            A skinny hand emerged from the loose sleeve of the robe and brandished a booklet on whose colorful cover a guy in black was extracting the innards of another guy chained to an altar. Judging by the rapturous grin of the former, he needed a lengthy conversation with a therapist, a loading dose of antidepressants and some advice from a career specialist.

            “The Aspiring Black Magician’s Handbook,” read Mammon, gawking at the booklet. “By Paul ‘Bloody’ Demonson, third revised and supplemented edition.

            “I’ve read it four times,” offered the aspiring black magician.

            “Four times, huh.” Mammon scratched his chin with a finger, adorned with a long nail. “And it says there about hoods, right?”

            “Right.”

            “Now take a look at me!”

            The hood of the aspiring black magician turned upwards in a pitiful attempt to take in the gigantic dark figure made of muscle, armor, horns and teeth. It hardly fitted into the spacious pentagram.

            “Who, do you suppose, knows best all that stuff about demon-summoning rituals? I, Mammon, Ruler of the Netherworld, Lord of Pain—”

            “Master of Pain.”

            “Right, whatever. Master, commander, po-tay-toes, po-tah-toes. As long as I’m the boss, what difference does it make?”

            “But the book—”

            “Forget the frigging book! You listen to me, not to some idiot with a lousy nickname. Bloody? What a cliché.”

            “But—”

            “Hey! Am I the demon here, or am I not? If you care about your wishes or whatever you summoned me for, I want you to get rid of that hood RIGHT NOW!”

            “Wasn’t I supposed to give the orders here?”

            “No.”

            “Are you sure?”

            “Positive.”

            “Cause the book—”

            “Didn’t you hear a word I said?”

            The skinny hand pulled down the hood and Mammon gaped.

            “HOW BLOODY OLD ARE YOU?”

            “Mrmrmmm…”

            “What did you say?”

            “I’m… mrmrm… fourteen…”

            The demon blinked at the thin face that was overtaken by acne. He stared at the scrawny kid. “And you summoned me?”

            “Ermmm,” the kid mumbled, lowering his eyes.

            “Do you know how many of the blackest black sorcerers have tried throughout the centuries?”

            The boy shuffled.

            Mammon shut his mouth and started anxiously chewing on a long nail. “If the other arch-demons find out, I won’t hear the end of it. It’s just not right… some little kiddo… there’re rules in this trade so to speak…” Mammon started on another nail. “The guys will mock me to death. An arch-demon summoned by a teen. They’ll laugh their hoofs off.”

            “Well then,” the boy ventured, “we could keep it between us.”

            The demon fell silent, and for a moment his face took on the expression that among his own passed for concentrated thought, and among humans, for a signal that they must rush off to the adult diapers store. “Yes,” Mammon muttered and scratched his chin, looking around the empty room. “After all, it’s just you and me here, isn’t it? There’s no-one to spill the beans.”

            “Ermmm,” the boy chimed in, “there’s this teeny-weeny complication. It’s really insignificant, almost imperceptible –”

            “Meaning?”

            “There’ll be no-one here only till 2 p.m.”

            “And who comes at 2 p.m.?”

            “Well, Mom’s book club gathers here.”

            “A book club?!”

            “Well, you know. A few elderly ladies reading a book and discussing it, and then gossiping about all their neighbors while wolfing down candy.”

            “I know what a book club is, you fathead! My mother was a member once. What, you think we from the Underworld are dumb as hell?!”

            “I didn’t mean it like that…”

            Mammon sighed. “What’s the time?”

            The kid needed several long seconds to fish his hand out of the robe sleeve. Then several more to realize that his watch was on the other hand and go through the process all over again. “1 p.m.”

            “Right, so we have to hurry. If we get caught, they’ll blab to all and sundry that Mammon got captured by some kiddy.”

            “Hey, I turn fifteen next month!” 

            “And I turn three millennia next month, so shut your trap! Let’s get it over with so I can go back. If I’m not home by five, the wife will take it to her head that I’ve been out drinking with the guys again, and I don’t feel like sleeping on the sofa.”

            The boy leafed hastily through the book he still clutched. “According to the instructions here, I have to offer you my soul in exchange for my dearest wish.”

            “Boy, let’s skip that soul business and go straight to the wish, shall we?”

            “But the rules say—”

            “Look, kid, have you ever handled a teen’s soul?”

            “Well…” answered the bearer of one.

            “They’re worse even than lawyers’. They keep scurrying around the Underworld, demanding this or that, constantly asking questions, and to top it all off, they’re never in their pits in time for the evening torture. And ever since that plane with the Playboy models crashed, they’re endlessly trying to sneak into the girls’ pits. Do you have any idea how much paperwork that means? I’m constantly reading and stamping reports, and they give me a hell of a headache. I mean, even tax inspectors stay put in their pits and bear their tortures better. So I’m telling you from the start, the soul’s all yours. We’ll do this business with the wish pro bono, but only this once, and only as long as it never leaves this room. I don’t want to get a good name. After all, I have a reputation to maintain.”

            “But Mr. Demonson’s book says—”

            The demon snapped his fingers, and the cover of the handbook was engulfed in blue flames. The boy squealed like a freshman girl who had seen a spider in the ladies’, and threw away the book. A scattering of ashes showered the floor.

            “Now that we’ve dealt with good old Mr. Demonson, let’s get to the point,” Mammon grated. “Out with your wish, ‘cause I’ve left the oven on at home.”

            “Well, I, erm,” the kid stared at the ashes on the floor, “I want… erm… that thing… what’s-its-name…”

            “World domination?”

            “No, no, that other thing.”

            “Immortality?”

            “No, the one that’s even better.”

            “Swedish twin sisters?”

            “No, not that – Wait a minute, what am I supposed to do with them?!”

            Mammon goggled at him. “You can’t be serious.”

            “Well, I don’t even speak Swedish, do I!”

            Mammon stared at the kid for a few more seconds, then waved a paw. “We’d better leave the wishing part for a couple of years later, huh?”

            “Wait! I know what I want.”

            “Yeees,” Mammon urged him on.

            “I want…”

            “I’m listening.” The demon tilted his head.

            “I want you to destroy my school!”

            Mammon gaped. “YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS!!!”

            The kid’s eyes sparkled as if he had just discovered that the pretty girl next door was in the habit of undressing without closing the curtains. “I am.”

            “To destroy your school?”

            The boy started nodding so fiercely that his head all but got unscrewed from his shoulders. “Yes!”

            “To destroy it?”

            “Yes!”

            “You’re kidding me?”

            “Ye– wait, what? No, no, why would I be kidding?”

            “Let me see. You’ve summoned a powerful demon who offers you a wish entirely for free, and what do you ask of him? Not immortality, not power, not one of those multiplayer delights, but to destroy your school?”

            The kid pouted. “What’s wrong with that?”

            Mammon snorted and buried his face in his hands. “And the wife wondered why I didn’t want any children.”

            The boy hesitated. “Now, look, if you don’t want to, you may just set fire to one of the wings, the one with the biology classroom, preferably, ’cause I have a test on Monday.”

            “Gosh.” Mammon squeezed his face. “Good thing Daddy’s not here to see me.”

            “OK, what’s the matter? I mean, you offer me world domination, but you back off when I ask you to destroy some piddling school. Isn’t that easier?”

            Mammon threw him a moody glance. “Look here, sonny, I’ve been in this business for twenty-five millennia. I’ve dealt with necromancers, black sorcerers, witches and all sorts of wackos who never got a decent job, but you’re the first to ask me to destroy a school. Haven’t you heard of professional pride?”

            “Alright, alright, alright. Then I want my class teacher to break her leg.”

            “Hey, that’s cruel even by my standards!”

            “Do you know what a witch she is?”

            “Has she made you stand in a tank of boiling sulfur for being three minutes late for class?”

            “Um, no.”

            “Mine did, and yet do you see me rushing to kill her?”

            The boy fell deep in thought, scratching himself with his poor excuse for a staff. “OK then. I want the prettiest girl in class to fall madly in love with me.”

            “Kid, you’re fourteen.”

            “Nearly fifteen.”

            “All the same, you’re still too young for anybody to fall in love with you. I’m telling you as a man with a millennium or two behind him, getting involved with a woman before turning thirty means nothing but trouble. Have some fun in life first, then go for that madly-in-love thing, all right?”

            “But then there’s nothing left to wish for!”

            Mammon rubbed his chin. “Don’t you by any chance desire a talent?”

            “A talent?”

            “You know: singing, playing an instrument, that kind of stuff. Women always fall for it, I’m telling you. My cousin plays in a rock band and can’t shoo the girls away.”

            “I’ve always wanted to play the guitar,” the kid blurted.

            “Lemme see what we’ve got in stock,” Mammon replied and took out a cell phone.

            The kid stared at him. “Is this for real?”

            Mammon looked offended. “Hey, being a demon doesn’t mean I don’t keep up with technology. It’s the twenty-first century, for Pete’s sake! Besides, Underworld employees enjoy preferential rates. The mobile network owners are very generous, knowing where they’re going when they die. Nobody wants a pit near the sewers.” He dialed a number and chirped cheerfully into the phone. “Hi, sweetie, Mammon here. How are you? Glad to hear that. Yes, I’m fine too… no, still married, but remember what I promised you. If I get divorced, you’ll be the first to hear it. Look, honey, I’ve got a situation here and I need your services… no, no, not those services! I meant services of a more… erm… more…”

            “Professional nature,” the kid prompted.

            “Professional nature.” Mammon threw the boy a sullen glance. “It’s not polite to listen in on people’s conversations.”

            “Sorry,” the kid mumbled. 

            “What, honeybuns? No, it’s a client.” Mammon sighed heavily into the phone. “Yes, I’ve been summoned. Terrible stuff… Thanks, very kind of you. I’ll manage somehow. Actually, that’s why I’m calling. The guy who summoned me is,” he glanced at the kid, who was busy pretending he wasn’t in the room, “quite a powerful wizard… No, Ragnar the Raging is a teddy bear next to this one. He’s brandishing his staff, yelling how he’s going to enslave me if he doesn’t get his wish, casting spells I’ve never seen a mortal do before. He’s got my back against the wall. And his soul… you haven’t seen anything blacker. I’d rather not even take it, but you know, there’re rules. Have to do it by the book. So, tell me what you’ve got in stock, ‘cause he’s getting restless. Yes, offered him world domination, but he said he didn’t need help, he’d manage conquering the globe on his own. Yes, tried immortality as well. He said he’d get it by himself. Yes, I threw in the Swedish girls too – no use. Look, sweetie, I really am in a hurry. This guy’s getting terribly impatient, so ask your computer for something to tempt him. Yes, yes, yes, I’m all ears.”

            Mammon listened for a while, then covered the phone with his palm and looked at the boy. “You’re out of luck, kid. All musical talents involving guitars have been taken. Those with drums too.”

            “Something more classical, then.”

            Mammon chattered on the phone and covered it again. “They’re gone, too. The piano, the cello and the violin are over very quickly, and besides, they need to be booked in advance. All that’s left is some talents for playing the balalaika.”

            “What’s a balalaika?”

            “A string musical instrument with a triangular body. Very popular in some parts of Russia.”

            “And that’s all?”

            “End of the month, kid. Everything’s already taken. Sorry.”

            The boy sighed, crestfallen. “Whatever. I knew it wasn’t gonna work anyway.”

            Mammon ended his call and put the phone back where he’d taken it from. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Look, kid, isn’t there anything at all? I feel bad leaving you like that. All this effort…”

            The boy gave it some thought. “There might be one thing…”

*

            It was well past midnight. In one particular bedroom, thunder roared, a cloud of smoke erupted, and a gigantic armored figure bent ominously over the bed and towards a pair of terrified eyes.

            “Mrs. Annelia Soapman?” the figure roared, horns scraping against the ceiling.

            “Y-y-yes?”

            “I think we’ve got to talk about a certain biology test…”


Kaloyan Zahariev lives in Sofia, Bulgaria. His debut novel – another humorous fantasy set in the world of “Aspiring Magician” – won a national contest for new Bulgarian fantasy and was published in December 2014. In 2015, it was voted by Bulgarian readers as the best debut SF&F novel of 2014.


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