ALEX PAGE - THE NINTH STEP
The Ninth Step
He was almost used to the looks. Fear, mostly. Curiosity. The ones who tried to meet his blazing eye-sockets and smile as though he was normal, but fumbled the change and audibly exhaled when he left.
When he had been Icoran, Reaper of the Shadowlands, Envoy of Twilight, he hadn’t cared how anyone saw him. In early sobriety, Icoran the new guy sitting in the meetings shaking like a martini, he’d hidden himself in baggy clothes with hoods, even tried wearing big sunglasses. Until his eyes had burnt holes through them, which Tanda had encouraged him to see as a sign.
Now, five months clean, Icoran sat reading the paper in the airport terminal, trying to ignore the fellow passengers either staring or conspicuously looking away. His feet itched where a layer of flesh was regrowing on the bones. The airport coffee was gritty, cheap, but his partially restored digestive system didn’t yet have a tongue to go with it anyway. It was enough for now to feel the warmth of a hot drink, the hit of caffeine. Sensations taken by the addiction, slowly coming back as nerves and viscera reasserted themselves, the skeletal lich regaining humanity cell by cell. One Day At A Time, as they said in the program.
First and business class passengers began filing out the gate. A few minutes later the economy passengers followed. The dragon was a young specimen with red and black scales, lapping at a trough with its wings folded out of the way as it waited for them to climb the stairs up into the fuselage strapped to its belly. Icoran showed his boarding pass to a stewardess and took his window seat, strapping the seatbelt tight around his partially formed waist. The scales above his head moved in time with the dragon’s breathing.
He dug the tips of his finger bones into the armrests as the beast took lumbering steps forwards then surged into the air with a beating of wings, each thrust rocking them up with a lurch. Once the dragon reached its cruising altitude, settling into more smooth flaps, he let go and looked outside. The roads below were reduced to ant trails, a train to a caterpillar, the clouds above close enough to make out some angelic structures. The air was colder up here, but the heat of the dragon’s fire in its belly warmed the fuselage from above in compensation.
“Not a fan of flying, young man?” the woman next to him asked, her wrinkles suggesting a long life (by conventional standards) of good cheer. Not bothered at all that his head was a skull with pits of fire for eyes.
“I prefer to keep my feet on the ground,” he said.
“Nothing to worry about. They’re very well trained.”
“I know. Just tell that to my stomach.”
She chuckled, patting him on the arm, then buried herself in the in-flight magazine. They were over an expanse of ocean, Icoran leaning over to pay for a tomato juice from the trolley, when she turned to him again. “So, what brings you to Miranelle? I have a niece over there.”
Icoran paused. Miranelle, formerly the Shadowlands, a place I scourged with dark magics before you were born. My name is Icoran, and I am a magicholic. I’m going there to try to address the Ninth Step of my Twelve Step program. The fire dimmed for a moment. “I have some errands to run,” he said, reaching out for the can and his change.
He could only remember the first MA meeting in sweeping impressions. Walking into the community centre, wearing a stained hoody several sizes too big, hiding his skeletal arms in the sleeves. The lime-green carpet, rows of people on chairs facing the podium. Milling around a giant urn of coffee.
Being offered a polystyrene cup, shaking his head and edging to the back of the room. It’d fall right through. Joining some of the newcomers in the back row, all jittering like a shoe in a washing machine. Someone trying to light her cigarette by flicking some device, instead of snapping her fingers like anyone on the street.
The speakers, coming up one by one, telling their tales of woe. Fading in and out of his focus as Icoran shook. The guy next to him spewing in a bucket. What he took in was trite shit. One Day At A Time. My Best Thinking Got Me Here. The regulars clapping, calling back jargon about how they totally Identified with the speaker, to Stay In, Be Active In The Group.
Leaving as soon as it ended, while the regulars stacked chairs, not seeing how any of this could scratch the surface – especially the Higher-Power-as-you-understand-it guff, which seemed vaguely cultish. But going to the next one anyway.
At Miranelle International Airport, Icoran retrieved his luggage from the conveyor belt and wheeled it to the car rental place, taking in the view of surrounding mountains, the warmth on his patches of skin. Olive trees lining the parking lot’s fence, rustling in the breeze.
When he sat in the booth to wait for his rental he took an old sheet of newspaper from his pocket and scanned it. The story was about a fallen angel saving a child from a derailing train near the sleepy village of Pike, Miranelle. The story included an image of the being’s androgynous face, looking displeased to have their photo taken. Just the same as all those years ago, neither old nor young, but perhaps tired. Amoxiel.
“Icoran?” the rental agent asked.
“Yes.” He signed the papers and pocketed the keys. “Could you tell me the best way to get to Pike?”
“You’ve got quite the drive ahead of you. Let’s see… follow the signs to Rymond, then go east along the coast. You’ll probably want to stay over in Rymond.”
Icoran sat in the car, adjusted the seat, and set off. The voices on the radio spoke a language similar enough to that of the Shadowlands as he remembered it that he could just about follow, driving along the motorway with mopeds erratically veering across lanes, cars honking at each other, his elbow out of the open window.
The traffic here was chaotic, forcing him to pay too much attention to slip into the past. Even so, he marvelled at how different the environment was. The necromancers had kept this land a place of mist, the sun pale and tinged with red, gnarled thorny trees with branches whipping out in phantom winds to grasp the unwary. If it weren’t for the mountains, he wouldn’t think it could be the same place.
As the sun set and the ghostlights floating over the road ignited, shining pale lavender, a bit of the old aesthetic returned. But the stars above were clear, the night dark without being oppressive as it had been, the looming black of a mine with struts threatening collapse. Icoran turned up the radio, checking signs for the distance to Rymond. The travel was taking its toll, and night was the most difficult time for him. The time when thoughts of surging magic, raising him above his troubles and crackling through his spirit, were most intrusive.
How easy it would be, even now, to conjure up wings of shadow and be at Pike within the hour. But then, that would defeat the purpose in coming here. He tightened his grip on the wheel, letting the thought go.
He reached the town, cruising around its outskirts and quickly finding a motel. He paid for the night, handing the receptionist paper towel to dab up the iced coffee spilled jolting at the sight of him, then went to his room. He kneeled by the bed, thanking nobody in particular for a day’s sobriety, then lay back to drift off, asking it to not send dreams.
The MA Groups in North Dartwood had a penchant for primary-schoolish names. His was called The Real Magic Is Sobriety. By his fourth meeting he could have held a cup steady, though his torso was still only ribs and spine with a few strands of cartilage starting to sprout.
He cleared his throat, standing at the podium, focused on the ground. Nobody coughed passive-aggressively or said anything to nudge him forwards. He could hear the clock ticking in the background.
“Um. I’m Icoran. And I, uh, I guess I’m a magicholic.”
“Hi Icoran,’ the group said. Leaning forwards, subtly encouraging. He looked up, glancing over the newcomers at the back, the regulars, the keen and long-term sober up front, the woman with the cigarette lighting device puffing at the edge of the front row.
Once he’d started, it unspooled like a thrown toilet roll. ‘I grew up in a village just outside the then Shadowlands, during the War of Hemlock,’ he said, not even hearing the muttering, wait, he’s, what, 200 years old?, ‘and I suppose that’s where it started. The soldiers came through and, well. I won’t go into what they did. I wanted to be strong to track them down and avenge my village. So I went into the Shadowlands, committed myself to Twilight.
“As I practised necromancy my body slowly started to… well, as you see. By the time I’d raised the village’s ghosts to tear apart the soldiers, I’d lost about half my flesh. But I’d completed the mission. But I couldn’t let magic go.”
“I couldn’t stop using it. I gave up taste and touch and normal human relations for the spark of magic, the crackle inside. Nothing mattered but that, being alive with that even as it turned me into a being of death, the freedom and the power even as it… as it enslaved me to doing spell after spell, ritual after ritual, anything to hold onto the buzz, and as time went by things that made me buzz ended up merely making me feel stable, so I had to go further and further.”
The smoking woman was watching more intently, a wan smile. Tanda, an ex-shaman with crazy sober time, gnarled and dark as a ragged tree.
“My existence got shorn down to a series of acts of dark magic, running away from my own fear and anger and weakness up the ranks of Twilight. The more powerful I became, the more I was just covering up the reality. A few hours without magic and I’d start falling back to earth, shaking. I degraded to a full skeleton and as I carried on I started to become brittle. I’d black out, come to and find that one of my bones was starting to crack and I’d destroyed a village. My mentors told me I’d have to complete the process, give up my humanity and become a lich, or I’d die.
“The other option didn’t occur to me. The idea that I could stop, stop getting high on the magic of death and restore who I’d been. I’d been what I was for longer than I’d been a man. So I did it, I took out my very soul and put it in a vessel, my phylactery, so I could stand on the edge between life and death and carry on.
“And finally, the Paladins came. They scourged the Shadowlands with angelic light, they bound me, they were going to kill me for what I’d done but they couldn’t find the phylactery. So they put me in a cell. I was in there for long enough that in that time the dragons were tamed, the world became industrial, the great monsters were vanquished, the monarchies fell to parliaments, and my crimes were forgotten. In that place I could just about tap magic enough to cycle between withdrawal and the barest shadow of a high, always out of reach.
“On the day I got out I knew I was free, I could do it all again. But now I had enough humanity to care about my actions. So on one side was withdrawal and on the other was becoming a monster again, I used magic to stave off withdrawal but now I was caught on two sides. I couldn’t get high and I couldn’t get sober, I couldn’t live and I couldn’t die. I was just as trapped as in the cell. I began to see that the cage was inside me, and I couldn’t get out because I was also my jailer. I remembered some of what I’d done and I remembered withdrawal and I couldn’t go back to either, and that, I think that was when I, like you say here, Hit Bottom.”
He coughed. “I went to where my phylactery was hidden, meaning to smash it. To die. But I didn’t. Instead I came here.” He shrugged. “And, uh, that’s the story, I guess.”
The group clapped, some of the grizzled elders came up and insisted on giving him their numbers, people said they totally Identified with what he’d said.
Tanda lit a cigarette on his eye socket, took a drag, then said, “Good one. Stay In, won’t you?”
Icoran woke up, kneeled beside the motel bed, and asked nobody in particular to help him be sober for the day. Eating was a bit of a chore without having a tongue yet, like filling a car, but since he had a digestive system now he got something cheap before continuing the journey to Pike.
He took the road east along the coast, passing through dusty red hills dotted with olive groves and dark green palms, the sea indigo and glittering to his right. Goats scampered through the hills. Despite the surroundings his stomach tightened as he got nearer to Pike. If Amoxiel was there, he’d be facing probably the only surviving victim of his magic. He remembered the landscape around here, as it had been in those days. The sea ink black, infested with kraken.
As he took the road down to Pike, directly beside the beach, a lighthouse loomed into view, shining white stone matching the buildings of the village. He pulled over at the bar and went in.
“What’ll it be?” the barman asked, in the modern language of Miranelle, with a regional accent and dialect to boot.
Icoran ordered a drink, over-enunciating to make up for being so out of date. The bar was cooled by a simple sigil drawn on the wooden floor. He avoided looking at it, or the fisherman in the corner, who was using a location charm to point out on a map which of his traps had caught something.
“Do you know anything about the fallen angel?” Icoran tried asking.
The barman’s brow furrowed. “Isteli?”
Icoran took out the sheet of newspaper, pointing to the picture. “This one.”
“Ah. Yes. You want the lighthouse.”
“Lighthouse?” Miming a tower, to confirm the word.
“Yes, yes. In there. Open.”
“Thank you.” Icoran nursed his drink. Amoxiel was a short walk away. But he couldn’t quite get up the courage to walk out the door and go over there. What would they say to him, the person who’d done so much damage, appearing out of nowhere so many years later? He asked for strength and didn’t find it.
He ordered another drink.
When he was newly able to drink again he’d had an excessive amount of coffee with Tanda, in the shop opposite the community centre before a meeting.
“You aren’t the first lich I’ve seen Come In,’ she said, leaning forward to light up on his eye socket.
“I’m assuming they relapsed,” he said.
“Yep, shot back Out There. In the throes of the addiction, until they went too far and the Paladins swooped in. First time you wandered in, sat in the Denial Aisle, I didn’t have high hopes, I’m afraid.”
“The back row. The maybe I don’t belong here, maybe this isn’t for me zone.”
“You wanna be at the front, do your damnedest to Identify with what they’re saying, not compare their story to yours and say you weren’t that bad--”
“I don’t think I could ever claim that.”
She shrugged, tapping the ashtray.
“You’ve really got to commit to not counting the days, I guess. What with the immortality.”
“I’m not immortal.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Well, I was never into necromancy.”
“If my body was smashed it’d restore, sure. But my soul’ll burn through the phylactery in about 70 years. If I don’t use magic at some point to replace it--”
“Right. And I’m guessing that’s a serious ritual. The kind of magic to chuck you right back Out There, strip what flesh you’ve got back off your bones and have Paladins on you lickety-split.”
“Better 70 years sober than eternity high.”
“Good,” she said, bug-eyed with caffeine. “Still, don’t count the days.”
“One Day At A Time,” he muttered. “Damn mottos.”
“The mottos mean more than you can imagine. You’ll see soon enough. You’ll start to get dreams, memories coming back. Stuff the magic pushed away. Take in the mottos, do the Steps. Remember--”
“My Best Thinking Got Me Here.”
“That’s right! Speaking of the steps, you got any thoughts on the ninth? Eight: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. Nine: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
“Hard to make amends when they’ve all died by now. Can’t even conjure their ghosts to apologise, even if I hired someone else. It’s been too long.”
“Sure there’s nobody who might be around? Obviously no regular humans, but anybody else?”
He’d searched his memory, then shook his head. “No.”
Icoran sat in the passenger seat and got out his palantir, pressing the glyphs for Tanda’s number. The crystal tablet throbbed with green light, then resolved into an image when she answered the call. Tanda in bed, squinting in the dark, holding her palantir above her.
“Fuck me sideways with a rusty rake, boy,” she said. “Do you know what time it is? Daylight on your end?”
“Forgot about time zones, sorry.”
“I am your sponsor, available as required. Don’t worry.” She put her palantir down and turned the light on, then sat on the bed holding it in front of her. “So what’s the story, where are you?”
“I’m doing the Ninth Step.”
“I’m in a little village in Miranelle, about to go see a fallen angel.”
“I take it you’re there on account of the ‘fallen’ part being your fault somehow.”
“You didn’t mention this before.”
“I only remembered recently. I’d buried it under everything else. Then it was too shameful to bring up.”
“No it wasn’t. I’ve heard stories in MA to make your hair curl.”
“If only I had hair.”
She sighed. “They’re bound to be pissed. You’ve just got to face the music. They’ve no obligation to forgive you. This is about you, committing yourself to sanity. Just go there, be honest and open. Face the consequences. Sorry I can’t be more twee about it.”
“No, that’s just what I needed to hear. Thanks.”
“No worries. Night,” she said, closing the call.
He got out, took his case from the car, and began walking to the lighthouse. She’d been right about memories, and once he started needing sleep again she’d turned out right about dreams too. Dreams twisted, foul, and true, HD memories and technicolour nightmares. Dreams of Amoxiel chasing him across the Shadowlands. And of what he’d done to get away, buying time before a full Paladin squad finally caught him.
The door at the bottom of the lighthouse was open. Icoran ascended the tight spiral staircase. If he’d had a heart again yet, it would’ve pounded with each step. Gulls calling outside, between the echo of his steps.
Amoxiel stood at the top, facing the ocean. Their shadow, cast back on the top of the lighthouse, had the tattered remains of wings. They were barefoot, in a flowing robe with a colour never normally seen, softly glowing. Icoran presumed they stood here at night, shining to warn the ships.
Icoran coughed. Amoxiel turned around.
“Ah,” the fallen angel said. “You’re still alive.”
“It’s been a long time, by your reckoning. Why now?”
“I came to try to make amends.”
“You can’t make amends. You used dark magic to rip out my grace, leaving me powerless and stranded on the earth. You used it up, merely to try to cover your trail from my comrades. You can’t give it back, or make it regenerate any faster than it is. For the first decades I had to eat, sleep, drink. Imagine such a thing! I created lightning!” Amoxiel’s androgynous face briefly writhed with disgust. “Even now I can’t fly, can’t stand on the clouds. My fellows visit me, bring me the comforts of home,” they said, “But how long to return? How much longer, to be able to serve as a Paladin again? So, how did you find me?”
“The derailed train.”
“Ah. You realise that had I more grace, I could have stopped the accident. One child saved. All the other victims are yours.”
He stood still, holding the case.
“You want forgiveness? You will not get it. I am not a prop for your self-esteem.”
“No. I want to prove that I’m not what I was.” Icoran opened the case, moving clothes aside to get at a box. He handed it to Amoxiel. They opened it, and took the gem from inside. An egg-sized sapphire with fire burning in its centre.
“Your phylactery. Why are you giving me this?”
Icoran said nothing.
“Even as I am, I could smash this.”
“I expect you could.”
“I don’t understand.”
“In time it will break anyway. I will die eventually, unless I replace it. Which I will not do. I’m in MA. I came here to try to make amends, the Ninth Step. So long as you have my phylactery, I won’t be able to replace it. The biggest risk of me going back to old habits is gone.”
“You’re willing to die for this,” Amoxiel said, staring into the sapphire.
“Eventually, yes. Until then I’ll live properly. Sober.”
They put it back in the box and closed the clasp. “I’ll have my next visitor put this in a vault in the clouds for safekeeping. I can’t say this makes being a fallen angel any better. But I appreciate what you’re trying to do.”
Amoxiel turned back to face the sea. Icoran picked up his case and went back to the rented car.
Icoran released his grip on the armrests, as the dragon flying back towards Dartwood reached cruising altitude.
He peered up at the clouds for angelic structures, knowing one of the clouds held his phylactery in a place well away from temptation. An itch in his cheek was bothering him; the passenger beside him already snoring. When a steward came with the trolley he got a tomato juice, avoiding touching the sleeping man, and drank it while browsing the in-flight magazine.
The sun began to set while they were over the ocean, and biological needs drove Icoran to the toilets. Tanda encouraged him to view all physical experiences as a gift of sobriety.
He saw when he looked in the mirror that his cheek itched because a small strand of muscle was coming in. As he looked, it twitched. He realised that muscle strand, once One Day At A Time his whole face came back, would be one of the ones giving him a smile.
He returned to his seat and, before going to sleep for the rest of the flight, thanked nobody in particular for the day’s sobriety.