Part 6 – The Nyx
The day after the party, Sascha stole one of his father’s books. His aim was to learn about these water creatures – ‘undine’, the Baroness had called them – and summon one. If what she had said was true, to do so was how young alchemists proved themselves. His father had once told him alchemy was his birthright. He was being denied it now because had not proved himself. It was a simple as that. So he found the book in his father’s study – ‘Undine and the Fundamental Art of Summoning’ , exactly what he needed– and took it for himself. He didn’t much care if his father eventually noticed – he was going to find out sooner or later. That was the point.
When he opened the book later in his bedroom he was frustrated, however. The information itself was sparse, obscured behind abstract theories that Sascha was unable to understand, or else strange jargon like ‘thaumaturgy’ and ‘vital essence’. What was worse, parts of the book was missing. It took him a long time to find what he was looking for:
‘The Nyx,’ it read, ‘is a water-spirit, one which generally takes on the form of a horse with a mane of seaweed. Easily summoned, they can be drawn from almost any body of water with the appropriate bait.’ Sascha would have smiled, but he was too full of grim determination. This was perfect – he could even use the seaweed as proof that he’d done it. There would be no need to make sure his father was there to see it. ‘They possess uncanny abilities and are moderately dangerous if provoked, but so long as the alchemist does not harm them and takes the necessary precautions, interaction is safe. Fire can be used to drive them away in case of aggression.’ Even better – he wouldn’t need any more than a torch to protect himself.
What followed was a list of ingredients, all of which were surprisingly mundane. Some of the herbs were rare, but there was everything in the store cupboard. The only ingredient that gave him pause was a small amount of human blood. There was something underscoring this entry in the list, but the text was written in very small and crabby handwriting, and Sascha couldn’t understand it. Still, Sascha was sure he could endure a little pain to prove his worth, and he did – although he did have to stifle a small cry when he cut himself with the knife, in order to collect the few drops of scarlet fluid in a tiny vial.
The preparation took a few days. The next hardest part was stealing a raw steak from the pantry, which had to be reasonably fresh – the rest was simple when he applied himself, and he found it heartening that he could achieve so much now that he had a concrete goal to work towards. In fact, he was filled with the kind of energy he normally felt only at the height of a storm, and it was almost better now that he had somewhere to direct it.
During this time he only went down to the village once, to talk to Cloudia. He was confident that his plan would be worth his father’s rage and the potential risks, even if there were a lot of elements involved he didn’t understand. But still, he needed Cloudia’s opinion. It didn’t take long to explain, but by the time he was done she had shifted from her normal cheeriness into one of her quiet, pensive moods.
“Are you sure that it’s safe?” was her first question, and as usual it caught him slightly off-guard.
“Yes. You can drive it back into the water with fire. I have a torch.”
“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” She said after a while. Sascha frowned.
“But what else am I supposed to do?” For once, her next answer frustrated him, even though it was a long time in the making:
“I don’t know.” It wasn’t long before he changed the subject, and started telling her about the party. It was only on the way back to the castle that he realised how unhappy she had seemed.
Once the preparations were over, what Sascha had was a piece of raw meat, carefully laced with a mixture of herbs and his own blood, a burning torch stolen from the cellar, and the ‘Undine and the Fundamental Art of Summoning’. He took all three down to the side of the great lake, driving the torch into the loose pebbles by the edge of the water, and began. He followed the instructions to the letter, even those he didn’t fully understand, laying down the meat by the side of the lake, and reciting out loud the words that were written in the book.
For a long time nothing happened. Sascha stood on the shore, standing close to the torch for warmth, and watching the surface of the water. Occasionally he would cast his gaze up to the castle, which was visible above the trees and beyond the shore to his left. He hoped he was too far away to be seen. Still the water was agonisingly still, but for the ripples made by the breeze. Sascha didn’t know what he had been expecting – perhaps a bright light, or a shadow passing across the sun. Anything would do, anything but nothing.
Then it happened: without any warning, without any sign of something moving beneath the surface, a great white shape erupted from the water. The Nyx. Sure enough, it resembled a horse, but it was nothing like any horse Sascha had ever seen before. Its mane was not actually made of seaweed, but was the same pure white colour as its coat, although seaweed did hang from its flanks and across its face.
The Nyx was spectacular, larger than any creature Sascha had ever seen. He admired the horse as it strode forward through the water, making its way towards Sascha’s offering. As it put its head down to examine the meat, it glanced briefly towards him with milky white eyes. Then it began to eat, presenting the back of its seaweed-coated neck to him. He watched it tearing away strips of flesh from the steak, and for a moment felt faintly disgusted. A tiny doubt surfaced, somewhere at the back of his mind. Was something wrong here? Maybe he ought to get away.
Then he remembered his purpose. If he couldn’t prove himself now, he never would. So he took the torch in one hand, and reached out to grab a piece of seaweed. He did so tentatively, but the Nyx ignored him. He took a strand of the slimy plant, and put it away inside his cloak, shuddering a little at how disguising it was to touch. As he did so, his hand brushed against the creature’s ivory coat, the one in which he had made the cut, and he looked back up at the Nyx.
It was staring it him. Eyes that were previously focused only on the meat now looked up at him and held his gaze. And what eyes they were. The beauty of the creature struck him again, and he stood admiring it for a while, oblivious to the freezing water lapping around his feet. The Nyx really was a fine creature. It occurred to him what a fine thing it would be to ride it. At this, his misgivings returned, even stronger now, but for some reason it was even easier to quash them this time. Despite its size, despite the slipperiness of the rocks beneath the water and the slimy surface of its coat, it was surprisingly easy to climb onto the horse’s back, letting the torch fall into the water with a sizzling splash.
In less than a moment he had made himself comfortable, and from his new position its mane seemed even more magnificent. And he was its rider. He could ride it into the castle! Think what his father would say. He wondered how he would command it where to go. It had already finished eating. Then, as if sensing his thoughts, the Nyx raised its head, and began to move. Sascha attempted to guide it towards the shore, but the creature turned to face the lake instead. It began to push out into the water, into the deeper part of the lake.
It was only as the water began to rise around up his legs once more that the spell was broken. He began to scream. It was a mercy that the horse was quick. That saved him the creeping terror of icy water enveloping him, although he still had time to appreciate the Nyx. Its appearance seemed to have changed, now that he was helpless. Before it had seemed powerful and healthy, now he realised that it was thin, painfully, distastefully thin. He could see its whole ribcage, as well as the joints in its legs, both barely concealed by skin that now looked an unhealthy green tinge and could barely stretch across the its bones.
Those were his last few seconds of conscious panic before he was plunged beneath the surface, and the all-consuming chill drained everything from his mind. It was so cold that he felt nothing, and everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The Nyx began to toss and turn beneath him, thrashing so wildly that the water began to turn white and Sascha was flung from its back. He hit the bottom of the lake, coming almost gently to rest. That was before something that must have been a hoof struck him once in the chest, then again and again, each time with a muffled, sickening crunch.
Then, all of a sudden, the assault was over. The creature was gone, and Sascha could see sunlight somewhere above him. It was far away, however. Too far away. The water had already sucked out all of his strength and the last of his breath. But there was something else. A single, bright flash filled his vision. It flooded his eye-sockets, and instead of searing them with hot, white pain it left his vision clear even through the water. And although the light faded, some of its brightness remained. The lake was filled with light, not one but many. Dozens of tiny flames hung beneath the surface of the water, impossible and blue.
Sascha was transfixed. If he had been able to, he would have reached out to one, but in fact he didn’t need to. They were descending, inching nearer, and he fancied he could hear them whispering. They stayed with him, as he slept.