It was typical Shadowlord strategy: disperse foes with spell of fear, cut them down as they run in chaos. I had seen this strategy many times, had seen it work, and I had countered it many times. The secret to countering it is not intuitive: don't run. Stand your ground.
But this time was different. This was what you might call an "away game." Jess and I were in the Shadowlords's home territory, in the Ordinary, and thus my usual ample resources for countering this kind of unnatural fear, for metaphysical reasons, just wouldn't work here.
There is something profoundly disturbing about an intelligent and self-aware creature like a human screaming out in fear. I was surrounded by many examples of this at that moment as the Shadowlords advanced. In such a situation, humans have lost the unique faculty that distinguishes them from other animals: their ability to use language. Poetry, lyric, song, have been discarded for gargling.
I have been reduced to a muttering imbecile by the Shadowlords on a few other occasions--fetal position, biting my knuckles--and I still hold a grudge. But this time was not going to be one of them. I began working magic.
The Shadowlords are nigh, Jess spoke in mind. I could perceive her thought messages despite that fact that everyone in the common room was screaming and scampering over each other for the exits like a stampeding herd of zebra escaping a lion, and that taxed my eardrums.
"I kind of got that impression," I said out loud, "and I'm working on it." I took a deep breath, made mudrās with my hands, closed my eyes, and began going into myself.
In other words, I started working magic. It's called prestidigitation, working with fingers. It's take a lot of skill and a lot of focus, and my great-grandfather, Superior Hopewell, wrote a book about it, titled, The Practice of Eastern Mysticism and Its Practical Applications, although what folks thought he was writing about in 1932 were parlor magic tricks, mere entertainment: making things disappear and pulling rabbits out of hats. I'd learned something of his art, a few of his secrets, but not from his joke of a book, mind you, which, to the initiated, read like a parody, a hoax, a deliberate poking-fun at the narrow and provincial views of Earthlings who happened to inhabit, its sad to say, occupied territory in the Ordinary.
The double-doors to the common room silently came open and a Shadowlord floated in like an evil black man-o-war, it's transluscent hood pulsating with veins, its glowing lappets and oral arms roiling, squishily flying through the room like fleshy darts.
The lid of my third eye had almost opened, but I was startled, my spell ruined, and I expressed my frustration loudly. And in the split second that the Shadowlord came, it touched maybe ten people, who, in a flash, went from young, exuberant, "joie de vivre" members of the counter culture to depressed, Borg-like, sway-by-the-numbers zombies of the Ordinary: eyes white spheres, no pupils, mouths slightly open, drooling, paling fast, no pulse, no breath, but still moving.
This transformation is one of the most terrifying and depressing things to witness.
These ten folks stopped screaming, stood calm as cattle, even as many of their fellows continued stampeding through the fire doors.
Sur-ren-der or be slain!, said the Shadowlord with a deep, mellifluous, sing-sing voice like maple syrup.
Still trembling, Jess delicately stepped down from the bed. She stood behind me, pulled the covers tight around her like a royal mantle, and placed her hand on my shoulder.
Our shield bearer is deadly in battle and proven, sirrah. If you value your life, Shadowlord, turn and flee the Red Throne, and doing so tell your brothers we shall not tolerate further interferences.
Have you ever heard a Shadowlord laugh? It is one of the most dismal noises, all hate and cynicism and intelligence, a deep thundering out of the west.