Alone in the Woods (part one)

Rian was walking back to her small cabin from the village when she found him.  The woods around her home were inhabited only by small animals.  It was more than a day’s walk to the village and there was no road or other path, so she had never seen another person out here.  Yet it was the fact that he was wearing the green and black colors of the Terrgat that truly unnerved her.

Ever since she had had to flee from her last home, this day haunted her thoughts.  She had refused to form new ties because of it.  Only making trips to the village when she was desperate for supplies, no one there knew who she was or even where she lived.  Just another crazy hermit in the woods or the caves.  She had offered her services to no one, so there wasn’t anyone to depend upon her.  All of this was to make it easy to run again.  And running is precisely what she should do.  If there was one Terrgat – even if he was unconscious and perhaps injured – there would be more.

Despite all of that, she did not relish the idea of leaving.  Why was the Terrgat here?  She had been extremely careful; there was no reason for them to suspect her presence.  Maybe his presence was merely a coincidence.  Perhaps they weren’t looking for her.  Could she stay after all?

It was foolish, she knew.  Even if he was here by accident, she should not take the chance.  And yet the mystery intrigued her.  It was probably the isolation.  The ideal mage life of solitary study, unimpeded by social obligations, had never quite fit her.  Rian always enjoyed contact with others, cooperative endeavors.  These past several years spent almost entirely alone had worn her down.  Finding out why this Terrgat was here, and how he had gotten injured, excited her far more than it should.

She could see he was still breathing.  Getting closer, blood was evident on his brow, but it was not much.  He might have hit his head on a rock, but that still didn’t explain his presence.  If she wanted answers, she would need to ask him.  That meant bringing him back to her cabin where she could tend to his wound properly.

He was not a very large man, maybe not even as tall as she was, though it was difficult to tell while he was prone.  Still, she had no intention of carrying him.  The levitation spell was simple.  It would make him light enough to pull without much effort at all.  However, though it was one of the first spells she had learned, it would not work.  Only after several attempts did she remember the medallion, the Terrgat’s secret weapon against mages, making them immune to magic directed at them.  Secret, that is, until word spread about them after the catastrophe that brought down Cepheus’ kingdom.

She pulled the chain over his head and stared at the circular piece.  Gold, emerald, and onyx, just as it had been described to her.  Holding it made her feel a little dizzy.  The magic that normally infused her was silent, she realized after a moment.  Its absence seemed to unmoor her from the world, and she dropped the disk.  Having one of these, studying how it worked, was tempting.  But it frightened her as well.  She wished she could send it far away, but she had no means to do so.  She left it where it lay.

The levitation spell worked easily now, and she resumed her journey home, the unconscious Terrgat in tow.  It was almost certainly a mistake.  But it was also a chance at information she might never have again.  And anyway, life had gotten too boring.

Initiation, Reversed

Disruption.  Again.  The meaning was still obvious.  The world was in turmoil.  His life was in turmoil.  There was nothing new here.  He knew it was still relevant counsel, still important to listen to what the rune was telling him.  He needed to leave behind old ways.  But his patience had worn thin, and he wanted something more than this same message.

He cast the runes once more.  Perth.  Initiation.  Reversed.  It seemed the runes were not going to let him off the hook.  He faced obstacles and needed to approach them as opportunities for growth.  The world was testing him, and his focus on the past and future meant failing in the now.  Now, the only time that really matters.

Too often, he viewed his challenges as external.  He needed to see that his life was his, the challenges were his.  Quit thinking about harms already suffered.  Quit worrying about what the next day might bring.  The question was what he would do right now.

Right now, there were needs to be met, problems to be solved, things that could not wait for some other time.  Those issues that could wait needed to be left alone for now.  Their time would come.

The present is the only time there is.  The only time he had.  Making good use of it, focusing on it, was the only way forward.  But the past and future were always lurking at the edge of consciousness, threatening his concentration.  If he was to grow, if he was to find his way out of disruption’s grip, he needed to resist their pull.  Whatever lay before him demanded this growth.  The only question left was whether he could meet this demand.

The Self, Reversed

Mannaz.  The Self.  Reversed.

Of course it would be reversed.  The world had been upended; how could he remain unaffected?  The rune indicated that the enemy he had identified without was merely a pale reflection of the enemy inside.  Change was required to move forward.  To grow.

But to grow what?  Mannaz was just a reminder of a question for which he had never found an answer: Who was he?  How to even respond?  A name, even one he chose, only identified him.  His skills?  Many others had similar abilities, at least until recently.  His actions?  Were those what he wanted to define who he was?  If so, he would be unable to like himself.

What else was there, however?  His ideals?  If his actions did not reflect those principles, then how could they truly be his ideals?  And yet, he wanted to believe – needed to believe – that he was more than what he had done.

Were those actions, and whatever principles they reflected, the enemy within?  If so, what was left that was him, that was not the enemy?  There must be something more.  But what could it be?

Maybe it was enough for now to recognize the enemy he had let in.  Changing that – opposing it – was a tremendous task.  There would be time after to determine who he was.  At least, he hoped there would be time.  For now, there was work to be done, both inside and out.  The question of who he was would have to wait.  But not forever.

Movement, Reversed

Impatience was not a virtue, he knew, but it was part of his character.  The rune before him seemed aware of that, seemed to mock him.  Movement reversed.  Motion that is blocked.  It was counseling him to wait, that now was not the time to act.

How could he sit still?  A great wrong had been committed, and it must be set right.  To wait meant to invite even more wrong.  No, the rune’s counsel had to be set aside.  Even as he formed the thought, misgivings arose.  The runes were never wrong.  Open to interpretation, yes.  But not wrong.  And this casting was clearer than most.  What’s more, he had anticipated this reaction.  His anger, however, required something else.

The runes, he told himself, did not understand, could not fathom his need.  He knew it was not about setting things right; it was about revenge.  Blood demanded blood.  And at this moment, right and wrong held little meaning.  The runes could not account for his anger, so they could provide no useful advice.

Winter howled around him but could not reach inside.  He began to move.

Wholeness

Perhaps survival is my punishment.  When I set out to destroy Cepheus and his Terrgat, I expected to die as well.  Somehow, I was spared.  And now I must live with the fact that I devastated an entire city, an entire corner of the world.

The rune Sowelu, wholeness, stares up at me from my casting.  I had to face what I had done.  Own it as part of myself.  Only then could I be reconciled with myself.  Only then could I be whole.  But how to do that?

Everyone seemed to know that a mage – or, on some tellings, dozens of mages – had wreaked such terrible destruction.  I even heard my name whispered now and again.  Rather than save my comrades, I have confirmed all the suspicions planted by the king and his soldiers.  Mages were hated, and the Terrgat had the support of the people, more than ever.  They should have been finished, but those away from the capital now had the people’s sympathies.

All of this because of me.  And that accounting does not include the loss of life that I brought about with the ritual.  Was it grief that drove me?  Or vengeance?  Or maybe merely an overconfidence in my own ability to control and predict the forces I unleashed?

The temptation to wallow in my failure, even to swear off using magic ever again is great.  Though it would undo nothing, my conscience might be eased by such an empty gesture.  Sowelu warns against that course, however.

I am a mage.  Denying magic would mean denying part of myself.  Preventing wholeness.  Magic is but a tool, and one I have used carelessly.  But giving up the tool solves nothing.  Being more thoughtful on how the tool is used is what is called for here.

I cannot save this world from itself.  I know that now.  But I am not helpless, and my survival has made it clear that I am not done here.  I may need to learn how to live with myself, but I gain nothing from denying who I am.  I am a mage.  Now I need to find out what that might mean in this new situation I have brought about.

The End of Cepheus

“I must object to this, your majesty.”

“You have made your feelings quite clear, Sur Tipan.”

“He is a Mage.  Not to be trusted.  You should execute him before he can do any harm.”

The king looked at his Sur.  The man showed no indication of humor or irony.  “You are a Mage, Tipan.  Should I not execute you as well?”

The Sur’s face paled.  “Surely I have proven myself loyal.  I do not plot against you as the others have.  I even revealed to you information that has helped you against them.”

The king waved his hand in dismissal.  “Yes, yes.  You serve me well.  But this mage was discovered near the castle.  I will discover his intent.”

Tipan bowed, obviously eager to maintain his good standing.  “As you will, your majesty.”  He turned to the soldiers near the entrance of the throne room.  “Bring in the prisoner.”

Two Terrgat came through the door, a rather disheveled man between them.  He appeared to be  in his middle years, but looks were rarely to be trusted when mages were involved.  King Cepheus looked at his Sur, and wondered how old he really was.

“Well, Tipan, do you know him?”

Tipan had been studying the mage closely, but shook his head.  “I do not, your majesty.  Just another mage.  To be dealt with like all of the others.”

Cepheus nodded.  Every since elevating the man to Sur, he had been loyal.  Justified or not, he could not help but feeling suspicious.  But that was something to be considered at another time.  At this moment, however, he needed to deal with this unknown.  “Where did you find him?”

“Your majesty,” the Terrgat on his left bowed, “he was just outside the gate.  He was waiting there.  Perhaps hoping to ambush…”  He cut himself off.

The king nodded.  “What is your name, mage.”

As the king addressed him, he looked up, a startled expression on his face.  “Me?  You are talking to me?”

“Yes.”  Cepheus was already bored.  “Who else?”

“Ah.  Well, those who know me call me Ice.”

“What sort of name is that?”

“The name others have given me.”

His ire rising, Cepheus struggled to keep his voice in check.  “What is your real name?”

“Ah.  True, true.  That is not the name I was given at birth.  But it is the only name you will get.”

Tipan took a step forward.  “Terrgat, kill this man!”

The king immediately held up his hand.  “Sur Tipan!  You do not give orders here.  Do not forget yourself!”

“But your majesty…!”

“Enough!  Why are you so intent on silencing this mage?”

“I am not…”

“If I may, King Cepheus.”  The mage Ice had stepped forward.  “What the traitor is trying to do is warn you.”

“Warn me?  About what?”  As he spoke the king watched his Sur slump to the ground.  The guards fell, too.  Only he and the Terrgat remained upright.  “What is this?”

“That is me.”  Ice took another step forward.  “You will feel the effect soon.  I believe your slaughter men already are.”  Both Terrgat seemed to be straining to stay upright.  One of them turned and ran out of the room.  “Whatever you use to protect yourselves from magic will not last long.  All life in this castle will soon be snuffed out, fed into the vortex I have created in this room.  Do you not feel it?”

Cepheus did.  The medallion around his neck acted as anchor, but he was being pulled at from all sides.  The magic of the medallion was already having trouble keeping up with the assault.  “Tipan was right.  I should have killed you.”

“It would not make any difference.  The runes are inscribed on the walls of your castle.  I am merely the trigger.  Alive or dead, your reign ended the moment I was brought inside.”

He felt heavier in his chair..  “You will die, too.”

“I never intended to live.  You and your Terrgat have already taken everything.  I will be content to watch you die.”

“My family… The servants…”  He struggled to find something to reach the mage before he slipped away.

“They should have killed you before I had to.  They accepted you as king.  They have earned their fate.”

“Children…!”  The remaining Terrgat had already fallen.

“What concern have you shown for the children your men have killed?  I bring you the harvest you have sown.  Goodbye, King Cepheus.  May you rot.”

The world went dark.

*     *     *

As the king slumped down and stopped moving, Ice just stared.  It had worked.  Yet he needed to be certain.  He searched the body, but the only thing unusual was a medallion around the king’s neck.  As soon as he touched the disk, the runes on his arms went silent.  He pulled the chain off of the king’s neck.  Then he searched the Terrgat and pulled off his chain as well.

The runes protected him, but they should be reaching their limit.  Still, he felt no effects from the ritual.  He had accepted his own death as the price for putting an end to Cepheus, but perhaps he had been spared after all.  Placing the medallions in a pouch, he left the throne room and began making his way to the front gate.

As he turned down a hallway, he found a maid on the floor, the linens she had been carrying were strewn about.  More of the price he knew had to be paid, though it was difficult to remember that when it lay in front of him.  On his way, he found several more scenes like the first.  Each one struck him.  Each time he reminded himself of the horrors he had sought to prevent.

Every step he took, he expected to feel the pull and succumb to the ritual, but it did not happen.  Finally he made it outside the castle.  In the courtyard, he saw others collapsed, including animals.  A mother sat against a wall holding her young son.  He forced himself to keep moving.

Outside the gates, the scene did not get less disturbing.  Bushes and trees were dying.  The effect was spreading.  This was far more than he had expected.  He had researched the ritual for months, and spent more than a year preparing it.  Nothing suggested it would spread beyond the boundary of the runic circle.

He felt for the magic, and it was not hard to find.  It was a tremendous storm centered in the castle and spreading outward.  There was no hope of stopping it.  He had a better chance of halting the sun.  All he could hope to do was get beyond it, assuming it would not envelope the whole world.

Over the next few days, as he moved further south, the blight seemed to slow.  It was still moving, he knew, but he got ahead of it.  It would eventually stop, though he did not know how long the storm might last, nor how much damage would be done in the end.  Damage he had caused.  Cepheus was dead.  That was the main thing.  Few mages remained, but they would be free from the tyranny of the king.

Ice had no idea what to do now.  He had not expected to live.  Perhaps he could find an apprentice and rebuild.  For now, he needed to put even more distance between himself and the horror he had brought about.

The Tower’s Fall

The Tower fell in the middle of the night.  It was a coordinated attack from Cepheus’ Terrgat.  Though few thought the king’s crusade would reach this far, magic wards protected both the inside and outside of the building.  Somehow, the Terrgat shrugged them off.  The screams of apprentices and the curses of mages filled the night until, one by one, they were silenced.

In his inner chamber, Ice gathered what few things he could carry.  He heard a scream from the outer room as one of his physical traps caught a victim.  He silently thanked the runes for directing him to install such devices when he moved in last year.

His relative youth also gave him a suite of rooms closer to the ground.  Another reason to be thankful, as a series of secret panels led him outside.  Fires were lit at intervals surrounding the Tower.  Several Terrgat attended each one, looking for anyone who might flee.  This evening had been well-planned.

Nearby, the sound of whimpering caught his ear.  He moved carefully to investigate.  One of the apprentices – a younger one – was huddled against a wall.  Ice had yet to take an apprentice and couldn’t remember his name, but the boy recognized him.

“Master Ice!”

“Shh!  Quiet.  You will attract attention.”  Ice kept his own tone hushed.  “Where is your master?”

“The soldiers… She…”

“Never mind.  Get up. We need to leave.  Now.”

The boy nodded and stood.  He must have been an apprentice long enough to know to follow commands.  Ice chose a direction where the woods came closest to the Tower.  From where he stood, he could see three fires.

“Master Ice, magic does not work on them.”

“Yes.  But it still works on fire.”  Destroying heat – and the light it gave off – was one of the first things he learned.  A brief flash from a rune on his arm and all three fires were extinguished.  “Now.  Quickly.”

They ran toward the right, between the two sets of guards in that direction.  Confusion amongst the Terrgat allowed the mage to get past them to the tree line.  There, Ice stopped to catch his breath.

“Now… We must…” He cut himself off.  The boy was not with him.  Looking back, he saw that he had stumbled close to the Terrgat.  Before Ice could react, one of them struck him down with a sword.  There was nothing he could do.  And no time to mourn.  He turned back to the trees and made his way deeper into the woods.

He wished he could remember the boy’s name.