Alone in the Woods (part two)

After a day and a half, he finally stirred.  Rian had tended to his injury and waited.  It had been an anxious wait.

“You are awake.  Good.  How do you feel?”

“Confused.  Sore.”  He sounded groggy.

“That is not unexpected.  You have been asleep for at least two days.”

His hand shot up to his neck.  “Where is it?”

“Where is what?”

“My medallion.  It was around my neck.”

“What does it look like?”

He scoffed.  “You took it off.”

She feigned ignorance.  “I did no such thing.  Is it a family heirloom?  There was no medallion where I found you.”

He did not look convinced.

“So what happened to you?  I found you unconscious in the woods, but how did you get there?”

He stared at her intently.  “Do you really not know who I am?”

She was trying very hard to appear relaxed and unconcerned. Luckily false appearances were her speciality.  “I have never seen you before.  How should I know who you are?”

“And my clothes?  They mean nothing?”

“They are very nice.  Since you seem so concerned about this medallion, I assume you are from a wealthy family.  But I know little of such things.”

Doubt began to creep across his face.  Had he begun to believe that she might really not know anything about the Terrgat?  When he spoke next, he sounded less rough, more cordial toward his host.

“I had been riding.  Something must have startled my horse, and she threw me.  I assume I hit my head, and that is where you found me.  Perhaps I lost the medallion in the fall.  I apologize for accusing you.”

She waved her hand.  “It is alright.  I can take you back where I found you when you feel better.  We can look for it.  I saw no sign of your mount, however.”

“Thank you.”  His eyes closed and his head sank back into the pillow.

She needed to know more.  Was he in the woods because of her?  Did others know where he was?  In the end, did it matter?

She sat and watched him sleep.  What should she do?  Even if he was not looking for her before, he knew she was here now.  How long would it take to suspect her of being a mage?  Could she really be safe anymore?  If he were to disappear, would others come looking for him?  And is that something she could even do?  She had never killed before.

This Terrgat, he and his, had killed nearly everyone she had ever known.  If he found out who she was, he would certainly try to kill her.  But could she kill him to save herself?

Maybe she should just leave, go somewhere else.  Now that she had been found once, it could happen again.  It would be safer to quit this place.  But she was tired.  Too tired, she thought, to start again.  She would not run once more.

That decided it, then.  What she had to do.  He was defenseless; it would be a simple matter to stop his breathing.  A kinder death than he would give her, she was certain.

The shadows had grown long during her deliberation, and everything had taken on an orange hue in the late afternoon sun.  The Terrgat’s eyes were open once more and looking at her.

“Could I have something to drink?  I did not want to interrupt you, but I am very thirsty.”

“Oh, of course.  You need liquids to recover properly.”  She poured a glass of water from the pitcher and handed it to him.

“Thank you.  You have been very kind to me.”

“You are welcome.”  She smiled.  “I could not just leave you to die.”  As she said it, she knew it was true, and she could not bring herself to make it false.

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.

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.

Of Gods and Mages

“Be quiet, or a mage will come for you!”  His eldest stopped fidgeting in his chair and turned pale.

His daughter, though, looked puzzled.  “Papa?  What is a mage?”

“Someone who uses magic against the King’s commands.  They are evil and punish children who misbehave.”  He aimed that last squarely at his eldest.

The girl, on the other hand, looked mystified.  “Why does the King not want them to use magic?”

She looked at him with expectant eyes.  His wife merely shrugged, refusing to participate.  He turned back to his daughter.  “The gods do not want any but their chosen to use magic.  The King enforces their will.”

“How does the King know what the gods want?”

“Because he is the King.”  The girl always asked a lot of questions, but this time was particularly exasperating.  Could she not understand the role of the King?

“Does the King talks to the gods?”

“I suppose so.”

“And they do not like magic?”

“Well, they do not like magic practiced by mages.”

“Why not?”

“Enough!  We do not question the commands of the gods!”  His wife’s disapproving look told him to control his temper.  “I am sorry for yelling.  But it is forbidden to question the will of the gods or their King.  We must accept what they say.  Do you understand?”

She nodded silently, obviously afraid to anger him again.

He sighed.  “Do not be afraid.  Behave, do as you are told, mind the gods, and nothing bad will happen.  Do you understand?”

She nodded again, a little more life in it this time.

“Good.  Now let us finish the meal.”

Not Home

Rian knew they were coming for her.  She had tried, in small ways, to help the village. Avoiding overt displays of magic, she provided salves and poultices that seemed to win her the affection of her new neighbors.

But the Terrgat had her scent.  They were coming for her, and the village would hand her over.  Her assistance was genuinely appreciated, she knew, but the Terrgat were feared.  And so, ultimately, was she.  They had to know she used magic.  Disguised as it was, they villagers were willing to pretend not to notice. But with the Terrgat coming, none of that mattered.

Despite her attempts to avoid being tied down, she had accumulated many things since coming here, and had even become attached to some of them.  Ignoring the danger, she had begun to lay down roots.  Deep enough to make leaving hard, but not deep enough to keep her safe. She only grabbed her book inside its case, a few coins she had on hand, and the pouch she had made for this eventuality.  All her tools would have to be abandoned.

Just before she opened the door to leave, there was a knock.  Her heart skipped a beat before she realized it was at the house next to hers.  It was nearly too late, but she left via the back door.

Unfortunately, one of the Terrgat had circled around behind the row of houses.  He spotted her immediately.

“You, there!”

She began to run.  There was no point in trying to talk her way out of this.

“Stop!”

She heard his heavy footsteps behind her.  Ducking between two of the houses, she saw a group of villagers on the street.  As they caught sight of her, one of them pointed.

“There she is!”

And that was it.  The village had turned on her.  She could wait no longer.  Drawing a small gem out of her pouch, she threw it down and stepped on it.  Instantly, a heavy, dense fog enveloped the area.  It would spread over half a mile from this point.  No one could see more than two feet in front of themselves.

She began to run again, thankful she had memorized her path.  Ducking between buildings several more times to confuse her pursuers, she trusted that memory.  However, someone had left a cellar door open that she didn’t see through the fog until it was too late.  Tripping, she landed heavily on the dirt floor of the cellar five feet below.

When she looked up, she saw a girl, maybe ten, in front of her.  Rian recognized her right away.  Her name was Mayn, and she had come to Rian for medicine to help her mother.  One scream from the girl, and the Terrgat would have her.  All of her hopes died here.

But Mayn smiled and placed her fingers against her lips.  The girl would not give her away?  The relief she felt was tempered by the sounds of pursuit getting louder.  It did not matter if the girl did not draw them to her; they would still find her.

Then she remembered her pouch.  She drew out another gem and quickly crushed it between her fingers. Then she threw the pieces out of the door.  An image of her sprang from them and began running away.  Soon, the sounds of pursuit receded after it.

Mayn walked over to Rian and hugged her.

“Thank you for my mother.  Now run.”

Rian squeezed her back and quickly stole away.