THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART THREE: MANIPULATING MAGIC


CHAPTER NINETEEN


     Eya's world had turned into a living nightmare. Time had become irrelevant. She no longer knew how long she had lain, prone and paralyzed, on the floor of Dek's house. It could have been minutes or days, the space of a few heartbeats or the turning of the season.
     Each wave of unbuffered power that racked the community tore through Eya with crushing force. Emotion was wrenched from her and put to use in whatever madness had settled upon Falnora. Had she been capable of it, had every muscle in her body not been frozen into immobility, she would have wept, or screamed, or both.
     With the body in such torment, the mind did not function clearly, but Eya had made a few deductions. First, the source of her malaise was magical in nature, as was the disaster plaguing the settlement. Second, since Lora had been traumatized, the draining of emotion was not confined to Apaths. Finally, the delirious Dek appeared to be at the center of the catastrophe, which meant that in some sense, he had to be a wizard.
     For the moment, things had quieted down. Eya's breath no longer seemed heavy in her lungs nor did her mind scream with anguish the way it did every time emotion was leeched away. Given a respite to reflect and consider, she formulated a plan.
     Magic did not require physical mobility so, through its use, Eya was not helpless - or at least she hoped she wasn't. There was no telling what the series of emotional violations had done to her ability to control and channel energy.
     Concentrating, she sought the fear and pain the attacks had engendered. It was a surface emotion, with little depth and no roots, but she hoped it would be sufficient for her purposes. After all, she wasn't trying to move a mountain, just her own body.
     It was then that she noticed something strange, something she had never experienced before. For the first time, she was aware not only of her own emotions, but of those of Lora and Dek, as well. They did not seem as potent as her own, and she found it difficult to fathom many of them, but they were there, laid bare to her, open to her use.
     If her own emotions were vivid colors, brightly exposed under full sunlight, theirs were pastels, wreathed in shadow. Their lack of substance was caused by the tenuousness of her link with them, but it was a link that had never been there before. Every time when she had sought to use magic, the only emotions she had been aware of were her own. Now, suddenly, she could sense those of others as well. Physical proximity had something to do with it, because beyond Lora and Dek, she noticed nothing.
     Eya pulled away from the others and focused on herself. Not only would she not touch their emotions, she found it difficult to accept her newfound awareness of them. They were not hers; she had no right to them. If she used them, it would be theft - theft and desecration, exactly what had been done to her. How and why this was possible were questions to be resolved in the future, but Eya suspected that it could not be a good thing.
     Turning her concentration inward, she began the transformation, using the resultant magic to breathe vitality into her unresponsive body. Minimal effort was required. Whatever the cause of the paralysis, it was neither deep nor complex. Movement and sensation returned quickly, starting and her toes and fingertips and spreading to the center of her body, until she again felt like a warm human rather than a slab of wax.
     No sooner had she finished than she felt the distant emotional tremors starting again. In her heightened state of awareness, it was obvious that they were emanating from Dek and that he was reaching out to steal from her and Lora to furnish the madness of his outbursts. More than that, she sensed that in some way he was siphoning off emotion from others beyond this house, people she had been unable to connect with.
     She surged to her feet and stumbled over to the bed. "Dek, stop!" she cried, shaking him violently even as the pressure started to build within her. This time he wasn't seeking small amounts of energy. He was reaching for her whole essence, attempting to drive her to Burgeoning Apathy.
     "Stop it!" she screamed, slapping his face, but to no avail. If Dek in his delirium was aware of her, he showed no sign of it. His invisible assault continued, escalating, the force of his will impossible to resist. She was aware of beginning to scream even as she reached out to implement the only solution she could arrive at...

* * *

     When Eya emerged from Dek's house, supporting an unconscious Lora, she hardly recognized what remained of Falnora. The idyllic farming community, with its fields of ripening grain and cornstalks, had been replaced by a wasteland. She stared in horror, trying to get her bearings in a place that bore no resemblance to the village she had grown up in.
     It was impossible to believe that one man could cause so much devastation, even if he was an Apath. Since discovering her talents, she had come to recognize how powerful her abilities made her, but it was difficult to reconcile that knowledge with this reality. That anyone, no matter how insane, could cause such havoc, was incomprehensible.
     Perhaps ten of Falnora's dozens of houses stood, including that of Dek. Most had been reduced to smoking ruins. In some cases, there was no evidence that there had been a building - all that remained was a blackened crater. Whole fields had been burned to ash, destroying hundreds of tons of crops. A haze of smoke hung low over the village, obscuring a sun that hovered in the western sky.
     The dead were everywhere. Some bodies looked whole, while others were either scorched or missing pieces. Eya averted her eyes from the more grisly sights and started looking around for survivors.
     There were some, of course, wandering the site of Falnora, appearing dazed and disoriented. There were few sobs - most of the living were beyond grief. Helping Lora along, Eya walked into their midst. It was difficult to tell how many of the citizens had survived, and small comfort to know that no more would perish.
     Eya regretted the necessity of what she had done, not the action itself. Dek had not deserved death. The cataclysm he had caused had been the work of the illness, not of the man. Yet, to prevent her own end, and that of many others, she had been forced to kill him, and in a brutal way. A single burst of magic directed into his brain had burned up his mind. Death had been quick, if not painless.
     "Eya?" said a voice to her left. She turned to see Gav standing ten feet away from her, his clothing and skin blackened by soot and a patch of drying blood on the front of his tunic. His expression was one of profound loss.
     "What is it? Wil?" asked Eya.
     "No. Mother. A falling timber crushed her. There was nothing Father could do. Although he tried."
     Sudden tears blurred Eya's vision. Lis had been the mother she had never had, the one who had dried her tears and taught her what it meant to be a woman. She had been as much Eya's teacher as Wil had been, and a better friend. This was a loss to all of Falnora - but it was far from the only one.
     "How is Wil? Is he...?" Eya managed when she found her voice.
     "He's alive. Somehow. There's nothing left of the house. He went to see if he could help some of the worst of the wounded."
     How like Wil that was. His beloved wife lying dead, his concern was for others, not himself. Wil had once told her that while the passing of life was a thing to be mourned, one must not forget those alive in the process of grieving for the dead. Apparently, he was living by that creed at this moment.
     "Have you seen Reg?" asked Gav.
     "Reg? No. He left earlier today for Vorti."
     "Today? Eya, this has been going on for over twenty-four hours. He left yesterday. He should be back by now, with the healer."
     Although Eya knew that her sense of time had been distorted by her paralysis, it came as a shock to learn that so much of it had passed. Now that she considered it, her tongue and mouth were dry.
     "You don't think that he...?" began Eya, then stopped. She didn't have to ask the question. If Reg was dead, she would know it. He was alive. Somewhere.
     "I don't know," said Gav. "But a lot of people aren't going to make it. What about her?" He indicated Lora, whose head was lolling against Eya's shoulder.
     "She's unconscious, but I think she'll be all right. I need to find somewhere for her to lie down."
     "Try Ebb's house. It's one of the places still standing and Father's turned it into a hospital of sorts. He's there now."
     "Thanks."
     Lora had begun to stir by the time Eya reached Ebb's house. The building had suffered minimal damage and, as a result, was a natural gathering point for the survivors. Inside, there were twenty wounded, the injuries varying from cuts and burns to crushed limbs. Some were sitting with their backs against the walls while others lay prone on the floor. There were three women keeping them comfortable, but it was clear that the only one doing any real good was Wil.
     After lying Lora down, Eya approached him. To her surprise, he didn't look as stricken as she had expected. His bearing radiated weariness. When he caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye, a sad smile broke over his features and he rushed to embrace her.
     "I was sure we'd lost you, as close to the center of the trauma as you were," he said, his voice thick with fatigue.
     "You knew then?" asked Eya when they had separated.
     Wil nodded. "But there was nothing I could do. I didn't dare approach Dek's house. Every time I tried, another of those attacks came. And then Lis was killed..."
     "I'm sorry."
     "So am I. But we had a long and happy life together. And she was dying anyway. Something was eating her from within, slowly and steadily. At least this way it was quick."
     "I didn't know."
     "No one did," said Wil. "She wanted it that way. She said grief was for the dead, not the living."
     "She was a wise woman."
     "The wisest. Now, what happened with Dek."
     "I had to kill him. There was no other way to stop it. What I can't understand is why it started in the first place. No one knew he was an Apath."
     "That's because he was a latent. Somehow, after the injury, one of those parasites must have gotten into him. Gaja worms, I think they're called. Dek must be one of those rare children who never gets infected. So it happened to him as an adult, when his system was least able to handle it. His abilities activated, and, in his delirium, his fever-riddled mind started using them."
     "But he was drawing energy from others. From me. It isn't possible."
     "I know," said Wil slowly. "I could feel it. In fact, it nearly paralyzed me. But now isn't the time to discuss it."
     "No," agreed Eya. "Let me help you with these people. I'm the one who's supposed to be the healer, after all."
* * *

     They were circling beyond the fire, waiting for the flames to die so they could finish their prey. Reg could hear them - the restless pacing, the deep-throated growls, and the occasional howl that turned his heart to ice. He had occasional half-glimpses of horse-sized beasts prowling beyond the range of the fire's light. One or twice he imagined he could feel hot breath on the back of his neck.
     He and Bre huddled close to the fire, even though the night was warm. There was little they could do for the horses. The animals would only come so close to the flames, and Reg feared it would not be close enough once the night creatures became more bold. Tomorrow, their search for Falnora would have to continue on foot - if they were still alive to continue it, that is.
     The decision to abandon the search and set up camp had not been a difficult one to make. The dangers of a misstep in the darkness aside, it became plain that they were being hunted and their only chance to keep the stalkers at bay was a fire. Once Reg explained this, Bre agreed, and they dismounted and set to work stoking a huge bonfire, which they fed with grass. Fortunately, there was no shortage of fuel.
     "Are we going to make it?" asked Bre.
     "I don't know," replied Reg. "It's not just the nightbeasts we have to worry about. There are dwarves out there somewhere as well. The fire won't scare them off."
     An expression of alarm crossed Bre's face. "Surely those creatures will keep them away!"
     "Somehow, I can't imagine anything keeping a dwarf away."
     They were quiet for some time, each listening to the other's breathing, the crackling of the fire, and the sounds of the beasts that hunted them. Overhead, the clouds were beginning to break and occasional stars could be seen peering through. The untethered horses were becoming skittish. It was only a matter of time before they bolted, and, when they did, they would die.
     "Isn't there some way we can restrain them?" asked Bre, indicating their mounts.
     "How? There are no trees, rocks, stumps, or even bushes. You can't tie a horse to a clump of grass."
     "A stake in the ground?"
     "They'd pull it out. They're well-trained. They'll stay for as long as their fear doesn't get the better of them."
     "They won't make it to the morning, will they?"
     Reg shook his head. There was nothing they could do for the animals. They had to concentrate on their own survival. The reality was grim, but undeniable.
     "Try to get some sleep," advised Reg.
     "You're not serious. In this situation?"
     "I won't let anything happen to you."
     The horses lasted until nearly midnight, which was longer than Reg had expected. However, when one of the nightbeasts ventured to within a dozen yards of the camp, Bre's mount became spooked, reared on its hind legs, then fled. Reg's horse followed almost immediately.
     Mercifully, perhaps, neither Reg nor Bre saw the animals' fate, but they heard it: the snarling and growling of the nightbeasts, the terrified squeals of the horses, the noise of a struggle, then the unmistakable sound of flesh being rent as the creatures partook of their meal. It didn't take long for the nightbeasts to strip the two carcasses bare and return to their patrol of the fire, awaiting a chance to pounce on the remaining prey. Next to Reg, Bre shuddered.
     "I don't want to die," she said softly.
     "We aren't going to. The nightbeasts are afraid of fire. Everyone knows they won't get within ten yards of the flames." Reg wished he could feel as confident as he sounded. A simple bonfire seemed a tenuous defense against what had to be a pack of at least a dozen of the creatures.
     "If you die now, will you have led a happy life? A fulfilled life?" asked Bre.
     Reg considered. "They're two different questions. On balance, I guess I've been happy. There have been some bad times, of course, like when I was young living with my father in Heltala, and when he was killed, but mostly I've had a good life. But fulfilled? No. There are things I want that I haven't gotten yet. Many things. I could die content tonight, but not fulfilled."
     "Things like what?"
     "A wife. Children. A chance to see my sister get the glory that's her due as an Apath." He paused before asking, "What about you?"
     "I'm not sure. I guess I haven't led a very happy life. Most of the time, I've been searching for something. I thought I found it once, but it turned out to be a fraud. Maybe my problem is that I've given up already. Too soon, perhaps. But it's easy to give up, and it doesn't hurt. It leaves you numb, and, after the pain, that's a welcome feeling."
     "Perhaps you should give Falnora a try."
     Bre shook her head. "It's not for me. Falnora may be a paradise for you, your sister, and my father, but it's not for me. Despite the ugliness, the poverty, and the inequity of lifestyles, I need to be in a city. Around people. All the openness of the plains makes me uneasy. It's so...untamed. And things can go wrong so easily."
     "Wil says exactly the opposite. He says there's freedom on the plains, something that doesn't exist in the cities."
     "Too much freedom, perhaps."
     "Are you sure it isn't me that you need to get away from, not Falnora."
     "If you really believe that, then you've misunderstood my feelings."
     As it turned out, they got through the long hours of darkness without an attack by the nightbeasts. By daybreak, the pack had dispersed and a weary Reg and Bre had the plains to themselves. They set off southward on foot, hoping that they had stopped short of the settlement the night before, not gone past it to the east or west.
     As the Forest of Llam began to loom closer, however, it became apparent that they had missed Falnora altogether. The problem they faced was that neither of them was sure whether they were too far east or west, and they were unwilling to make the trip all the way to the forest to get their bearings. Reg took a guess that they were to the south and west, so they headed northeast, hoping to run across some sign that would point them to Falnora.
     It took less than two hours to discover the first indication of the settlement's location, but it was something Reg didn't expect - a gigantic conflagration, with flames leaping twenty feet into the air and a column of smoke that could be seen for miles in all directions.
     "What's that for?" he demanded aloud, not expecting an answer.
     "How should I know?" retorted Bre. "You're the one who's spent his life here, not me."
     "This is damn peculiar."
     The nagging sense that something was wrong grew as Bre and Reg drew closer to the village. The first fields they arrived at were untended even though it was a perfect day for farming. Then they came upon signs of ruin: blackened, blasted ground and the shattered husk of a house. The closer they got to the center of the village, the worse the signs of devastation became. Reg was speechless with horror. Bre didn't know what to say.
* * *

     The reunion of Reg and Eya was a bittersweet occasion, taking place within thirty feet of the gigantic funeral pyre that had been built to receive the eighty-two dead. Included in that group were twenty-nine children, seven of whom had been less than a year old; Wil's wife, Lis; and Dek, who none blamed for the disaster which had been beyond his control.
     Ebb wept when he saw that Bre was all right because everyone except Eya had come to believe that the messengers to Vorti had been lost. After hearing the story of what had transpired in the village, Reg recounted the tale of his and Bre's return journey, making it clear that he believed the dwarves could pose a serious threat to Falnora.
     Wil, who had been stoic and silent through the course of Reg's homecoming, finally spoke. "Let the dwarves come if they will. They won't find much left here worth plundering."
     Reg was shocked as much by the attitude underlying those words as by the statement itself. When it came to the safety of Falnora, Wil had always been passionate. Even considering the death of his wife and the current state of ruin in which the settlement lay, Reg found it difficult to accept that the leader of the community was unconcerned about what happened next.
     When she saw the look on his face, Eya took him aside.
     "Lis is dead, and you know how much she meant to him," she said. "And we've lost nearly half of the population and almost all of the houses and crops. This is a disaster. You can't expect him to worry about the possibility of an attack by dwarves. Not now."
     "What aren't you telling me?" demanded Reg. He knew when his sister was holding something back.
     "When Dek used his magic, he managed to draw energy out of all of us. He tapped emotions and drained them at random. I'm not sure, but I think Wil's loyalty to Falnora may have fallen victim. Not completely, of course, but there have been signs since it happened that something is missing. He isn't aware of it. At least I don't think he is."
     "What about you? What did you lose?"
     "Emotions close to the surface, mainly. Fear of what was happening. Remorse for the deaths I caused when the Tsabian army attacked. There may be other things, but those are the most obvious. I feel like I have a hole in my conscience, and I don't give a damn that it's there."
     "This wasn't like the magical experiments you did?"
     "It was and it wasn't. There was no control on my part, but it was the same basic procedure of emotion to magic. The magnitude was greater than anything I had attempted. These weren't little acts requiring small amounts of energy."
     Gazing at the blazing pyre, Reg added, "I'm sorry I wasn't here for the burnings. Especially Lis'. You know how I felt about her." It was difficult to imagine Falnora without the cheerful disposition of the woman he had come to think of as a mother. Of course, with or without her, he supposed nothing could ever be the same again. If there was ever a perfect time to leave, this was it.
     "I do, because I felt the same way," said Eya.
     "How did Wil take it?"
     "Surprisingly well. I know he's hurting inside, but he's trying to be strong for the rest of the village. When it's all over, I suspect he'll find some quiet corner and shed a few tears. Surprisingly, the one who's taken this the worst is Lora."
     "Lora?"
     Eya nodded. "She's been staying in Ebb's house, with most of the other wounded. Her injuries aren't that serious, but she's been in a black mood since she learned that Lis was dead. She hasn't eaten and says very little."
     "Has Ebb been able to talk to her? I've noticed that they have formed a close friendship."
     "He's been too worried about Bre to be much good. He loves Lora, but when you two didn't show up yesterday..."
     "We didn't have much choice. We were chased well west of here."
     "Do you really think the dwarves pose a threat to Falnora?"
     "I don't know, but it scares me to think of them roaming beyond the mountains. If they're migrating to the plains, no place is safe. An attack by a large force of dwarves could make this " - Reg swept his hand from horizon-to-horizon - " look like nothing."
     "I remember Heltala on that last night. If only I was able to control my abilities, I could be of so much help if something like that did happen. As it is now, I'm as likely to do harm as good."
     "Have you given up the idea of becoming a healer?"
     "Not at all. Think of how much more helpful I would have been in this situation if I'd been able to apply magic to healing. At least five people who are dead now might be alive. I need to learn, Reg. About healing and magic."
     "Are you ready to leave Falnora? Maybe never to return, or at least not for years?"
     "Leave Falnora? Now?"
     "Not immediately. Wil's going to need every hand he can get in the next few weeks, but after that... Can you think of a better time to leave, when the world that we've known for the past twelve years has suddenly been torn apart? Even when they rebuild the village, it won't be the same. We're a part of history, Eya. Our future lies elsewhere."
     "I assume you have a suggestion for 'elsewhere'."
     "Vorti. It was...different than I expected, and King Sor gave me the name of an Apath who might be willing to train you."
     "You didn't waste any time making inquiries. The king granted you an audience?"
     "The head of the Healers' Guild is Vorti's former chancellor. He arranged it. Sor said you would be welcome in Vorti."
     "If I go, you'll come with me?"
     "Of course. You don't even have to ask. And I might not be the only one. I think Bre would be interested in living in Vorti. She made it plain that farming isn't suitable for her."
     Eya raised an eyebrow at her brother's casual mention of Bre. "What about Lora?" she asked.
     "I don't know. Maybe it's time for her to move on too."
     "I know she said she wouldn't go to Tsab, since elves aren't allowed there, but maybe Vorti is different."
     "I'm not sure. I was only there a little while, but in all the time I was on the streets, I didn't see an elf."
     "But as long as there's no prohibition against them, she could come."
     "How would you feel in a city full of people that were nothing like you?"
     "Right now, she's in a village full of people that are nothing like her."
     "Vorti is a lot different from Falnora. Here, everyone accepts and respects her. It wouldn't be the same in Vorti."
     "If people know she's with an Apath, she'd be safe."
     "But is safe good enough? I want more out of life than to be safe. I want to be liked, even loved."
     "Are you trying to say she shouldn't go to Vorti? That I shouldn't ask her?"
     "Of course not. I'm just pointing out some of the problems she'll encounter. I want you to understand what she'll go through if she agrees to come."
     "We've been together for so long - you, me, and her. I'm almost as close to her as I am to you. I don't want to go without her."
     "That's fine with me. But give her an idea of what to expect. Let her talk to Bre or Ebb. They know the ways of cities."
     At that moment, Gav came running up to Eya. "Quick! You're needed at Ebb's house. Mik's fits have started again and he's bleeding from the mouth!"
     With a rushed apology to her brother, she turned and sprinted across the ruined village square. Gav lingered behind.
     "If you have some time, we could use your help," he said. "Another pair of hands always comes in useful."
     Reg, however, barely heard the words. Instead, he was concentrating on Gav's face. The older man's features had been hardened by the ordeal of the last few days, and the look in his eyes was the dead one of someone who was in deep mourning. Gazing at those eyes and that face, Reg felt a disturbing sense of déjà vu. Now he understood why Rim had been so intent upon asking about Gav. The man who called Wil "Father" looked unnaturally like the man who sat upon the throne of Vorti.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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