THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART FIVE: QUESTIONS OF LIFE


CHAPTER THIRTY


     By four hours past midnight, Sor's war council had degenerated into a shouting match. Not only were the military leaders fighting with the citizen representatives, but they were squabbling with each other. To give the situation an opportunity to defuse, the king called an adjournment. He needed logic and strategy from his advisors, not heated vituperations. The next few days would be difficult for them all, especially if they proved unable to work together.
     Eya remained in the little throne room with the king. Since broaching the subject some four hours ago, she had not mentioned the potential role of magic in the upcoming battle. Despite Sor's reluctance to discuss it, however, she felt the idea merited more consideration than it had been given. If the king understood what she was proposing, he would agree with her.
     "Your Majesty," she began.
     Sor looked her in the eyes before letting out a heartfelt sigh. "I'm surrounded by stubborn men with bloated egos. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't dismiss my current council and fill every post with a woman. That way, maybe things would get done without all this wrangling."
     "We're making progress..."
     "Too slowly. I had hoped to have a full battle plan prepared by dawn. Now, I'll be lucky if one is ready by the time the attack comes."
     "Your Majesty, there's something I want to discuss."
     "You want to bring up the subject of magic again," surmised Sor.
     "Yes."
     The king sighed again. "I thought I made my feelings clear. I'm willing to use magic only as a last resort. The power you and I have should not be wasted. If physical force can accomplish our aims, there's no reason why magic should be employed."
     "Even to save lives?"
     "Even to save lives," said Sor. "Because in the end, it could cost them. My advice to you is to husband your resources for when you truly need them."
     "But I have enough energy to act now and later."
     "I don't, and it's because I once thought as you did that I'm in this situation. You always believe that your wellspring of emotion is endless - until you scrape the bottom. Lost emotions don't grow back. You have to develop new ones, and that takes time and effort."
     "I didn't realize," said Eya.
     "No one does. I can't afford to allow people to realize how little I can use my powers. I'm not impotent, Eya, but I can't fight a magical war - not unless I'm willing to risk everything."
     "Then let Mat and I use our powers. He's taught me much about self-control. I'm sure I could avoid damaging my emotional stability, and the use of magic in this battle could mean the difference between victory and defeat."
     "I can't allow it."
     Eya's expression turned stony. "Frankly, I don't see how you can stop me."
     "What did you say?" demanded Sor, his tone dangerous. His eyes bored into hers, but she didn't flinch.
     "Apparently, I have more power than you do. Are you going to have me arrested? Thrown in the dungeon? I'll just break out, and if you don't have the magical strength to restrain me, there's little you can do to stop me."
     "This is absurd. Of course I'm not going to have you arrested, but as my subject, you have a responsibility to..."
     "I'm not your subject, Your Majesty. I never swore fealty to you. I'm officially an itinerant from Falnora."
     "Very clever. But your mentor is one of my subjects, and if I command him to restrain from magical activity, he'll obey me."
     "I'm sure he will, but that won't stop what I'm going to do. I'd prefer if we could come to some agreement, Your Majesty. Magic would be more effective if sanctioned by the Crown and incorporated into the overall battle scheme."
     Sor broke eye contact. "I'll consider it."
     "Don't take too long, Your Majesty. As you said, progress is too slow already."
     Sor bit back an angry retort. As a king, he was not used to being spoken to in this manner, but if anyone was in a position that gave them the right, it was another Apath. Wizards were not shackled by the conventions of society. And, regardless of how much it rankled, he found Eya's forthrightness refreshing. Perhaps he had been surrounded by sycophants for too long. Even his old chancellor Rim had rarely challenged him openly.
     "There's more to be considered here than the issue of using magic or not. How is it to be used? What kind of magic? Can you be certain that what you unleash won't do as much damage to our men as to the dwarves? Saying you're going to use magic in battle is different from doing it."
     "I wouldn't have made my proposal if I hadn't considered those things. One of the elements of my training with Mat has been foresight."
     "That sounds like Mat. Cautious and conservative. What makes you think he'll participate?"
     "You're right when you say he's cautious. He doesn't like using his powers but, given the situation, there won't be any problem getting his agreement." Eya paused before adding, "There may even be a way that you can participate. I've been working on a method..."
     At that moment, the door to the little throne room burst open and an out-of-breath soldier rushed in. After executing a perfunctory salute, he stood impatiently at attention.
     "What is it?"
     "A report from the West, Your Majesty. Large groups of watchfires spotted fifteen to twenty miles distant. It is my commander's opinion that the army of Tsab is encamped there."
     "Damn!" exploded Sor.
     "We counted some sixty fires, Your Majesty, which would indicate a force of one-thousand men. It was only by accident that one of the outer scouting patrols ventured that far west, but my commander has ordered a full legion to proceed there for observation. After sunrise, we should have confirmation of who they are."
     After dismissing the courier, Sor rang the pull-bell to summon Jav.
     Moments later, the chancellor arrived with uncombed hair and disheveled robes. Apparently, he had been catching a few moments of sleep. "Your Majesty?"
     "We have an additional crisis, Jav. The recess is over. Get the men back in here now."
     As soon as the chancellor had departed to recall the council members, Sor turned to Eya. "I thought you said that there couldn't be an alliance between Hwo and the dwarves, that there was nothing he could offer them."
     "There isn't."
     "This is too odd to be a coincidence. In fact, it has the stink of a conspiracy. Hwo has to know that this city is about to be attacked by the dwarves, and he's put his men in position to strike as soon as the first battle is over."
     "Maybe one of his distant scouting parties spotted the dwarves and he decided to take advantage of the situation."
     "Considering how well the dwarves have sneaked up on us, I think that unlikely. Somehow, Tsab and the dwarves are working in concert, and that may sound the gong of doom for Vorti. Dealing with the dwarves alone was difficult enough. Now, facing Tsab in addition... If you have any brilliant notions of how magic can get us out of this one, I'll listen."
     "As a matter of fact," considered Eya. "There might be a possibility."

* * *

     Lora had never liked being confined underground, and the cellars of the palace were an especially inhospitable place. It was cool and damp, with dust motes clogging the air and unseen creatures scurrying back and forth outside of the small pool of light created by the lantern she carried. A trickle of sweat traced its way along her spine. Elves were meant to roam in the open, not in places like this, with thousands of tons of earth pressing down from above. It was suffocating.
     Leaning against her was Mora, who could fully support her own weight only for brief periods of time. Recalling her own after-birth trauma, Lora was amazed her daughter was capable of that much. Perhaps the human part of her had muted the aftereffects. Transformed into her "natural" state, Mora's appearance was similar to that of her mother. Although she was taller and stockier, with human eyes and hair that was coarser than that of a purebred elf, the closeness of features was undeniable. The two could almost have been twins.
     "Is it much farther?" asked Lora.
     "In the alcove over there is a staircase into the dungeons. Except for the uppermost and lowermost levels, they're disused. The dwarves will be below. If we meet any human guards, we'll have to bluff our way past them. Since they probably don't know much about elves, we can tell them that our descent is some sort of ritual and that the king has approved it. You're well-enough known at court that they will probably recognize you and let us pass."
     "A ritual? That is ridiculous," said Lora. "Elves detest being underground."
     "But any guards down here won't know that. So unless you have a better idea..."
     Lora's response was a grunt. "Should you not change into a dwarf now?"
     "Not until we get to the lowest level. If a guard sees a pair of elves, we can talk our way through it, but if he sees a dwarf, there won't be any hope. I reserve my dwarf appearance for dwarves only. That way there won't be mistakes."
     "What about the form you are wearing now? When do you use that?"
     "This is who I am, without any changing. I slip into it sometimes when I'm alone, just because it feels more comfortable. Bodies are like clothes. Some of them feel more natural than others. Until you've shape-changed, you can't understand what I'm talking about."
     "I suppose not," agreed Lora. "But it is not something I am curious to learn about."
     "Lora, I want to thank you for what you're doing. I know it wasn't an easy decision for you to make."
     "Assuming you told me the truth, of which I can not be sure, there was no choice. The security of Vorti is of paramount importance."
     The entrance to the dungeons was a narrow stone staircase covered with a rotting slab of wood. Although the cover was heavy, Lora was able to move it aside while Mora rested. A green glow radiated from below, accompanied by the distant echo of dripping water. The air below was cooler and mustier.
     Lora peered into the gloom, trying to determine what was causing the illumination.
     "Fungi," said Mora. "That part of the dungeons has been so long in disuse that it's growing everywhere. It thrives in damp, dark places"
     "I thought you said that the upper level was in use."
     Mora nodded. "This isn't the upper level. The entrance to that is through the main guard's barracks. It wouldn't make too much sense to have it here, after all. This is auxiliary entrance leading to some old, out-of-the-way corridor in one of the middle-level dungeons. It's probably been fifty years since anyone was down there."
     "We can get to the lowest level from here?"
     "I've done it before. The biggest obstacle is the guards. Their post is near the stairs. The last time down, I had to be creative to get past them. Of course, I looked like the queen then, so no matter how odd they thought the situation was, they couldn't refuse to let me look around."
     "They will stop us," said Lora.
     "We can't let them, but I don't foresee a problem. By now, the dwarves have probably eaten them. To send their advance force through, it will be necessary for them to eliminate the guards. Probably the prisoners as well, although there aren't many down there. That's probably already happened."
     Lora shuddered. It suddenly seemed very cold in the cellar.
     "The stone on a couple of the steps is crumbling, so we'll have to be careful. I'm going to need your help. I can't make it down all the way on my own," said Mora.
     The descent was difficult, since they had to move in single-file, but with Lora in front and Mora leaning on her from behind, they managed it. The corridor into which the stairs deposited them was long and dark, stretching farther than the lantern could illuminate to the left and right. The walls and floor were covered with a scaly green lichen that gave off the glow.
     With the fungi carpeting the floor, their footfalls were muffled as they traversed the passages. At times, the walls were so rough-hewn that they appeared more like natural tunnels than man-made halls. The route that the pair took was twisty, and Lora quickly lost her sense of direction, but Mora's steps never faltered as she led them to another staircase, this one leading into blackness. There was no luminescent lichen below.
     "Here's where we have to be careful," said Mora. "This is the level above the lowest. If the guards are alive, it's possible we could run into one of them here. If not, we have to watch for dwarves. I need to change shape before meeting them."
     "Why not do it now?"
     "I would if I was sure there were no humans down here."
     Their movement on the lower level was slower and more deliberate. Lora continued to support Mora, and the strain was beginning to tell on them both. After an uneventful ten-minute trek, they reached the final staircase.
     The lowest level of the dungeons, the one where "special" prisoners were kept, was not shrouded in darkness the way the rest of Vorti's underground passages were. Torches lit the halls and chambers below. Peering down the staircase, there was no visible sign of a human presence, or of life at all. There was noise, however - the clanking of chains, the jangling of what might be keys, and the guttural babble of dwarf voices.
     "It's time to change," said Mora, sitting on the cold stone floor to accomplish the deed.
     Lora looked away. She had caught glimpses of the process when Mora had metamorphosed from Joi's form to that of the midwife, and later to her "real" self. It was a sight to make the flesh crawl and set the small hairs on the back of the neck on end. There was something unnatural, almost disgusting, about watching someone's features melt into those of a different entity. Bones, flesh, and muscle became fluid, flowing to fit the new form. Lora did not understand how her daughter could survive the process, much less endure it.
     "You can look now," said Mora, her voice low and harsh.
     Sitting next to Lora was the hairy form of a female dwarf. Involuntarily, the elf took a step back. Her reaction was greeted with a harsh bark of laughter.
     "Help me up," demanded Mora. "Changing shape takes effort, and my strength is at a low ebb. If I didn't need help, I'd recommend you stay here, but I can't take more than one step on my own. I'll make sure they don't hurt you."
     So weak was Mora after this latest transformation that Lora practically had to carry her. At least the stairs were wide enough so they could descend two abreast.
     There was a loud commotion from below. The companions froze as a human shout sounded, followed by the yelps of several dwarves and an avalanche of footfalls. Lora reached for a small poniard she normally kept in a concealed sheath in her boot, only to remember she had left it behind. She muttered a curse under her breath.
     "Don't worry," said Mora, squeezing her arm reassuringly. "They'll recognize me. We'll be safe."
     At that moment, a human being appeared below, racing for the stairs. As soon as he saw the elf and dwarf, he skidded to a halt, a feral expression distorting his emaciated features.
     To Lora, he looked like a walking corpse, malnourished to the point where every bone of his naked body was visible, sheathed in a thin layer of flesh. His face was skull-like, with sunken eyes, lank hair, and a long, scraggly beard. Some sort of plague or rash had eaten away most of the skin on left half of his torso.
     Lora flinched from the raw animal hatred she saw in that gaze. As she backed up the stairs, pulling Mora with her, he advanced slowly, brandishing a small ax, before rushing straight at them. From somewhere behind him, the sounds of pursuit - dwarf pursuit - approached.
     At a crucial moment, Mora, still weak and barely able to stand on her own, lost her footing. She went down, losing her grip on Lora's hand, as the wild-eyed man reached her position on the stairs. Without hesitation, he lashed out with the ax, striking her between the eyes, splitting her skull. The weapon became lodged in the bone, so, after a quick, unsuccessful tug to pull it free, he sped onward, sparing the stunned Lora a brief glance before disappearing into the darkness above. Below, a group of perhaps a dozen dwarves reached the base of the stairs.
     At the instant of death, Mora's body became that of her natural form. Gone were images of Joi, the midwife, and the dwarf. In death, Mora was as she had been at birth.
     Trembling, Lora sank to her knees, her face, arms, and the front of her clothing spattered with blood. The ax still protruded from the ghastly wound in Mora's head and her unseeing eyes gazed at the ceiling.
     Then the dwarves arrived. While most of them rushed after their quarry, three turned aside at the possibility of easy prey. They approached the corpse and unarmed elf with something akin to glee, licking their chapped lips with snake-like tongues and clicking their razor sharp fangs together. It was then that Lora began to scream. Sucking in great lungfuls of air, she let out shriek after piercing shriek. She barely noticed the pain of the ax as it bit into her flesh.
* * *

     "Do you realize how much magic this plan of yours will require?" demanded Sor. Although the council had re-convened in the little throne room, he and Eya had stepped outside to avoid an argument in front of the others.
     Undaunted, she said, "A lot. I don't know the exact amount, and I suspect you don't either. But if you want to save the city, I can't see another way."
     "Fantasies will not stop Vorti's destruction."
     "But this isn't a fantasy! It can be done."
     "If we were all at full strength, you, Mat, and I might be able to do it - if we drained ourselves to the edge - but when it comes to magic, you know that I'm a husk. You two would have to push yourselves beyond the point of Burgeoning Apathy to succeed at what you propose. Given our current resources, it can't be done. We'll have to find another solution."
     "And if there isn't one?"
     "Then Vorti is finished."
     "I'm sure your people will be delighted to hear that."
     "It's a figure of speech. Hwo doesn't want a devastated city populated with corpses. His aim will be to keep as much of Vorti intact as is possible. The only things he's interested in destroying are the military and me. He'll probably keep my daughter alive as the next queen - with a puppet regent, of course. My mother's ties to his family will prove useful."
     "You can't just give up," protested Eya.
     "I'm not giving up. I intend to fight to the end, but I have to be realistic about the weapons at my disposal. Magical manipulation of the sort you advocate is not one of them."
     "What if the quantity of magic wasn't a problem? Would you consider the plan then?"
     Sor gave her an even look, "Eya, we have to go inside. Our time is running out. Questions like that..."
     "Would you?" she repeated.
     "Possibly. Your ideas have merit."
     "I think I may know a way around the energy limitation problem," said Eya. "There's something I've been experimenting with. I believe I can draw on the emotions of others as an energy source."
     "You can't be serious."
     Eya nodded. "I've never tried it on a large scale, but it has worked in small experiments."
     "You've actually done this? Drawn on the energy of others?"
     "Yes. I started experimenting shortly after I arrived in Vorti. I don't pretend to understand the mechanics of how everything works, but I can sense the basic nature of the bridge between magic and emotion and that enables me to parcel out the energy. The procedure is physically taxing, but it can be done."
     "How do you do it?"
     "Something happened in Falnora that gave me the insight. An untrained Apath lost his mind and used the emotional reserves of everyone in town to fuel a magical storm. Somehow because of his madness, I was able to sense the emotions of others, much the way we, as Apaths, see our own. That's the key to everything I've experimented on since."
     "What is Mat's opinion of this? Has he been able to do these things too?"
     "I haven't told Mat," said Eya.
     "You haven't told... Why not? He's supposed to be your instructor! You experimented on something of this magnitude on your own?"
     "You sound like my brother. As an Apath, I thought you would better understand the potential for misuse of this power. Wizards have always been constrained because of their limits. They could do all they wanted until their emotion ran out. With what I have uncovered, those restraints can been lifted. The possibilities are enormous...and frightening.
     "I can't believe I'm the first one ever to encounter this phenomenon. I know that there's nothing written about it - I've spent months scouring Mat's library - so I think any others before me who learned the secret kept the knowledge to themselves because they feared what could happen if an unprincipled Apath came into possession of these abilities."
     "You don't trust Mat?"
     "I don't understand him," corrected Eya. "At least not enough to confide this information. Not yet."
     "But you're willing to tell me?"
     Eya nodded. "And not just because of necessity. I was considering telling you before any of this started."
     "So you propose to teach me how to do this... transference, then let me use it in the attack?"
     "I don't know how to teach you. I'm not sure if it can be taught, and we don't have enough time to figure out how to do it."
     "Of what value is it, then?"
     "I propose to act as a conduit for you and Mat. You two will use the energy I get for you. The only thing limiting us will be my stamina, which hopefully will last long enough for us to do what has to be done."
     "Two wizards are not enough," said Sor. "The plan you outlined requires a minimum of three, each operating separately, yet in conjunction with the others."
     "We can adapt it for two."
     Sor considered. "I'm not sure that's possible. We can try, but with that much responsibility for each Apath, things will be missed. And there's one consideration you're neglecting. To transform emotion into magic, you have to get that emotion from somewhere. Where do you plan to get it? After all, it's not like air. It isn't sitting out there, waiting to be captured."
     From the beginning, this had been the most difficult part of Eya's plan. She had considered a number of alternatives, none of which satisfied her. It wasn't an issue that could be ignored, but she had hoped the king might have a solution.
     "I thought that we could ask for volunteers," she said. "We could take emotion from each of them - enough for our needs but not enough to damage them. I'm sure there would be many volunteers."
     "I'm sure there would be," agreed Sor. "But none of them would realize what they were volunteering for. A loss of emotion sounds innocent until you experience it. And who are we to say what might or might not be damaging to an individual?"
     There was another possibility, but Eya expected Sor's objections to be more strenuous. "There are thousands of people in this city. If we skimmed a little energy from each of them, using surface emotions, there would be enough to proceed with the plan."
     "You want to take emotion from people without their knowledge or consent?"
     "To serve the greater good, yes."
     "That's pilfering."
     "No. It's demanding a sacrifice of the people who are pledged to serve you. The citizens of Vorti have sworn to die for you and their city. If you would accept their lives, how can you hesitate to take something less consequential?"
     Sor shook his head. "This needs more thought than there's time for. The things you ask..."
     "...are the only things that will save this city," said Eya. "You know as well as I do that if this comes down to a conventional war, Vorti will fall. We might be able to beat back the dwarves if we use every iota of manpower and ingenuity available to us. But then there will be nothing in reserve to stop the forces of Tsab when they arrive. If we hold back a force when the dwarves attack, they will overrun us."
     "The issues here are broader than whether Vorti will fall or not. As I already said, Hwo's aims are not to destroy, but to conquer."
     "Those aren't the aims of the dwarves. If they gain control of this city, even for a brief period, there will be massacres. And when the Tsabians come in... plunder and rape always accompany the victors. Put yourself in the place of your subjects. Would you rather have a chance at survival by losing a degree of emotion you aren't aware of possessing, or would you prefer to face the uncertainty and bloodshed of a takeover by the dwarves, the Tsabians, or both?"
     "If I accept your plan, can you deliver what it demands? You said that transferring energy is physically taxing. How long can you keep it up?"
     "In my experience, and I admit that it is limited, there's a large initial payment of stamina, but once the energy transfer has started, little additional effort is demanded, at least over a short period of time. I can't promise not to collapse, but I believe I can succeed, and there really isn't another option."
     Eya did not mention to Sor that, deep down, she wasn't sure she could do everything she claimed to be able to. While her personal experiments with energy transference had been successful, they had been minor, involving minuscule amounts of emotion and magic. For her plan to succeed, she would have to transfer thousands of times what she had previously done. For all she knew, such an attempt might kill her.
     With dawn approaching, there was more to discuss, both regarding Eya's proposal - which Sor had not yet accepted - and the overall defense strategy of Vorti. All of that, however, was aside with the hurried approach of one of the palace guards. Wearing armor freshly spattered with blood, he began his report without bowing or saluting.
     "Your Majesty, dwarves have entered the palace through the dungeons. We fought a pitched battle with them on one of the lower levels. There were about fifteen, so they were easily defeated, but there were casualties. The two guards who were on duty, as well as most of the prisoners, were killed. Also, there were two elves. One was killed and the other seriously injured. I recognized the survivor as a member of Her Majesty's personal entourage. She is conscious and demands to speak with you immediately."
     "Lora?" gasped Eya.
     "Where have they taken her?" asked Sor.
     "The infirmary, Your Majesty."
     "Come on!"
* * *

     Sor and Eya had not arrived but Reg and Bre were present when Lora died, and they heard the story she fought to tell with each failing breath. Much of what she said was difficult to understand, especially for Bre, who had not been privy to the events of Heltala, but Reg pieced together enough to form a fragmented picture of the situation. Queen Joi was not a human, but the half-elf daughter of Lora. The second elf body that had been brought into the infirmary, the one who was dead, was Vorti's queen, even though there was no resemblance.
     "I'm sorry," said Bre after the elf woman's breathing stopped. "I know you and Eya were close to her."
     Fighting back tears, Reg closed Lora's eyes. He tried not to look at the bloody left side of her body, where an arm had been hacked off at the elbow and the stump gnawed upon. At least this way, there would be no more pain for her. But the misery that would come when her story was told to the king...
     Reg glanced at the second corpse, which was bloodier than Lora's. Although it was challenging to tell with the gory wound to the head, he could see a resemblance. While it was not difficult to credit a relationship between them, it stretched believability to accept that she was Queen Joi. Had he not witnessed Mora's shape-changing abilities, he would have doubted the veracity of the tale.
     "Was she telling the truth?" asked Bre, putting a hand on his shoulder in a gesture of silent compassion.
     Reg nodded. "She had no reason to lie. It cost her a lot of effort to say what she did. She wanted us to know. The question is: now that we're aware of the truth, what do we do about it?"
     At that moment, Sor and Eya entered the infirmary.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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