THE PRICE OF MAGIC


PART FIVE: QUESTIONS OF LIFE


CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE


     Sor's reaction to his wife's death was not what any of the others expected. There were no tears or vows of vengeance. After hearing Reg's tale in its entirety, he simply crossed to where the queen's body lay, stared at her for a moment, then kissed her on lips already growing cold.
     "Somehow, I knew it was never her. I knew it, but I wanted it to be true so I let myself be blinded."
     "In the end, Your Majesty, she risked her life for you and the city," said Reg.
     "And died for nothing. Killed by an escaped prisoner, of all things. Dead, just like everyone else I'm close to. Joi. My mother. Gea. Now this one. None given a chance to live a full life." Sor's words were melancholy, but he sounded more resigned than grief-stricken.
     Eya, meanwhile, was kneeling by Lora's bedside, holding the lifeless hand of her friend and weeping silently. She looked up when the king laid a hand on her shoulder.
     "This is what it means to be an Apath," he said. "To lose those who are close to you and to know that, even with all your power, there is nothing you could do to save them. At times like this, I would give up everything just to hear a lost voice one more time."
     "How do you endure it?"
     "I'm not the one to ask that question of. For the longest time, I retreated inside myself. Joi - Mora - saved me from that, and no matter what else she may have done, I will always owe her a debt of gratitude. Through her, I rediscovered a self that I had kept locked away for three decades."
     "She was my sister, but I don't feel anything for her."
     "A sister in name only," said Reg. "Not someone we knew. Not like Lora."
     "We don't have time for grief," said Sor. "If the situation was different, it might be a luxury we could afford, but the dwarves' attack isn't going to stop because we face a tragedy - or tragedies. Joi and Lora's deaths won't be the last."
     "At least now we know what they're planning," said Reg.
     "It doesn't make much difference," said Sor. "We had guessed most of it already. Confirmation of our fears at this high price wasn't worth it. Now we have to deal with the situation at hand." Turning to Eya, he said, "If you're willing, we'll do it your way. That is, assuming Mat will help. I won't force anyone into this. Not you. Not him."
     Eya nodded. "Whatever happens, you can count on me."
     "I never doubted that."

* * *

     When the messenger from the palace arrived to ask Mat to accompany him, the wizard was certain why his presence was being requested. After all, it was known that Vorti was about to come under some sort of attack and it was only natural that during a crisis the king would call upon all Apaths to join in the city's defense. Although he did not enjoy flaunting his abilities, Mat was willing to employ them in a situation such as this, where they served a purpose.
     Mat was widely regarded as one of the most insightful scholars in all of Devforth, and certainly the foremost researcher of magical studies. Physically, he couldn't have looked less the part. Mat found it ironic that people misjudged him so badly. His own wife had been no exception. She had married him thinking that a life with an Apath of his obvious physical attributes would be invigorating. Sitting in his library all day, devouring the works of long dead scribes, he had been unable to satisfy her craving for adventure, so she had left him. Two days later, she had been struck and killed by a carriage in the streets. Although Mat had been innocent of the incident, it had added a flair to his reputation.
     Until he met Eya, Mat had never intended to take on a pupil. But the opportunity to teach one of the rarest of the rare - a female Apath - had been too enticing to resist. He had put his heart and soul into her education, often giving up a night's sleep to prepare a lesson. In his own way, Mat had fallen in love with Eya, but it was a paternal feeling, with nothing sexual or romantic intended.
     Mat suspected that Eya would be involved in the upcoming defense of Vorti. In addition to Sor, they were the only two known Apaths currently in the city. Of course, three wizards for any place was extraordinary, but there had been a time early in the king's reign when six or seven Apaths had flocked to the city to study. They had assumed that the presence on the throne of one of their own would make Vorti a haven for their kind. To their dismay, they had found this city little different from any other, except in its lack of nobility.
     As Mat was escorted to the palace, familiar streets seemed alien. The normal bustle of the morning crowds was absent. Instead of merchants hawking their wares, there were armed guards patrolling, hands resting casually on sheathed sword hilts and bows strapped across their backs. Even the beggars and urchins had been cleared away, probably confined to a few cramped huts in one of the city's poor sections. Vorti was ready for war. It was a sobering sight.
     At the entrance to the palace, he was greeted by Chancellor Jav, who did his best to give a succinct briefing. The city was in imminent danger of coming under attack by a large force of dwarves. King Sor had decided that Vorti's only chance lay in a defense that was a mesh of magic and force-of-arms. Mat's aid was requested, but he was free to decline.
     "My dear Chancellor Jav," began the wizard. "Whatever powers I possess are at the disposal of King Sor and the other defenders of this city. It is my home, and I have no desire to see it overrun by dwarves."
     Following his offer of aid, Mat was brought to the council chamber where deliberations on how to defeat the twin threats of the dwarves and the army of Tsab were still under way.
     "Your Majesty, I hope you understand that I must protest this reliance upon magic. If something happens, we will be ill-prepared to face a frontal attack," said General Dus.
     Sor, whose complexion was sallow and expression bleak, said, "You have repeated the same refrain, General Dus, but you have offered no alternative. I do not wish to embark upon a magical campaign, but the other option seems to be the destruction of this city. Simply put, we do not have the military strength to defeat the dwarves and the men of Tsab. Frankly, it is uncertain whether we could best either force separately, so we must fight in other ways. If you feel uncomfortable, you are free to resign your post. If not, then shut up. Your whining is growing tiresome."
     Over the next several hours, Mat was able to pick up many of the details of Sor's plan. While the magical element of it seemed ambitious, he was unable to see how it could be accomplished with only three wizards - until the council recessed and Eya explained her intentions to him.
     Mat showed little surprise at the revelation of his pupil's unusual abilities, but he did express concern - as well as a measure of the scholar's natural curiosity.
     "Are you sure it's safe for you to do this? Do you understand enough of the process to push it this far? Perhaps if you could teach me..."
     "The student teaching the teacher?" remarked Eya. "Right now, I don't know enough to try. Hopefully, by the time this is all over, I'll be able to, but not now. I think I can do it, and that's all that matters. We all have to take risks and make sacrifices. Even still, the toll is going to be high. Some of those commanders on the council think that because magic is an important part of Vorti's defense, their swords won't be needed. They'll learn the difference when they're wading hip-deep through rivers of blood."
     "The situation would be better if we had another Apath," remarked Mat.
     "The situation would be better if we had a hundred Apaths. We don't, so we have to make do with what's available. I know it's going to be difficult on you and Sor, Mat, but while I'm funneling energy, there's no way I'll have the stamina or the concentration to help either of you. You're going to have to hold things together on your own."
     "I have to confess something, Eya. I've never used my powers to take a life." That was one thing that disturbed Mat about the situation. What would be required of him was only now beginning to seem real and immediate, hours after he had declared his willingness to join against Vorti's attackers. Of course, defending the city meant destroying its enemies, but the idea of killing was repugnant.
     "I have," admitted Eya. "And it sickened me, but I did what had to be done. The greatest human instinct is to survive - you taught me that - and we're fighting for our survival. Killing with magic is no less moral than killing with a sword."
     Mat appraised Eya for a moment. "You have a strength I never suspected. And a coldness. This war is bringing out qualities in you I haven't seen before."
     "It isn't that. But I just lost someone as dear to me as a sister and this is the only way I know to keep from crying."
* * *

     Preparations went on all day. While Mat and Eya slept, Sor prowled the walls surrounding the palace, watching as the militia got ready and searching for any signs of the arrival of the main force of dwarves. As the afternoon wore on, reports reached the king of the eradication of several small pockets of the creatures, but if there were large groups within Vorti, they were well hidden.
     The king would have preferred more activity for his brain, but with the planning complete, there was little to do but listen to updates on the progress of the troops, and await the inevitable. The lack of activity gave him much time to consider the latest tragedy to befall him.
     Strangely, the death of his third wife hurt less than that of her namesake. Perhaps seeing her in her true form had lessened the impact, but this loss was an aching numbness, not a searing pain. Sor had to question whether he had loved her, or whether it had been the promise of her appearance that had captivated him. Joi had been his lifelong obsession, and he had been all-too-willing to allow himself to accept something that was too good to be real. Meg's verdict should have warned him; instead, he had taken it as confirmation of his most unrealistic desires.
     Some men might have hated a woman who had done what Mora had, but Sor could find nothing bitter in his heart toward her. He had loved her knowing in the deepest recesses of his reason that she could not be Joi. He had accepted what his eyes saw, not probing for answers but embracing what was before him. She had repaid his trust not by carrying through her betrayal, but by giving her life in a vain attempt to stop events which her presence had set in motion. Sor could forgive her, in part because her image in his eyes would always be that of Joi, not that of the dead girl in the infirmary. She had given him a chance to live out the fantasy of a marriage too abruptly ended decades ago, and out of the union had come something tangible: an heir to the throne of Vorti. Sor would have no more children - of that he was certain. If Lea survived to come of age, she would be the first queen of this city.
     People were surprised at his reaction to the death of his wife. Although none had been around on the night of Joi's murder, there were stories about the despair that had gripped the king. Most of those tales were exaggerated. Sor remembered a profound grief, but it had not stopped him from continuing to rule at a time when the city's future hung in the balance, even as his emotions today - less devastating in scope and force - would not impede his attempts to keep Vorti from falling to the enemy. For Sor, death and crisis were inextricably entwined.
     The official tale would be that Queen Joi had succumbed to unforeseen complications from childbirth. Her body was to be cremated in a private ceremony. Though she had perhaps not deserved the honor he intended for her memory, neither was he willing to subject himself to the ridicule that would follow a revelation of the truth. The people of Vorti would know all that was necessary - their queen was dead.
     Normally, the great bell should have tolled this day, but under the circumstances, Sor had flouted tradition. If the city survived the next several days, there would be time enough to ring the bell and let the whole city know that a member of the Royal Family had passed into her next life.
     As dusk approached and the pace of the guards to finish their preparations became feverish, Eya and Mat joined Sor atop the palace walls. It was from here that they would work the magic that might save Vorti. Failure was not something they dared consider. The military's deployment was such that if the Apaths could not fulfill their role, the dwarves would have control of the city by dawn. In that case, unless Hwo's men moved fast, there would be little left of Vorti for the Tsabians to pick over.
     "They won't be finished in time, will they?" asked Eya as she surveyed the streets by the light of the failing sun. Already lanterns and torches were being lit. Soon, bonfires would flare up at every intersection. Dwarves did not like light; their progress through Vorti would not be easy.
     "No," said Sor. "But we never anticipated them to be. They'll do the best they can, then we'll make the most of what they give us. No one expected this plan to work flawlessly. If it did, there wouldn't be need of hundreds of archers."
     In response to those words, the eyes of the Apaths scanned the skyline. To the west, silhouetted against the fat crimson sun, were dozens of men crouching on rooftops. It was the same to the east, south, and north. Vorti had nearly as great a fighting force atop the houses as on the ground.
     "It would be a help if we knew what direction they were coming from," noted Mat.
     "It's too early yet," said Eya. "The dwarves won't attack until the last vestiges of twilight have faded away. Darkness is their element. They'll wait for it."
     "Where's your brother?" asked Mat. "I'm surprised he's missing the action."
     "His injury - at the insistence of Bre - is keeping him in the infirmary. He wanted to come up here and 'watch over me', but she wouldn't let him."
     "She must be a formidable woman, to keep Reg from your side," said Sor.
     "She is."
     They lapsed into silence as the seconds ticked by until total darkness.
* * *

     When the attack finally came at two hours past sunset, it came from the east. Despite the vigilance of the guards, the front lines suffered massive casualties as the dwarves seemed to spring into existence out of nowhere. There were no shouts or battle cries. The assault was swift and silent. Nearly half of the humans awaiting the enemy were dead before realizing that the battle had been joined.
     Once the defenders figured out what was occurring, however, they blocked the advance, at least temporarily. Axes were no match for swords, and many times when one of the creatures' attacks struck home, it was deflected by armor. The mail might be bulky, but it saved lives.
     Normal tactics would have decreed that the dwarves fall back and regroup once the momentum of their initial thrust sputtered. But these creatures cared little for strategy. Their instructions were simple and they followed them literally - attack until the city was taken. Saving the lives of their fellows was irrelevant. They were as abundant as the grains of sand in the desert. They had a higher calling they would be faithful to.
     The early stages of the battle were like the tides. The first press of dwarves forced the men back, then, as the defenders captured the momentum, they stopped the advance and pushed back. But the soldiers valued their lives and as dwarf after dwarf sacrificed itself for its cause, the human wall began to crumble. Slowly, the battle was being lost.
     At this time, the "second front", which Sor had anticipated, made its appearance. Streaming out of houses, inns, and warehouses, hundreds of dwarves emerged, swinging their axes and attacking from behind. The archers let loose with their first volley of missiles and much of this assault was neutralized.
     Atop the palace walls, the Apaths waited. The time for them to enter the fray was fast approaching, but had not yet arrived. Regrettably, more of the battle had to be fought in a conventional manner - meaning more deaths on both sides. Sor hated having to judge when he could lend his aid by how many guards had perished, but there was no other way of quantifying how far along the battle was.
     Even with dozens of hearty bonfires and hundreds of torches and lanterns, it was impossible to estimate how many dwarves there were. Their number seemed without limit - demon-like figures dancing madly around the flames, then vanishing back into shadow and darkness. Sor's best guess - backed by frequent intelligence reports - put the number of the invaders between five and six thousand - at least five times the number of men he had available to counter them.
     Information from the western scouts indicated that the army of Tsab had stopped for the night less than six miles from Vorti. If they started marching at dawn, they could be at the city's gates well before noon. Tsab knew what was happening and was in position to exploit that knowledge.
     Time ticked by with maddening slowness, each second marked by new deaths on both sides. From their vantage point atop the palace walls, the Apaths could see little detail of the carnage below. They saw men fall - saw their bodies trampled in the advance and sometimes heard their death screams - but it was sanitary. They were not close enough to see the blood and gore that was mixing in the muddy streets.
     "Now," said Sor suddenly, unexpectedly.
     "Are you sure?" asked Eya.
     Sor nodded. "Unless we start now, they're won't be enough men left to appreciate whatever effort we put forth."
     The battle for Vorti was less than an hour old when the Apaths joined their abilities to bring magic into the fray. All three had clearly defined tasks. Eya was to provide energy for the other two. Sor was to keep the dwarves off-balance. Mat, whose job was the most difficult by far, was to attempt a subtle masterpiece. Each understood the role of the others, but was focused on their own portion of the plan.
     As she let herself go to feel the teeming emotions from the city below her, Eya was nervous. For the first time, she was aware of how different it was to be doing this in earnest rather than in a controlled experiment, especially considering the dubious success of her previous attempt. But she remembered Falnora and the strange experience of seeing through the perception of a madman.
     Vorti was a wellspring of emotion, but the difficulty lay in capturing a small, evenly distributed fraction of it, converting it to magic, then making it available to Mat and Sor. Eya did her best to skim the surface, where there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. Images assaulted her as she reaped her harvest.
     A child trembled in his mother's arms as the family huddled around a fire. The sounds of death were all around the cottage. Occasionally, someone or something would crash into one of the walls. Husband and wife clung to each other and their son as they faced what they were certain was the end of the city.
     A guard was locked in mortal combat with a group of three dwarves. He was tired and injured, with blood streaming down his brow from a cut to his scalp under his helmet. Thanks to a gouge in his left thigh, he could barely move. But he struggled on, his rage at these creatures who threatened his home - and his family - fueling his ability to fight.
     A young woman, hardly more than a child, waited by the door of her hut, tears streaming down her face. Somewhere outside, her new husband was fighting in the battle for Vorti. Since he had left their bed this morning, she had been assailed by a premonition that this was the day of his death. Now, as she heard the distant cries in the streets, her body began to quake. She sank to her knees with the door at her back and buried her face in her hands.
     A bear of a man with only one arm paced the length of the common room of his three-chamber dwelling. For most of his adult life, he had been a member of the city's militia. Six months ago, an accident had resulted in the loss of his sword-arm. Now, he was useless. He had tried to rejoin his old regiment when he heard of the upcoming battle, but his former commander had sent him home, here to stalk the inside of his house like a caged beast, not allowed outside on pain of death.
     It was difficult for Eya to face those and so many other glimpses of life. But once she had collected the emotion, it was easy to transform it into magic, and easier still to parcel it off to her fellows.
     It was not until she finished the first transference that she realized she was no longer standing on her own. Had a guard not moved behind her to support her, she would have fallen. Her legs felt as weak as rubber and her breathing was ragged. And this had only been the first trial. There were many more to come. Eya wondered if she could survive them, and whether the greater strain on her resources would be physical or emotional.
     Sor's show of magical pyrotechnics was designed to unbalance the dwarves. His fireballs and lightning bolts not only confused and frightened the attackers, but killed them as well. At first, Sor relied on his own emotions but, as he felt them growing thin, he reached out to Eya. Much to his surprise, the quality of the energy she offered was as pure and potent as that which had come from within him.
     Slowly, while the dwarves' attention was arrested by the battle with the humans and the assault of the wizard/king, Mat went to work. His was not a flashy spell, but it was at the core of the plan. His task was to weave a web of confusion and disorientation around the dwarves so they would believe themselves to be wandering through endless streets. Real entrances to houses would be hidden, along with the people inside. The Vorti that the dwarves roamed would be the creation of Mat - a place erected exclusively in their illusion saturated imaginations; the real city would be camouflaged - within striking distance, if the creatures knew where to look, which they wouldn't.
     Mat's spell, implemented quickly, worked to perfection. Within moments, the dwarves had emerged into the open, wandering around as if they no longer knew where they were. Some of them came into the middle of an intersection and stood there, mere feet from bonfires. They made easy targets for the archers, but few were fired upon. That too was part of the plan. The dwarves had to remain alive.
     Because of the sheer numbers of attackers, some evaded Mat's net. Those were dispatched by members of the sword-wielding ground troops, rooftop archers, or one of Sor's magical assaults. An eerie silence descended upon Vorti.
     "I need more energy," said Mat, his breathing labored. Eya, who was weary beyond belief, struggled to comply. Her response was slow as she skimmed across the city's huge reserve of emotion, and Mat's spell began to fragment before she could make another parcel of transformed emotion available to him.
     By luck or design, one of the dwarves, no longer in thrall to the illusion, looked up to the palace walls and saw the exposed Apaths. It was impossible for the creature to recognize the importance of the three figures. To it, they were simply targets. With a flick of a wrist, it sent an ax whirling high into the air, its aim unerring.
     None of the wizards, nor the men guarding them, realized what had happened until Mat went down in a fountain of crimson. The dwarf's weapon, hurled with uncanny skill, had shorn through his throat. He was dead before he struck the ground. The spell of confusion, fashioned exclusively by Mat, died with him.
     "Give me the energy!" shouted Sor. He had neither Mat's skill nor his natural instinct for creativeness, but something had to be done before the dwarves were out of control. With only one working Apath left, there would be little hope of containing them again.
     Eya complied with the king's barked command. She was hardly aware of Mat's collapse, but the urgency in Sor's voice caused her to re-direct the flow of energy to him. Still leaning against the guard who held her upright, she opened her eyes and watched dazedly as Sor re-created what had been lost with Mat's death.
     It was apparent that Sor's web was less effective that Mat's. While the main body of dwarves was ensnared, there were large numbers of the creatures outside its perimeter. Enough had escaped that pitched battles in the streets would be unavoidable. There were perhaps as many as fifteen hundred of the creatures to be dispatched. The archers went to work as soon as they realized that large groups of the enemy had broken from the spell's influence.
     "Keep the energy flowing," said Sor. "I don't know how Mat managed to maintain this with so little effort."
     Eya said nothing, but closed her eyes again and sent her mind wandering into the thick of the battle. There were numerous emotions there. She attempted taking some from the dwarves, but the creatures' instincts were so primal that she was repulsed. Returning to humans, she began delving again.
     It was a long, weary night for Apaths and humans, but dawn found the city still in the hands of its defenders. The streets were slick with gore and nearly half of Vorti's militia lay dead or wounded. There were large pockets of unaffected dwarves roaming the streets, occasionally breaking into houses and killing the occupants.
     Sor and Eya were nearing the end of their tethers. Both needed rest, but neither could relent until the second stage of the battle began. There was no telling how long Tsab would delay. The attack could come today, or Hwo's troops might wait twenty-four hours, just to be certain that the city had fallen. Those were twenty-four hours that the Apaths could not possibly hold out.
     It was then that an unexpected savior arrived.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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