The sun was just coming up. A gray light filled the world and lit the fog into deceptive brightness. Dave scanned for the dry place that he had felt and had been heading for since Shannon had left them. The dryness stretched out westward in a straight line; a dam perhaps, he had thought. It wasn’t far now.
Stopping again to lift his eyes from the immediate surroundings and the threats around them, he Looked and adjusted his course to reach it. The deep dark pools, slick mud, and ever shifting mosses seemed to keep pulling him off course. It almost felt like part of the maliciousness of the place acting against him.
His head pounded worse than it ever had. He felt sick and his eyes were constantly tearing up, but he kept going. They had lost another pony, the pack included this time, and nearly lost Travis as well. The boy had been resting on the pony’s pack when the group had been attacked by some unseen monster. It had come from below and without warning. Somehow, Kelly had managed to grab Travis free before the poor little pack animal vanished under the mud.
No one wanted to stop. Oirion had taken up the rear, doing something similar to what Dave was doing. He was using his inborn wizardry magics that he rarely touched on to be sure they weren’t attacked from behind again.
The fog parted and there it was. It rose out of the muck; the sides were formed of great boulders…and it was dry. With a sigh of relief, he started for it. Cindie saw it as well. She let out a shriek of delight and bolted for it. Without any thought of caution, she dashed forward out into a very smooth section of water that looked safe, but which Dave knew was definitely not as it appeared to be. He sprang after her with a shout, surprised that he had the energy left. “Keep them going!” Dave yelled at Oirion as he ran after her. But he wasn’t fast enough. She went into the hole, just inches from his fingertips. She screamed and he heard Ivan roar. Oirion and Theo both yelled… one at Dave, the other at Cindie. Dave carefully circled the hole that she had fallen into. She was up to her armpits in mud.
“Don’t just stand there. Help me out!” she said angrily to Dave, but it was too late. Already, blood was seeping up around her and her face was going white. He knelt before her and offered out a hand. She took it, expecting him to pull her up, but he sank down into the mud, not looking at the blood that was pooling around her.
“Dave, help me,” she pleaded, not sure why he was hesitating.
“I can’t,” he said, dangerously close to the swarm that he could see eating her. The pain began to register and she started to cry. The mud here was alive and it was eating her body like some sort of acid. It pulled her in a little deeper.
“Oh, God!” she gasped. “Dave, I don’t want to die.”
“You’re human. You never die. Your soul will be reborn.” He smiled as encouragingly as he could. He had held the hands of dying men before, but they had always been old and had known how to avoid their deaths. Cindie was a foolish girl and no more.
“Dave, I don’t want to drown in mud.” She screamed a little when she was tugged down even more. Her shoulders were under now. Dave sent a sharp bolt down the hand he held. She went limp. Her head fell back. He had killed her, sparing her the horror of being sucked under. He watched as she was tugged down, the mud closing over her open eyes. That image would haunt him, but he didn’t let go. He let her hand slip from his only when she was totally under. He was too tired, too weak, to get up. He just knelt there, lost in exhaustion and the pounding of his head, the others yelling off in some far-away haze. He should get up, but he just didn’t have the strength. He slowly toppled sideways and fell into his own darkness.
Dave woke slowly. It was raining. He was lying in the mud and was sore. His bones felt as if they were so brittle any movement would shatter them. He couldn’t think where he was or how he had gotten there. Slowly, he forced open his heavy eyes. Shannon and Riven were kneeling beside him. Riven looked as tired and sick as Dave felt. He blinked, trying to clear the scratchiness out of his eyes. He had to struggle to even think.
“Can you walk?” Shannon asked.
Dave tried to get up, but made little progress until Shannon grabbed him by the back of the shirt and pulled him up. He leaned against Shannon, too shaky to move yet. Dave saw that Riven clung to Shannon’s back. He thought that was a little odd, but couldn’t think why. The thought of walking made his knees nearly give out. He wanted to just lie down and sleep. Shannon jerked him back up, took a hold of his belt in the back and forced him forward.
“Cindie’s dead,” Dave said hollowly, remembering where he was and why.
“I know. Do not talk and try not to think. You drained yourself.”
The climb up the steep stone embankment was a lot of work for all involved. Dave kept nodding off and Riven was so tired that he could barely hang on.
Halfway to the top of the hill of boulders, Ivan met them with a sword. He almost dropped it with relief when he saw who it was. He grabbed Dave up and carried him the rest of the way. The top of the ‘hill’ was flat and wide. They had set up the one tent that they still had and even had a small fire going.
“They need to sleep,” Shannon said. Kneeling down, he helped Riven around into his arms and handed him over to Oirion, who took him and went with Ivan to the shelter. They laid Riven and Dave down beside each other.
“What happened?” Ivan asked Shannon as the man took the cup of tea Tavia offered.
“He got bit by a snake,” Shannon said wearily. Shannon walked away from the camp a bit, just out of sight. He slowly sank to the stone and lay down. He had to get some rest, but he couldn’t do it next to a priest. He still felt too close, but at least he was here. How he had made it, he was still unsure, but he was here.
“For what it’s worth, thank you,” he breathed to the sky before he passed out.
What they had come to was a highway. It was about twenty feet wide and perfectly straight. On its surface, there were great runes of strength and preservation. A thousand feet back, in the bog, the road had collapsed. Black scars of magic blasts were a mute testament that the road had not fallen down, but had been the victim of some mage war, likely the same one that had warped the land here into a living, thriving cesspool of dark emotions. Tavia headed back up from the crumbled end where she had wandered off alone. Everyone was resting. They had had a full day of rest now and were still sleeping; even Shannon was asleep, she thought.
Out of the mist, she saw Oirion approaching. She didn’t know what to think about that man. She shouldn’t think anything about him; he was a priest, but what she did think wasn’t bad until he would open his mouth and say something to ruin it. He didn’t seem to say much unless he was being a total ass to Shannon. Didn’t he realize that without Shannon they would all be dead right now?
“Is Travis awake?” she asked, wondering why he had come out here.
“No, everyone’s asleep, even Shannon,” he said with an odd note in his voice, almost humor, but not quite. “I just wanted to see if you wanted any company.” He seemed almost nervous, she thought, and almost laughed at the idea that she could make a priest as famous, handsome, and powerful as Oirion nervous. Did he think that she didn’t know who he was?
“There’s not much to talk about,” she said.
“I know. We don’t have to talk… maybe just walk ahead and see what the road does,” he offered hopefully. She considered it. Did she really want to spend their day of rest walking?
“We can do that,” she said. They walked back up the road, past the tent and the sleepers and on farther, slowly, almost leisurely.
“It must be hard to raise a child alone,” Oirion said finally, in a way that made her think he had something else on his mind and was just trying to lead up to it.
“That’s not the hard part,” she said.
“Why were you on the ship? Did you have family where you were going?”
“No, actually. What family I had died a few years ago.” She was not about to tell Oirion who she was or what her life was. There was enough strain between him and Shannon for all of them.
She dug her hands into her pockets, wondering how it was that the air was still so hot here. Hot springs were the only thing she could think it might be. They were too far north and too high up for it to be climate.
“So, you’re a survivor wherever you go.” He said it as a complement and she smiled kindly at the thought. “You have a place that will be waiting for you at home?”
“I have a little place,” she said. She would have left it at that, but Oirion was going to pry and it would be better give little truths rather than to lie to direct questions. “It’s nothing grand, but it has what I need and it’ll be waiting for me. It could be worse… I could be a renter and have all I own taken when I’m late.”
“Where were you headed – home, or away from it?”
“I was headed to Stelik to meet an old friend. You?”
“I was headed to Krish.” He held his hands behind his back. “I was going to catch the train home from there. It’s faster to go that way than to cross the mountains this time of year.” He half laughed and wiped the sweat off his brow. “You’d never know it was supposed to be the end of fall. I’d hate to be here in the summer.” They walked on in silence for a ways before they stopped at one of those blast marks. It was far enough, so they turned and headed back.
“Have you ever noticed that Shannon doesn’t sweat?” Oirion asked, wiping his face again.
“Purtans are a high altitude race. If they don’t regulate their temperature in the heat with magic, a racial magic that they all seem to have, they will have a stroke and die. I’m sure he’s constantly suffering from the heat; he just deals with it differently. Purtans are definitely a different race than humans. It surprises me that we can even cross breed as easily as we do. It’s not just physical, either; Purtans are simply not like humans.”
“Purtans are very slow to adapt. It’s why you don’t see them out and about. They can’t accept that things have changed. They tend to die of grief rather than old age. The elves say that grief is the only death of a Purtan. Old age as such, is as rare to them as to elves. Their average life span is two thousand years easily, and that’s not counting the wizards. I have been told that humans will grieve for decades, but a Purtan will grieve for centuries. Some will suffer longer from the loss of love than the love lasted to begin with. It’s really a sad thought. We humans have great advantages over them in the way of our hearts. We are designed to recover and move on.”
“We have to. Our lives are far shorter than some of the other races.”
She just nodded. It was partly true. There was so much to this topic; she could go on for a good while about it, but she let it go and just walked with the priest back to camp.
“How do you feel?”
Dave opened his eyes. Shannon sat beside him. Riven was gone and he could hear the others outside talking to each other. Dave tried to move and heard himself groan.
“Sore,” he said.
“Does your head hurt at all?”
“You came dangerously close to getting yourself killed.”
“I figured I would be alright. We had to keep moving and I didn’t dare risk not using Sight… besides, we were almost there.”
“David, you are not an adept wizard; you cannot just keep a sustained Sight on. You could have damaged yourself.”
“I didn’t think that you’d be gone so long; I just did what I felt was necessary.”
“That is very noble of you, David, but you are not the only one who could have led the group. You should have taken turns and conserved your strength.”
“I didn’t think about it. I’m not an apprentice who would think about that sort of thing; I’m a sailor.”
“Were. You are a long way from the ocean right now and you are not an apprentice, either. You are a Journeyman who does not think and is not aware of what he can do yet.”
“I’m no wizard.” Dave sat up, a little surprised. Of all of the men who spent their entire lives in training, very few ever reached the level of Journeyman before they were in their later years. It was all the higher that most of them went. He hardly felt like he had that sort of power.
“I don’t feel like a wizard.”
“Right now, yes, you do. Wizardry is not the most comfortable thing in the world. The harder you push, the more power you can attain and if you survived your reckless nobility, you will have gained no small amount of power. It is as I explained to you when you were young. The more you do, the more you can do. As you use your energy, more pours into the vacuum and expands your potential.
Every time you use magic, new energy pours into you. The more you use, the more that rushes in and the faster it rushes.”
“I know that, but why do I hurt so bad?” Dave asked miserably.
“You gave yourself a backlash.”
“A backlash. It is when the energy that rushes in exceeds the energy that you had to begin with. When wizards drain themselves to their cores, they get a backlash. What you are feeling is from the energy that is rushing in to fill the empty spaces that you drained. It makes you feel like your brain will explode and your bones are made of glass. They ache and your muscles feel torn.”
“So the backlash is all that extra energy pulled in by the vacuum that is created by using power?” Dave asked to be certain he understood.
“If you create a large vacuum, you create a sudden rush that lasts about twice as long as the use itself. It fills you and stretches you out. The momentum of the incoming energy slows gradually. To say that you felt like you were going to be ripped apart is exactly what is happening. Only, it is occurring in the soul more than in the flesh.”
“Could it kill you?”
“Yes, in two ways. First, the power might not come back fast enough and the beating of your heart would drain you. The other way would be if it came back too rapidly, hitting you so hard and fast that your insides exploded. It happens more than you would realize. A wizard that ages does so because he is using only a small amount of power at a time, not enough to cause new energy to rush in. They are trickling out their lives, a little at a time. That is why it is not advisable to get in the habit of using your power for menial things. If you do not need it, do not use it.”
“Like lighting candles?” Dave asked, remembering the first time Shannon had taught him to do it. He had told him not to do that unless there was no other way.
“Is that why you don’t use magic very often for anything little?”
“That is the basis for that, yes.”
“So, I hurt a lot right now. Is that a sign that I’ve grown?”
“It is, but the backlash you suffer is only an indication of the chance to grow. It is not equal to the growth. If you swell up so big, only about a tenth of what you swell to is what you will retain and, even then, only if you continue to use your powers. Magic is much like a muscle. If you stop using the muscle, you will grow weak even if it remains there. To get the strength of a great warrior you must work it, push it, and then maintain at that level. Wizards are often seen as arrogant, since they seem to be constantly reminding others of their powers or just flat-out showing off. But staying active is how they keep the balance; they are working for gain or at least to maintain. What you did was a bit extreme, though, David.”
“So if you don’t use it, you lose it?” Dave asked, rubbing at his temples.
“In a way. You are given so much in your core and you can never lose that.” Shannon paused a moment, “unless, of course, your cores are burned away or damaged beyond repair, as with your father, but all the backlash growths you can lose.”
“So, it’s a line of balance that needs to be kept between reserving energy and not neglecting what has been gained.”
“It is what all wizards must learn.”
“So even though I am in great pain right now from this, if I have to do it again, I will be able to?”
“Better than you have, if you continue to work the magic,” Shannon added. “The more a wizard pushes, the more powerful they get. It is why so many become obsessive with the study and works of power.”
Dave was amazed. Not so much at the conversation as at the fact that he was sitting here talking to Shannon. He hadn’t been able to do that since he was little. He had become too afraid of Shannon to do a lot of the things they had once done together.
“How old are you?” Dave asked suddenly. He had always wondered, but he had never had the reason to ask.
“Older than I look,” Shannon said.
“You’re not going to tell me?”
“Dad said that…” he stopped, suddenly realizing what he was about to say.
“What does your father say?” Shannon asked.
“He says that you were a priest once, but that you fought a war with the demons and it changed you.”
“Your father is a smart man,” Shannon said. He smiled faintly.
“But you hate priests.”
“No, not at all. I hate the Church they serve, not their God or the men they are. I respect Riven and Oirion.” He half shook his head. “In another life, we might have actually been friends.”
“Does he hate you out of fear then?”
“No. It’s because he sees what he could become, even if he doesn’t realize it. Why not try to get up now? We have been here for three days. I think it is time we move on.” Shannon moved out of the tent, giving Dave time to get dressed and follow when he was ready. Dave considered not going out. Shannon had said try, but then he knew that it was time to go or Shannon would have let him sleep. He pushed off the blanket and reached for the clothes beside the bed.
On either side of the road the Bog went on, now a lake of festering mud. The fog had lifted in places, leaving the group exposed to the full heat of the late autumn sun and the foul reek of the Bog. Oirion wondered, as he wiped his brow of sweat, how Shannon was able to survive in all that black leather he wore.
“Water?” Ivan offered his canteen to Oirion. Oirion took a swig of the warm water; it was a nice gesture from anyone, especially a man as selfish as Ivan.
“Ivan, what do you think about Shannon?” he asked. He felt like talking to someone; even Ivan was better than no one. Before, he had Jamie always talking to him, and now the endless quiet as they walked was getting to him.
“I don’t know,” Ivan said. “I mean, when we first met him, he gave me the creeps, but now… I asked Riven what happened out there. I guess Shannon carried him the entire way after saving him from the poison. I’m a lot bigger than Shannon and I don’t think I could’ve done it. Hiking through that mud wasn’t easy and have you seen how he is with that kid? It sure feels that whatever happens, he will do whatever he can to keep us alive… but why? I mean, he has to be someone important and we are just a bunch of nobodies, except you and Riven, and you two don’t need him… But the rest of us…” He shrugged his massive shoulders and ran a hand over his new crop of half-gray hair.
“Would you still feel the same if he turned out to be a dark wizard?”
“Maybe it’s not the way I should feel, but if he is, then I’m all the more impressed. Besides, I don’t think it matters what you are as much as what you do with your powers, and all he has done is take care of us.”
They walked along together, not talking. Oirion was actually impressed by the man’s response. He’d have to rethink how he perceived Ivan if the man kept talking like that.
“So you like Tavia?” Ivan asked finally.
“She’s a good woman.”
“She’s pretty damn nice to look at, too. Don’t tell me that just because you wear that ring you are blind.”
“My eyes work just fine, Ivan.”
“Well? You going to do anything about it?”
“Her. I mean… you and I, we’re like mates now, you know, and I wouldn’t want to step on your toes and take your woman, but someone should be holding that. A woman like that shouldn’t be alone. It’s a sin, Oirion… a sin.”
Oirion laughed at the thought of Ivan holding Tavia. Those two fought way too much, but he had to admit that the man really wasn’t as stupid as he put on. He couldn’t help but think that it actually was a sin to sleep with another man’s wife, but he shook his head and let it pass. It seemed a little cold of Ivan to already be thinking of another woman. The thought occurred to him that Ivan, apparently, didn’t think of Theo as a man worthy of being considered a “mate.”
The summer sun was lost to rain and nothing stayed dry. They hiked along, dripping in the rain. Anything that was said turned into an argument. None of them felt very good, but the priests had felt several scans to the rear and kept pushed them along.
The weather was miserable, both hot and raining. With so much humidity in the air, it was hard to breathe. They marched with their heads down and nearly ran right into orcs on the road. Their scent was lost in the reek of the Bog. This time, even Riven was taken by surprise.
They were not orcs like they had seen in other places, but like the one that Shannon had seen on the altar. His leg actually began to ache when he saw them. At the same time, he knew that this was a different nation and not at all related to the other one.
There were six men in robes of black wool. They carried a dead one on their shoulders. The groups came face to face, startling each other as they emerged through the rain.
“Step aside,” Shannon ordered his company, moving up from the back of the line to ensure that they did. He couldn’t help but study the orcs. These were more human looking than the other one he had seen. They were tall and stood upright. They still had snouts, but it was less pig-like and more bear-like. Their hair was long, black, and done up in a hundred slender braids. They were not the brutal animals of the other lands. The rest of the group stepped out of the way and let them pass. They moved on, giving Shannon a slightly startled look.
“Ah ouss,” the one who trailed behind the others said to Shannon as she passed. She was old and likely the widow of the dead.
“Ah ouss,” Shannon replied softly. The language was still similar though. Riven stared after them in wonder. He had never seen anything like them before. Those were no orcs, and yet they were.
“What the hell was that?” Oirion demanded of Shannon, once the procession had passed. He stepped up to battle over morals again. He was short-tempered and Shannon had just pushed him too far. The heat was killing him. His old scars hurt, his lungs didn’t want to work, and there was Shannon in black leather, looking like the Angel of Death, all cool and beautiful. Oirion hated him.
“Of all the people to understand,” Shannon responded, “I would think that a priest would be the first. Or has your Pontiff taught that unarmed mourners are fair game if they do not obey his rules?” Shannon had just about enough of Oirion’s attitude. It was all he could do to focus on his own shields and not on the priest and the people who were so miserable. God, he could taste the power, the sweetness, the moment of wholeness that was just a breath away. He could take it, draw it in, and just for a split moment, be healed. He was almost in tears inside over the yearning to be whole again, and now Oirion was picking a fight.
“Orcs! Not people, they were orcs!”
“Elves used to say the same thing about humans. You need a lesson in tolerance, holy man. You are convinced that I am a monster, but I am not the one with such bloody disregard. Wake up, Oirion; your Church is a hypocritical highway to hell.”
Oirion grabbed his sword, ready to draw it.
Shannon displayed a cold calm. He didn’t turn nor flinch, his eyes cold and challenging. Riven put his hand on Oirion’s arm.
“Calm yourself, Brother,” Riven said. “Those were unlike any orcs I have ever seen. Let it go. We don’t need enemies here, and we certainly don’t need to fight amongst ourselves,”
Oirion slowly relaxed, removed his hand, and drew a deep breath. Inside, he knew better. He knew Shannon would win and that Riven was right. He turned away at Riven’s touch, trying to hide the fact that he couldn’t face Shannon’s eyes.
Shannon turned and started back up the road.
“How dare he speak so of the Church?” Oirion said.
“He’s Purtan,” Tavia said. “He is a native of Norwood and he is far older than he looks. Maybe he’s seen something… something that gave him a reason for his feelings.
“He’s a heretic and dark wizard.”
“Is he?” Riven said. “If he is, tell me how he taught Dave to use a Holy Shield. Tell me why he saved my life when, to a dark wizard, my blood would be an elixir of power? And know well, Oirion, that he had my blood on his hands and he did nothing. Whatever he is, he’s our ally, and right now we need every ally we can get.”
“Maybe. Maybe he stole your soul and would have you forget it.” Oirion had noticed Riven said it was Shannon who taught Dave, but at that moment he decided not to push that comment at all. He just let it go.
“Maybe you’ll be the next one he has to save, and maybe he might hesitate because you’re such an ass to him; but then again, he might not because he’s a good man,” Riven said softly, scolding the subordinate priest in a low tone so the others didn’t hear. He left Oirion to think about it and jogged off to catch up to the others following Shannon.