It is now somewhere in the middle of the twenty-third century. So many changes have taken place that I won't even try to name them all. You'll have to figure them out for yourself as you read
By Kim McFarland
It was a dark and chilly night. The arctic sky was lit by an aurora which sheeted up and down the sky, casting shifting shadows on the snow around the hidden city of Shambhala. The glow was just beginning to fade in the approaching dawn.
It shone through the window of a small but solid stone building inside the city walls. Most of the people inside the largest room were concentrating on the speaker. Only one was looking out the window, listening with half his attention.
The speaker, a tall, thin Vampire, spoke with a soft voice. He had been discussing the various aspects of certain healing spells for most of the night. The class listened attentively, except for the duck staring out the window. Even when that one was paying attention, he always projected a carefully cultivated air of boredom.
"It still comes back to the fact that one cannot circumvent the law of conservation of energy. For healing, or any other kind of magic, you have to tap some source, and unless you make an effort to the contrary, you will draw energy similar to that needed by the spell. For any spell involving life, you will draw off the life energy of some other source. For a small spell, this isn't a problem - life energy is naturally regenerated, so long as the source remains healthy and is not dangerously depleted. There is no need to go into the grislier implications of more powerful spells."
Essobee glanced at the Vampire, who had finally gotten around to recapping the night's discussion. All that blather might be interesting to cowans from outside the city, but to Essobee it was old news, and not even vaguely interesting.
"However, that does not mean that the most powerful spells necessarily require a sacrifice. Energy can be transformed, to some degree. It must be of a similar type - plant life energy can be used to heal animal life, although not without some effort."
Essobee sighed and looked back at the curtains of light flowing across the sky.
"There is another alternative to this, one which uses a similar principle to the healing spell that draws off the seemingly endless energy of kudzu. It has not become common practice because of the unpleasant results when it was tried. Do you have any thoughts?" He looked around, inviting the class to speak up.
The people in the class looked at each other. When Marius threw a question like this out, he was looking not only for a specific answer, but any discussion that might relate to the issue. He did not mind it if it went off on a tangent; he was not a strict instructor.
Essobee spoke up. "Use creatures which are almost nothing but sacks of energy. Shoggoths. Pen them in, and feed off their life. Use them as giant batteries. If you need more, just split one in two and both halves'll regrow, like earthworms. Don't split them and they'll keep growing and expanding. The problem is, they're hard to control if you let them live long enough. They have a nasty habit of developing intelligence. Maybe shoggoths aren't used here, but where I come from people aren't so cautious."
Marius nodded at Essobee's answer, seemingly unaware of Essobee's haughty tone. The others were not so tolerant. Most of the students saw Essobee as a very knowledgeable person - and an incredible jerk. Few dealt with him outside of sorcery classes, and almost nobody wanted to.
Marius continued smoothly, "Unlike most magically-created creatures, these shoggoths have the ability to grow and replicate on their own. Imagine bacteria or a yeast culture, on a much larger scale."
"How large?" asked a female feline sitting in the front.
"Depends," Essobee said before Marius could speak. "Little bitty ones are the size of grapes. Any respectable spell uses them up by the dozen, but you have thousands more. Let ‘em grow, and they can get to be about the size of a car. Much larger and you're not going to be able to control them."
It occurred to the feline that someone who had tried to imprison a demon in a pentagram drawn on snow was not the leading authority on control, but there would be no point in saying that out loud. She was more interested in what else he knew. After all, he had more actual experience than the rest of the group combined, even if he was unable to work magic any longer. And he did make some interesting comments, if you ignored the abrasive attitude he delivered them with.
Marius said, "Perhaps that is a good note to end on. If you are interested in shoggoths, a little research into the more arcane branches of necromancy will turn up particulars." He paused and looked around the class. When nobody spoke up he finished, "We will not meet tomorrow night. I will see you the night after that."
People got up from their seats and left, knowing that, as a Vampire, Marius would need to turn in before sunrise. Essobee was one of the first to go. Even though he lived with them as their ward - what a quaint euphemism for "prisoner!" - he wanted to be out of there as quickly as possible. Besides wanting to get away from the other people, he also saw that the feline, Miyu, was hanging back. She often let Marius and Morgana bite her.
Miyu watched his abrupt exit. Essobee was an odd-looking duck. He wore either red or black clothes, often a nondescript solid color robe, and had long black hair streaked with white at the temples which he wore in a single heavy braid that hung down his back. He was thirty years old, she knew, but somehow he seemed much younger.
Marius followed her glance, then looked back at her. "He is an interesting character, isn't he?"
"Uh, yes, he is," she answered. "It must take a lot of patience to live with him."
"One gets used to him."
Essobee glanced back, and shuddered in disgust. How could anyone willingly let a Vampire suck their blood?! How could anyone sane let herself be used as food?! The idea was repugnant. People who would offer themselves up like that had to be mentally disturbed.
He pushed those thoughts away as he walked through the streets. Streets? More like paths. Shambhala looked to Essobee like a relic from the 17th century. The technology here was far behind that of the rest of the world, here in year two-thousand-one-hundred-and-something. The people here did what they needed with magic most of the time. Essobee shook his head. As if magic and technology were mutually exclusive. It was just one example of how backwards this place was. Another was the vegetation. So many people here were into plants. So what if they could make a park on top of a glacier? Couldn't they think of anything better to do with their time and powers?
He entered the library. This time of the day - just before dawn - hardly anyone ever came here. The few Vampires living in Shambhala were preparing to hide from the sun, and anyone else with any brains was still asleep. Essobee would have a few hours of peace before he had to deal with anyone else.
He found the book that he had been looking at the previous night. It was one that he had already gone through before, but there were very few worthwhile books here that he had not read already. Although he could not practice magic, he could still study it. Maybe it did him no good now, but when he was finally released and his powers given back to him he would not have completely wasted his time here.
For the same reason, Essobee attended Marius' instructional sessions. Though the Vampire was painfully boring, and the other students asinine, there still were things for Essobee to learn there. As milquetoast and cautious as the bloodsucker was, Essobee had to admit that he knew his stuff. The idea of converting life energies between plants and animals was fascinating. Essobee wondered if it could be used in reverse.
Essobee's hours in the library hopefully also advanced the image he was trying to project of a reformed criminal. Of course nobody would believe it if he appeared to be completely changed. Essobee knew that he would never be able to sustain an act like that long enough. But if he hid the worst of his resentment, sublimating it into his studies, then they would think that the fire was finally dying down. Essobee could wait. He'd been waiting for ten years so far, hiding his hatred; it was second nature by now.
Essobee was well into a section on sympathetic magic when a tap on his shoulder startled him. He looked up quickly.
The feline from class was looking back down at him. "You didn't hear me," she explained.
And if I had I would have ignored you, he thought. "What?"
She took the seat across from him. "What you said in the class about shoggoths. I wanted to ask you about that."
"Have you actually used those things?"
"Why not?" He looked at her coolly.
After a pause, she tried again. "What is the point of using them, as opposed to anything else that stores power?"
He marked his page and closed the book. "Weren't you listening earlier? Those are for life energy, not just generic power."
"What did you use the power for?"
Essobee shrugged casually. "Various things. Summoning demons, for example. Demons like sacrifices. The minor ones aren't picky about what you kill, so long as it's in their name. It's an ego thing. And you can breed shoggoths faster than anything else."
"What do they feed on?"
"Magical power, mana. That's one reason you have to keep them under close control. They'll suck enchantments right out of things if you let them. But that means you can sic them on enemy sorcerers, too."
"Or use them to remove curses?"
Essobee paused, considering. "Maybe." That specific application had not occurred to him, but it sounded like it'd work.
"Where do shoggoths come from?"
"I don't know. The crawling void, maybe. You get those kinds of things when magic ferments."
"Magic, fermenting?" She looked skeptical.
"It hardly ever happens here, because there's barely enough magic in one place, and what there is isn't ‘wild' enough. But when a concentrated pocket of mana sours, it starts acting on whatever is nearby, and you get some strange things. Mutations. Spontaneous generation. The types of things that become myths."
"Are you still a sorcerer?"
The question startled him. He stared at her, his hands clenched into fists. "What do you think?" he demanded. "I haven't been able to do any magic at all for ten years! I-"
Holding up a hand, she cut him off. "I didn't say that right. You're still studying magic. Maybe I should have asked if you're a magic scholar."
"No, it's just a hobby. You know why I'm here, don't you?"
She had hoped that this would not come up. "Yes. We all know the tale."
"Then I don't need to give my biography. That's such a cliche anyway," he said, reopening the book, dismissing her.
He was not holding class tonight because the council of Shambhala was meeting. He was a junior member - quite a novelty for someone over two thousand years old! - and curious as to what would make them call a meeting on less than a week's notice. Things normally moved at a leisurely pace within the city; rarely was anything deemed that urgent. Perhaps it was a matter concerning the outside? Life had continued fairly smoothly in the ten years since Shambhala had cautiously resumed contact with the rest of the world, but they could not expect that to last forever.
Marius sat at the round table in the council chamber, completing the quorum. Most of the people here had a similar look to them - an air of patience, as if they were used to waiting for years, even centuries. Some of them may have; a few were even older than Marius.
The council did not stand on ceremony. Whoever had called a meeting started it without depending on the head of the council. In this case, an armored woman spoke. "There have been too many strange occurrences near the city."
"What kind, Dodalla?"
She shook her head. "It's not clear. They are almost certainly magical, because they don't admit to any natural explanation. Ground shiftings. Strange sounds, an animal attack. Even the aurora that seems drawn here. All of this was reported by those who have been outside the gates."
"I hadn't noticed anything disturbing," another mused. "No strong shifts in the mana. But then, I've been concentrating my attentions on my work, not on the outside."
Another man at the table said, "I haven't either. Has anybody?" Heads shook.
Marius said, "I have a number of apprentices who could scout a bit. They would be glad for an opportunity to skip one of my lectures."
Dodalla smiled. Marius was always downplaying himself. "That would make sense." She looked at the head of the council.
He nodded. Marius said, "I have a pair that I think will do. I'll send them out tomorrow." After receiving a nod of confirmation, he looked around. Nobody else had anything to say. Without formality, they adjourned.
She continued the conversation verbally when he entered their house. "Who do you have in mind to send?"
"Miyu. She's intelligent and alert, and I think she'd benefit from the experience."
Morgana nodded. "Are you going to send her alone?"
"No." Marius hesitated, then continued, "She should have help. I've summoned them both."
Within a few minutes Miyu entered. Essobee followed behind her, carrying a book from the library. She asked, "You wanted to see me?" as Essobee left the room.
Marius's glance followed Essobee. Miyu said, "We were in the library, looking up shoggoths."
"Really." Marius smiled. "I pray that they are never needed here."
"Me too. But they're fascinating, in a morbid kind of way."
"That they are." He watched the doorway to Essobee's room.
The duck came back, minus the book. "What is it?"
Marius said to both Miyu and Essobee, "There are some strange happenings outside the gates of the city. We've seen no danger yet, but we want someone to survey it."
"What kind of strange things?" the cat asked.
Marius repeated the examples that had been listed at the meeting, finishing with "Each incident, by itself, is not worrisome, but they might be symptoms of something worse."
"Sounds thrilling," Essobee commented.
"Sure, I'll do it. What should we be looking for? Anything in specific?" Miyu wanted to know.
"Anything unusual. Concentrations of power. Disturbances of any kind. Anything out of the ordinary."
"I see why you're sending her," Essobee jerked a thumb in Miyu's direction, "but what do you want me there for? I don't have any powers. I can't even go outside the city because of the spell on the gates!"
"Miyu will be able to bring you in and out through the gates," Marius answered. "As for why I want you there, you may not be able to work magic, but you have considerable knowledge. I believe you will know what to look for more than she will. Will you do it?"
Essobee looked blankly surprised. "I have a choice?"
Essobee looked back at Marius for a few moments, then shrugged . "Whatever you say."
"You should investigate by daylight. Until then, rest and recharge yourselves."
Essobee folded his arms. "Not that that applies to me."
"You know what I mean," Marius replied.
"Whatever." Essobee paused, as if waiting for someone to say something else, then left the room.
Marius asked Miyu in a low voice, "Will you work with him?"
Miyu paused for a moment, then said, "Yes. I think I can."
"Good." He patted her shoulder. "Go rest up. I'll take care of supplies tonight."
Morgana watched as Miyu left. Then she thought to Marius, Are you sure you want to use Essobee? Why?
Yes, I am. He has improved in the years he's been here, but he still feels like a prisoner, not a citizen. I want to give him a chance to prove himself.
It will take more than this to clear his name, Morgana thought, frankly skeptical.
Yes, it will. But it has to begin somewhere.
They opened now. Miyu and Essobee, carrying medium-sized packs on their backs, stepped out into the snow. The cold morning air outside the doors sank into their long coats and leggings, chilling them. Miyu murmured a quick spell to preserve the heat in their clothes. Essobee gritted his teeth. He had used a spell like that years ago, when he had first come here, to keep warmth in his feathers. Now he wasn't even able to do something as simple as that.
Miyu did not notice his scowl. She adjusted a shoulder strap to settle her small pack more comfortably, and started in the direction that Marius had indicated to her. As Essobee followed behind her, he looked around. He had not been allowed outside Shambhala since his capture ten years ago. The snow-covered glacier plain stretched for miles in one direction, and to a nearby range of granite mountains in the other. If he had had his powers, or if the land had been less hostile, he would have run for it without a second thought.
Miyu looked across the horizon slowly, not focusing her eyes on anything in particular. A sharply bordered red aura quickly appeared in her vision. She said to Essobee, "I see it. It's over there." She pointed.
"What do you see?" he asked, coming up to her.
"It's red. It looks kind of like a puddle. A little of it is rising and fading out, like steam."
"Is it moving anywhere, or getting bigger?"
"No, it's just staying there."
"And it's red. What kind of red?"
"Just red - dull colored, sort of rusty looking. No shadings."
Essobee wished that he could see it for himself. Trying to make sense out of information filtered through someone else's viewpoint was frustrating. He could not even see her mental images. How in the world could they expect him to do anything, handicapped as he was?!
They approached the area. Miyu slowed as she neared it. She said uneasily, "I don't like the feeling of this. It looks like a burner. It rises only a foot or so above the ground, but it's thick."
"Doesn't bother me any." He got no feeling at all from the place. Of course he couldn't. He didn't even have enough power to get a creepy feeling from a creepy place.
Miyu tensed as he walked forward, into the red haze. "Don't!" she called.
He turned back. "Look, we're here to see whatever's out here. If you want to stay back where it's safe, then fine with me."
"If you could sense the magic, you wouldn't go in there."
"Well, I can't. Thanks for reminding me, I'd almost forgotten I couldn't for a second there!" he snapped.
She gritted her teeth. "All right." Gingerly she stepped onto what looked to her like a bed of coals. She felt nothing but the cold snow through the soles of her boots. Looking around, she could see why nobody had noticed this before. The power here was highly concentrated, but cohesive, as if something was holding it in, so unless you were almost on top of it you wouldn't see it. Surface tension? She had never heard of that phenomenon applying to magic.
Essobee watched her. She looked around slowly, then began casting a small spell, just to see how the wild mana would affect it. Not wanting to watch her use her powers, he continued investigating. Their tracks were the only things marring the snow. Well, in the area of the "spill", that was. There were some animal tracks not far away. He couldn't tell what had made them - zoology was not one of his interests - but from the size of the furrow plowed in the snow it looked fairly large. Maybe a bear, or a wolf dragging a kill. With his eyes he followed the trail, which shambled aimlessly from the horizon into this area - and then clearly veered away from the magic spill. That was interesting.
He caught a flash of light out of the corner of his eye, and turned in time to see Miyu staring at what looked like a rapidly disappearing flame rising from the ice. Seeing that he was looking at her, she called "Essobee," and beckoned to him.
He walked over. "What?"
"Throw some of this onto the snow over there," she said, holding out a small bag and nodding toward the east.
Essobee scooped a handful of sandy powder out of the bag and scattered it onto the snow with a flick of his wrist. As it fell it burst into sparkling flares, each grain igniting a separate tiny fire. He knelt and looked at the surface of the snow. It was barely roughened. "The stuff's burning as soon as it hits ground."
"I thought I might have been affecting it, but I guess not. Not if it does the same thing when you throw it."
"Well. That establishes that there's a lot of wild mana here. I would never have guessed," he remarked sarcastically.
She frowned. "Did you see anything?"
"Nothing except those tracks over there." He pointed. She shifted her focus away from the magical aura. "See how they meander around, then swerve away? Looks like the critters don't like this place either."
"I see what you mean." She nodded. "The magic here affects my spells-"
"It makes them hard to control. Watch." She created a glow sphere, a small ball of light between her hands. It was a very tame, familiar spell, one of the first that an apprentice learned. However, Essobee could see that even though she was casting it cautiously, it flared and faded unpredictably. After half a minute she spread her hands, releasing the spell. Instead of fading, the ball of light expanded like smoke, brightening before it dissipated.
"Have you looked at what's under the surface?" Essobee asked. "Not the magic, but whatever's under the snow."
"Not yet." she answered. "I'll do that now."
He followed her outside the spill area and watched as she scanned, using special senses. At length she said, "I don't see anything but ice. But the ice below the ‘hot spot' is newer than the ice elsewhere, like it's been melted and refrozen."
"No kidding," Essobee mused, looking at the ground with renewed interest. He stepped close to the area, then looked over to where Shambhala's gates would be, if he could see them.
Miyu surveyed the area once more. Then she said, "It covers about four acres or so. I don't think it's exactly dangerous, but we need to clean this up."
"We?" Essobee snorted. "An apprentice and a hamstrung sorcerer."
"You know what I mean."
Miyu and Essobee exchanged glances, then Miyu began, "The area is basically a concentration of wild mana, like you said. It appears to have fermented for a while, gaining in strength somehow. It's not in one central location, but rather ‘splattered' over an area about four acres square, give or take. It's all contiguous – I'd guess that from above it'd look like an amoeba. I couldn't find any cause. It looks like animals can sense it too, because we saw tracks that swerved to avoid it. And below the strongest areas is fresh ice. It looks like at least once it's melted the snow."
"Did you get any other impressions?" Marius asked.
"Well, it hasn't spread, so I can see why nobody noticed it before. Until you get very close, ten yards or so, or unless you're looking for it, it's not noticeable. I searched through the library, trying to figure out what might have caused it, but nothing seemed to fit."
"It could have been the demon," Essobee mentioned casually.
Both Marius and Miyu stared at him. He looked up, and with a bored air said "Oh, didn't I mention that that was where I had summoned up a demon to conquer Shambhala?"
"The demon?!" Miyu exclaimed. "That's where it was?!"
He glared into her eyes. "Don't tell me you didn't know about that particular part of my checkered past. It's common knowledge around here." To both of them he continued, "It was a minor demon, a former living soul. It wasn't so powerful, as demons go. It threw a tantrum out there, which is where I guess all those hot spots came from. Fireballs do tend to melt snow. Hence your puddles of fresh ice."
"This changes things." Marius said softly.
"Don't tell me you forgot about that." Essobee smirked.
"No, I hadn't, but I did not connect the two. The residue from a demonic event is usually much more powerful. Although, with a medium as transient as snow, it's no wonder that it is so weak and localized. Actually," he mused, "this doesn't really change things. We will need to clean up the area, to remove the potential danger."
"Aren't demons attracted to areas they had once visited?" Miyu asked.
"Not this one," Essobee replied. "He won't be back if he can help it."
"How do you know?"
Essobee closed his bill tightly.
"It's good that nothing stranger has happened in that area," Marius said as if to himself. "Wild mana is not dangerous unless it begins to react with its environment. That we noticed anything at all is a sign that it has already reached that stage." He looked at them. "Of course, the next step is to clean the area up by drawing the power away."
"How will you do that?"
"I'd like you two to map the area, mark the locations of the concentrations," Marius replied. "Outline its perimeter."
"All right." Miyu said.
"Essobee?" Marius asked.
"You should start out tomorrow, when you're fresh. It will take several days at least just to map the area. There is no need to rush; be cautious."
Essobee rolled his eyes. Miyu said, "We will."
"Good. Until tomorrow, Miyu, rest and gather your power."
Recognizing that she had been dismissed, she stood. "Thanks."
He smiled. "I think you two will do well."
"I'll try," she replied.
Essobee had forced himself to be quiet during this exchange. It was getting just a little too thick in here for his comfort, and he had no urge to be around when the class started up in a few hours. He got up to leave. Miyu followed him.
Outside, she said, "Why didn't you say anything about that demon before?"
"Nobody asked," he replied coolly.
She looked at him for a moment. Then she sighed and looked away, shaking her head. "We've got to work together on this-"
"Okay, fine, I've already heard that song," he growled. "What do you want to know?"
"Well, what else happened there? Is there anything else about that spot that I ought to know?"
He shook his head. "No. That's it."
"How did you summon the demon?"
He paused. "Actually, I didn't summon it there. I summoned it long before that. It left from here, though. He wasn't banished; he went on his own."
They started walking. "He? What kind of demon was it?"
"Like I said before, a condemned soul. Someone who used to be alive. He has the usual parade-ground powers - shapeshifting, fire, junk like that - but no real authority. He couldn't drag you down to Hades and make it stick unless you agreed to it."
"Hmm. What'd you summon him up for, anyway?"
He stopped walking and faced her. "I already said I wanted to take over Shambhala. Okay? Think you can remember it this time?"
"All right, all right," she said, holding up a hand. "Sorry I asked. Look, if you'll tell me whatever you know about that mess, I'll promise not to bring that up again. Okay?"
"Oh, don't spare my feelings," he grumbled.
"I'm not. Look, can we just work together?" she said in a low voice.
"Why bother?" he said, spreading his arms. "Why? What in the world am I doing on this, anyway? Without my powers, I'm exactly as useful as wheels on a fish! You don't need me, and that bloodsucker knows it. You know it too. It's a babysitting job."
She shook her head. "No, it isn't."
He folded his arms and looked directly into her eyes. "Then what good am I?"
"You know a lot more than I do. You can talk rings around anyone in that class except Marius-"
She folded her arms and looked directly at him, mirroring his pose. "Why'd you agree to do this, if you don't want to?"
"Because I want to get out of this place for a breath of fresh air! You can come and go. I can't. No matter how pretty it is, it's still my jail! Anything is better than sitting around all day eating lotuses." He kicked at the turf, crushing a few flowering weeds.
"You've been here for ten years, and you still feel that way."
"That's right. If I had my powers, I'd- be out of here so fast-" he restrained himself just in time. He had been about to say he would destroy this place. He had been careful not to talk like that; it would only set back his ‘rehabilitation' and lengthen his stay here. In fact, the whole conversation she had goaded him into would probably do just that. Inwardly he groaned.
She watched as he seemed to wilt. After a moment she uncrossed her arms. Uncomfortably she said, "Do you want to work with me on this?"
"Yeah, whatever." he muttered. He looked at her as if about to say something else, then turned and left.
He didn't know why he had become so angry. She hadn't deliberately provoked him. Each blow she had landed had been by accident. If he hadn't reacted, then the whole conversation could have been forgotten. He didn't know anything he could say now to mitigate the situation; anything he could imagine would only exacerbate it. Crud.
Miyu kept him in the edge of her field of vision, surreptitiously watching him. Last night's conversation had disturbed her too. He had not frightened or angered her - on the contrary, she found herself feeling sympathetic toward him. Being stifled so long would make anyone rebellious. He had committed hideous deeds, and it looked as if he might never live them down. She was sure now that he was also embarrassed by his loss of control. That certainly would explain his aloofness.
Deciding it better not to prod an obviously sore spot, she said, "Let's set up the camp first. Those mountains are close enough."
Essobee nodded and followed her. His pack was much heavier now because he was carrying a collapsable tent and a few supplies. It wasn't much strain on his back, but it did make hiking across the snow more difficult. His feet kept sinking into the powdery snow. It was a good thing he was a duck, he thought; his paddle-like feet kept him from sinking more than an inch. Miyu, who was not used to snowshoes, kept stumbling.
They scouted along the edge of the nearby cliffs. The face nearest the spill area was sheer, much too steep to climb. The base sported a number of near-vertical cracks. One looked large enough for their tent. Neither had to point it out; they both headed for the obvious choice.
The crack did not go far back. It was floored with ice. There was no real ceiling; the walls sloped up until they met about nine feet over their heads. The rough walls, untouched by erosion, scraped their clothes as they struggled to set up the tent in the small, cramped area.
They went inside the tent. It was not terribly well insulated, but then they did not plan to stay there any length of time. It was only a retreat where they could take short rest breaks in the middle of the day. Aware that Miyu would be drawing heavily on her power reserves, Marius had included a battery-operated stove in the supplies.
Essobee set the small device on its insulated platform. It would produce heat and light, and they could cook on its upper surface. It wasn't a powerful gadget, but during the day it would keep the chill off.
Essobee broke their silence by saying, "I want you to cast a spell on this for me." He took a wooden box out of his back, and removed from it a blown-glass sphere four inches in diameter.
She took the sphere. "What do you want me to cast on it?"
"Cast a spell on the air inside this thing. Make it glow or give some other signal when it detects strong mana."
"I don't know a spell for that," she said uneasily.
He suppressed an annoyed sigh. "I'll teach you. It's simple enough."
"Uh... how can you teach me?" she asked hesitantly.
"Just shut up, will you?" Essobee grumbled. "It's easy. I could cast it when I was twelve. I'll run through it, and you watch me. Then you cast it."
She nodded hesitantly. This was nothing like the way she usually learned spells. Normally she memorized the words, and only when she could recite it flawlessly did she learn the casting. "Let me cast a memory spell first." She spoke a few quick phrases, then said, "Okay."
He placed the ball on the floor of the tent between them. She watched as he gestured and spoke for a minute, as if enchanting the ball. When he was finished he looked up at her. "Got that?"
She closed her eyes and recited the words to herself. He commented, "Right. Now go." But when she added the gestures, he grabbed her wrists and barked, "Stop! You're WAY off! Weren't you watching my hands?!"
"It takes practice to learn gestures!" she replied. "If you can't guide me mind to mind, then I have to learn the hard way. You know the memory spell only works on the verbal part!"
"Well, I can't guide you that way, and you can't cast that kind of spell on me either. Otherwise I could do it my own dang self."
"Wait a minute," she said, thinking to herself. Then she picked her gloves up off the tent floor. "Put your gloves on."
"So you can teach me." She grinned. "Put your hands up like this," she said, holding her hands out. He complied, puzzled, while she put on her own gloves. She touched her palms to his, arms crossed so her right hand met his. She closed her eyes and recited in a whispery voice while pressing her hands flat against his.
When she finished, Essobee asked, "And just what was that supposed to accomplish?" He folded his arms and tapped his fingers against his arm.
Her fingers tapped in time with his. He stopped and glanced down sharply, then grinned at her. "I get it. Pretty good. You can't cast a guidance spell on me, but you can cast it on my gloves."
"Yeah. If you can guide me once, I'll have it."
"Okay. One dry run?"
Essobee set the ball down between them. He paused, glancing at her. She looked back at him. He began to cast the spell again, and this time she spoke the words simultaneously with him, relaxing her hands to allow him to guide her gestures. The gestures did not seem to match because she was not mirroring him; her left hand matched his left hand, not his right. When he finished he said, "Think you got it?"
"Yeah." She closed her eyes and made the gestures without speaking the spell.
"Okay. Now while you're casting it you have to concentrate on the center of the sphere. Imagine a spot in the air in the exact middle. That's what you're actually casting it on."
"Right." She paused, staring at the sphere, finding her focus. Then she took off her gloves and cast the spell. When she finished she asked, "Was that right?"
"If you were concentrating. It looked right. We'll check it out out there."
"Okay. I see why you wanted this. But - I'm going to mark the areas with force lines. You'll be able to see them, they glow. What are you going to mark with?"
He answered, "Well, there's supposed to be no wind or snow for weeks, so..." He reached into his pack and pulled out a metal cylinder. He shook it with a rattling sound, then showed it to her.
She laughed, "Spray paint on snow. That'll work."
Essobee's foot sank into something soft beneath a crust of ice. He jumped back. There should be only ice down there; that was where one of the demon's blasts has melted and refrozen the snow. He looked down, and saw movement.
"Miyu! Come here."
She looked up. Essobee was staring at something at his feet. She tied off the end of the force line she was creating and walked over to him, skirting the thickest part of the hotspot he was outlining. Looking at his feet, she saw only snow. "What is it?"
He reached down and scooped something up. She thought at first that it was a bit of snow, but then it moved. She stared as a piece of the snow twisted and writhed in the palm of Essobee's hand.
"Snow worms," Essobee grimaced. "Looks like I stepped in a nest of ‘em."
"Snow worms? I've never heard of those."
"Neither have I. Nothing normal can live on just snow." He dropped the squirming creature and scraped at the snow at his feet. More of the creatures burrowed down, seeking safety in the depths. Some of them were much larger than earthworms. Essobee put down his pack and took out a thin stick. "Light this."
Miyu touched the end of the stick with a lick of power. It flared brightly - more brightly than it should have - then burned with a steady flame. Essobee speared a medium-sized worm with another stick. He held it up while playing the fire underneath it.
Miyu watched, wide eyed, as the worm melted into clear water, which fell and made pock marks in the snow before refreezing. Essobee extinguished the fire by jabbing the end of the stick into the snow. Putting them back into his pack, he remarked, "Well, looks like it's worse than we thought."
"How?" Miyu asked. "Are they dangerous?"
"Nah. They're just snow come to life. They'd melt before they could do anything to us. But, don't you see, they're not natural."
"Bingo. Bet we won't find ‘em outside of this mess; they'd turn back into snow." He picked up his pack again. "The thing is, if the magic here's strong enough to generate life, then it's stronger than we expected."
She looked down at the white worms burrowing their way down into the safety of the snow. "Should we go back?"
"No!" he snapped. "We'll look like idiots if we go running back just because of a few worms! Just watch yourself, because this much wild mana can turn on you if you don't know how to deal with it."
"And you do?" she countered.
He stared at her for a moment. Then, in a low, hissing voice, he said, "Yes, I do. Where I came from, mana was a lot thicker than it is here. HOWEVER, in case you don't remember, it doesn't matter if I can or can't handle magic, because of this curse I'm under!" He picked up the globe and spray paint can and turned his back on her.
Essobee did not look up. "Wait."
She waited for about ten minutes while he continued tracing a border. Then he quit abruptly and put the spray paint and globe into his pack. Slinging it over a shoulder, he looked out over the landscape. The snow was defaced by broken black marks on one side, and on the other curling, foggy green lines hung several feet in the air. He asked, "How much is left?"
"About half," she replied.
He made a sound in his throat and started toward the city.
She walked after him. "I tried to recharge a little, but-"
"You didn't!" He stopped and looked back at her harshly.
"I only tried. I couldn't control it, so I stopped. I'm just about drained."
He shook his head. "You don't know how to handle this kind of mana. I could if I weren't hamstrung, but in your case it'd be like lighting a match with a blowtorch."
"I'm aware of that."
"They say how they plan to mop up this mess once we mark it?"
She shook her head. "Marius didn't tell me anything that he didn't tell you too."
"Why, you have an idea?"
"If I weren't crippled, maybe."
They reached the gates. She cast the spell to open them and admit herself and Essobee through the barrier. As they entered she said, "I'm going to the library. I'm curious about those snow worms."
"Look under ‘spontaneous generation' first," he said as he turned toward Marius's home.
"See you later."
Sitting at a table off in a corner, facing a wall to minimize distractions, she was so absorbed that she did not notice someone walk up to her until she felt a tap on her shoulder. She startled and looked around.
Essobee looked down at her. "Have you been here since you got back?"
"Yeah." She straightened up. As she did she felt a sharp pinch in her back; she had been leaning over these books for too long.
"You've got the wrong ones," he commented after glancing at the titles she had selected. "Unless you're into fairy tales, that is."
"I'm not. I'm still searching."
"Hm." He walked away from her. She watched as he walked to a nearby shelf, tilting his head to look at the spines of some large volumes in the demonology section. She sighed under her breath turned back to the table. She closed the book she had been skimming and opened another, smaller one.
"Here," Essobee said, laying a volume titled "Unholy Beastes" in complex script on the leather cover.
"Um, I'm not looking for demons," she said.
"When this was written, they thought everything they didn't recognize was a demon or a monster." Essobee opened the book and leafed through the pages. He paused at one image. "They even thought elephants were monsters." He continued turning pages. "There."
She looked at the image on the page. "What is that?"
"Like it says on the page, a ‘goo'."
"I see that." The creature pictured looked like a shapeless mass of cloudy gelatin. Embedded within it were indistinct shapes. "It looks like a giant amoeba."
"Yeah, it does. But this book talks about them being found in mountains, flowing up and down sheer cliffs, and dropping down on animals and people to devour ‘em. Tell me amoebas do that."
"They could be giant amoebas," she said doubtfully.
"In the mountains? Intelligent enough to trap their prey? Yeah, right." He sat down across the corner of the table.
"If they were magically altered, they could," she responded. "Sorcerers used to create things like that. Like shoggoths."
"Maybe," he replied, "except that these aren't amoebas. They're goos, or jellies. They're structured differently. No organelles, for one thing."
"What are those in the picture?" She pointed to the shadowy shapes inside the creature.
Essobee turned the page and, after a pause, pointed to a line of text. "They sometimes carry around debris from their environment. Bones of whatever they've eaten recently. Rocks. Dirt. And the bigger they are, the more likely it is they carry around something magical inside themselves, like an enchanted stone or whatever. They feed off the mana."
She shook her head. "That thing's just impossible. Nothing like that could survive. On the microscopic level, yes, but not this large."
"Impossible? What would you call worms that melt into water when you heat them?" Essobee asked triumphantly.
She paused for a few moments, then smiled. "All right, point taken."
"Okay," Essobee replied. "No problems. It's monkey work."
Miyu added, "It's about halfway done. I've marked nearly half of it and blocked it in, Essobee's marked the rest, and now I just have to enclose his part."
"I think it'll take a night and a half. I ran out of power. It's draining work because I can't recharge out there."
Marius said, "Maybe it won't take that long." He opened a cabinet and took out a small, brightly enameled box. It was filled with small, polished tigerseye stones. He picked up a handful and turned them in his hand thoughtfully. He set two aside, then took another handful and inspected them in the same way.
When he was satisfied he put the box back in the cabinet, then held five stones out to Miyu. "Power stones. You can use them to fuel your spells, so you don't use up your reserve so quickly."
Essobee interjected, looking at Miyu, "Remember how hard it was to control your own power out there?"
"These are low power," she replied, turning the stones over in her hand as she looked at them. "Just enough for a boost. I can handle them."
"Oh. Unfortunately, I couldn't tell," Essobee replied sarcastically, folded his hands behind himself and walked out, into his room.
Morgana watched with raised eyebrows as he closed the door behind himself. She cast a simple spell to confine the sound of their speech to the room and said, "He's still as temperamental as ever."
Miyu shrugged. Lowering her voice even though she had recognized Morgana's spell, she replied, "We're doing all right. Between the two of us, we've marked the spills."
"How did he find the borders to mark them?"
"He showed me how to make something that would detect the strength of the magic, and used it to mark the spill's edges with spray paint."
Marius laughed softly. "Very good."
Miyu nodded. "He's not so bad. Dealing with him is kind of like petting a porcupine -- don't go against the grain."
Marius laughed again. "That's a good way to put it."
"Um - anyway, while we were out there we found some snow worms."
Morgana interjected, "Snow worms? I've never heard of those." She looked at Marius questioningly.
"I've never heard of them either," he replied.
"Essobee and I went to the library after I ran out of juice. We looked through their books and found nothing about them."
"What exactly were they?" Marius wanted to know.
"They were like earthworms, blind and squirmy. They came in all sizes, though - from threads to nightcrawlers. They look harmless. And they melt into water."
"Animated snow," Marius mused to himself. "Considering how long that area has been fermenting, it's not too unlikely that something like that should arise. Did you bring any back?"
"No. I will tomorrow, if you want me to."
"Yes. Wait a minute..." Marius held up a hand, disspelling the sound blocking spell absently, then stepped out of the room briefly. When he returned Morgana saw that he had retrieved a small, light piece of pottery from the storeroom. It could be either a steep-sided bowl or a wide-mouthed pot, and it had a tight-fitting lid held on by a leather strap. "This will be the right size to hold some of them?"
Marius rummaged briefly in the cabinet which held the power stones. He took out a small phial of white powder and another of clear fluid, shook a small bit of each into the bowl, and made a few gestures while muttering a spell. After glancing into it for a moment to confirm that the magic had taken, he put the phials back.
"What did you just do?" Miyu always had to ask; Marius was such an accomplished sorcerer he did not need to use the "schoolbook" long form of a spell. He was able to cast most of them with a minimum of show, instead focusing his powers with his mind and a few gestures. All of which made following him a difficult task.
"A temperature conservation spell," he explained as he handed her the pottery. "The bowl will prevent anything inside itself from gaining or losing heat."
"Oh, like a thermos," Miyu remarked as she tucked it onto a pocket.
Marius looked at Miyu, surprised. Then he admitted, "I didn't think of that."
Miyu stepped in. "I told them about the worms."
"What'd they do, panic?"
She shook her head. "No. Marius wanted samples."
"Huh," he snorted. "I'd've thought that they'd freak when they heard about something like that fouling up their orderly little world."
"Why would you think that?" She sat at the foot of the bed.
He opened his eyes. "They live in a city that hasn't changed in hundreds of years and is magically hidden from the rest of the world. You tell me."
"Well - meet you here tomorrow morning?"
It is not impossible, Marius answered. Though I'll admit sometimes it has seemed improbable.
"They haven't deteriorated, have they? Look carefully," Essobee asked.
She did. "No. Why would they?"
"Wild mana sometimes draws other magic into it. Spreads like a fire."
She looked again. The lines glowed as brightly in the magic spectrum as they had the previous afternoon, and the hot spots they bordered had not leaked across the barrier. "It's still strong. I tried to make sure they'd repel the mana, not attract it."
"Good. I didn't know if it'd be powerful enough for them to catch, anyway. It doesn't look like it, but it was powerful enough to make those worms."
"True. Maybe it's faded since then."
"Maybe..." That answer did not satisfy him. It was possible, all right, but... oh, heck, without the ability to sense magic he could only guess. "Forget it. Give me the pot."
She took the pottery container out of her pack and handed it to him. If I can't do anything else, he thought to himself, I can dig bait. As she started laying another force line, he walked into the middle of the main hot spot. He knew it bothered her when he stepped into the danger zone; she couldn't seem to get it into her head that the raw mana didn't affect him.
Miyu held one of Marius's stones in her hand as she focused her awareness on a point between her hands, concentrating her powers there, creating a force line. Surprisingly, the small amount of energy she drew from the stone made the task noticeably easier.
Essobee looked around the snow for areas that looked different in some way. At first it seemed to be a solid sheet broken only by a few lines of footprints. But soon he saw that some areas looked rough, like snow that had fallen on grass stubble. He crouched over one of these patches. With a rod he brushed some snow away. Under the surface, the snow looked porous. Yep, the snow worms were thick here. He dug around a bit, but didn't see any movement.
He looked up and to the side, where Miyu was working. It looked like a boring task, walking slowly along a spray-painted line, creating a force line like a spider spinning a web. She wasn't bad, he admitted to himself. She had potential. Too bad she was stuck in this stagnant place. She'd only learn what was taught her, and never create anything on her own. Doing that wouldn't be safe. So she'd always be second rate, like nearly everybody here.
Dismissing the thought, he stood and looked around. Where was that nest he'd stumbled into yesterday? It was right on a border line somewhere. He went to the closest spraypaint mark and started following its path.
After a few minutes, he found what he was looking for the same way as he had yesterday -- by stepping in it. With a suppressed sound of disgust he stepped back and looked at his boot, half expecting it to be coated with goo, even though snow worms were made of water. He brushed the crust of snow away with the toe of his shoe.
The slow writhing and pulsing of the worms reminded Essobee of peristalsis. Pushing the queasy thought out of his mind, he took Marius's pot out of his pack, knelt, and picked a few of the creatures out of the mass to return to the Vampire. He closed the pot and tied the strap over the lid on tightly.
Looking back at the nest, he noticed that some of the worms were much larger than others. Yesterday he had seen some about the size of large earthworms; some of these were as thick as his thumb. Putting the pot down on the snow, he grasped one with a gloved hand and tugged. The thing writhed unpleasantly, and would not come free. He planted his feet in the snow, gripped with both hands, and pulled. A long, rubbery, white segment emerged from the mass.
The worm was over three feet long. It twisted, trying to escape from the heat of his hands. He called, "Hey, Miyu, look at this."
She paused in her casting. He saw her stare at the squirming white worm. "If we were ice fishing, think of what we could catch with this!" he shouted.
She smiled and resumed her spellcasting. He dropped the worm, which had partially melted through where his hands had touched it. She probably wouldn't see the nest, and step right into it as she was casting, she was concentrating so hard. He'd have to keep an eye out. It would be a little while before she reached that part of the border, so he had time to put the pot in the tent for the time being. Although the worms were harmless, and even if they escaped they would only melt into water, he still didn't like the idea of carrying them around in his pack.
Miyu noticed the duck start toward their camp. She no longer needed to focus all of her attention on her spellcasting; creating the force lines was coming more easily now. It seemed to be more than just a case of practice making perfect, she thought. The energy she was using flowed more freely now. She wouldn't have thought Marius' stones would make such a difference.
A sudden surge jerked her attention back to her task. Startled, she concentrated, choking off the sudden flow. She held steady, waiting for the pressure to even out.
Essobee, halfway to the tent, stopped and looked curiously at the snow. His shadow was blue. And it was stretching out ahead of him toward the mountain face, as if it were evening, not afternoon.
He looked back. The force lines were shining more brightly now. Miyu was standing still, as if doing nothing. The glow began to blur and flow into the area it outlined, wreathing the feline in a yellow haze. A crackling, like distant lightning, began.
Essobee threw his pack down onto the snow and started running back. As he watched, the blurry force lines seemed to ignite, filling the areas they outlined with a flashing red mist. The mist rushed towards Miyu, enveloping her, brightening like flames.
Essobee ran into the fog. The energy made his feathers stand on end, and he could see only a few feet beyond the end of his bill. He followed its current toward Miyu. When he found her she was still casting, trying desperately to damp down the conflagration. He eyes were squeezed tightly shut.
"You can't control this!" Essobee shouted at her. She opened her eyes and looked him with a panicky expression. He seized one wrist and started to drag her out. She resisted only for a moment, then stumbled after him. Roughly he put an arm around her waist.
He half-led, half-dragged her out. He felt as if his skin had been covered with weak acid, burning him slowly. Even when they were outside the border he had marked with spray paint – they had come out across a section she had not yet finished – the red glow followed, trying to envelope her. She was dazed and in pain, he could see. The blaze was draining her. He led her a little farther, until she stumbled and fell face-first into the snow.
The glow leading from the hot spots to Miyu was thinner now, but it was strengthening as he watched. He pulled her up to her knees and shouted, "Where are the stones Marius gave you?"
"In my pocket," she murmured, involuntarily twitching an arm. He dug into the pocket nearest to that hand. His fingers touched several warm, rounded surfaces. He pulled the stones out and threw them into the fog. When they entered they blazed like small meteors.
The haze around Miyu was weaker now. "Get up!" he ordered. She struggled to get to her feet. He pulled her up and put his hand back around her waist. Supporting her, he led her to their temporary camp.
She had just enough control not to collapse when he released her. He came into the tent behind her and zipped the entrance shut. The red glow seemed to have vanished. "What the heck happened?!" he demanded.
"I don't know," she said in a low, pained voice. "All of a sudden, there was a surge. Like someone unkinked the fire hose."
"Were you drawing on the wild mana?"
"I was drawing on the stones. I don't think I was using anything else."
"You don't think," he growled. "Peachy. Well, whatever happened, something's set it off like a forest fire."
"I want to see it."
He unzipped the tent entrance. Outside, it was burning brighter, and part of it seemed to be flowing toward them. The crackling it made sounded like television static. Gloomily she said, "It's attracted to my power."
"Yeah. And if it gets to you, it'll suck you dry too. We can't go out through that – the magic wouldn't hurt me, but the combustion would. Listen, I got an idea. Cast a magic destroyer spell between us and that mess. Break the connection."
"I don't know any black sorcery spells like that."
Essobee rolled his eyes, exasperated. "Of course not, it's not safe. I know the spell, but I can't cast the dang thing! Listen, you want to learn another spell toot sweet?"
"But black sorcery-" she said hesitantly.
"Forget that crap!' he snapped. "You want to quibble, or you want to live through this?!"
"All right," she acquiesced. "Give me your gloves."
He did. He noticed that she cast an abbreviated version of the spell she had used before. She was not recasting it, merely renewing it.
Putting on his gloves, he said, "Okay. It's got a lot of complicated gestures to it, but it's a short one. But you have to do it right so you don't miscast it. You do that, things get nasty."
"Go ahead," she said, relaxing her arms so she would not put up any resistance.
He paused, closing his eyes, mentally running through the spell. Then he raised his hands. Her hands lifted as well. He made jerky, sketchy movements in the air as he spoke a short sentence.
She focused her attention on her own hands, watching as they moved under his control, memorizing the gestures. She said, "Run through that again."
He did, and this time she moved her hands with his gestures. They matched; if they hadn't she would have felt some resistance. She said, "Let me make sure I got the pronunciation correct. ‘Lombaak ecree oplom ah-plee ozona aa'aa."
"That's it. Don't worry about emphasis, just get the rhythm right. Point at the place you want to cast it at. You want to create a barrier in front of us, so just do this after you say the words," he said, moving one hand in an arc, two fingers extended, "and think of the line you're creating. You're burning the magic away. Actually, don't think of it as a line; it's a vacuum."
"Okay. I can cast it," she said.
"Great." He opened the entrance of the tent again.
She stepped out, trying hard not to be daunted by the sight she saw. Ignoring it as best she could, she cast the spell carefully and deliberately.
Essobee watched with growing uneasiness as she drew the line in the air repeatedly. As she did the red tide flowed closer. When she lowered her hand, breaking the spell, she said "I couldn't focus it as well as I wanted."
"It looks like you blocked it, though." He gestured. The glow had stopped advancing, and was showing no signs of leaking over the barrier.
"Yeah… but that used up the rest of my juice. I can't do anything else now-"
"Welcome to my world."
"I can't even recharge- I siphoned off all the power nearby just to cast that one spell. This whole area's a dead spot now. My focus is really bad."
"Hey, we're alive," he said impatiently. "Come on, it's cold out here."
They entered the tent. Essobee zipped the entrance closed and unfolded the small stove. "The bigwigs in Shambhala'll send out someone as soon as they realize what's happened," he said as he set it for maximum heat. "When we don't show up tonight, Marius will wonder if I've murdered you and run away."
"Don't joke like that."
"What? What's your problem?" He saw her grim expression. "What, you're upset 'cause of that screw-up?" he jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
"Yes," she said flatly.
"Oh, for- look, so it got outta hand. Big deal. If that bloodsucker knew it was thick enough to ignite, he wouldn't have sent an apprentice out with a box of matches. It wouldn't be the first time he's messed up big-time."
They sat in the tent, talking in low voices to pass the time. Her spirits did not improve as the day passed. The light outside dimmed and reddened. Essobee looked out. The sun had sunk beyond the mountains that studded the horizon, and in the twilight the conflagration glowed, matching the rippling aurora overhead.
"We can't go out in that." Essobee commented needlessly.
"That stove wasn't built to run this long."
"Sure it was. The battery wasn't, though," he replied. Without the sunlight shining into the cave, the temperature had dropped noticeably. "Wish that mess out there generated heat instead of light."
"I wish I could cast a heat spell."
They both knew that the balance was delicate right now. Any use of magic could draw the combustion around the flimsy border she had created. "Well, at least it's pretty out there. It ought to scare the crap out of the Shambhalans, if they bother to look."
They had stopped talking an hour ago. Now she said, "They might not find us right away. We didn't tell anyone where we set up."
"And that stove's not going to keep us warm."
He was huddled, sitting on his feet, hands under his arms, as was she. "We can't wait it out like this all night."
"Your point would be?"
Was he really that dense, or was he just being stubborn? No, he wasn't dense. "I'm talking about sleeping."
He paused warily before saying, "I forgot to bring the futons."
She sighed tiredly. "You know what I'm talking about, Essobee. The night's only going to get colder. We're not equipped to stay out here all night. We need to pool our heat."
He said nothing. He looked off to the side, not acknowledging her. She reached out and touched his arm. He jerked and stared at her hand. Tiredly she said, "This isn't the time for it. Please, just stop fighting for now."
"Fighting? What are you talking about?" he snapped, offended.
Over the past few hours she had been thinking about this. He was often deliberately offensive. It seemed as if he was consciously trying to drive others away, like a porcupine baring its quills. It worked, too. Most people simply left him alone after a sample of his attitude. She had not responded in the usual way, and that had puzzled him. He didn't have to be such a jerk; when he forgot about that he was actually fairly decent company. But when he wanted to be a jerk, well, that was what he was, and he was very good at the role.
She could not say this directly to him, though. It would only exacerbate the situation. Instead she said, "Look, I'm not going to hurt you-"
"You? Hurt me? Hah!" he interrupted.
"-and I know you're not going to hurt me. Come on, I'm tired and cold."
He paused, and noticed that her hand was shaking slightly, even though her muscles were tensed. He uncrossed his arms and touched her hand. Her fingers were cold, even through her gloves. "All right," he said gruffly.
Without blankets, they had to improvise as best they could. In the end Miyu put her coat on backward, with her hands on the inside, while Essobee lay behind her, his coat open in front. It wasn't the most efficient way to conserve body heat, but it was the best they could think of, given the situation. It worked well enough; he soon felt her hands warm under his.
Miyu startled awake. Essobee, behind her, was tense. After a moment they heard someone shout.
"They've sent out the cavalry. About time," Essobee said, withdrawing his arms from around her. She felt a sudden chill on his back when he sat up. She sat up and hurriedly righted her clothing. Essobee stepped outside the tent and looked around in the dark for the direction of the source of the voice. When he heard it again he responded, "Hey! Over here!"
Miyu came out of the tent. Essobee looked at her. No hypothermia now, he thought with a mental smirk. If you were determined to keep warm, you could do it.
The voice called, "Where are you?"
"We're trapped in a cave!" Miyu shouted.
"Look up!" Essobee called, then bent down and packed some snow together. He hurled it up against the sheer cliff, where it burst. Some of the snow stuck to the grey granite. "Did you see that?"
"Yes! Hold on, I'll get help."
"Shoot, I thought he was help." Essobee grumbled.
About ten minutes later they heard a female voice call, "Essobee? Miyu? Where are you?"
"Aw, crud." Essobee muttered. He shouted, "Look up!" and threw another snowball up onto the cliff face.
"Okay, stay there!"
"Like we got anywhere to go?" he said under his breath.
Soon he saw a figure walking through the conflagration. The burning fog parted around her, leaving her in the middle of a sphere of clear air. Morgana stepped into the dead area that Miyu had created, then opened her eyes wide and stepped back. "Are you safe?"
"Yes. Drained, but safe," Miyu answered.
Morgana looked at Essobee, who had nothing to add. Morgana said, "Walk close to me." She turned back toward the blaze. Wordlessly Miyu and Essobee fell in step behind her, staying within the safe area around her.
Several sorcerers watched the three emerge from the red fog. The leader, Marius, said "Thank goodness."
"Goodness had nothing to do with it. Try dumb luck," Essobee remarked.
Looking closer at Miyu, Marius asked, "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I just need to recharge, that's all. I spent myself on a spell to keep that from burning us." She gestured back.
"A spell that deadens an area to magic, by chance?"
Miyu glanced quickly at Essobee, then answered reluctantly, "Yes."
"I taught it to her." Essobee mentioned.
"No wonder you need to recharge. Spells like that will consume whatever power is handy if you let it."
"So I noticed." Miyu tried to force a smile.
"Well, no harm done to you, at least. Go back and rest."
Miyu looked uncomfortable. "I'd like to stay. After all, this is my fault," she said in a low voice.
As if he hadn't heard her, he mused, "I suspect that the center of the concentration is significantly below the surface of the ice, so what you saw was only the top of the iceberg. It must still be tightly concentrated in a small area, though, or it would have spread long ago. Containment is not the problem; it's simply a matter of cleanup."
"Cleanup?!" Essobee exclaimed, gesturing at the blaze. "That's like a forest fire! How are you going to just clean it up?!"
"By removing its fuel." Marius answered simply.
"I'll use a similar approach to the one you used, Essobee," Marius answered. "Remove the soured mana that is fueling it. I will have to use a more brutal method than I'd originally planned, but that can't be helped."
"You'd use black spells? How about that." Essobee remarked.
"If a Warlock's Wheel is necessary, then that is what I will use. Tanya," he said to a female bat, one of his students, who had been watching, "In my lab, behind the chest on the far wall, you'll find a tarnished silver disk about a foot in diameter. Bring that to me, would you?"
Tanya nodded and hurried to the gates of the city. Marius noticed how tired Miyu looked. "Why don't you go back and rest?" he suggested again.
"No." She shook her head. "This is my fault. I didn't control it well enough. I'd like to help."
"No, it's not your fault." Marius shook his head emphatically. "I misjudged the situation entirely. I should have investigated it myself. I assumed that it was exactly what it appeared to be. How many times have I cautioned against that very mistake?" He smiled ruefully.
"Uh – what's a Warlock's Wheel?" Miyu asked.
"It's simple kinetic magic," Marius replied, slipping into lecturing mode. "A wheel which spins in midair, accelerating as long as there is any mana to power it. If you let it run without check, it will continue until all the magical power in the area has been used up by the spell, then destroy itself when the spells protecting the disk's integrity lose effect. It leaves behind an area dead to magic, in which no spells will work and no magical creature can remain alive."
"Also good for removing enchantments and curses," Essobee remarked.
Tanya had come out of the gates, carrying what looked like a soot-blackened serving dish. She handed it to Marius, who held it up and inspected it critically. He frowned. "I have let this thing become so tarnished." He drew a finger along the front, tracing the barely-visible line of an inscription. "Ah well, it won't harm the spell."
He paused, the wheel in his hand, looking at the blaze. After a minute Essobee asked impatiently, "What are you waiting for?"
"Just trying to figure the best approach. If I start on the edges, the denser concentration in the middle will flow into it. It'll be like digging in quicksand," Marius murmured.
"So, you need it put in the middle, right? Then you cast the spell, start it spinning, and guide it from there?"
"If I could throw it that far." Marius answered. "I ought to to place it in the center. However, the more power someone has, the more dangerous it is for him to go into something like that. For me to place it would be like bringing straw to a fire."
Tanya was about to speak when Essobee growled, "Oh, for-" and snatched the wheel from Marius's hand. He ran into the blaze before anyone could stop him.
He slopped through shallow, slushy water until he was all but blinded by the red haze. This had to be close to the center of the storm. He dropped the disk with a splash and turned to run back out the way he had come in. As he did he felt a burning sensation under his feathers. When he emerged from the haze he released the breath that he had been holding, threw off his coat, and fell face forward into the snow to cool himself.
Marius paused a moment, startled by Essobee's actions. The duck did not seem to be hurt. Morgana cast a spell to leach the water from Essobee's soaked boots before it could freeze. Marius started speaking softly, focusing his mind on the silver disk in the center of the conflagration. He levitated it, controlling his powers very tightly to compensate for the buffeting of the wild energies, and made a twisting motion in the air with one hand. Nobody could see the disk begin to spin through the fog, but Marius could feel the spell take effect.
As he was doing this, Essobee stood and brushed snow off of his face and coat. "What?" he said to Miyu, Foxglove, and Morgana, who were staring at him.
"Are you all right?" Miyu asked.
"Eh, maybe I'll have a rash or something," Essobee said offhandedly. He brushed one hand over his wrist, going against the grain of his feathers. The skin underneath was dark pink, almost red.
Morgana began casting a healing spell on him, to throw off the surface burn. Essobee did not pay attention to her. He was more interested in the wheel.
The fog immediately surrounding the wheel was starting to spin slowly. The wild mana was gradually being drawn into the wheel as its fuel was destroyed, creating a vacuum that sucked more in.
Marius let the wheel accelerate until the fog was a translucent layer close to the ground. Then he slowed it and stepped closer. The lack of border markings was no difficulty; the melted snow was refreezing below the area where the blaze had been, forming shiny pools. Using his magic sight, he guided the wheel telekinetically, spinning it over the areas of thicker concentration. The results were spotty, with dead areas alternating with patches of thicker mana, but that was merely inelegant, not dangerous. They could smooth it out later. In the meantime, it would pose no threat.
Miyu was exhausted. Suspending the blocking spell to allow herself and Essobee back into Shambhala, she, too, went to her home to rest and recover. She had wanted to speak to Essobee, but he had hurried away, before she could say anything.
It was Marius. He asked, "Do you have a minute?"
"Sure." He knew that she would make the time, but he always asked as a courtesy.
He entered. She closed the door behind him, and sat down. He did as well. Elbows on the arms of the chairs, he folded his hands together and stared at her with slightly unfocused eyes. She held still while he inspected her for any harm, bodily or otherwise. At length he said, "No damage done. Considering what happened, you are quite fortunate."
"I know," she said quietly.
He lowered his hands and sighed. "I didn't say that well. Miyu, given the situation at hand, I believe that you did quite well. Many in that situation would have panicked."
"I can't take the credit for that," she admitted. "Essobee yanked me out of there before I got burned." She shuddered at the memory of the mists that had rushed in, cocooning and blinding her, when her spells had gone out of control.
"Please tell me what happened then." He clasped his hands again and leaned forward.
She paused, deciding where to start. "Well… at first I just followed the border he painted. Drawing force lines was easier since I was commanding more power. I thought it was from the stones."
"Mistake number one," the Vampire mused. "In giving you those, I led you to open yourself to outside sources. If you're not experienced, a strong source can overwhelm you. Please continue."
"Isn't that a black magic spell?" she asked, surprised.
"Magic, like any tool, is neither good nor evil. Morality lies in how it is used. Rarely is it moral to destroy any resource, but exceptions do arise. The ‘black' and ‘white' classes of magic are artificial distinctions. Please go on."
"Well, there's not a lot to say. We stayed in that tent and -- kept warm, waiting for someone to rescue us. That's all."
He did not comment on her hesitation.
He found himself headed toward one of the student dormitories. Fancily built longhouses, he thought dismissively. He walked inside, looked at the list of room numbers and names, and went down one of the two hallways. From inside the door to Miyu's room he heard voices. There was Marius's low but unmistakable voice. Crud. He'd wait until the Vampire left. Until then, he'd listen in.
"I know," she agreed unenthusiastically.
"Time will bring perspective. Another truism that probably brings no comfort now."
"I just have to keep telling myself that."
"One thing pleases me," he said in a different tone, "you and Essobee did work together quite effectively. There are some here who would have called that an impossibility."
She looked up, glad for the change of subject. "It wasn't that easy, especially at first."
He nodded understandingly. "He could be so much more if I hadn't clipped his wings, as it were, by preventing him from using magic. I have been waiting for him to mature a bit, so that I could give those powers back. In so doing, perhaps I have kept him in a kind of artificial childhood..." He looked up. "Did that make any sense?"
"Sort of," she answered, smiling at his odd phrasing.
"I would like you to continue working with him, if possible. In that respect, this affair was a success. Sometimes what many cannot do by force, one person may accomplish by invitation."
Roughly he grabbed a book off his shelf, not caring which one it was. He opened it and glared at the words on the page, as if trying to burn them off the paper, while thinking about what he had overheard.
It was a setup to get him to do a good deed. The mess outside wasn't planned, but it sure was convenient for them. Send out an apprentice and a hamstrung sorcerer... stupid! Anything that ridiculous had to be a setup! He should have let her fry instead of dragging her to the tent!
He slammed the book angrily. Clutching it tightly in his hands, he snarled, "I wish I were the devil out of here!"
Morgana McCawber and Negaduck are copyright © Disney. All other characters are copyright © Kim McFarland. This story is copyright © Kim McFarland. Permission is given by the author to copy this story for personal use only, provided no changes are made to the story or this notice.
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