Last Herald Mage: Magic's Pawn Part 28
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Gallen ran the last few steps, coming to a trembling halt at the wizard's side. Krebain strolled around him, looking him over carefully. The mage-light followed in faithful attendance above his head. "Let's see - I believe you have a wife.'' He swept his gaze over the rest of the villagers. "Yes, indeed - and there she is. Reva - my goodness. A would-be sword-lady, are you? Come here, my dear."
He crooked his finger, and dusky Reva stumbled out of the group at the barricade on the west road, still clutching her improvised pike of a knife strapped to the end of a staff. Her face was strained, white - and a mask of despair.
Krebain shook his head. "Really, my dear, you have no use for a weapon like that. Take it from her, Gallen."
Gallen did not move; sweat poured down his face, glistening in the mage-light.
"I said, take it. " Krebain's voice sharpened with command, and Gallen's gnarled hands slowly reached forward to take the pike from his wife.
"Now - just rest the point of that wicked little knife on her stomach, why don't you." Gallen his face reflecting his agony, lowered the pike until the point of the blade touched his wife's stomach. He whimpered again as Krebain's will made him brace it. Krebain's smile grew broader. "Of course, Reva, it would be very painful if you were to walk forward just now - "
Vanyel couldn't bear it. He gathered what little there was of his courage, and shouted, his voice breaking.
He pushed his protectors aside and walked out from behind them to stand in the open, a pace or two in front of them.
And in the moment when Krebain turned to face him, licking his lips, he Mindcalled with all his strength - :Yfandes! The mage - he's here! *Fandes - : "That's enough, child."
Vanyel felt a barrier close down around the village, a barrier that allowed no thought to escape, and no further call for help.
He raised his chin with the same bleak defiance that had served him against his father.
"Let them alone, wizard," he said, his voice trembling despite his efforts to keep it steady. He could feel sweat trickling coldly down the back of his neck and his mouth was dry and sour with fear. "I'm the one you wanted."
Krebain made a dismissing gesture, and Reva and Gallen staggered as his hold over them was released. Gallen threw down the pike and seized her shoulders, and together they melted into the crowd at Krebain's back.
"Come where I can see you," the wizard said, mildly.
Vanyel walked, with slow and hesitant steps, into the area where the mage-light was striking.
"What a pleasant surprise - "
Unless Krebain was feigning it - which was possible - he was surprised.
And - pleased.
If Vanyel could keep him in that mood, maybe he could keep them all safe a little longer. He began to feel a tiny stirring of hope.
"What a truly pleasant surprise. My would-be enemy is a beautiful young man. What is your name, lovely one?"
Vanyel saw no reason not to answer him. If nothing else - if Yfandes had heard him, he'd be buying time for help to arrive. He allowed himself a moment to hope a little more, then replied, "Vanyel Ashkevron."
"Vanyel - I do not believe this - Vanyel Ashkevron?" The wizard laughed, throwing back his head. "What a joke! What a magnificent jest! I come a-hunting you, and you walk unarmed into my very hand!"
Vanyel shook his head, bewildered.
The wizard grinned. "Dear, lovely boy. You have enemies, you know, enemies with no appreciation of beauty and a great deal of coin to spend. Wester Leshara holds you to blame for the death of his cousin Evan, didn't you know that? He sent me an additional commission to deal with you as I had with young Staven Frelennye. I had thought to attend to my own pursuits a while here, then deal with you at my leisure, allowing matters to cool first. But - now I don't know that I am going to oblige him by killing you. Not when you turn out to be so very beautiful. Come closer, would you?"
Vanyel felt no magical coercion, which rather surprised him. "If you don't mind," he said carefully, "I'd really rather not.''
This time Krebain's smile held a hint of real humor. "Then I shall have to come to you, beautiful Vanyel."
He paced gracefully across the pounded dirt of the village square, taking each step as though he walked on a carpet of petals strewn especially for his benefit. The mage-light continued to follow him faithfully. He strolled around Vanyel as he had walked around Gallen, but his expression this time was less cruelly cheerful and more acquisitive. His path was an inward-turning spiral, with Vanyel as the center, so that he completed his circuit facing Vanyel and less than a handspan away. He reached out with one crimson-gloved hand, ignoring the presence of everyone in the square as if he and Vanyel were alone together, and laid it along Vanyel's cheek. Vanyel looked steadily into his blue-black eyes within the shadowed eyeholes of the helm-mask and did not flinch away. Those eyes were the first indication he had seen that the wizard was something other than human. Those dark and frightening eyes were slitted like a cat's - and under the velvet of the glove, Vanyel could feel something very sharp and talonlike resting on his cheek.
"My goodness," Krebain breathed, "Silver eyes. Rare and beautiful, Vanyel Ashkevron. How wonderful, and how strange, that you should be here, at this moment. And I wonder, now - given what I know of Tylendel Frelennye - were you only the friend of Tylendel, or were you something more than friend?"
Still ignoring everyone else, he leaned forward and kissed Vanyel passionately and deeply.
Vanyel trembled with an unexpected reaction comprised of both revulsion and desire.
Half of him wanted to pull away and strike at this creature who could casually force a man to stab his own wife, who could regard the villagers about them so lightly as to totally ignore them at this moment.
The other half of him wanted to melt into the wizard's arms.
He fought the temptation to yield. This - dammit, it's nothing but sex, that's all it is. I know what real love feels like - and this - isn't - close.
He closed his eyes, as his knees went to water.
A dream-flash - "Surrender to me, Herald-Mage Vanyel, " Leareth said. * *Take my darkness to you.''
Had that dream been, not Foresight, but a warning?
He fought to think clearly, battling silently, but daring to give no outward sign of his struggle. It was at that moment that he realized that whatever other powers this wizard had, he did not share Vanyel's Mind-Gifts. Like - Thought-sensing, for instance. The shield over the village was spellcast, not mindcast. Which meant that Vanyel should be able to read the wizard, without Krebain knowing he was being read.
Krebain finally brought an end to the kiss, pulling away slowly and reluctantly, taking his hand from Vanyel's cheek with a tender caress of his velvet-clad fingers.
"Oh," he whispered, his eyes half-shut, the slits in them narrowed to near-invisibility. "Oh, beautiful and rare, lovely Vanyel. Come with me. Come with me, be my love. I can teach you more than you have ever dreamed. I could carve you a kingdom, give you power, pleasure - anything you desired. Name it, and it would be yours."
The temptation was incredible. And the thought - I could guide him. I could bring him to compassion. He doesn't have to be this way. I could make him into something better. Couldn't I? Even if I don't love him - wouldn't that be worthwhile? Wouldn't that be a worthy goal? And I don't love him - but I could care for him, I think. There's a mutual need - isn't that enough?
His heart raced. I have to know - what is Krebain truly made of? If there's something there to work with - something I can influence - Krebain smiled. "I could even," he whispered, "grant you the finest revenge upon Wester Leshara the world has ever witnessed. A revenge so complete that it would even satisfy Tylendel's lover."
The wizard's mind was open to Vanyel's at that crucial instant; completely open and unguarded.
Vanyel saw how Krebain had gotten his power; how - and from what - he had learned it. And the uses he had put it to. And how he had enjoyed what he had done. There was nothing there that was human or humane.
Gods! Never - never would I give myself to that!
Utter revulsion killed all trace of desire - and now Vanyel flinched away, his nausea plain for anyone to read.
Krebain stepped back an involuntary pace, his face flushed. He frowned with anger, and his expression hardened. "I will have you, Vanyel Ashkevron - with or without a mind."
Vanyel had that much warning to get a shield up; had that much warning to scream "Run - " at the villagers.
At least, he thought he screamed that warning at them. They certainly scattered as quickly as if he had, scrambling up and over the barricades that they had built to keep the menace out, leaving him alone with the wizard.
Who called the lightnings down on him.
Vanyel's body screamed with pain, despite the shielding; his hair stood on end, and fire ran along his nerves. He went to his knees beneath the onslaught; reinforced his shielding and felt it weakening - and then remembered what Moondance had said about the power-nodes.
He reached, desperately; found them, tapped into them, and felt their power flowing into him, giving him a heady surge of strength, driving out the pain and renewing the will to fight this monster in human guise.
He staggered to his feet, backed up a pace, and deflected Krebain's own lightnings back into his face.
The fires arced across the square and the wizard retreated, getting his own shields up just in time. Vanyel did not give him a chance to recover from his surprise, but launched an attack of his own; not lightnings this time, but a vise of power, a glowing shroud that he closed around the wizard and began tightening.
But Krebain broke it after a moment's struggle, and countered with a circle of flame that roared up about him and began eating its way inward. Vanyel could smell his boot-soles scorching, and his skin tightened and hurt.
Vanyel in his turn, sweating with the heat, and his fear and effort, called upon the dust of the square to rise and snuff the flames.
This time Krebain gave him no chance to invoke a counterattack, but summoned a mage-storm like the one in Vanyel's dream. It howled down out of the night sky and surrounded him in a cloud of wind and energy, crackling with it, screaming with it.
And like the one in Vanyel's dream, this one ate away at his shields as fast as he could bring them up.
The whirlwind howled and raged, obscuring sight - he couldn't see - couldn't see anything anymore, just the flickering storm of power shrieking around him, coming closer by the moment.
One by one the nodes went drained and dead; now there was only his own strength left.
He went to his knees, holding the last of his shields up with little more than desperation left to sustain him - - and a final hammer-blow blew the storm away and smashed him to the earth.
Vanyel lay stunned in the sudden silence of the square, broken and bleeding.
He was sprawled half on his back, and the silence howled in his ears as the storm had. The square was deserted now, but for the silent scarlet figure of the wizard.
Vanyel was utterly spent, and everything hurt so much he could hardly think. He coughed, and tasted blood, and when he tried to breathe, he felt stabbing pains in his chest and back.
He was oddly conscious of little things, of a pebble digging into his cheek, of his ankle bending the wrong way, of a strand of hair tickling his nose, of blood running into his eyes - of a single flake of snow spiraling down into the mage-light.
His vision began to darken as Krebain strode toward him from across the square; he seemed to be seeing things through a shadowy mist.
The wizard stood over him.
And strangely, he felt like laughing. Gods. All that being afraid of that dream, for nothing. He saw the wizard's expression, and sobered. So. This is what it comes to. This is how it ends. At least - he looks a little tired. At least I put up some kind of a fight.
He thought he heard someone, something, whimper. Please, gods - let those people have gotten away. Don't let this have been for nothing. Let the others come in time to save them.
"I told you, Vanyel Ashkevron, that I would have you with or without a mind," Krebain said softly. "But I would rather you were mine wholly, and of your own will. You see? I can be merciful. I can be kind to those I love. I give you another chance, beautiful Vanyel. Surrender to me, and I will heal your hurts, and give you all that I promised you. Will you come with me now?"
No. Not ever. Not at the cost of my life. He looked up at those inhuman, chillingly cold eyes. And it will be at the cost of my life. But - gods - I can't let it cost more lives than my own!
He reached, as far as he could, hoping for a tiny bit of energy left in the power-nodes - hoping to find another node, undrained - - and touched the valley-node instead.
Gods - it isn't possible!
For a moment he thought he saw a way out, not only for the villagers, but for himself. But when he assessed his own capabilities, he saw that to use the raw, elemental force of the vale would surely kill him. He no longer had the strength to control it. The effect would be like what he had done to himself in practice with Starwind - only a hundred times worse.
He could die painlessly, letting the wizard destroy his mind and soul - or he could die in agony, saving the people of Covia.
I was willing to die before, for *Lendel - why would I be afraid of pain and dying now? he thought, with a catch in his throat. I surely owe a price for not stopping *Lendel. All right. Gods, let this be my expiation. Give me this last strength to stop him.
"No," he breathed. "Never."
The wizard's face twisted with anger, and he stepped back to deliver the final blow. Vanyel closed his eyes and reached - In this last moment, peace came to him. A strange and heart-tight inner stillness, born of total acceptance that what he was about to do would kill him without Moon-dance near to heal what he would do to himself. With a feeling oddly like the lifting of his heart, he opened himself to the valley-node - and focused - And the raw power poured through him and blasted from his eyes.
He screamed in agony, but his own cry was lost in the shriek Krebain made as the bolt of power caught him unshielded, in the face.
Then Vanyel fell, into true peace, and darkness. "Oh, *Lendel, wherever you are, I'm coming. Please, please be there - Dear Withen; I think you would be very proud of your son today - A faint sound from the fern-canopied bed beside her made Savil set down her pen and paper beside her chair, unwrap herself from her cloak, rise, and draw the silky hangings aside.
Vanyel - bandaged, splinted and bruised, and looking very pale against the dark green of Moondance's bedding - moved his head again on the pillow, and opened dazed eyes.
Savil swallowed hard; he looked so battered, so bewildered.
Oh, my little love, we so nearly lost you this time - so close, so close. I half expect you to ask me to let you stay here, sheltered and safe. And the gods know, you've earned it.
He blinked, as if he didn't quite believe what he sdw.
"Aunt - Savil?" he said faintly. "Are you - real?"
She sat carefully on the edge of the bed, and touched his cheek, giving him a faint smile. "That real enough for you?"
He nodded, and blinked again. "The people - the villagers - Gallen and Reva - are they all right?"
"They're fine, ke'chara, " she replied, her heart filling with pride and love at the question. His first thought - for others. There's no doubt; Starwind was right. There is no doubt of him. * *We got there just in time for Moondance to keep you from getting away from us. Gods - it's a good thing that bastard wasn't still alive. I don't think I've ever seen him so angry in my life, and Yfandes was white-hot with rage. There wasn't much left for us to do. Basically all I did was make a Gate to get us all back to k'Treva so Moondance could put you back together again."
"Then everyone's all right?" he asked insistently, as if he didn't quite dare to believe her. "Are they protected now? Are you and Starwind and Moondance all right, too? That wizard - he was the one Leshara hired - he told me so. He told me - "
"Later," she soothed. "Tell me all that later. We're all fine. K'Treva sent out some of the Journeyman Tayledras to help get Covia back on its collective feet and give the region a little more in the way of protections. You're the only one who sustained any damage, love." She glanced up at the skylight to gauge the time. "I expect Moondance will be along any moment to give you another Healing."
He sighed, and made a tiny choking sound. She looked down, and saw to her confusion that he was crying.
"Vanyel," she asked, bewildered by the tears, and the strange, lost look in his eyes, "Van, what's wrong?"
"I - " he choked hopelessly. "I - after *Lendel - they won't want me. The Heralds - they won't want me - "
"Oh, Van - " She closed her eyes against a surge of tears of her own, but these were born of joy. Child - oh, child, you rise above my expectations. That was the very last thing I ever thought I'd hear from your lips right now. "*tan - ke'chara - the Heralds will want you. How can they not want you? You are a Herald already.''
"I - am? I am?" He stared at her, bewildered, clearly unable to believe her.
She reached over to the chair and pulled her white cloak from it, draping it carefully over him. He clutched it, his eyes wide, his face reflecting all of his changing emotions, as he moved from hopelessness through surprise, to a joy that equaled her own.
" - there. There's your Whites to prove it. You have a bit more to learn; we'll be staying here for a few moons yet while Starwind teaches you - but Vanyel, what makes a Herald is the heart. A caring heart, that cares for others before itself. And you are a Herald."
He smiled then, a smile so sweet and so happy that it stopped her breath, and closed his eyes in absolute contentment, falling asleep with one hand still clutching the cloak to him.
- yes, Withen. You would be very proud. I know I am.
Last Herald Mage: Magic's Pawn Part 28
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Last Herald Mage: Magic's Pawn Part 28 summary
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