and then

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A breeze tugged at the hem of his robes.  He was aware of the slight play in his attire, as he was aware of everything around him, but it held no true interest or concern.  He simply catalogued the wind speed, should he have need to factor it into a spell later, and moved on.  There were miles yet to cover before the sun set on the day and the miles already covered had not been kind.

Puffs of dust lifted away from each footfall and then settled before the next step was taken.  It wasn’t the only sign of his passing, but these marks in the trail were the most obvious.  Not that he expected to be followed, or cared if he was, but he was still mindful of the evidence he left behind.  There were tricks and spells he could use to hide his back trail, but he was in too much of a hurry to bother.

The sun lowered itself upon the horizon, spreading the last of its warmth and glow in shrinking patterns and shapes.  He marked the stretching shadows.  He marked the settling chill.  He marked the changing colors in the sky above.  Each of these could be a factor if his magic was called upon.  Still, he progressed steadily forward.

When the moon decided to slip free from hiding, he would stop for the night and use its muted glow to make a hasty camp and eat.  He would trust his wards, woven into the fabric of the clothes he wore, to protect his short sleep and then in the morning, before the sun had begun to climb free of the opposite horizon, in its chase after the moon, he would journey on.

His destination waited two days ahead of him.  There would be a fight.  Blood would be spilled.  Hopefully not his own, but one could never be certain of these things before they had actually happened.  Still, even uncertain of the outcome, he must go.  He owed it to those who had gone before him.  He owed it to himself.

Thinking of the looming battle stirred emotions best left in check until his journey was over.  Electricity crackled from his clenched hands and fire roared briefly in his eyes.  Closing their lids, but not stopping his forward steps, he took a deep soothing breath and when he opened his eyes again the fire had gone.  He tucked his rage away, saving it to unleash when he arrived and faced his tormentors.  The fire rightfully belonged to them and they would see it in due time.

the trigger

I heard the whistling of the air, a high screaming sound of something small and fast careening towards my head, the instant before the rock struck with a dull thud.  I’d flinched, frightened by the sudden rushing noise, but the instinctive movement hadn’t been enough to remove me from the missiles path.

A ringing echo thundered between my ears and I stayed hunched down, to avoid further attacks, as I turned to see who had thrown the rock at me.  A sheepish grin and a raised apologetic hand alerted me to the assailant.  “Sorry,” he said from halfway across the playground, “I wasn’t aiming for you.”

I mumbled “No worries,” and waved him off while rubbing at my skull as though the circular motion might somehow ease away the pain and keep the growing welt from forming.  Sure he hadn’t meant to hit me.  Sure he’d been just having a bit of fun.  Sure his incessant “joking” at my expense wasn’t supposed to be harmful or damaging.  It was all in good fun…

I was tired of that lie.

The school day ended and I sat in silence, ignoring the earnest imploring to share about my day, when my mom picked me up and drove me home.  We’d had all the circular arguments about bullies before.  The school had been notified.  The prime offenders had been suspended, only to return after their sentence and resume their offenses.  There was nothing more to be said.  There was no solution that could be achieved through words.

There was, however, plenty that could be achieved through anger, and violence, and destruction, and the guns I’d be taught to care for and fire accurately from a young age.  When the blood red haze of rage lifted and I was asked why I had done it, I wouldn’t lie.  I aimed.  I pulled the trigger.  It was not in good fun.

returning

Lightning crackled over the mountains in the east.  The flashes mirrored off the clouds and slick ground in dizzying displays of the heaven’s might.  The storm, however, was far enough away that the thunder never reached his ears.  He considered turning left to take the path towards the hills so he might catch the outer banks of rain and soothe his tired body, but his legs kept him true to the southern trail.  There would be time enough for rest when he reached his destination.

Allowing his eyes to look down the length of the range that hedged the eastern horizon he saw it intersected his trail in the distance anyway.  The storm probably will have moved on by the time he reached the start of his slow climb, but he could at least hope the clouds would linger to provide some relief from the attentive sun.  It scorched the world with no consideration for soil or flesh.  It dried and parched to the point of splitting.  It showed no mercy and he had been woefully unprepared when he set forth all those days ago.

It had been a normal morning, with the songbirds of the meadow rejoicing the closing night and his old home creaking as it struggled to wake ahead of the coming day.  He had gone out just as the sky had started to brighten and warm to collect some odds and ends from his garden for breakfast.  The crashing of hooves echoing against the stillness of the morning had shattered the peaceful calm, even before the riders appeared and…

Well, then his quest had begun.  To track them down.  To repay them for their deeds.

Lightning flashed again in his periphery but he didn’t turn to watch the storm dance among the peaks.  His focus had returned fully to the south, the home of the raiders he followed, and the vengeance he planned on dolling out once he caught up to them.  No, he had not been prepared for the grueling nature of the trip but that mattered little when he had no plan for the return trek.

He gripped his staff tighter, sweat running down his hand to drip into the hard-packed dirt at his feet.  Calluses had formed quickly in the first days of his journey.  The scarred flesh of his palms, and feet, matched those of his heart.  The exterior ones would never heal because they wouldn’t be given the opportunity and the interior ones wouldn’t because there were none left who could aid their recovery.

There was no point in planning on a return journey because there was no one left to return to.

one down

She cowered and trembled in the darkness, rain lashing against her, soaking her robes and sending rivulets of drops running down her face.  Her drenched hair, loosed from its normal jeweled bind in her flight, clung in patches to her cheeks, forming channels for the water.  Her knees sank into the pooling mud.  The wind whipped branches snatched at her unprotected shoulders and back.  In her haste to flee to safety she had neglected to invoke any of the spells that would have saved her from the indignity of the weather.

The lightning highlighted her disheveled state and the thunder rolled in peals of laughter.

The panic in her eyes was replaced with rage as she watched her tower burn.  The orange flames, tinted with nuances of purple and green as her stores of magical components tasted death, reached through the windows to defy the fury of the storm.  The rain would win in the end, but that wouldn’t, that couldn’t, keep the fire from showing its defiance.

Some of the magical tomes would protect themselves from the fire and looters and others would be lost forever.  She could replace the stores of ingredients.  She could recreate her trove of potions.  She could rebuild the tower.  But, she could not salvage the ancient texts she had been studying from, the histories and scrolls that she counted as her most prized possession.

Her ex-apprentice had started laughing, and she’d felt, as much as sensed, the hands reaching for her from the darkness behind her and she had panicked, whisking herself along the corridors of magic without thinking about what she was doing.  She cursed herself as a fool.  She should have trusted her protective enchantments.  She should have trusted her superior knowledge of the craft and met her cowardly enemies directly.  Instead, she had shown herself a coward as well.

“I’m a coward and a fool.”

The words, though swallowed immediately by the force of the rain and wind, rang clearly in her head for a long moment.  She had uttered them before.  They had been her truth before.

Her fists clenched, and she pushed away from the sodden earth.  “Never again,” her whispered words rose to rival the thundering electricity.  “Never again will I act so.  Never again will I allow myself to cower in response to the threats and posturing of bullies.”

She spoke the arcane words that distanced her from the weather’s onslaught and brought peace to her mind and soul.  The magic flowed within her, giving her balance and renewing her strength and purpose.  The sorceress closed her eyes and let the enchantment’s embrace envelop her.

When she opened her eyes and cast them back to her tower, they shown with equal parts rage and clarity of thought.  The next spell encased the flames in a vacuum, silencing their threat immediately.  Then she stepped through space and appeared instantly back in her study.  The chair that had held her captive was empty.  The shadows, however, happily divulged the secrets they had witnessed, and she smiled as she planned her next moves.

The sorceress had hunted bullies before and she knew just what to do.

the storm approaches

Lightning splashed in the distance, too far away for the thunder to roll against them, but close enough for the dazzling strike to sparkle in her eyes.  She leaned in close, allowing the returned darkness around her to press in and envelop her captive, her eyes offering the only illumination in the room, and whispered, “You will know the true meaning of pain before I’m done with you.”

The sorceress snapped her fingers and the candles in the room flared to magical life.  The flames rose unnaturally high and sent twisted shadows crashing around the room.  They melded with the darkness in the corners and advanced in threatening chaotic battalions, rushing, spiking, withdrawing, devouring.  She had finally caught her betrayer and she wasn’t holding back anything from her arsenal of fear and power in exacting her revenge.

“Stop me if this sounds familiar…  First you are going to lose your hands at the wrists and your feet at the ankles.  Then you’ll lose your eyes and nose.  Then I’ll snap the major tendons in your legs.  I’ll carve my justice from your flesh with searing spells.  When your body gives out and you lose consciousness I will haunt your dreams.  You will beg for death in your sleep and it will not be granted.”

A stiff wind ran through the open window, heralding the arrival of a storm.  The next time lightning danced in the heavens the thunder would shake the foundations of her fortress.  Rain began to drip against the sill.  The droplets splashed inward, pooled in tiny puddles on the dark stones, and ran along the edge to fall to the floor.  The sorceress, normally mindful of maintaining a clean and orderly study, hardly noticed the disruption at all.  Her former apprentice, caught in an enchanted cell that neutralized his ability to use magic, received the full force of her attention.

“How arrogant of you…  How foolish…  To think you could betray me, after I took you in and helped you reach higher levels of sorcery than you ever could have without me, and to not know that I would catch you?  I’m the greatest magician to walk this world, and many others, in over a century.  The ancient trees whisper their secrets to me.  Breezes bring me news from across the lands.  The stars show me the future.”  She spoke a single guttural word, a curse from times long forgotten, and her right hand shifted from flesh to a single gleaming blade, honed to a fine point.  “How could you possibly believe that you could get the better of me?”

She pressed her blade-hand through the exterior spell fabric keeping the betrayer immobilized, and smiled at the feeling of magic caressing her arm.  She smiled wider as a small trickle of blood began to ooze down his cheek below the point she had pierced his flesh.  Her eyes followed the trail down, hoping to watch a droplet fall from his chin.

Her expression of mirth faltered, slightly, however, as she saw the man returning the smile.  Her eyes darted upward and finally noticed the lack of fear in his.  Something was terribly wrong, and she quickly took a step back, retrieving her hand and cancelling the spell that had turned it into a weapon.

“Why aren’t you afraid?”  The sorceress shouted the question, outraged that her moment of revenge was being stolen from her.

Her former apprentice widened his smile and began an low chuckle, that was immediately lost in the crash and roll of driving thunder.