DargonZine 27, Issue 1

Ol Tamboch Narhin, Thread 6: Building Fear



This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Ol Tamboch Narhin

Fear affects everyone. It’s part of being mortal, of being human. That is a basic truth: everyone is afraid of something.

Fear can inhibit you, but that’s not always a bad thing: you touch a flame, it hurts you, and you don’t do it again. Fear can also be a motivator, driving you to learn more, or strive harder, or explore further to decrease those things that make you afraid.

Fear is often irrational. Spiders are seldom lethal. Snakes are not all deadly. Open spaces rarely pose a danger. Some fears, though, aren’t nearly as unreasonable as they might seem; people are afraid of the dark, which can’t really hurt you, but isn’t that fear really a fear of the unknown, a fear of danger approaching unseen? Such a fear can drive you to take rational precautions that make you safer.

Fear usually comes from within, built up by your own life experiences. Sometimes, though, you are taught to fear something without ever experiencing a reason to be afraid: people from Shakin are evil, or smoking Porian mushrooms will kill you. At times, the teacher might be building fear for your own good, but whatever the purpose, the ultimate result is artificial constraint, or even control.

This thread reveals a pattern in our tapestry that is much closer to the present day. It starts only 33 years ago.

 

***

 

Cefn an’Derrin stood on the afterdeck of the Golden Sleigh and watched the crew work. He was ten years old, and his position was cabin boy, but his father had plans that would put Cefn in charge of the an’Derrin trading fleet someday.

Cefn was the youngest of Eminent Lord Jarnof an’Derrin’s six sons. As such, he knew even at ten that his prospects for the future weren’t all that promising. The an’Derrin family was very prominent in the Kingdom of Garonan on the continent of Duurom, but even so, his father’s vast riches could only stretch so far, and there were also Cefn’s four sisters to consider.

His father had told Cefn that instead of getting land, or an impressive title and duties at court, both he and his brother, Merank, were going to be given businesses to run. Cefn was going step in as the head of the fleet when he was old enough, and Merank would take control of the merchant houses that the family owned. Both of them were to learn everything about their respective businesses from the inside.

To say that Cefn had learned a great deal on his first ocean voyage would be … a lie. Captain Toruddaw was attentive to Cefn’s family connections, and so Cefn found his duties as cabin boy to be very light. Toruddaw also happily related all kinds of information to Cefn, but it was far too complicated for him to remember, much less appreciate.

So mostly, Cefn stood and watched and stayed out of the way. He was learning a few things, like what he was standing on was the deck and not the floor, and the back of the boat was really the stern. He was still confused by the difference between the lines and the sheets, both of which were actually ropes, he thought, and he hadn’t yet figured out how pulling on the ropes on the deck managed to wrap the sails up like they did.

The sailors were doing just that at the moment, at the captain’s orders. Toruddaw had pointed out to Cefn the clouds that were quickly blowing up from the south. Cefn could see the growing waves, and the blowing spume at their crests, and even at only ten years old, he could tell that everyone was nervous about something.

The Golden Sleigh had been at sea for almost three months, and in that time the ship had weathered a few storms. And yet, Cefn couldn’t remember the crew acting so anxiously. He couldn’t read the sea yet, and so didn’t have any idea what was different about this time. He could see the coast of the continent that the captain called Cherisk not all that far away, and he was beginning to wish he could experience the coming storm from the safety of land.

Captain Toruddaw barked more orders, and the crew scurried around the deck securing every loose item they came across. The wind picked up, the clouds covered the sun, and the waves grew higher as the ship was made storm-worthy. The Golden Sleigh began to heave itself over the growing waves, and Cefn was glad he had gotten over being seasick very early in the voyage.

Rain began to fall lightly, and the captain said, “You’d best go below, boy. My sailors know how to hold on in a blow, but you’ll be safer below decks.”

Cefn obeyed, though it wasn’t easy. He began to get scared by how difficult it was to get from the afterdeck to the nearest stairs with the blowing wind, the increasing rain, and the strange, uneven pitching of the ship itself. Cefn moved, sometimes fell, from handhold to handhold, from railing to pin to hatch, working his way out of the weather, and then to the captain’s cabin. It was more comfortable out of the wind and rain, but the roll of the ship was even worse when he couldn’t see the horizon moving as well.

The storm grew worse. Cefn huddled in his hammock, listening to the creak of the boards, the lashing of the waves against the hull, the howling of the wind, and even the drumming of the driven rain. Even with all of that, the wild movements of the ship were the worst, pitching this way, rolling that, climbing ever mounting waves, and falling down the other side. It made him think that the ship wasn’t under any control whatsoever.

There was a crack from above, and then a crash that sounded like something heavy had landed across a good portion of the deck. There was another crash from the bow — that was the front — of the ship, and the Golden Sleigh stopped moving so erratically. Instead, it began slewing sideways in fits and starts as the waves pounded against it. Soon, yet another crash, this one even louder, and the deck tilted, but didn’t go level again.

Cefn remained in his hammock as more noise echoed through the ship — crashes, bangs, and the splintering of wood, all coming more and more frequently, until it became clear even to the novice sailor that something was seriously wrong with the Golden Sleigh.

He saw the rats fleeing before he saw the rising water. The deck tilted again, and more water rushed into the cabin. Cefn struggled to get out of the hammock, but the ship started shifting again, the stern dipping lower and lower, increasing the strange tilt of the deck and he couldn’t free himself. Water began pouring in faster and faster, and fear grew into utter panic in Cefn. He knew he had to get out of the hammock, out of the ship, and he closed his eyes and wished it would happen.

Suddenly, Cefn felt the oddest sensation, and a moment later he was flat on his back on something that was very hard and totally motionless. He opened his eyes as he sat up, and found himself sitting on solid, unmoving, rock at the edge of a cliff, with wind driving rain into his face. He looked around, but there was no one else on shore with him, nor was there anything else from the ship lying on the cliff either. His gaze was drawn by the pounding of the surf below him, and he could see the Golden Sleigh not all that far off shore, up against some rocks. How had he gotten off the ship? Why wasn’t he still below the ravaged decks, trying not to drown?

The Golden Sleigh already looked wrecked. The tallest mast was gone, and the ship had broken in half, the stern slowly sinking below the waves. Cefn couldn’t see anyone moving on deck, or swimming in the flotsam-strewn water. He crawled to the edge of the cliff to look down, but there was no beach below to shelter survivors, only waves crashing against more rocks.

Cefn posed there, kneeling safely not very far from the remains of the Golden Sleigh. As the Garonan knotwork that decorated the sides of the ship vanished under the water, he wondered how he had managed to survive.

 

***

 

Cefn struggled to keep his eyes dry as he climbed down from the driving bench of the ban, or wagon, he had been riding in. He felt like he was being abandoned, and he couldn’t help but think it was his own fault. He looked around the clearing at the base of a cliff where his adoptive gypsy family had stopped and wondered where the people he was being given to actually lived.

Kraws appeared at his side, and Cefn looked up at the leader of the Rhydd Pobl bantor — wagon group, or family — he had been living with for the past two years. The big man with the swarthy skin, the hooked nose, the curly black hair, and the wildly colorful clothing smiled and said, “Don’t worry, Cytwer Cefn. The Elders will take care of you far better than we could now.”

Cefn blinked hard, brought to the edge of tears again by Kraws’ use of cytwer, or cousin. True, everyone in the bantor was addressed by family terms because that was how the Rhydd Pobl did things, but it still made him feel like he belonged.

“Amdan Kraws, I … I’m sorry …”

“Shhh,” Kraws said and hugged Cefn. “You’ve done nothing wrong. It is just what you are, and no one should be sorry about that.”

“But, the ban that I broke, and the other things that shattered … I swear, I’ll find a way to repay …”

“No, no, no, Cefn. When we found you on the shore, the only survivor of that shipwreck, we took you in with no reservations. We didn’t have to do that; we could have taken you to the nearest town and left you.”

Kraws began leading Cefn toward the opening in the cliff that was barred by a huge rock. “In accepting you into the bantor, we took responsibility for you. Six months ago, when things started to vibrate around you when you were happy or angry, I knew that you were different from the rest of us, and that you needed a teacher. I directed the bantor toward such a teacher. When things began breaking, I hurried our pace, and tried to make sure that you were kept calm. Unfortunately, that dream wasn’t anything that any of us, you included, could control. We’ll make use of the remains of that ban, never fear.”

They had reached the large stone by then. Cefn stood still while Kraws inspected him, brushing at his hair, straightening his tunic. Kraws said, “You may have only been one of the Free People for two years, but you have been an apt pupil and I am proud to call you one of us. Make us proud as you go among the Elders, Cefn. Well, prouder than we already are.”

Cefn threw his arms around Kraws and hugged him, hiding the tears that finally spilled out of his eyes. Kraws returned the hug, then patted him on the back and gently pried his arms from around his waist. Cefn was turned back to the stone, which was trembling. Before he could figure out whether he was causing that, it stopped vibrating, then changed into a normal-looking, if large, door.

The newly revealed door swung open, and standing there was a white-haired, young-faced man in a floor-length robe, carrying a carved staff that was taller than he was with a sparkling jewel at the top.

“Welcome, travelers,” the man said with a broad smile. “I’m Master Birre. Your message was received, Honored Kraws. We will accept young Cefn here, and train him until he is safe with his powers. Then, if he wishes, we will continue his education in the use of those abilities.

“Come, Cefn, we have much work to do.”

Master Birre stepped to one side. Cefn looked up at Amdan Kraws, waved, then walked forward and through the gap in the doorway. Master Birre walked away down the corridor behind the door, and Cefn followed. He tried not to jump when the door closed behind him.

Cefn followed Master Birre down the smooth, squared-off, tan-walled corridor that didn’t look like any kind of cave, wondering just what his future was going to hold.

 

Cefn concentrated on the jug, trying to keep everything that Master Birre had told him about what he needed to do in his mind. He reached inside himself to the well of power, what his teacher called darih-wae, and drew up just a trickle. He sent the trickle toward the jug, trying to lift the object, but the moment that the darih-wae touched the clay, the jug shattered, splashing Cefn with the water it contained.

“You used too much darih-wae again, Cefn!” Master Birre shouted, looming up in front of him. He reached out and touched Cefn’s arm, then continued, “And you’ve not been draining your well properly, either. You’ve got too much darih-wae built up inside; if you did your exercises each morning like you’ve been told, you wouldn’t have so much built up and you might be able to control it better.”

Cefn didn’t like it when Master Birre yelled at him, but his teacher seemed to do little else these days. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t get any of his lessons right. The Elders had done so much for him, and he only wanted to repay their kindness.

“Now, go fetch another jug, and stop off in your room and drain some of that darih-wae into the crystal wall like you’re supposed to do,” Master Birre said. “At this rate, you’re going to be spending more time throwing pots than practicing magic!”

Cefn fled the classroom, then slowed down as he walked through the maze-like corridors of the strange place where the Elders dwelled. Despite the two years he’d been living in these halls and rooms, he still wasn’t entirely sure where this place was. It couldn’t all have been beneath the small hill where he’d been dropped off by Amdan Kraws, and there weren’t any stairs or ramps anywhere to imply that it was on multiple levels. He had never found a window or a door that led outside, either.

He didn’t mind being trapped with the powerful wizards, though. At first, he’d been too busy learning what it took to keep himself and everyone around him safe from the power inside. Then, he’d been too intrigued by the possibilities the Elders had shown him, the things he might one day accomplish with that same power, brought fully under his control. He had learned quickly, too, but only to a point. So far, he hadn’t been able to manage that control that was so important to further progress.

Cefn turned a corner, and suddenly Master Shawlp was right there in front of him.

“Whoa there, young Cefn!” said the short, rotund man with the thinning brown hair and the wide smile in his round face. “Where are you going so blindly, eh? Shouldn’t you be at your lessons?”

“I broke another jug, Master Shawlp,” Cefn said, “and I’m fetching a new one.”

“Still having a hard time levitating things, eh?”

Cefn nodded, not trusting his voice because his throat felt full of a rising urge to cry, and he was too old at fourteen to do that sort of thing.

“I’m sure that Elder Birre has a good reason for teaching you the hard way,” Master Shawlp said with a disapproving edge to his voice.

“There’s an easy way?” Cefn asked, crying forgotten.

“Well, easier, anyway, with the right yilred.”

Cefn had learned several languages while with the Rhydd Pobl, and several more while in the Elder enclave, but he didn’t know that word. “What’s that, Master Shawlp?”

“A yilred is a formula, a set of instructions more or less, to achieve a specific result in a specific way.”

“Why is that easier than what Master Birre is teaching me?”

Master Shawlp chuckled and patted his shoulder. “It might not be in some cases, but, well, let me give you an example. Suppose I gave you a loaf of bread, and all of the ingredients needed to make another one, and said, ‘Go ahead. Your turn.’ How easy would it be to make your own bread like that?”

“Impossible!”

“Perhaps not totally, but much more difficult than if I gave you a recipe, eh? That’s what a yilred is, roughly.”

“Do you think you could get me the levitation yil-red?”

“Elder Birre might not like it, but as long as you only used it to give yourself an idea of what you need to do to complete Birre’s lesson, that should be fine. Yes, I think I can do that for you, Cefn.”

“Thank you, Master Shawlp! I’d better be going now.” Cefn hurried away to finish his errands, sure that he would be able to perform up to Master Birre’s expectations once he had instructions to follow. He’d be careful not to get Master Shawlp in trouble, either. Feeling better, he was whistling a favorite Garonan tune by the time he reached his room.

 

***

 

Cefn grinned as he juggled seven delicate cups of boiling water with just his magic, while he levitated about a handspan above the ground, whirled a rug madly around between his feet and the floor, and spun a ring of dancing lights in a hoop around his middle.

Master Birre said, “Congratulations, Cefn, that’s quite impressive.” Cefn’s grin widened. His teacher continued, “It would have been even more impressive if you had been able to do it two days ago when I set you the task.” Cefn’s grin vanished, and he glanced at the poultice on his arm where boiling water had burned him two days ago, an act that didn’t disturb his magical display.

Master Birre said, “I think you can bring your display to an end now.”

Cefn sank to the stilled and grounded rug as the cups floated over to the table and touched down softly.

“I am leaving on a mission tomorrow. I’ll be back to continue your lessons, but I don’t know how long this is going to take. I want you to keep practicing, but make sure you don’t forsake your other studies, not even to tinker with those talismans you like so much.”

“Of course, Master Birre. What is your mission?”

“Secret at the moment, I’m afraid. Don’t worry, I don’t foresee any trouble with it.”

Cefn wanted to hug Master Birre, but he didn’t feel like he could, quite. He was close to his teacher, and Master Birre didn’t shout quite as much as he used to, though he seemed to expect Cefn to be able to do more than he’d managed so far. Birre had been around for the entire four years Cefn had been with the Elders and he knew he’d miss his teacher while he was gone.

Cefn knew, now, that the Elders weren’t just teachers. They had long ago taken upon themselves the responsibility of monitoring the uses of magic and making sure that it was used responsibly, though not necessarily for either good or evil. The masters were sent on missions to carry out this duty, and Master Birre had a reputation of being very expeditious when set a task. Cefn knew that his teacher would do his best to return swiftly without compromising the mission he’d been set. Cefn intended to follow Master Birre’s example when his own instruction was completed.

Cefn nervously began making the cups of still-boiling water dance up and down one by one. Master Birre said, “I find it strange that you can’t seem to execute a task when I give it to you, but within a day or two you have it mastered. That just isn’t normally the way it works. I’d almost suspect that someone is coaching you, but we have strict rules about that. I wonder what is going on, though.”

Cefn almost dropped the three cups that were in the air when he heard Master Birre, who seemed to be talking more to himself than to his pupil. Cefn had spent the last two years being fed yilred by Master Shawlp, exactly the formulae that he needed to accomplish the tasks Master Birre set him. Master Shawlp had been right about the recipe making the spells much easier, and after some practice, Cefn had been able to disguise how he accomplished the tasks so that they didn’t resemble the yilred very much any longer. But he’d had no idea that what was going on was against Elder rules.

“Greetings, Elder Birre, young Cefn,” a cheerful voice said, and Cefn did let one cup drop when he recognized it as Master Shawlp’s; fortunately, it only fell far enough to click when it landed. Cefn turned to the doorway, and saw the rotund Elder standing there with a very pretty young woman.

“This is my new pupil,” Master Shawlp said. “Meet Tanandra en’Elerch.”

Cefn couldn’t help but stare. Tanandra had long black hair and light blue eyes, and her shy smile made the center of Cefn’s chest hurt for some reason. The two Elders started talking to each other, but he wasn’t listening because Tanandra was walking toward him. He couldn’t help staring at her flowing hair, her long legs, the way the cloth of her robe drew tight over certain areas of her body briefly as she moved.

She stopped in front of him, and said, “Hello. I’m Tandi. You must be the other apprentice here right now. I hope we can work together, sometimes. I like how green your eyes are, like shining emeralds.”

Cefn felt his cheeks heating up, but he couldn’t look away from her fascinating face. He wondered if he was levitating without meaning to, because he certainly felt like he was floating, and he wanted to keep floating forever.

 

***

 

Cefn was sure he knew what he had to do. His teacher had been away for six months, and he was getting tired of endlessly practicing his old lessons. He’d studied the books, researched his theories, developed his plans, and he had finally worked up the courage to try his experiment. He only wished he had been able to find a yilred for what he wanted to do, or even something close, but he didn’t know which section of the library they were hidden in, and this wasn’t something he could go ask Master Shawlp about, seeing as it concerned his student, Tanandra.

Ever since she’d arrived, thoughts of Tandi had been tormenting Cefn. Thoughts of how nice she was, how smart she was, what it was like to practice casting with her, or study with her. He loved her smile, her laugh, the colors of her magic, the glossy shine of her hair. He obsessed over her body, what was under her robe. Her nearness did things to him that he didn’t really understand except in a primal way, and he knew well enough not to give in to those urges. But he had to do something, or he was going to go crazy.

Cefn thought about getting her to disrobe. All he wanted to do was see her. He tried to think of a mundane reason to get her naked. He recalled his time with the gypsies, as he’d learned many people called the Rhydd Pobl, and the casual way they had stripped down to go swimming. Unfortunately, there were no pools in the Elder enclave.

He thought he might just magically suggest that she throw off her robe, but that felt like too much of a violation, forcing her to do something like that. Then, he realized that he could make the robe vanish, and he actually knew a spell that would probably work. But that was too much of a violation, too, destroying her property, and she would have to go back to her room like that as well.

Finally, though, he had the perfect solution: make the robe disappear, but only to him! His rational mind tried to tell him it was impossible, but his sixteen, almost seventeen, year old body wasn’t listening. His mind tried to reason out the consequences: what if he ended up being able to see through everyone’s robes, did he really want to see Master Shawlp like that? Yet again, his body overruled the idea, knowing that Tanandra would make it all worthwhile. He refused to give any consideration to the idea that he might not succeed in casting the spell, or that it might go wrong.

Cefn made himself comfortable on his bed, closed his eyes, and began concentrating. He tapped the well, pulling darih-wae out and shaping it in front of his eyes. He focused on the principles he had studied that would make this work, and directed the darih-wae into new, more intricate shapes. He cast and cast, pulling darih-wae easily, supplying more and more as he felt it was needed. When he couldn’t see any reason to continue his making, he released the power and let it go to work. It didn’t take long: he felt a burst of heat, followed by a searing pain that just kept growing and growing until, with an anguished cry, he passed out.

Cefn was lying on his back on his bed when he returned to consciousness. His arm was across his eyes, and there was a soft hand on his cheek. Tanandra’s hand, probably, since it was her voice saying, “Cefn, what’s wrong?” that had brought him around. He didn’t hurt any more, nor could he feel anything different about himself, and since Tandi was in the room, this was a perfect time to see if his spell had worked.

Cefn moved his arm from across his eyes and knew that something was wrong when his eyes started to sting. He opened them, and that searing pain returned. He yelped, closed his eyes, which only lessened the pain slightly, and threw his arm back across them.

Tanandra’s hand vanished as she gasped. Cefn could feel her shifting away from him as she said, “Oh, Cefn. Your eyes, they’re all blue!”

 

***

 

Cefn moodily drew darih-wae and threw a spell at the candle without even glancing at the parchment in front of him. The candle exploded. A moment later, the wick of the one next to it bloomed into flame.

Master Shawlp said, “Cefn, this is a lesson you mastered years ago.” His voice was sharp, though not quite angry. Cefn missed Master Birre’s shouting. “Tanandra is having no problem following the lesson, but then, she’s reading the yilred, as you should be. Now let’s try a few more times before I send you to spend the afternoon dipping candles.”

Cefn glanced down at the parchment, feeling his head move inside the cowl he had created to protect his glowing blue eyes from the light that they could no longer bear. In the six months since the accident, word had returned that Master Birre had been slain while completing his mission and Master Shawlp had taken over as Cefn’s teacher. Now that he was being taught the yilred openly, he found himself annoyed by their constraints. Master Birre had never tried to limit his abilities, after all.

After a morning of candle-lighting, Master Shawlp said, “Go on to lunch, Tanandra. Cefn and I will be along shortly.”

Because Master Shawlp was teaching both of the enclave’s students at the same time, Cefn was forced to review material he had learned several years before. Tandi had come to the Elders with some magical training already accomplished, so Cefn hadn’t been forced to go back all five years. Master Shawlp gave him advanced lessons here and there, though, so at least he was still learning.

Cefn took the parchment his teacher handed him, and looked it over. Cefn grimaced, and once again ignored the yilred before him. He concentrated, and his chair lifted beneath him. He focused harder, and the table with the burning candles rose as well. The table began to spin, and then Master Shawlp’s chair started to rise.

It was all too easy. Cefn thought harder, and the candles began to dance one by one, and then in series. They started to circle and swoop, looping around the table, and then around Master Shawlp as well. Cefn drew in more objects in the room, until soon there was nothing resting on the ground, nothing that wasn’t moving in more and more complicated patterns.

When the magical, protective cowl slipped, the dart of pain caused Cefn to lose control completely. Objects dropped, Tandi’s empty chair shattered before it fell, the table bumped into Master Shawlp’s chair, and both shattered. Soon, everything in the room except for Master Shawlp was on the floor, and many of the objects were in fragments. Cefn felt bruised from the broken furniture he’d landed on, and there was a stabbing pain in his leg that, once he’d adjusted the cowl and looked, turned out to be from a jagged piece of wood sticking into his shin.

“That was disgraceful,” Master Shawlp said, his voice cold and distant. “Perhaps we had better give over the advanced lessons until you can keep yourself under proper control.” He glanced around the room, and continued, “And you won’t be given any extra free time, so it looks like you’ll be spending nights in the woodshop replacing this furniture.”

Master Shawlp floated through the door, sank until he stood on the ground, and walked away. Cefn made a decision right then to forget about magic that came unfiltered, unfettered, directly from his mind. It was obviously dangerous the way he did it. He looked at the blood seeping out of his leg, and thought, far too dangerous.

 

***

 

Cefn knelt at the end of the dead-end tunnel and held the dying body of his love against himself. Many years had passed since the day he had made that decision in Master Shawlp’s classroom. Cefn had completed his studies with the Elders, had worked for them for several years, and had then ended his association with them for reasons he still didn’t regret, even though, in a way, they had led him to this lowest point in his life. He watched Fonlat walk away without a backward glance, but there was no point in going after him. It had been Je’lanthra’en’s choice to give the elixir to Fonlat, Je’en’s decision to give up her only hope in favor of one who had been lost because of her.

Cefn looked at the niche in the wall behind him where a rock with a small depression in it rested, like the crudest of cups. The reason Je’en lay dying in his arms was a poison sword wielded by Cefn himself. The quest for the cure had been a success, but there was only one dose in the concavity and it was obvious that the strange spring didn’t refill the hollow with any kind of speed. If Fonlat didn’t get the cure, Mahr would be forced to separate from him and return to the spaces between the orders of form to be truly lost forever. If Je’en didn’t get the cure, she would die before the torch burned much lower.

Je’en had chosen. Fonlat drank, binding Mahr’s spirit permanently to him, and walked away. Je’en had looked up at him and said, again, “I love you,” before closing her eyes and sagging against him. The last of the strength pills were gone, and there was nothing left to do but wait for the end.

Cefn hadn’t stopped trying to think of a way to save Je’en from the moment he’d been told what he’d done to her. He’d tried his healing sticks, but they hadn’t cured the poison. He’d gone over every yilred he’d ever seen about healing, every talisman he had ever made to repair an injury, every book or scroll he’d ever seen that dealt with how the body worked, but none of them helped.

Even with the Keseth’s map, he had still tried to find some way to save her within himself as they had quested for this purported cure. He tried to understand what the poison was doing to her, but he couldn’t fathom it. He tried to work out an application of darih-wae that would restore her to how she was before, but he couldn’t find one.

Cefn felt Je’en growing lighter in his arms. The sickly grey that was the poison’s outward effect had slowly spread across her whole body, and now it was slipping down her other arm and sliding across her face. He leaned down and kissed her, but could barely feel her lips under his. He was going to lose her. Tears dripped onto her cheek. He had to do something. Anything!

He concentrated, he drew up power from the supply that seemed inexhaustible inside him, and he tried to let it flow into her, to heal her, save her, but nothing happened. The power waited to be directed, and he couldn’t think how to do that. There was no pattern for him to match, no instructions in his head, no talisman to pick up and activate. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do anything!

Cefn felt her body settling lower, as if it was falling through his knees. Tears blinded his magically enhanced sight, and he tried to hug Je’en tighter, keep her from fading away by physically holding her here. As he struggled, he recalled something he had overheard back in the Elder enclave about a year after he’d arrived.

Master Birre had been speaking, and seemed to be walking away as he did so. “You’ll see,” he’d said. “In a few years he will start to show his potential. With the right training, I think that young Cefn will prove to be one of our most powerful students. Quite possibly even more powerful than you.”

There had been silence for a moment, and then Master Shawlp’s voice had said, quietly, “We’ll see about that.”

Cefn felt Je’en vanish from his arms. He opened his eyes, and she was gone.

So was his reason for living.

 

***

 

Cefn looked at the ancient artifact in the small, underground room, pondering everything he knew about the Crucible of Fear and trying to come up with a way of destroying the dangerous thing. He recalled reading about the limitations on who was to use the crucible, though he recalled nothing about what would happen if the restriction was exceeded. He knew that one of the two people he had vanquished down here was still alive, and that perhaps a little experiment might be in order.

Suddenly, a sound from behind him made Cefn whirl around. The blood-covered body of the short man stood there, metal brick upraised, eyes glowing red in a slack-jawed face.

Cefn flinched away from the should-be-dead figure, reaching for his sword. He moved too slowly, though, and the heavy brick slammed into the side of his head. He fell to the ground, and, though dazed, tried to get back up immediately, or at least move away from another brick-smash, but he was too dizzy to coordinate his movements and he was only barely able to even keep himself conscious.

A strange, halting voice issued from the dead throat above him. “Not. Kill. Use. Your. Fear. First.”

Cefn was rolled over, and his cowl was pulled from his head. A metallic slithering sound came, followed by a brief flash of heat and pain at his right temple that swiftly faded away, along with his consciousness.

 

***

 

Cefn woke up feeling different. He lay in the small room with odd smells all around him, wondering how the glowing-eyed dead man had managed to hook him up to the crucible. He looked around, and saw that the artifact was now a heap of slag. He pressed his hand to it and found it cool to the touch. He realized that he should have hesitated before laying his palm flat on the melted metal because it could have been hot, but he hadn’t given the possibility a thought.

Then he saw it: the difference he felt throughout his being was a complete lack of fear. It was an odd absence, hard to notice at first, but so obvious thereafter. He grinned to himself, reveling in the freedom he felt — freedom from fears learned, as well as fears taught, things that needed to be feared, and those that didn’t truly need to be. But then the grin faded: he had seen how dangerous this feeling was, watching street kids die because they were no longer cautious, no longer afraid.

He thought for a moment, and realized that he still understood consequences. He knew that moving wagons were dangerous, and that he would die if he stepped off a roof into thin air. His knowledge was intact. He had to believe that it would serve in place of fear to keep him alive, if only he took the time and let it.

Cefn rose to his feet and looked around the small room. He saw the two bodies he expected, the previously dead one close by instead of next to its companion, who was obviously no longer just sleeping by the door. There was a dead rat with burnt-out eyes in one corner, but no sign of any coins or metal bricks.

He left the small room and found the landing at the base of the stairs empty as well. He climbed toward the surface, wondering how long he had been unconscious. He found himself squinting more and more as he approached one of the torches that lit its length until he realized that his cowl was around his shoulders and not covering his face. He drew it up, glad to know that pain still functioned normally.

Cefn came to the door at the top of the stairs, and went through it into the still-sunny outdoors. He decided to go home and reflect on his new state in a safe environment. He walked to Merchant’s Way and turned right, then stopped, amazed by what he saw there.

Walking some distance along Merchant’s Way was a figure dressed from shoulders to knees in a garment that seemed to be made up of round plates of stone. A mask covered its face, leaving only long dark hair and blue-edged eyes showing. The figure clinked and clanked as it walked steadily, in an almost stately way, heedless of the gathering crowds that were staring and muttering as it passed.

Cefn wanted a closer look, so he dashed down a side street to avoid the gathering crowd of people. He crossed an intersection and heard a shout. He looked to he left and saw, maybe four paces away, a wagon being pulled by two horses coming directly toward him.

Cefn knew that the approaching wagon was a bad thing — he should have looked before running into the street. He also knew that the two horses pulling that wagon weren’t going to be able to stop before hitting him. He knew that he had plenty of options for getting out of the way; hop backward or dash forward, but he hesitated in choosing.

Or, he could do something else entirely. He grinned, and as the breath of the horses began to ruffle his robe, he flexed his power and was suddenly standing safely on the side of the road watching the wagon rumble past.

 

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