By Emily Mah
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Emily Mah and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
Dina was making her second round of refilling ale mugs when the woman arrived. All talk and chatter stopped and all heads turned in the direction of the door.
The woman was stunning. Long blonde hair that fell in ringlet curls framed a round face with high cheekbones and porcelain skin. The men in the room no doubt also noticed that her dress clung tightly to her generously proportioned curves. Dina, however, set her tray aside and grabbed the broom from the corner.
“Out!” she said, jabbing it at the woman.
The woman jumped sideways with a squeal of rage.
“I mean it,” said Dina. “That’s a glamour you’re wearing, and I don’t allow magic in my tavern.”
The woman pouted, her rosy red lips puckering just so. Behind her, Dina could hear the scrape of chairs against the stone floor as several of her patrons got to their feet.
“I mean it!” Dina shouted. “I run an honest business.” She squinted hard at the woman and hazarded a guess. “Lana, is it? How dare you?”
The woman tried once more to look petulant, but wound up looking defeated. With a sigh, she let the glamour melt away. The blond hair faded back to auburn. Freckles reappeared on her face, and her eyes went from blue to green-gray. Her figure was still lean and lithe, but no so ridiculously proportioned, and her dress was brown and rough and sensible.
Dina, however, was still angry. She jabbed the girl again with the broom handle. “What are you trying to do? Put me out of business?” she asked.
Lana jumped aside and glared back. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Haven’t you heard? They killed the Disciple in Northport.”
The room got even quieter.
Dina rolled her eyes and said, “The townsfolk of Northport may have killed someone they thought was a Disciple. They may even have actually got one, but girl, there are a lot of Disciples. For all you know, there is another one or two or three in the region. Only an utter fool would walk around practicing magic out in the open after the death of one supposed Disciple. Now, go sit.” She jabbed her finger in the direction of the bar.
The girl obeyed, perching herself on one of the oaken stools. Dina turned back around and gestured for her patrons to sit down again. They did; she refilled their mugs, and slowly the air filled again with conversations about the prevailing tides and whether or not there would be a storm that week. Fishermen’s talk.
Lana still pouted and now she was tracing a pattern in the woodgrain. Dina swatted her hand away. “No more magic,” she said.
“What?” said Lana. “That’s not magic.”
“I don’t care, and I don’t trust you. Where have you been learning magic, missy?”
Lana looked away. One of the other patrons wobbled over to the bar and slammed down his empty ale mug along with a chipped copper coin. Dina took the coin and refilled the mug for him, keeping her gaze on Lana all the while.
“From Janas,” the girl finally said. “At the edge of town. She’s a bore, though, knows practically nothing. Barely a hedge witch.”
Dina nodded curtly. “If you had any sense, you’d stay away from her.”
“So I learned the glamour all on my own. From one of her books.”
“That is not something to be proud of. If a Disciple found you with books that teach glamours, they’d probably burn down your house. And if they caught you doing magic, they’d either kidnap you or kill you.”
Lana gave her a sour look. “I don’t take magic books home. Anyway, it was a Disciple they killed in Northport. The Invocation held him. No one’s coming to kill me tonight.”
Dina did not deign to respond.
“I’ll have ale, please,” Lana went on.
“You’ll have cider.”
“I can afford ale.”
“I’m giving you cider.” Dina took a clean mug down from the shelf, filled it with cider and set it in front of the girl. Lana scowled, but she did drink it.
No one else spoke to the girl for the rest of the evening, which served her right. Several hours later, the last few stragglers left, Lana among them. Dina could not let go of her anger, though, and it took all of her self control not to begin tracing patterns in the air after the girl. But that was wrong, and Dina knew it. She didn’t feel it, but she knew it. She latched the tavern door, then sat down on one of the stools to rest her feet.
With a sigh she shut her eyes and opened her mage sense. The room around her faded giving way to views of magical barriers, wards, traps, counterspells, and alarm spells. The entire town was a vast, glowing network of them, and Dina carefully looked over and repaired each one.
Janas showed up as the merest flicker on the edge of town. Lana, who was making her way up Broad Street showed up as a brighter flicker – definitely brighter than the last time Dina had looked. Dina scowled. In the thirty years since the Disciples Circle had placed her over this town, she had not had to deal with an actual mage, and she did not want to have to deal with one now. She didn’t even want to deal with the hedge witch, Janas, though news that she was teaching now made that a necessity.
Tomorrow, thought Dina. I’ll deal with the hedge witch tomorrow. I just don’t have the energy tonight.
The next morning Dina awoke to sunlight streaming in through her window. She muttered to herself, wondering how the shutters had gotten open. She closed them every night.
A cawing noise answered her question and Dina did her best to focus her bleary eyes. There, sitting on the windowsill, was a raven. “So it’s true,” Dina said, “Denrick did get himself killed.” He must have done something truly stupid, she thought, to allow the constables to stick the Invocation on him.
The raven put his head to one side and regarded her. She pushed back her blankets and sat up, working a pattern with the fingers of her left hand to release the bird from its spell. It jolted slightly and then hopped off the windowsill, flapping its wings to carry it up and away from her house. In its wake it left a small message spell which whispered in Dina’s mind. “Denrick Andrathy was executed yesterday. The new Disciple for Northport will be Angharad Mangerson.”
“Humph,” said Dina. “I don’t know her.” Denrick had been one of the last of Dina’s contemporaries. We’re getting old, thought Dina. And Denrick got careless. But then, she thought, I’ve gotten careless as well. I ought to have dealt with that hedge witch last night, and Lana as well.
The thought of removing not one, but two mages made Dina feel tired, ready to slip back into bed for another night’s sleep. She forced herself to get up. Do your job, old woman, she chided herself.
Janas’s cottage was at the outskirts of town, where the roads were mud rather than cobbled stone. The cottage was mud as well with a rotting thatch roof. Dina stood outside of it and held her cloak tightly around her body. Usually a hedge witch’s place stank of magic. This one had only a slight reek, a testament to how insignificant this Janas was.
Dina shook her head and rapped on the door.
For a minute there was no answer, so Dina rapped again. A scraping noise inside let her know that the cottage was occupied. Dina kept her mage sense rolled up inside herself, so she had no idea what was on the other side of the door. She knew she had nothing to fear, and that was enough.
The door opened with a creak and a wizened face peered around it. “What is it?” the woman asked.
“Are you Janas?”
“Then I am Dina, let me in.”
In years past, Dina had engaged in a lengthy dance of intrigue before revealing herself as a Disciple, but her patience had worn thin in her old age. She pushed her way into the room, shut the door behind her and glowered at the tiny old woman who now backed away from her.
“Wha – what is this?” the woman croaked. “I am not open for business until noon.”
“You won’t be opening for business again,” said Dina. “I know you, I know you practice magic. I am Dina Elschbrat, and I say this will stop.” She raised one hand, but paused when the woman burst into cackles.
“You? Dina!” She laughed again. “I had no idea. Well, I must have been a real threat if they sent Dina after me.”
Dina sighed. “No,” she replied. “I was sent because I am here, that is all.” She let her hand drop, tracing a quick pattern in the air as she did, and the woman had no time to react before flames exploded from her stomach, engulfing her entire upper torso.
Dina watched dispassionately while the woman fell to the floor and writhed around, the smell of her burning flesh stinking up the air. In minutes it was over. With another few gestures Dina erased the marks of fire inside the cottage and dissipated the smell, then searched the room for books.
She found a small shelf of them, three volumes and some scrolls, which she stashed inside her satchel. Another magical sweep of the room revealed no other hiding places, not even so much as a hollowed out portion of the wall. Dina shook her head in disgust and let herself out. A quick spell ensured that no one on that muddy side street would remember her coming or going that day.
Easy as always. Dina set out for home and made it to the first of the cobbled streets before breaking into a run. Passers by stopped to stare at her as she fled through the streets, her cloak flapping, her gray hair coming loose from its bun. She collapsed against her door, panting heavily. She was not fit enough to be exerting herself like this, so it took her several seconds to fumble the key loose from her pocket and insert it in the lock. She slammed the door behind her and crouched down to the floor.
No good, no good, she thought to herself. I killed again today, and what do I feel? Nothing. I murdered. Murder! Does this hold any horror for me?
Emptiness echoed where her heart should have pounded; indifference steeped where shame should have welled up inside her. Useless, useless, she thought. I am indeed Dina, just as Janas remembered me.
Janas was a Ba’alan name. Of course she knew who I was. Dina felt an utter fool for not predicting that.
With resignation, she got back to her feet and went out into the front, tavern room. She had cleaned it thoroughly the night before and all of the mugs were stacked neatly on the shelf. Dina went over to the knife rack and took down her meat knife.
If you don’t feel remorse, she thought to herself, feel this, you worthless hag. She pushed up her sleeve and scored her arm with the knife. Pain shot upward from her elbow making her gasp. That’s right, she thought. Feel. Feel something. She forced herself to recall Janas burning, the way the woman’s hair caught fire and the look of horror on her face. When she had the image fixed in her mind, she plunged the knife into her flesh again. Blood welled up and dripped onto the wooden floor.
Spots of light danced before her eyes. She had cut deeper than she intended. She set the knife aside and pressed her hand against the wound.
Out of the corner of her eye, a shadow moved. She knew better than to think it was a mere trick of light. “What is it?” she demanded.
The shadow moved again, then coalesced into a tall, lean figure with shoulder length black hair. Julien. “Yes?” said Dina.
Julien raised his hand to her and Dina felt the beginnings of a healing spell being worked. She shoved it away forcefully, so forcefully that Julien took a step back.
“Show mercy only to those who understand mercy,” Dina quoted to him. “Or has your time as head of the Disciples Circle dulled your wits?”
“Dina,” he said. She could see that he wanted to argue, but one look into her eyes seemed to convince him otherwise. “Wrap that in cloth at least.”
Dina obeyed. She always obeyed the Disciples Circle, as best she could, at least. She took one of her clean dishrags and cinched it tight around her arm.
“I thought you had stopped doing that,” said Julien.
“I haven’t had need, recently,” retorted Dina. She rolled her sleeve back down to cover the wound, and the scars from the countless other times she had cut herself, and put her hands on her hips. “I know why you’ve come, your answer is no, so leave.”
Julien raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t even asked me to sit down.”
“I don’t want you to.”
Julien ignored that and seated himself on one of the barstools. He was so young, fully three decades younger than Dina. “We need you to join us in the Circle,” he said. “With Denrick gone, there is no one else.”
Dina laughed then, a dry, empty laugh. Blood soaked through her bandage. “You are a fool. What If I said yes?”
“I want you to say yes.”
“You don’t. I am not a true Disciple, Julien, and you know this. I feel no compassion for anyone, so I do not qualify. I want to be a true Disciple.” Her voice caught then and her eyes stung. “But…” she went on, “that is the only emotion I feel. Ambition, desire to be one of you. It is not enough.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Beg all you like, it won’t change the facts. Rules are rules, and you are bound to follow them just as much as I am.”
“Enough. You claim to be a loyal Disciple, so be loyal now. I am the Head of the Circle, and I say you are worthy to join us. I can get two witnesses to agree, I know I can, and you will be elevated. It is past time.”
Dina clenched her hands into fists and felt blood drip down her forearm. “You don’t force people to join the Circle.”
“We’ve never had to before, no. It will be all right, Dina.”
“It will not.”
He lifted his chin.
A moment of silence passed between them.
“I have books,” said Dina. She picked her satchel up off the floor, set it in the counter, and produced the books and scrolls. Julien took one and she another and they perused the contents. “Another mage in training has had access to these,” she admitted. “I’ve been careless, to say the least.” She put down the mildewed book she held, picked up a scroll, and unrolled it. Inside was the glamour spell Lana had used, and just after it was a copy of the Invocation, which turned Dina’s blood cold. Elegantly crafted, the Invocation was spoken, not traced. That made it easier to record and teach and it could be cast by anyone who knew the words. Every constable, every tax collector, every laborer for the government knew it. The king himself saw to that.
“Is the mage student here young enough to be recruited?” asked Julien.
“I don’t think she’d be willing,” Dina snapped. She re-tied the scroll.
“Well, you know the procedure. And check her house for more books.” Julien gathered all of the volumes and scrolls in the crook of his arm and stood up, tracing a pattern in the air with his free hand. “We will induct you in a week,” he said. “You are worthy.”
His figure faded to shadow then dissipated like smoke. Dina was beginning to feel dizzy from loss of blood.
That night, as the last clients from the tavern left, Lana remained. She sat perched on her stool and kicked one of its legs absently. Her empty cider mug still clutched in her hand.
Dina was too wrung out to tell her to leave.
“You look pale,” said Lana.
“That is probably because I am. Give me your mug.”
The girl passed it over, but there was a hesitation as she loosened her fingers from its handle. Dina jerked it away and put it in the washbasin with all of the other mugs. When she turned towards the fireplace to fetch the kettle, she saw that Lana had already gone to get it. Dina frowned.
“What is this?” demanded Dina.
Lana gripped the handle of the kettle through the thick fabric of her skirt and hefted it slowly to pour its contents into the washbasin. Dina took a rag, wrapped it over the handle of the kettle, and swiped it from the girl.
“I just want to help.”
“You father will wonder where you are.”
“No, he won’t. He’s surely too drunk to care right now.” Lana went back to sit on the barstool.
Dina put the kettle aside and pressed her hands to her forehead. What have I done to deserve this, she thought. It isn’t as if I have been kind to the girl.
But Lana remained all the same, tracing what looked like idle patterns on the bar. Too late Dina realized that the patterns weren’t idle and a tiny fire dragon erupted out of the wood. It puffed a small puff of flame and looked around.
“Get rid of that!” Dina thundered.
“I never got that one to work before.” Lana looked at her creation with awe.
Dina scooped a handful of water from the rinse barrel and threw it over the dragon, which spouted one more puff of flame, then dissolved into steam. “What were you thinking?” Dina demanded.
Lana only frowned. “I didn’t know you could get rid of them that way.”
“It looked like fire, so I used water. Look what you’ve done to my bar.” A long dark scorch mark split the middle of it now.
“Oh… I can fix-”
“You will not. You will not cast any more magic here.”
Lana recoiled. “All right,” she said. Then, “Do you really think there might be another Disciple in this region?”
Dina glared at the girl and turned to scoop soap out of its crock and spread it on her rag. Without another word she began scrubbing the old cracked and stained mugs and plates, wiping away all spots from their worn, glazed surfaces. Inside, she struggled. It would be so easy to kill this girl right now, but Julien would want her tested for conversion. It seemed so unlikely, but rules were rules. No killing the truly talented without trying first.
“Janas is dead,” said Lana.
“Is she?” said Dina, her voice flat.
“Well, I think so. She’s gone. No trace, no word from her neighbors. I… what if a Disciple got her?”
“That would be bad for you and your magical shenanigans, wouldn’t it? Now, tell me honestly, have you any magic books or scrolls in your home?” Dina worked a delicate truth finding spell as she spoke, hiding her fingers behind the rim of the washtub.
Lana fell silent for a minute, then shook her head. The spell registered no falsehood. Dina lifted a clean plate out of the basin and plunged it into the rinse barrel, keeping her motions fluid, betraying nothing.
“Why haven’t they come for me, then?” asked Lana. “I’m way more dangerous than she is. Do you think they’ll kill me next?”
Dina glanced at the girl. “How should I know?”
“Because… you know stuff.”
Dina felt her back stiffen. Here, alone in a room with this mage, she could not defend herself if the girl performed the Invocation. She cast a fire dragon, and I only think of this now, thought Dina. I’ve truly lost my edge in my old age.
But Lana only gazed absently at the mugs drying on their rack. “You always told me to be careful of Disciples. You warned me that there might still be one around. What do you know about them?”
“The same that everyone knows. They kill free mages and anyone who aids in free magic of any kind. It’s their magic or no magic in their world. And girl, it is still their world. They hide, but they do not cower. In the war of magic, they lose few battles.”
“But why do they live under cover? Why not retake the throne and rule as they did for centuries?”
Dina glanced at her. “You wish for that?”
“No, of course not. I just think they’re craven, sneaking around like they do.”
Dina shrugged. “It takes more people and more effort to run a nation, girl, than to hide in the shadows and weed out free mages. Besides, the Disciples are so hated that they’d not last long if they made a grab for power. The king’s guards would use the Invocation on the lot of them and that would be that.”
“It would be a good opportunity to kill them all,” agreed Lana. “Though, do they all deserve to die?”
Dina took the king’s line. “Indeed they do.”
“I know some of them kill –”
“The Disciples know no law other than their own. They respect no sovereign and it isn’t just that they kill, missy. They kill whomever they want, whenever they want, however they want. They believe they save the world by ridding it of rogue magic users, book traders, anyone who dares to learn any spell of any kind. There is no other way to stop the deaths of free citizens than to kill every Disciple on sight. Me, I think the king’s lenient. Why he doesn’t use the Invocation on every citizen is beyond me.”
At that Lana smirked. “Make it our traditional greeting?”
Lana laughed outright. “It’s too long. It’d take half an hour just to say hello.”
Dina didn’t bother to point out that the Invocation took but five seconds to cast. Lana would want to know how she knew that. Instead Dina said, “Half an hour that saves lives? What are lives worth to you?”
Lana shrugged. “If the Disciples kill free mages so often, why haven’t they killed me yet?”
“I don’t know, child. Maybe they’re hoping you’ll become one of them.”
Lana started. “Is that possible?”
Dina sighed and hung up her rag. “Where do you think their mages come from? Do you think they hatch out of eggs somewhere in their Hall? You know the stories of Disciples kidnapping the young, do you not?”
“I never thought about it.”
Clearly, thought Dina.
“But I could never be a Disciple,” Lana went on. “I am with the king.”
Well, thought Dina, if that’s settled, I could kill her now. It’s the sensible thing to do. She pondered this for a moment, her fingers twitching ever so slightly in anticipation of the spell. I wouldn’t mourn her, thought Dina. I’d enjoy her death. That revelation sobered her. She didn’t need another reminder that she was no Disciple, not this day.
She took off her apron and pointed towards the door. “It’s past time you went home,” she said.
Lana didn’t argue this time, but got up and left. Dina bolted the door behind her and then opened her mage sense. Her magical sweep of the town was more cursory than usual, and Lana’s power blazed just a little brighter than it had a day before. Tomorrow I’ll kill her, thought Dina, or the day after.
Dina was busy setting out chairs the next day when one of her wards was probed. Her mage sense unfurled automatically. She put the chair down firmly and stood up straight. Ah well, she thought, I had hoped it would take longer. But no, now a searching spell was racing along the contours of the warding spell. It was one of the wards Dina had set around Lana’s home.
Dina quelled the searching spell with a few flicks of her fingers and waited to see what would happen next. She expected the girl would run another such spell, see it quelled, and be frightened off.
For several seconds, nothing happened. Dina shut her eyes and looked through her mage sense. There was the warding spell, molded over Lana’s modest home. Lana herself was sitting by her fireplace, tracing the beginnings of another spell. Dina saw small flashes of mage light erupt as the spell took shape, another searching spell. Dina moved to quell it, but as she did, the girl suddenly stood up and traced a different spell in the air.
A beacon spell came racing along the lines of casting that Dina had set, and before she could react, her tavern around her erupted into bright orange mage fire. Dina’s eyes snapped open and she forced down her mage sense, but much to her horror, the tavern around her glowed with light that anyone, mage or no, could see. It was a twist on the standard beacon spell, a simple one, but clever all the same.
Well, she thought to herself, it has been a long time since I’ve been surprised.
A commotion erupted in the street outside and booted feet came running along the cobbles. Those will be the constables, thought Dina. She raised her hand to attack, but one pushed the hilt of his sword through her waxed paper window. For a second her gaze locked with his, and then he cast the Invocation.
Dina felt the familiar tug of the ancient spell, designed by the greatest of free mages. I am truly a fool, she thought. But perhaps this will prevent my elevation.
The man finished uttering the spell and Dina heard herself say, “I am Dina Elschbrat, fourth order mage of the Disciples Order.” Well cast, she thought. Her arms remained pinned to her sides and the constable climbed in through her window to unlock her door.
They’ll be carrying me off to prison next, Dina thought. That will be a new experience for me.
“You did this on purpose,” Julien accused her. She was seated on her rough straw pallet in her stinking jail cell. The air was dank and saturated with the smell of urine and rotting fish. This prison was by the docks. Julien paced the floor in front of her.
“I didn’t, actually,” said Dina. “I was outsmarted.”
“Outsmarted a week before being elevated to the Circle. You, Dina, outsmarted.”
Dina shrugged, as much as she could within the confines of the Invocation. “I misjudged the girl, and I was giving her time in case she was mad enough to convert. That was your order. I’m under the Invocation, so I can’t lie about this.”
“I will have to speak to this girl you –”
The sound of footsteps made Julien whirl around. When he saw someone was coming, he disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Lana stepped through the doorway, looking lost and confused. She caught sight of Dina sitting in the back of her cell and stepped forward, cautiously. “I… I didn’t know,” she said. “I didn’t realize.”
“Obviously,” retorted Dina. “If you did, you wouldn’t have been casting spells in my tavern.”
“Yes… but that’s not what I meant.” Lana knelt down before the bars of the cell. “If I’d known it was you, I wouldn’t have set a trap like that. I would have come and talked to you.”
Lana lowered her gaze. “You were always so nice to me,” she said.
“Me? Nice? You’ve got funny definition of the word.”
“You were. You always looked out for me. Now they’re going to kill you and… and I feel terrible.” A tear leaked out of the girl’s eye and dripped onto the stone floor.
Dina watched this and shook her head. This girl was weeping over her. It was more than she could take, and something inside her snapped. “Well,” she offered, “if it makes you feel better, I did kill Janas.”
Lana looked up. “You did?”
“I did. I’ve killed a lot of people, girl. Over 40,000 in fact.” Dina sat up straighter, warming to her diatribe. “I’m Dina Elschbrat, the Disciple who razed Ba’ala thirty years ago. I boiled the sand under that city to glass and wiped out the Free Mage Hall.”
Lana’s eyes widened. “Why?”
If Dina had not been under the Invocation, she would have said something like, “Because it was necessary to save the world,” but given the spell that bound her, she told the truth. “Because I am good at killing people and I never feel remorse. I even enjoyed destroying Ba’ala, but I know that’s wrong. I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it, though.”
Lana looked confused. In a hesitant, disbelieving voice, she said, “That’s monstrous.”
“And I am a monster,” Dina agreed. “I am a bad Disciple. Not even a real Disciple. Disciples are supposed to care about people, protect them from the influences of free magic. The thing about magic, child, is that it is available to whomever wants to learn to wield it. Before the Disciples, things worse than Ba’ala happened, and that is why Disciples kill free mages. To save the world. You could someday do what I did or worse, unless the Disciples convert or kill you.”
Lana’s scowl deepened with each sentence Dina uttered. When Dina finished, Lana folded her arms across her chest. “I couldn’t ever do worse than what you did to Ba’ala.”
“I might have,” said Dina. “It would have been easy for me.”
Lana stared for a long moment. “You’re being serious, aren’t you?” she asked.
“I’m under the Invocation! Yes, I am being serious. Not a day has passed that I haven’t considered killing you, and if I did, I wouldn’t care afterwards. I wouldn’t miss you. I wouldn’t be sad.”
The girl’s eyes widened still more, and Dina could guess at the thoughts racing through the girl’s mind. All those times she’d lingered in the tavern, talking about magic. That last evening when she’d stayed late. With a sharp intake of breath, Lana got to her feet. “I… you… I don’t believe you!” But the words rang hollow. Lana turned and ran.
Now, thought Dina, I have failed in every way. That girl will re-establish the order of Free Mages, mark my words. And she’ll become powerful enough to hold out against the entire Disciples Order. Dina shook her head. Why, she wondered, did that girl have to be born here, of all places?
The guards came for Dina early in the morning. She had not been able to sleep while under the Invocation. It was impossible to get comfortable while her arms were bound to her sides. So, instead she had sat and counted stones in the wall until the sun peeped through the narrow window once again.
To their credit, the guards were kind to her. They didn’t shove, didn’t drag, didn’t berate. That was unusual. None of them would even look at her while they led her out to the cobbled square in front of the prison. The wood for the bonfire was already stacked there, and atop it was a wooden platform for her to stand on. Dina expected to be hoisted up like a sack of potatoes, but instead the guards had wheeled up a short staircase that she could ascend. It was the staircase they usually used for the gallows.
And there was no one in the square. A Disciple’s burning was usually a major event with hundreds gathered around to cheer. Today there were only a few figures passing by, and they all ducked their heads and dashed through the square, or avoided it altogether. It was open defiance of the king, who decreed that every Disciple burning be a public event, a powerful warning to the rest of the Order. And yet, not one of the guards so much as frowned.
I am well liked? The thought was foreign. All of those sailors and townspeople who had whiled away the evenings in her tavern were unwilling to cheer at her death? The guards made a special concession and brought in a staircase for her? Never in her life had Dina been honored. Respected, at times, by the more foolish Disciples, but never loved. Seeing such kindness now, even the small kindness of avoiding her execution, filled her with disgust. They never knew me at all, she thought.
The guards led her up the stairs and lashed her to the wooden post that went through the center of the woodpile. Dina shut her eyes as they left, wheeled the staircase away, and kindled the fire beneath her. So it goes, she thought. I have lived six decades, and never performed a true act of a Disciple. Now it is over.
And yet, Dina felt nothing except relief.
The fire flared up quickly. Dina saw its light, filtered red through her eyelids, and felt its heat… somewhat. As the flames jumped higher and higher though, high enough to be heard as a great whooshing roar, Dina still felt little. She opened her eyes and saw that she was surrounded by flames as high as she was. Something is not right, she thought, then magic stirred inside her. Someone was casting a pain blocking spell. In her Invocation dulled state, she had not felt it at first.
Dina stood up straighter and glared around. All she could see were leaping flames and shimmering air. She tried to reject the spell, but she couldn’t. She was powerless.
Then the flames in front of her danced to one side, pushed by a breeze, and she saw the source of the magic. Two figures stood by the pyre. One was Lana, that impudent girl, and the other was Julien, there was no mistaking it. His hair was bound back and his clothes were simple; he was clearly traveling in disguise.
The fire flared higher, igniting Dina’s clothing and hair and a message spell opened in her mind.
It showed Lana sitting by herself in her house, shaking and with her arms wrapped across her chest. Julien appeared before her. She jumped back and screamed aloud. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“My name is Julien Gelfder.”
Lana burst into tears. “You’re a Disciple, aren’t you?”
Julien looked to be at a loss. He squatted down next to the girl and patted her hair awkwardly. “I am the head of the Disciples, dear. Don’t cry. Please.”
Lana looked up at him through tear filled eyes, her sobs subsiding somewhat.
“You just visited Dina, didn’t you?” said Julien.
“Yes,” the girl said. “That woman is evil. Pure evil.”
Julien shook his head. “We all got scared the first time we met Dina,” he confided. “She was my teacher once, back at the Hall, and she lived the Disciples Code strictly and without exception. She was a good Disciple, Lana, if an… unlikely one. She saved the world once.”
“But, but… I’ve never met a person like that before. Someone with no conscience.”
“They aren’t common.”
“But they exist, and some of them can do magic.”
“And you stop them?”
“From harming people, yes.”
“So can I become one of you? Dina said Disciples recruited young mages sometimes. Am I good enough? Could I train with you?”
“Uh….” Julien faltered a minute. Young mages did not usually beg to become Disciples. “Ye-es,” he said, “now you probably have questions about –”
“No, no questions. I’m coming. I’m coming with you right now.”
The image faded and was replaced once again with the roaring flames. Dina could see nothing now. Her eyes were too damaged and her very flesh was burning. But she could still feel the girl’s spell, Lana’s last gift to her undeserving mentor.
Dina relaxed, gave in, and let the pain blocking spell hold her in its thrall. The emptiness she felt inside was almost like peace.
Emily Mah Tippetts writes science fiction and fantasy as Emily Mah and chick lit and romance as the indie writer, E.M. Tippetts. Originally from New Mexico, she now lives in London with her family. Before she was an author, she was a lawyer who did contracts, real estate, and estate planning with a specialty in literary estate planning.
She also does audio interviews for the Black Gate and designs book tie-in jewelry for her label, Emily Mah Jewelry Designs. To find out more about her and her latest projects, go to www.emilymah.com and www.emtippetts.com.
Emily Mah’s first story for us was “The River People,” in Black Gate 15.
Author photo by Mary J. Mann.