It is in the nature of the life I have chosen for myself that death is always nearby. I have, to the moment of this telling, always managed to help death find someone else and to pass me over. If one were to imbue death with human emotion one might even think of us as friends.
Over the past few days that relationship had been strained almost to breaking, starting with an angry mob, followed by a confrontation with wizards, and now facing an angry bitch willing to destroy herself and the rest of the world if I were consumed along with it.
This time, I was afraid.
I am not afraid of death, but Wizard Lady represented something beyond that, something wanton and irresistible that overwhelms our quaint ideas of civil society, revealing them as a convenient lie we all accept in order to move forward. Here was something pure, unbound by any fiction of mutual responsibility. Here was the thing we all are deep inside.
Perhaps we all have moments like this, moments when we forget the lessons of civilization. But it is different when the madness takes someone who can kill with a wave of her hand. It is different when the destructive force she is marshaling is tangible even to you, and you see the fear in the eyes of her former ally, the one who knows what she is capable of. I saw that beast and I cowered, hand raised in that same gesture I so often observe in others. My heart beat hard enough to crack my ribs, and what was left of my insides released what was left of my previous meal.
“Stop!” Deaf as I was, stupid with fear as I was, that word reached me, not through my ears but through the back of my brain, where I didn’t know there was a door. There was no voice, but it was Elena’s voice.
Wizard Lady heard it too, somewhere inside her head, loud enough to interrupt her spell or whatever the wizards call what she was doing. Wizard Lady hitched, blinked, then became oddly indistinct, not clearly defined at the edges, starting with her outstretched hand and up her arm faster than an eye can blink until her round-eyed face blurred. Another shock hit me, pressing my eyeballs back into my head, hammering me into the stone, hot and wet and freighted with life expiring. Behind the initial shock were countless impacts on my face and exposed skin, soft pellets driven hard enough to bruise.
A few moments passed. I was alive. I took a breath, felt it shuddering through my constricted throat. I let it back out again, and took another, easier breath. I opened my eyes, blinked a few times, and managed to convince a hand to wipe the film off my eyelids. Still I saw nothing; there was no light.
To my left, over the ringing in my ears, I heard a shuddering cough, followed by a mumbled word, and a faint, blue-hued light reluctantly rose to fill the chamber. The living stone above my head appeared to be painted pink in that weird light. After another attempt to clear my eyes I raised my head.
The light came from the old wizard, the glow resting in his palm the way it had for the other wizard I had recently cut open. The lower half of his face was coated with darkening blood still flowing from his broken nose. Above that, the left side of the wizard’s face was coated with a pink glaze, pocked with larger, redder bits. He was looking back at me, and I knew he was seeing my face similarly adorned.
“What in Hekka’s middle bunghole just happened?” I heard her voice the usual way this time, through my slowly recovering ears. Elena was standing in the entryway, wearing her own layer of what had once been Wizard Lady.
“It is unwise,” the old man said, “To bring more power into yourself than you are ready to handle.”
“She fuckin’ exploded!”
Wearily the wizard twisted around on his ass to face her. “Yes. And unless you receive the proper training, one day you too will ‘fuckin’ explode’.” He drew the phrase out for emphasis.
“You mean proper training like Wizard Lady had?” I asked.
The old man shifted around to look a me again. “We did not expect to see you again.”
“You are a Wanderer?”
“He’s broken,” Elena said. “Inside.”
The old man nodded. “That would be my doing.”
“So you can fix him?”
He kept his gaze on me. “Perhaps.”
“For a price?” I asked.
He smiled a little, and nodded. “For a price.” He used his sleeve to wipe some of the gore away from his eye. Gore that had once been a colleague, if not a friend.
Elena took a step forward, out of the shadows of the corridor and into the pale light. Kat lay unmoving at her feet. “What price?”
“You’re a Wanderer?” the old man asked me again.
“Yes.” More than anyone else he should know how little that title meant.
“There is something in the well.” He chuckled. “Of course you know that. The King’s men stole it from my people. Not your dispute. It has no value to you at all. Kindly fetch it for me.”
I watched him, not moving, not blinking, waiting for the “and”.
Eventually he shifted on the hard ground. “And… The girl must come with me.”
“Like fuck I will,” Elena said. “You’re not taking me to your castle to suck my life away.”
He allowed himself a tiny smile. “I sometimes regret that we have let the stories about us grow so… hyperbolic. Trust me, young lady, you are in no danger from us. We will teach you to use your abilities. We will unlock the power that resides within you.”
Elena narrowed her eyes. “You don’t feed on the souls of children?” she asked.
The old man shook his head, his beard moving like a snake. His smile grew. “We would never waste the potential of one as talented as you. You must come with us.” He glanced around and his smile faltered. “With me. Before you hurt yourself. Or your friends.”
Elena looked at me, uncertainty in her eyes. “I don’t want to fuckin’ explode,” she said.
“She is a Wanderer,” I said. They both looked at me, the old man with shock, Elena with poorly-disguised delight.
“You would teach her your ways?” the old man asked. “Knowing her potential?”
“That — that’s extraordinarily dangerous!”
“Why is that? No Wanderer has ever exploded.”
“To wield the sort of power she one day might, without a strong ethical foundation? You are inviting disaster!”
A piece of Wizard Lady chose that moment to drop from the ceiling into my lap. Curved bone, probably skull. I began to pull myself to my feet. “An ethical foundation. Do all the children you take become wizards?” I steadied myself on my feet and looked down at him. Behind me, Bags began to stir. Before the wizard could manufacture an evasion I said, “Ethics. How long before Elena feeds on the soul of a little girl like her?”
Elena’s eyes went wide.
“They are not ‘like her‘,” the wizard said. He was looking at me, but his message was for Elena. “She is more. She can do a great deal of good with that power.”
Anger put new strength in my legs and in my voice. “You can shove your ethical foundation into Hekka’s middle rectum,” I said. “I may be broken, but I will die before you turn Elena into someone like you. She’s a Wanderer now.”