by P. Orin Zack
My shoulder screamed me awake again this morning. I was happily digging at it in dream, burrowing towards that night through scabs of forgetfulness, when the foul memory burst and drenched me in bitter regret. I still taste her blood; still see her eager face harden when I turned her away. If only I hadn’t insisted. If only Misty had cast that spell. If only it was she who stared out into this cool, lonely night instead of me. If only…
Sudden movement caught my eye. Instinct turned my head. Damn. I stared in mute horror as a lone cockroach preened itself at the edge of the cluttered porch. I watched it for a frozen moment, watched it turn around and scurry back into the shadows, and wondered how much it knew.
I’d deceived myself with clarity, and now it was too late.
“If Magic creates a problem,” I sagely told the old Head Mage at my Initiation, “the proper spell would certainly solve it.”
“There’s more to the High Art than just symbolism and intent,” she scolded, “more than ritual incantations, scents and movement.”
But that’s all gone. Dead. The world is different now. I was so bullheadedly sure that casting the spell was my prerogative as Head Mage that I was blinded to the cost. Saving the world is an honorable act, I’d told myself. You’ll be remembered in myth and legend. What arrogance. And now I’m cursed with the memory of having done it.
So here I stand, straddling my host’s doorsill, unsure of whether to nest in her open hospitality, or to slink off into the night and prostrate myself to the first predator offering mortal solace from the past. But it’s not my own past that I’m cursed with, not the years of lazy afternoons lounging in the sun, or the deep resonance of easy contentment, but that of my entire line. For eons, my forebears and hers have dwelt in the warmth of a co-habitation pact ironed out over lifetimes of struggle. But that was a time long past, and when some faceless predator strikes me down, long forgotten as well. For now, though, I’m cursed with the memories.
My heart freezes whenever I see the sun-drenched young ones cavorting in blissful ignorance, knowing that they will never discover their powers, never experience the ecstasy of being a conscious co-creator of the world. Magic has always been in our blood, and no spell can change that. But it can do far worse. It can forever blind us to our very nature. I may never venture out by daylight again.
I’ve heard their parents’ cries echoing in the night. They carry on as if they had never known magic, scrambling for food and friends, solving problems with wile and worry. But not too long ago, before I changed everything, they had other choices, other ways to weave the world.
We were a planet-wide network of magic users; a major force in the evolution of all things Earthly. But our magic did more than just make life pleasant for both lines; it also produced an emergent consciousness. Perhaps we were changing in some hidden way, but the overbeing was still new to us, and we were just learning to control it. And yet, that globe-spanning emergent awareness had just begun to discover itself when it came face-to-face with another, a fearsome demon that arose from a race of creatures without a conscience. We all felt the effects of that first encounter, felt the foreboding chill that quelled passion, felled play and fueled conflict.
It also changed the others, those whose unconscious communion had produced the demon. But change itself was something new to them. They had roamed the world since long before my kind existed, and had outlived wave after wave of mass extinction without succumbing to the lure of change. Yet after that single encounter with what arose from my kind, every one of them was transformed into a reflection of the evil that had arisen from them.
We all felt the backlash, and knew the horror of unleashing that insubstantial beast. But the truth was too harsh to bear. Within weeks, my nights were pierced with wails of accusation and recrimination. I’d fought the impulses, of course, fought the upwelling surge of anger and hatred that flowed through the community and incited wave after wave of senseless death struggles. Soon, everyone I knew had succumbed. Animated by an uncontrollable force that tossed them like sand in a gale, they tore one another to shreds in mass battles. And with each battle, the overbeing grew that much stronger and less controllable.
The carnage had to be stopped. That much was clear. Something had to be done, and High Mage was the one to do it. But the prospect of performing such extreme magic was quietly opposed by some; openly condemned by one.
Her name is Misty, and even the first time we’d met, I knew that something would eventually come between us.
Listen. Do you hear that? The sigh of the wind rocking summer-lush branches brings me back to that day. I was deep in meditation, oblivious to the world, practicing the ancient mind-travel technique that had made my kind seem as gods to the others, and led them to erect temples and shrines around jeweled sculptures of my forebears.
A sudden shriek echoed through the garden, shattering my concentration, snapping me back from a butterfly forest. I sprang to taut readiness, instantly and fully in the moment, prepared for anything. Misty leered at me in amused indifference. Satisfied with the force of her entrance, she stifled a yawn and sauntered off towards the woods.
I made a point of giving her a wide berth after that, and she took every advantage. Her showy charisma gained her quite a following over the years, but not much trust.
Then, after the old High Mage made her final journey out of body, Misty and I were presented to the Quorum as potential successors. In a public display of self-aggrandizement, she chastised the newest member for uttering her informal name during private deliberations. I knew her ploys by then, and that she only meant to show her strength of leadership, but the Quorum took it differently and cast her out. Bitterness stalked her life after that, and thoroughly changed her.
But then the emergent awareness appeared, and I nearly forgot about her.
Had our final encounter turned out differently, the world might not have survived to see this calm, cool night. Discussion dragged on for weeks before the final spell was crafted, leaving only the selection of spellcaster still to be made. I graciously offered to take on that lonely duty, arguing that it was the ultimate responsibility of my rank. My Second duly protested, claiming that the sanctity of being High Mage actually precluded me from performing such a heinous act. The exchange of ritual formalities played out like a well-crafted ceremony until the working circle was suddenly breached and Misteria leapt into our midst, leaving a trail of blood and broken bones behind.
“It’s not your place to make such a choice!” Anger shortened her breath.
Shock trumped composure. I rose warily, and screamed ugly epithets. The force of my reaction brought the Quorum to their feet, unsure whether to advance or retreat.
She feigned an attack. “Call this off!”
I stood my ground. “No. You have no business here. The Meeting Chamber is no place for vendetta.”
An instant later, Misteria attacked, knocking me across the room. As I struggled to my feet, she tore a bloody chunk out of my shoulder. Nearly blinded with pain, I circled around, keeping the wound out of reach, and waited for an opening. Then, when she drew back momentarily to make her move, I lunged, leaving her a patchwork of bloody scars.
The battle ended quickly. While I rested, my Second dragged Mysteria into another room. Painfully resuming my part in the process, I again requested the honor of casting the final spell. And then it was over, the fate of us all to be sealed in stony ignorance.
So here I stand, fugitive from a past that can no longer be recalled, doomed to remember a future that never was. The light at my flank makes the darkness ahead that much deeper, that much deadlier. I strain at the inky blankness for a sign, for a glimpse of someone like me, someone who knows what was, and what might once have been.
“Well, kitty?” The gentle, familiar voice from behind is my host. “Do you want to go out, or not?”
Like a candle? I’ve thought about it.
Regret grows heavy with time. As Head Mage, the task had rightfully been mine, but watching that cockroach step out of the shadows again, I wonder. Maybe the memories were better left to Misty. At least the elder bugs weren’t aware of the consciousness they’d spawned, or if they were, they never showed it.
I licked my old wound a few times, and stepped out into the night.
Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack