TimePaths

The Books and Writings of
Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  "Spencer's Peace"
by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

The attempt on Al's life came before breakfast, which really pissed him off.

The first clue came from Spencer, Al's chief normal.  The peaceful old servant had been with Al for half a century, taking care of his employer with untroubled regularity during all of Al's tenure as the world's ruling mage.

Al was lounging in bed, the usual steaming cup of coffee and morning paper resting on the night table where Spencer had placed them.  Spencer was transparing the broad windows to let in the clean light of the December morning.  The quality of daylight changed and Spencer suddenly put a trembling palm to his wrinkled brow, letting out a low, soft moan.  Though only seconds this side of a dream-filled sleep, Al came fully awake and was up and moving to his servant's side.

The old man blinked at his employer's touch and Al felt the residual thrum of magical energy as the aged normal captured the incoming attack and drained it off like an arcane lightning rod.

Al's mind leapt out into the ethereal web of magic that permeated the world.  He sought and found the strand that still vibrated with the assault that Spencer, as a normal, had drawn off.  Al backtracked along the singing string, flying along twisted pathways and through complex intersections until he found the source of the disturbance.

It was a young face that looked back at him from across the intervening non-space, all smooth skin and intense eyes shimmering with newborn power.  So young, Al thought; had he ever been so young himself?  The youth could not see him, protected as Al was by scores of normals, hundreds of intricate wards and a talent so global in scope that it was nearly indistinguishable from the aura that filled the magical non-world.

The young mage's hawkish eyes peered along the same argentine web that Al had just travelled, looking for a clue as to how his attack had fared.  While the silver strand still hummed with the momentary coursing of power, Al reached up to his personal magic door.  From beyond it, he pulled an amount of power sufficient to destroy his assailant.  He forged the power into a spearing thrust that would spit the impetuous attacker like a trussed chicken.  He wanted to drive it in skillfully, leaving his would-be assassin a few moments to realize who it was had killed him.  Al prepared to deliver the spell.

And hesitated.

How many more times would he have to answer such a challenge?  How long would it be before he failed to meet such a threat to his control of the world?  How long before a talent arose that would best him?

Fast as thought these questions tumbled through his mind, but it was long enough to give the young mage time to discover Al and shield himself.  The blow that should have sundered the boy's mind only maimed, and Al had to draw again from beyond his magic door before he could finish the egregious youth.

The young eyes flashed in an ethereal nova and closed.  The mental presence exploded and the web sang like a 12-string guitar; open, metallic and vaguely dissonant.  Al left the shattered remnant and returned to his bedroom.

The world was still shifting with the arcane overflow as he looked around him, but that was to be expected when magic was so conspicuously tossed about.  The excesses had to go somewhere. 

It was no longer December outside.  It seemed more like spring, though no time had passed.  The room, too, had been altered; half-drawn vertical blinds now shaded the window in lieu of polarized glass and the stuccoed ceiling, formerly fine-grained mahogany, seemed perhaps a bit lower.  Al wondered how much of history had changed to accomodate the world's physical modifications.  It was the part of being a mage that he found the most unsettling:  being able to see the shifts in reality.

Spencer still stood before Al.  To his mind, he had only just opened his eyes at his master's touch.  He did not, could not notice the change in the season or the room or the scores of other things that had been altered by the arcane fusillade.  Spencer, like all normals, had changed as the world had changed; absorbing his share of the mutating forces.

"Are you okay?" Al asked him.

"Yes, Master Alfred.  Fine, thank you."

So it's Master Alfred now, he thought.  "Are you sure you're all right?" Alfred asked again.

Spencer nodded and they stood there a moment longer in silence, magister and normal.  Then Spencer calmly finished opening the blinds.

Such peace, Alfred thought.  Such unflappable trust.  The threat was gone.  Spencer did not remember it ever having existed.  There must be such peace in not remembering.  What I would give to know that peace, even for a moment.

Alfred turned his gaze to the window and the isolated valley beyond.  Interesting, he thought, that such a minor talent should strike a blow so far within my defenses.  He remembered the young mage's searching gaze.  He struck what he could not see.  Alfred suddenly realized that he had retaliated too quickly, too harshly.  There were questions now that could not be answered.  The whole of the web still trembled with the violence of Alfred's retribution, and all tracks had been effectively erased.

Alfred opened the sliding glass door and walked out onto the balcony that did not exist a minute and a half ago.  He scanned the sweeping lines of rolling green that tumbled down from the walls of his mountain chalet to the town that still lay cradled in the valley's heart.  Trees that a few moments past were silent stretching skeletons locked in crystalline ice and new-fallen snow now rustled with verdant growth.  Birds chased one another through the muttering branches.  The air that should have chilled his exhalation into swirling wisps of grey vapor now greeted him with freshness and the aroma of lilacs in bloom.  Shiny cars and flatbed trucks travelled the road over the nearby pass and down into the town.  Overhead, an airplane flew.

Alfred frowned at the sound of the flying machine, but not because he did not know what it was.  His discomfort centered on the fact that it was not the familiar booming of a jet that he heard.  It was the throaty roar of four Pratt & Whitney propeller engines, a sound he hadn't heard in a score of years. 

A tremendous amount of arcane energy had been expended, more than the tiny amount for which his pewling attacker could account.  Alfred's unease increased.


The second attack came that afternoon, lightning-fast and broadly played.  Alfred was looking out across the grounds from the veranda and saw two of his garden workers drop, stone-dead.  Many others swayed in their tracks.  The table at which he was working shifted and writhed under the layer of parchments and tomes he had laid upon it as magical energy was reflected by his personal wards.

Alfred grew angry.

"Goddam sonofabitch!" he roared, kicking his now three-legged chair to the side as he rose.  "Twice in one day!"

Never had there been two attempts in a single day.  There weren't that many talents.  It didn't take too many mages to run the world, each controlling his or her own corner, making life for the normals safe while the normals made life comfortable for their mage.

Of course, whenever a youth found the hidden path to a magic door, their own personal well from which to draw the powers of magic, then there was usually trouble.  The new talent would have to carve out a territory, and that territory had to come from someone.

Occasionally, too, one talent would strike another in an attempt to acquire one thing or another; control, secrets, or even just prestige.  Lately, for Alfred, that's all that they had been after.

Prestige.

Alfred had been the leading talent for decades, longer than any before him.  As a result, the world had settled down.  It had assumed a consistent rhythm, taken on a history and begun ticking happily along.  He had imposed order amongst the chaos of magical talents.

And that had been his mistake.

He had imposed a hierarchy upon the world of magic.  He had given form to their ambitions.  He had given them something to climb. 

And made himself their target. 

At first the attacks had come once a year, simple attempts to wrest from him the perceived glory of his position as counselor and governor.  He had beaten these attacks off as easily as he had crushed the youth before breakfast, and with a fraction of the moral concern.

Then the frequency had increased.  Every eight months.   Every six.  Challenges issued with all the proper pomp and protocol required by the mages' unofficial code of honor.  The web rang with arrogant boasts. 

When these too were thwarted, the challenges began to come without warning.  Surprise attacks that brought dishonor upon the contenders, highlighting their desparation.  Lately, it had become a bi-monthly trial, and Alfred had felt the ubiquitous hand of murder resting lightly upon his throat.  A continuous companion during the recent years, it had weighed upon him heavily.

But twice in one day!  Never had Alfred had to contend with such a coincidence.  The idea that two talents would independently select the same day for their suicidal attempt was not only far-fetched, it was ludicrous.  The community of the arcane was too small.  Alfred knew who were the real threats to his life, and he knew that there were none of them who were contemplating making good those threats.  This morning's attack had been from a complete unknown, as would prove this current attempt.

It was no coincidence.  It was a conspiracy.

All these thoughts raced through Alfred's mind before the chair he had upset had hit the tiles.  He reached to his magic door and coaxed a variety of powers to him.  Then he sent his mind in search of his attacker.

Just as with that morning, he found the youthful talent by flowing backward along the line of attack.  She was dark and lovely, but glimmered with barely enough power to rule over a local parish, much less a world.  Even if she were successful in her assassination, she could not hold the position any longer than the boy he had dispatched before morning coffee.  What could she be thinking? 

Alfred intended to find out.

Instead of an attack, he surrounded her with his power.  He saw her face go stark white with fear as she found herself bound to the greatest mage the world had ever seen.  But he did not crush her.  He pulled her to him.

Across the non-existent vistas of the magical net, Alfred dragged her, her mind screaming in terror, to his keep in the mountains.  It was safer, he knew, to bring her bodily rather than to try to control her at a distance.  This way he could concentrate on her and not be worried about her conspirators attacking his vulnerable mind as it crossed the distance between them.

Her psychic scream was echoed by her physical one as she materialized on the veranda, dark pupils surrounded by bluish whites, rictus-mouthed face haloed by a nimbus of dark curls.  She was beautiful, Alfred could see, and a fourth of his age, and he wondered if that, too, was part of the plan.  Finally, she stood before him, swaying slightly in the brilliant sunshine, the air still pierced by her throat-rending shout. 

Alfred was about to speak to her when he felt the pressure of her impending attack.  Magic filled the air, more magic than he thought she could muster.  She had either tamped down her power purposefully, to draw him in, or she had simply been drained by her initial attack.  Either way, Alfred had only a moment of thought to raise a protective shield.

Her attack was wily and subtle, pressuring Past and Future in upon him with a final thrust coming through across the nebulous line of Now.  His protection held, deflecting and mutating the energy it received.

The world shifted around them as the attack was blunted.  The mountains were suddenly barren, the air hot and humid, the sky dark and foreboding.  Streaks of fire, meteoric lances, flashed through the darkened day, exploding in deadly marigolds within the ruined city that now rose from the valley floor.  Time swept beneath the two mages, carrying them forward and backward, up and down the line of possible history. 

Alfred felt a score or more of his normals die as the tremendous shock of the highly-spectrumed attack overpowered their ability to diffuse it.  His mind reached out to Spencer just as he, too, fell.  Alfred felt his servant's passionate devotion to the master tear at his heart as the old man was ripped, burnt and crushed by the tumultuous crash of power.

Alfred thrust back across the three intervening paces at her.  She should have died, charred like a steak on the bare, smoldering tiles, but she did not.  Though she was staggered, her defenses held and Alfred felt the remainder of his normals die.  She shifted her stance to keep her balance and her foot came down in knee-high grass.  The chalet was no more, the city in the vale was now only a village.  Around them were only air, tree-clad mountains, and swaying billows of wild, green wheat. 

They regarded one another then, each momentarily spent by the pulling and playing of magical power, disoriented by the remendous shifts in reality.  Alfred's frustration and fury rose in his throat.  Grief and wasteful loss tormented him.  Finally his anguish found a voice.

"Leave me alone!"  He took three strides and pushed his face up to hers.  "Just leave me alone!" he shouted again.

She did not respond.  She did not even react.  She stood, proud, disdainful, awaiting his fury.  Alfred swung his arm, the back of his clenched fist striking her cheek, knocking her down.  She glared up at him in silence.

Alfred's fury melted away, gone.  Suddenly he no longer cared.  His defenses down, part of him wished that she would deliver a killing blow, but he knew that she did not have the power left to do it.  He turned his back on her and took a step up the slope through the whispering grass.  And stopped.

Before him, lined up along the rise where late his chalet had stood, were a score or more of young men and women.  Without even trying Alfred could see that each was a talent, a minor one, but a talent nonetheless.  From amongst them, a woman spoke.

"We have come to depose you."  Her voice was lovely, and Alfred hated it.  "You have had the world too long.  It's our turn now." 

Alfred closed his eyes, thinking of a life without such threats, a life without having to struggle to survive.  He remembered Spencer and the look of calm that had crossed the old man's face as he had changed along with his world.

"Leave me alone."

"We cannot," said the voice from the gathering on the hilltop.  One of the youthful mages stepped forward, a light- haired woman about Alfred's height, broad of shoulder and with an intensity in her eye that told Alfred that she was the strongest talent, the leader, the real threat to his safety.  Still, though, he could not truly bring himself to care.  He was tired of the struggle.  He wanted peace. 

"Just leave me alone," he said again, and was not surprised to feel a coolness on his cheek as the breeze touched his futile tears.  "I no longer wish to rule."  Before him, the woman shook her head. 

"You would always be a threat to our control.  We have learned to join our talents and, combined, we can defeat anyone.  Anyone but you.  You are too strong.  We may have beaten you now, but next time?  Next time, we may not.  We do not want to be continually looking over our shoulder, waiting for your next move."

Her words rolled around in Alfred's mind, chiming as they touched upon similar feelings of his own.  He thought of his own years spent in fear, waiting for the next blow.  He thought of the elaborate layers of trap and deception, placed throughout the magical web to misguide and lure, always so he would have that extra moment of time to react.  He thought of the people with which he surrounded himself, normals all, bulwarks against the attacking tide.

And he began to laugh.

He began to laugh at this woman, these young mages, who thought that he was their only threat.  Blind youth, self- deluding naļvete, unable to see what their future would really look like.  Blind to the future of constant threats, of seeing their own techniques duplicated by those more powerful than they, of struggling for control as their coalition broke apart on ambition's anvil.  Their grasp on the reins of the world would be tenuous at best and as substantial as the web of the non-world at worst.

He laughed and laughed, and the woman looked at him as if he were mad.  Perhaps I am, he thought.  And again, he thought of Spencer.  This consort of mages was going to kill him no matter what he did.  Peace would not be afforded him.  He would always be a target.  Well, then, he would let them do it, but he was determined to know what Spencer knew, even for the briefest flash. He was determined to go out as a normal,

He sent his mind to take one last look around the world.  The skies were clear; no jets, no aeroplanes, no balloons or space shuttles.  Just clear, fresh sky.  The land had been changed, too.  The concrete swaths of freeways were gone and the cities had vanished. 

Instead, simple dirt roads wound lazily through countrysides, linking small, pestilence-ridden towns.  Ox-carts and horses carried goods and normals along the roads, and Alfred saw their minds were filled with superstition and ignorance of the physical world.  In his valley, peasants struggled in plowed fields that surrounded a stone keep.  Men on horseback traversed the road that climbed up toward them.  He could hear the creaking of their saddles and the low murmur of their voices as they conversed.

He laughed again.  These self-assured men and women, their individual talents flickering in his presence like candles in a gale, would have a hard time governing this world.  He wondered how much the valley would change in the battles that would come before power was stabilized.

Then he reached up to his magical door, found it as it had been since he had found it a lifetime before:  open, wide, inviting.  He could not remember hearing or reading about any mage having done what he was about to attempt.  Well, he thought, I've always been somewhat of a maverick.

He closed his door.

The web shattered with the sound of a billion agonies.  All around the world minds cried out and were cut off in the same instant.  The valley was filled with the inhuman screams of two dozen mages.  Alfred fell.


Alfred opened his eyes and rolled onto his back.  The grass that surrounded him rocked back and forth in the unfelt breeze and the smell of crushed greenery was strong in the blinding sunlight.

With a groan, he put a hand to his head and tried to sense his magic door.  He could not.  Neither could he sense the web, nor anything else other than what his five mundane senses told him.  He had done it.  He was a normal.

He sat up and looked around.  Down the slope lay the woman who had attacked him.  Quickly looking upslope, he saw the crumpled forms of the other mages as well.  Slowly, they began to move.

The fair-haired woman was the first to sit up.  Hand to her brow, she grimaced in painful concentration.  Then her head snapped up and Alfred saw a look of sheer terror on her countenance.

"What have you done!" she shrieked.  She crawled over to one of her comrades and shook him awake.  She said something to him that Alfred did not hear and, after a pause, the young man cried out in honest grief. 

One by one she roused her band and spoke to them.  Some began to cry, others sat stunned, a few began to hurl curses toward Alfred.  Finally the woman turned back to Alfred.

"What have you done?" 

"I've closed my door," he told her plainly.

"You fool!" she shouted.  "You've destroyed them all!"  She began toward Alfred, murderous fury in her face.

Alfred stood before her rage, stunned by her words.  All of them?  Or was there only one. 

"Is there a problem, M'Lord?" came a question from behind him.  He turned to see a group of normals — no, he corrected himself:  men, like himself, like all of them — riding up the slope toward them.  Roughly dressed and carrying swords, Alfred recognized them as the men from the roadway.

"We've been looking for you, Lord Aelfred," said the man.  "We heard your shout.  Is all well?"

Aelfred smiled.  Still governing, he sighed to himself.  Spencer's peace continued to elude him. 

He looked back at the group of former talents as he was helped into the swordsman's recently-vacated saddle.  Their stunned and befuddled faces betrayed their confusion and helplessness.  Had he really destroyed the door, or had he just hidden it for a while?

He decided it would be a long, quiet wait before he found out.  He turned with the men and rode down the hill towards the small castle, where friendly smoke from cookfires rose slowly into the lazy air.

   

All contents ©2001-2010 Kurt R.A. Giambastiani