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
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
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
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
"Are you okay?" Al
"Yes, Master Alfred. Fine,
So it's Master Alfred now,
he thought. "Are you sure you're all right?" Alfred
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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.