Authors: 2 To Light A Candle.13
In the Forest of Flowers
KELLEN TAVADON COULD never have imagined fighting a battle so one-sided as this, but he no longer had the energy to spare for despair. Up and around the circumference of the Black Cairn he went, and as he did, the icy wind slowly increased. It seemed to Kellen as if the source of the wind was the obelisk itself, as if it blew from someplace not of this world. As if from a great distance, he could hear inhuman yelping and the sounds of battle. If he looked, he knew he would be able to watch his friends die.
But he refused to look. He could not afford to be distracted from his battle. It took all his concentration to keep his footing on the stairs. Kellen's teeth chattered uncontrollably in the cold; tears that owed nothing to grief streamed from his eyes and froze along his cheeks and lashes. He gripped Idalia's keystone hard against his stomach and prayed that it would hold together.
If he had been able to think, he would have been certain that his situation could not be any worse, and then, as a further torment, grit mixed with the frigid wind began to pelt him. Fine sand at first, that left him blinking and half-blind, but soon good-sized pieces of gravel and small rocks that hammered his skin and even drew blood. He could taste grit between his teeth, on his tongue, feel it in his nose, in his lungs, choking him. He pulled his undertunic up over his head. It was hard to breathe through the heavy quilted leather, but as he heard the wind-driven sand hiss over its surface, Kellen was glad he'd buried his head in its folds. Better to be half-stifled than blind. Slowly his tears washed his eyes clean.
Soon it was not just gravel that the wind carried, but rocks the size of a fist. At this rate, he'd be dodging boulders soon. And one direct hit from anything really large and he'd be dead—and the fate of Sentarshadeen, and perhaps of all of the Elves, would be sealed.
He needed to protect the keystone as well as his eyes and lungs. Kellen quickly shoved the keystone up under his shirt, and turned toward the wall so it was protected by his body as well. The keystone was as icy against his skin as it had once been warm against his hands. He turned his face against the wall, and crept even more slowly, up the stairs. The sand made them slippery, and he knew Something was hoping he'd fall and break the fragile keystone.
At least the howling of the wind and the booming of the rocks against the stone shut out all sound of the battle below. If it was still going on. If all his friends weren't dead already.
I won't look back, Kellen promised himself. Whatever happens, I won't look back.
It was so unfair for the enemy he faced to be throwing rocks at him! Unfair—no, it wasn't so much that it was unfair. It was humiliating. The Enemy wasn't even going to bother wasting its Demon warriors on stopping him; he wasn't an Elven Knight, after all. He wasn't any sort of a real threat. He meant so little to the Enemy that the Enemy thought it was enough to batter him with a few rocks, certain that he was so cowardly, so worthless, that he would turn tail and run.
That, as much as all the pain and despair, nearly broke Kellen's spirit.
Only his anger saved him.
Anger is a weapon, as much as your sword.
"I'll—show—you!" he snarled through clenched teeth. And went on. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, blind, aching, terrified, but now, above all else, furious, he drove onward.
Then came the worst part—when the wind and rocks began hitting him from all sides. Kellen realized that must mean he was near the top of the cairn. Groping blindly, his head still muffled in his tunic, he slid his hand along the wall in front of his face, until he touched emptiness. The wind pushed at his fingertips with the force of a river in flood. If he tried to simply walk up to where the obelisk was, the wind would pluck him off and hurl him to the ground.
Very well. Then he would crawl.
Kellen got down on his hands and knees and crawled up the rest of the stairs, brushing the sand away carefully from each step before him. It caked on his abraded hands, and every time he wiped them clean on his tunic, fresh blood welled up from a thousand tiny scratches. And the wind still blew, cold enough now to steal all sensation from his flesh.
He reached a flat place, and crawled out onto it, pushing against the wind.
Suddenly, without warning, the wind stopped. The silence rang in his ears.
"Well, you make a fine sight," a man said from somewhere above him, sounding amused.
The voice was elusively familiar.
Kellen dragged his tunic down around his neck and stared, blinking, into the watery green light.
He was facing… himself?
Another Kellen stood on the other side of the obelisk, grinning down at him nastily. The point of the obelisk came just to his heart level. This Kellen was sleek and manicured—no one would ever call his smooth brown curls unruly!—and dressed in the height of Armethaliehan finery, from his shining half-boots of tooled and gilded leather to his fur-lined half-cape and the pair of jeweled and embroidered silk gloves tucked negligently through his gleaming gilded belt. The cape and gloves were in House Tavadon colors, of course. No one would ever forget which Mageborn City House this young man belonged to, not for an instant.
Slowly, Kellen got to his feet, though his cramped and aching muscles protested. Instantly, Other-Kellen clapped his bare hands over the point of the obelisk, blocking Kellen's access to it.
"Think about what you're doing"Other-Kellen urged him. "Really think about it. Now, before it's too late. You've had a chance to taste freedom, and you've found it's a bitter wine. Only power can make it sweet, but you already know the responsibilities that power brings. Even the powerful aren't really free. The only real freedom we have is of choosing our master, and most people don't get even that. But you can choose"
"I don't serve anyone!" Kellen said angrily.
"Oh? And you a Wildmage" Other-Kellen said mockingly. "I should think you would have learned better the moment you opened the Books"
Kellen snapped his mouth shut abruptly. If this was a fight, he'd just lost the first battle. He did serve the Wild Magic, and so far he'd done exactly what it told him to do. How free did that make him?
"You've made some bad choices in the past" Other-Kellen continued smoothly. "Even you're willing to admit that. Wouldn't you like the chance to undo them? To start over, knowing what you know now? You can have that. Few people get that opportunity."
Other-Kellen smiled, and for the first time, Kellen could see his father's face mirrored in this stranger's that was his own. The sight shocked and distracted him, even in this moment and in this place. Assurance… competence… or just corruption?
"You left Armethalieh because you rebelled against your father's plans for you, but you know better now, don't you? Arch-Mage Lycaelon only wants for you what he has always enjoyed himself! And that's not so bad, now, is it? What does it matter if it takes a bit of groveling and scraping, and a lot of boring make-work to get there? Think about how you used to live—and how you live now. The life of a High Mage has its compensations—and the High Mages were right, back when they walled themselves off in their city. They were right to want to build safeguards against the prices and bargains the Wild Magic required" his doppelganger said, his voice as silken and sweet as honey, reasonable
and logical. Kellen himself had never sounded like that. "What's so wrong with trying to improve something? They still practice magic, and they do so without the prices that the Wild Magic demands. They give their citizens a good life—and if life in the Golden City is too restrictive, well, when you're Arch-Mage, Kellen, you'll be able to make all the changes you've dreamed of"
That shocked Kellen so much that he almost dropped the keystone. Of all of the things he had imagined and fantasized about, that was never one that had occurred to him!
"And you can be Arch'Mage" the double said, persuasively. "You have the gift and the talent; your father isn't wrong about that! If everyone must serve, then choose your service. Serve the City. Go back now, beg your father's forgiveness—it won't be that hard. Give up the Wild Magic. That won't be hard, either, will it? Step back into the life you should have had, and work for the good of Armethalieh. You'll have everything you wanted. Just think of all you can do for the City when you return ..."
Kellen stared in horrified fascination at his doppelganger. Was this really him? The person he could have been—or could still be?
If he did this, could he even turn the City to help the Elves, and forge a new Alliance as in the old days?
But Jermayan would know what had happened—
Shalkan surely would—
"Your companions are already dead. You have no one to consider but yourself. No one will know what happened here but you. Isn't it time you did what you want, for a change? Here is your future, Kellen" His doppelganger leaned forward, his face wearing a mask of pleasantry, his voice eager, urging. "You have but to reach out and seize it. And you will receive nothing but praise for your actions"
Now Kellen looked away, down toward the plain below, but everything below the top of the caim was covered with a thick layer of yellow-green fog. It was as if the rest of the world had vanished. Quickly he looked back at his doppelganger, suspecting a trick, but Other-Kellen had not moved. His doppelganger smiledkit Kellen sympathetically, as if guessing the direction of Kellen's thoughts.
"But if you go through with this foolish adventure, your future will be set. If you think you have troubles now, you can't even begin to imagine what your life is going to be like afterward—assuming you don't die right here. Think of the Demons. They know your name, Kellen. The Queen and Prince of the Endarkened know who you are. They know all about you, and they'll find you wherever you go. You won't have an easy death, or a quick one. Torment—oh, for them, it is the highest form of Art, and they have had millennia to perfect it. You won't die, but you will long for death with all of your being. For years, Kellen, for years...."
Other-Kellen shuddered in mock-sympathy, his eyes never leaving Kellen's face.
Kellen trembled, remembering his nightmares, knowing they must have fallen far short of the truth.
"Oh, you might survive triggering the keystone. You might even manage to get back to Sentarshadeen alive. And I'm sure your friends the Elves will do their best for you. But it hasn't really been much of a best so far, has it? They couldn't even manage to save themselves without a Wildmage or two to help. And when it comes right down to it, they're going to take care of themselves and their families first once the trouble starts, aren't they?
"I wouldn't say we're friends, exactly, but I would say I'm the closest thing to a friend you've got. Right here. Right now. Think about it, Kellen. This is your last chance. After this, you have no choices left. Think. Use what you've learned. They've all tried to keep the truth from you so you wouldn't know what the stakes are. Think how hard you've had to work to find out what little you have. Why is that? So you wouldn't know enough to make a fair choice," Other-Kelien said.