Folks, for what I believe to be for the first time ever since its release two years ago, Plague of Life is free to readers for a very limited time. This is part of my
efforts to help keep you entertained through the stay-at-home process. I’ve been looking forward to this one because I’ve decided to share a snippet from it, and it’s a pretty significant one. This is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes of the series, and definitely my favorite “fight scene” of the bunch. Give it a read if you don’t intend on picking up the novels. It’s not scary or violent in the slightest.
If you haven’t read Smyle or Plague of Life and intend to, STOP RIGHT HERE AND DON’T READ ANY FURTHER. IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, YOU’RE STILL READING AND YOUR BRAIN NEEDS TO CATCH UP TO THE SPOILER WARNING SO YOU DON’T ACCIDENTALLY SPOIL YOURSELF. OKAY. YOU HAVE BEEN PROPERLY WARNED. NAVIGATE AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ A SPOILER HEAVY SNIPPET. WE GOOD? COOL. LET’S GET SOME NACHOS LATER.
The helicopter touched down on the highway, kicking up a flurry of snow. Anywhere more populated and it would have caused mayhem. As it was, between Neihart and White Sulphur Springs on Highway 89, the only living creatures that might have raised some eyebrows were elk and cattle.
The pilot uttered no words aside from what was necessary, and when Yaro’s boots hit the ground, he only waited long enough for her to collect a duffel bag and step out of range of the rotors before he took off again, rising rapidly and heading north. She watched his progression with a shiver. Other than Daniel, he might be the last living person she ever saw, if Brianna couldn’t figure out where Yaro was hiding.
Thunder rumbled far too close. In the fall, that might not have been unusual, but not now, not when temperatures were in the high teens. Yaro pulled Daniel tighter to her under her coat, and glanced around, trying to gain her bearings. The highway cut a swath through the Little Belt Mountains. Garrett and Brianna’s cabin was nestled on the west side, just below a pine tree forest, about two miles off that same highway down two gravel roads.
The thunder again, and a wind buffeted the trees, though not so much as a breeze touched her face. The Twisted Men, letting her know they were coming, and soon. Two days. That was all she had to save Daniel and prepare. God help her.
Rather than walk, she flicked her fingers in the pattern of the teleportation spell, and popped a few hundred yards down the road, repeating the process until she was looking up a snow-caked pathway to a stout cabin with an attached garage. Stark black numbering on the side of the front door denoted it as the right place, and Yaro jumped one last time to it.
When he’d built the place, Garrett had anticipated thieves and troublesome teenagers, not magicians. The heavy-duty locks, the sturdy frame, the solidly-built walls, and the thick panes of glass might have kept out the local yokels, but for one of the world’s greatest and oldest magicians, breaking in was just a matter of a murmured few words and a wave of her hand. The locks popped open, and Yaro pushed her way inside. The interior was tidy, save for a fine layer of dust on every surface. Two couches sat opposite each other, lined by end tables loaded with books and board games. The adjoining kitchen was sparse but functional, and a single bedroom bore a few pictures of Garrett and Brianna in happier times. The mother’s eyes seemed to stare at Yaro, and she closed the door, shivering.
“I’m going to try,” she muttered, and unslung the bag of goods she’d asked Caspian to include on her helicopter. She unfolded the baby blanket on the couch, and laid Daniel down on it carefully. His entwined magical essence had faded almost entirely, and his few movements were limited to blinking and grasping with his tiny fingers. Yaro’s heart hurt to see him like this. Yet another life in her hands.
The wards would have come first if Daniel hadn’t clearly been so close to the cusp of death, but she had no time now. They would have to come after she’d healed Daniel. That would put the Tamawo right at the doorstep.
Quickly she dug out the rest of the items – baby formula, pre-mixed by one of Caspian’s people, wipes, diapers, a gas lantern, a container of fuel, matches, and a half-pound of dried sage. Quickly she arranged Daniel’s baby blanket on the ground and lined its sides with the baby’s necessities. She could cast a spell to forego her own physical needs, but the baby would need to be fed and changed every so often and she wanted everything as close at hand as possible. The lantern she filled, and left it and the sage by the door. A few words, and logs in the fireplace burned slowly, and would hopefully last through this thing.
Daniel’s breathing slowed by the second. She had no more time to prepare. Yaro knelt next to the child, kissed her thumb and pressed it to his cheek, and began to twist her fingers in the first spell.
“This is gonna suck,” she said, more to herself than the baby.
* * *
The magic she’d use was, in principle, relatively straightforward. The first spell she’d ever seen Kyrilu perform – bonding her magical energy to his own to grant him the strength to heal her brother Radomil – was basically the same thing. But Daniel was not a cognitive adult giving himself over willingly to the bonding magic, and so what Yaro had to do was gently coax his magical essence to her own, charming it away from him little by little.
Babies didn’t think in whole thoughts, but rather by pleasure and pain, comfort and discomfort, hungry and full. Those were the emotions Yaro toyed with, trying to find the easiest way to make his young unformed mind – and more importantly, his magical essence – join with her own will. It was far from easy. At first, she tried to implant images into Daniel’s mind – Brianna cradling him, his bassinet, his blanket. Apart from some luck with Brianna’s image, this approach didn’t work. His mind simply hadn’t developed enough to register images instead of feelings. Still, Yaro was on the right track – she’d managed to siphon away a little of his magical essence with the thoughts of Daniel’s mother. It was just a matter of making the baby feel relaxed, safe, trusting. She could do this – if she had enough time.
An hour gone already, but at least the child’s breathing wasn’t worsening. Yaro wiped away a trickle of sweat and tried again, this time working to conjure up feelings rather than specific images. The idea of being warm and swaddled, that was a big one. Daniel even cooed a little at that, the glaze in his eyes lessening. She worked the warmth angle until the idea produced no more results, then slowly went onto a string of other pleasantries. Being full. Napping. The sleep-inducing vibrations of a car ride (that one scored big too).
Each notion, big or small, sucked up the better part of an hour. Her legs cramped, her back ached, her hunger tore at her, but Yaro ignored all of it, focused entirely on the child, only occasionally breaking for his needs. None of her aches and pains would matter in another day, whether she succeeded or not, so she threw herself into the work, molding the child’s mind, opening it inch by inch.
Daniel’s innate power was astonishing, easily dwarfing her own. As she massaged open the invisible pathways between their minds, she struggled to take all his talent within herself. It required a fancy bit of mental deftness, making room in her own mind and soul even as she focused on the child. Yaro quaked at the dribble of power being added to her own, and as the first twelve hours drew to a close, she realized she wasn’t even halfway done. After all, she wasn’t just absorbing one baby’s magical essence, but two.
As Daniel’s subconscious began to trust her more and more, the dribble of energy became a river. Yaro could no longer focus on the physical. A three-way fight started within herself as she lay drooling on the floor, one more of dominant personalities and ability than that of human need or emotion. The baby Daniel beside Yaro beset her with basic human needs – hunger, sleep, warmth. His power was undefined, raw. Her own essence was a glittering disco ball of sorrow, mellow acceptance that her end was drawing near, a fundamental fear of what came after, a deep ache of loneliness, and strangest of all, a warm glow of maternal affection for Daniel that wasn’t hers – or at least, not the Yaro that existed now. This last part, she didn’t recognize on a conscious level – the thinking, rational part of her was taking a quick vacation – but she felt it regardless.
Yaro’s power itself was the most refined of the three, though the weakest. Her essence had to fight the hardest to stay relevant, to maintain control. Thankfully, the other two essences largely ignored her own as Yaro’s mind quietly siphoned off their power, feeding herself and growing more and more dominant.
Most unusual was the third essence, that of the Other Daniel. Everything about this essence spoke of a reckless swagger, a power so used to winning and getting its way that it just assumed it was the most dominant of the three. This parallel Daniel had the feel of adulthood, though he was nowhere near as old as Yaro. She sensed he might have been maybe a hundred when he passed away – young for a magician, but given the type of lifestyle his parents led, unsurprising.
It was that Daniel she had to work hardest to excise and draw into herself. The essence of the older Daniel was already fighting for survival when it had been left behind by… well, whatever had happened between Garrett and the ghost of his son. Now it struggled twice as hard, unknowing that it could possibly kill its host if it won this fight.
The three-way dance favored the older Daniel’s magical essence, but Yaro clung on, siphoning more and more of the two Daniels’ energy away from them. The infantile essence had to be massaged gently now and then with a little power, keeping it in the fight long enough to help Yaro finish off the older mana, but not given back so much that it overwhelmed her too. Hours slipped by. The end of the first day passed. Yaro had no idea how close she was cutting it, but when the tide finally favored her, she seized the moment, and the river of power to her mind became a roaring flood.
Daniel’s magical essences lit up one last time, pressing Yaro’s mind for control together in the end, but with a triumphant mental roar and a barely audible gasp, Yaro took the last of Daniel’s power – both Daniels – and yanked it into herself. Her eyes opened, lit with a sheen of green energy, and before the power could escape back to the baby, she severed his access to magic forever, snipping the last little cord between her and Daniel’s mind.
Beside her, on the floor, Daniel woke – and wailed for all the world to hear that he was hungry, and he was hungry now, damn it. Yaro grinned savagely as she staggered to her feet, the energy within her huge and all-consuming. Her soul wasn’t so much burning as it was exploding, and though she tried to control its release, the essence of the two Daniels – now a nameless, shapeless power within herself – blew outwards in a last wave, sending a shock through the earth for miles in every direction. What damage had been done had to wait, at least for the moment. Yaro checked the time on her watch as she snatched up Daniel. An hour. She had less than an hour before the Tamawo came for her.
She staggered to her knees to feed Daniel. Their personal physical needs had all but been cut off in the last day when their minds battled, but now her bladder shouted for her immediate attention and a desperate thirst left her throat dry and parched. Yaro forced the needs out of her mind for the moment, first letting Daniel eat before she settled him back down on the blanket, crying, as she stumbled into the bathroom for much needed relief. After, she drank straight from the bathroom’s faucet, forcing herself to stop after a few long gulps. More was unnecessary. She only needed enough to finish the next few minutes.
Fifty minutes left. Fifty minutes to live. Well, sort of. After a quick change of Daniel’s diapers, Yaro grabbed up the lantern, and rubbed its exterior with sage, murmuring an incantation as she worked. Sage worked as a simple magnifier for spells, though it wouldn’t last long. She didn’t need it to. With her fingernail, she scratched a name against the side of the glass – Brianna. Specifics didn’t matter – the magic would understand the intent. Only Brianna would be able to wade through the spell the lantern was meant to amplify. Yaro tucked the rest of the sage into her pocket, hoping in vain she’d have enough time to craft some wards around the building and amplify them with its power.
Over her shoulder, she said to Daniel, “Be right back, kid.”
The baby’s waggling arms did more to hearten her than most anything had in the last thousand years.