Time passed for Zedwig, languid as a dirty river flowing with misery, but separate and apart from his innermost self. If it hadn’t been for that which Gaffer had given him in the garden, he would have gone mad long ago. Somehow, it was enough to know that if he had not been in the control of Fang, he would never have done any of what he was forced to do.
Quite a few of his students were now dead, but after watching so many people that he knew and so many more others that he did not know die, a mild numbness began to creep into his senses which buffered him from anguish and only left him in a mist in which he mostly felt nothing.
On this night he sat in a wooden chair that folded and gazed into a real mist that gathered and formed in the hollow valley in which the army of the empire had camped. Another of his students had died today: another one of the elven mages who under his tutelage had always been safe and trusting. They were all betrayed by his ability to control them. Never once had it been considered that this was a liability. Zedwig found himself falling in circles within his mind over why no one ever thought of what might happen, should the worst happen.
This was undoubtedly, in Zedwig’s opinion, the worst that could have happened. Although he often tried to find the best in situations, at least historically, at this particular moment, staring into the nothing that was growing in the hollow, Zedwig was extraordinarily tired and stretched beyond anything he had ever imagined. Gradually, he and Fang had both discovered what exactly it was that destructive magic did to the vessels that wielded it. It was a sort of wasting, but possibly could be better described as a rotting.
Nearly half of the elven mages had died from it already, and healers didn’t seem to be able to wrap their skills around it. The healers could heal it, of course, as they can heal anything, but it killed them shortly. Restoration was impossible from this particular waste.
As it was, they ran out of healers as fast as they could acquire them and Zedwig knew his number was coming. Instead of dread, however, it gave him butterflies to imagine being released from Fang’s restless grip, even if it was into death.
He gazed into the mist. It had arisen from nothing and though it looked unassuming and was utterly silent, it had slowly grown until it was a great mass of fog; a thick cloud against the gently curving green of the valley floor. Nothing was camped there, for the ground was wet, and the guards and others seemed to instinctively avoid walking through its unknown depths, and instead passed around. Zedwig, however, felt a very strong compulsion to lose himself in it.
He rose, and walked to the edge. The edges of the mist curved and drifted in a way that seemed aimless, but he wondered if that was how it sustained itself; ghostly feelers seemed to draw further moisture from the wet air, both feeding itself and calling him into the silence it would offer. He accepted the invitation and entered the mist until he could see nothing but the fog around him.
It was strangely quiet inside the mist, and lighter than outside because the only color around him was a pale gray. He breathed in, and the air was wet and heavy and smelled strongly of rain. He was gone; the only thing of substance in the world was him, at least the only thing of which he was aware was himself. Something tense within him rose from his mind in an arc and emerged upward, flowing through the mist and he sighed.
As much of a relief as it was for him to lose that tension that was within him, he had not been aware that it was that tension which had kept him standing. Without it, he fell to his knees and the weakness and sickness began to overcome him. He knew then that he was going to die, perhaps, here on the wet ground in the fog. Briefly he wanted to die, and then suddenly he knew he was acutely afraid of the idea.
He clutched clumps of green grass in his leaning hands. Pale brown water drifted up through the cracks in his fingers. It was cool and pleasant and he could feel water soak through the cloth on his knees. He wondered what it would be like to fall and lie here, and for once not to care if everything he wore ended up filthy and wet, but merely to feel it soak through to him; into him; around him. He breath stirred the mist beneath him and he began to long for it. The water was a balm after months of fire.
Just as he’d nearly given himself to the ground, he didn’t hear movement, but felt it nearby, moving the fog and setting the water to tremble. In a swift flush it was Fangline who emerged, and the mist tore to shreds around him and his lightning face until he was standing close to Zedwig’s sodden hands, still buried in the grassy muck.
Zedwig, lingering wistfully in the trance of death, considered Fang’s ankles and decided they didn’t look particularly evil, and in fact seemed quite innocent and well appointed. He wondered thickly how far up he would have to go on this particular tree to find the heart of malevolence that plagued him. Knees fell beside him, and he watched a small ring of darker black grow around those knees and knew Fangline felt the same sensation he did and wondered if he liked it.
Though he was not at all aware that Fangline was talking to him, his knees seemed also fairly innocent so Zedwig considered his arms, one of which had moved around him and the other was in front of him, ending in a darkly gloved hand in the water between his own. At this particular time, Zedwig found it a shame that Fangline was wearing gloves and was thus deprived the very pleasant feeling of mud between his fingers. The cut of his coat really was perfect around his arms, and wondered what it was about tailoring that could both hide yet exalt. There were three creases in the fabric that shot outward from his torso underneath his arm and the juxtaposition of angles made him completely certain that his arms were not evil.
However, from this distance, he was aware it was coming. He could sense it pulsing outward and clouding the clear waters that made up the rest of Fangline’s graceful, otherwise unpolluted form. He began to fear it, to dread it, and it overwhelmed the fear of death he had felt just moments before, making death the better end.
Was it in his eyes? He assumed it, but put off looking at his face quite yet, not ready for the burden of it and only drawn to the shape of his leaning shoulder. It was all cleanliness, the lot of him so far, except the haze that radiated from somewhere he hadn’t gone yet. His neck was covered; Fang always seemed to cover his neck with something, and today it was a pale gray scarf woven fine enough to fit inside his coat without disrupting the lines.
It frustrated Zedwig. He wanted to find it elsewhere, anywhere besides in those horrible vivid green eyes of Fangline’s and he reacted suddenly, reaching up with a muddy hand and pulling the scarf away from Fangline’s neck. There was his throat: delicate and vulnerable. He clenched the scarf into the mud with one hand and with the other he touched Fang’s neck and knew, even if the destruction of Fang radiated through it like a maelstrom, it was clean, too.
His hand moved, creating a swath of dirt and water along the side of Fangline’s neck until it came to his face, which he clutched, knowing he would have to look at Fangline’s face now, for there was no where else to go. He would have to look into it and see it for what it was: a vortex of cruelty and madness.
So he did, and he didn’t find what he was looking for. Fangline’s eyes were wide, and Zedwig vaguely sensed that he was afraid. If he had been more tactically coherent, he would have known the absolute truth of this from the fact that Fangline had long since stopped talking, and had begun trembling violently. It was at this time that Fangline had no power over Zedwig, for as he trod on the line between life and death he was beyond all control.
Zedwig searched his eyes, looking and not finding, growing more impatient and desperate. It was gone; the evil didn’t reside in his eyes, and he found them not dark and horrible, but beautiful. Nothing but beauty stared back at him and he felt something twist inside of him; a tightening, and he suddenly knew he would never be here again and nothing like this would ever be possible again for the rest of his life, however brief that might be.
And so, as he was standing on a pinnacle, as he was nearly dead and also nearly alive, Zedwig’s determination sharpened to a razor’s edge and his will became far greater than Fangline’s, even beyond his magnification, and even beyond his artifact. Fangline was gone, trapped, and helpless, and were Zedwig of a clear mind it would have all been over.
However, the story can’t possibly end here.
Zedwig’s entire body was wreathed in magic and the glow echoed off the mist around them. If the mist hadn’t been quite so thick, it might have been evident from outside, but it was an extraordinarily soupish fog, and they were lost in nothing. He did nothing with the magic, however, except feel it. It was second nature; he didn’t even think about drawing it, for as he lingered near death, it was drawn to him and filled him, then radiated outward in soft, brilliant pulses, into Fangline, around Fangline, and then mixing with and drawing power from Fangline’s force itself. Fangline, for his part, was stiff, terrified, and certain the end was nigh.
Zedwig was fascinated by Fangline’s face in a state of fear, wondering what it might reveal to him. He moved his hand and saw the mud it left on his cheek, saw it trailing to his neck and found a strange delight in that particular imperfection. Then, he took Fangline’s face in both of his hands; mud, water, ruined scarf, and even some small blades of grass included, and being somehow above him, he asked him a question.
“Who are you?”
His voice reverberated with magic; it was a whisper, a stream, and a clear voice all at once, and Fangline trembled in response. It didn’t matter how Fangline might have replied, for it was clear that Zedwig could have the answer as he wished.
The depth of Fangline’s fear registered at last with Zedwig to a point; he was looking through a distant glass and he didn’t understand, and so, with every sense and ability he possessed heightened by his strength and weakness near death, he found Fangline’s eyes and did what he might have long before, if he’d known he could do it, or even thought it was possible.
He went into Fangline, his mind searching for answers and for clarity. He wanted to find it: the source of his malevolence. He wanted to know why it was there. He wanted to know why. Why had plagued him. Why would never leave him alone until he found it.
Fangline, behind the surface, was a tempestuous labyrinth whose walls turned and shifted without compliance with physical laws or reality. There was no solid ground that he could discern, only roiling storm clouds and the incessant shifting… shifting. Behind the shifting walls, Zedwig could occasionally see a shining metal sphere with a ring that spun at a dizzying speed with only slightly imperfect balance. He could never see all of it, but only enough to know it was there. Fangline’s face flashed with no discernable clarity from behind one shifting gray-black wall, sullen and withdrawn, and Zedwig went to it.
The wall was between them and it would not move, but he knew Fang was on the other side leaning against it.
Looking downward, Zedwig was standing on nothing. Below were the same storm clouds that were above, and they were laced with a dark poison. He touched the wall, and saw it was obsidian, thick, and cruelly impenetrable, and Zedwig knew that if he were to attempt to walk around its short length, another would shift into its place.
So he moved back and rose into the air, into the roiling clouds, and then fell, plunging himself into the heart of the labyrinth and below, through the clouds which shocked with lightning.
There was the sound of a heart beating. Everything was a deep, dark, sanguine red that faded to black and back again. There was nothing tangible that Zedwig could see or know, but he could feel everything and it ached.
It began with loss, and then mingled with fear. Loneliness filled it until it throbbed with agony. The loss resurfaced again, and the want of something gone; warmth and security were like paradise lost. Zedwig was moved and he fell away, out of Fangline, backwards in a stream until he only saw his eyes, but knew everything that was in them.
Fangline was short of breath and still shaking, and though his tortured expression would have muddled anyone to see it, Zedwig knew the cause and definition of every subtlety that crossed his face.
As he knew this, and as power continued to flow through him and around him, he pulled Fangline to him, brought his forehead to rest on his own, and drew him inside.
Within Zedwig there was much darkness, but unlike the roiling, thunderous clouds within Fangline, it was only velvet blackness, not so much an indication of something dark, but of the absence of anything. But, there was something, which only took Fangline a brief time to find, and it was a doorway to an edifice, from which came a glowing light.
Fangline only approached it cautiously, but with growing curiosity until he stood within it, and gazed at the room within.
It was small but suffused with light, the sort of light that glowed through Fangline and filled him with a sense of something he could only remember once having but never feeling. There was an aisle, and he was drawn down it, even though he felt jagged and filthy, as if covered with streaks of black soot and ash. He looked behind him to see if his footprints left marks of filth on the silent, gentle carpet, but they didn’t, and when he turned to the front again, he could see an altar at the end of the aisle.
He knew what it was, and yet he didn’t. He saw it, and felt it, and trembled before it, all the while surrounded by the warmth of this place, and his unworthiness within it. Stopping before the altar, he stood and his frame shook.
Zedwig came then, from the corner of the room, and as he approached, warmth radiated from him so powerfully that Fangline grew weak and feared he would burn. He smiled at Fangline, however.
“Fangline,” he said, his name falling from his lips with a searing gentleness, and the glow around him was mixed with magic and began to radiate and alternate back and forth in a constant pulse. He touched Fangline’s face, gently, and he fell to his knees before Zedwig in fear and self-loathing.
Instead of allowing him to kneel at his feet, Zedwig moved to kneel himself, and he fully embraced Fangline. As he did, at once Fangline was struck with a rare moment of absolute security, one of only a handful that he had ever experienced in his life. It cracked the stones within his labyrinth until they shifted and broke. The ringed shining sphere spun faster and worse; trying to right itself into a perfect rotation but only growing rapidly out of balance like a machine that might tear apart with the next lopsided revolution. The poisonous storms were thinned and raked aside by a rushing wind, and he was suddenly laid agonizingly bare and laboriously raw. He sighed, shuddered, and then it began to rain.
Zedwig felt it on his cheek first, his real cheek, actually, one drop, and then another. There was a third and a soft sob before the storm began. From the distance, he knew that it was very singular, but it barely changed him; he only embraced him with some measure of increased, detached vigilance as the magic roiled around him and Fangline with greater frequency. For Fangline, however, it tore his very being in an act of violent reshaping. Within the solace of Zedwig’s mind Fangline clung to him and was lost in wretched sorrow for a time, until it slowly faded into numbness. After some time of being spent, he meekly withdrew, left that solace, and opened his eyes.
He was holding Zedwig in his arms, and though the fog hadn’t changed at all, Zedwig had drastically changed for the worse. He looked dead, and Fangline wanted to panic until he felt his pulse, light and bird-like, in his neck. He also knew, somehow, unconsciously, that Zedwig was still there. Suddenly it didn’t matter to him what Zedwig was capable of destructively; suddenly he only desperately needed for him to live. He was precious; priceless; the only thing Fangline possessed with any worth. It drove a different sort of panic through him that made him both uncomfortably vulnerable and fiercely determined.
He lowered his lips to Zedwig’s hairline and sighed against it, already thinking of Al’bert and the healer he’d managed to procure.