Monday, October 13, 2008

Chapter 39 (of 43)

XXXIX

It had been as if nothing happened at all. It was as if Zedwig didn’t remember, or pretended not to remember, or desired not to remember, and any of the three Fang felt like a splinter in his bones. The mage had lost consciousness at some point during the time within the mist, and hadn’t regained it for nearly two weeks, during which time Fang feared the anxiety he felt would wring him tightly as a rope towards his own death. Sometimes he thought death would be better than lingering on the edge of not knowing whether Zedwig would wake or not. At least then it would be dark, and he imagined it would be cool as a stone in the morning and vacuous: missing the harried things that had tormented him for all of his years. He did long for it at times, but there was no one to tell that to, and besides, he was helplessly addicted to the thrill and life he found in certain things.

He stood tonight with his hands resting upon a map on a small table within his tent. His posture was rigid, and his gaze was distant, as his thoughts were consuming him beyond his control. Two guards stood nearby, but in an innocuous manner that would not draw the overlord’s attention. He was clearly disturbed, and everyone with any experience knew how the mood of Fang could turn into a slicing blade on a moment’s notice. Naturally, the interior of Fang’s tent was thick with tension, and it was into this atmosphere that Zedwig entered, neat and collected.

Zedwig’s bearing was neither hostile, as he had just been after waking from the healing by Al’bert’s healer, nor was it overly familiar. There was a polished wall there, but also an open-ness he hadn’t allowed Fang since he had taken the mage under his control. Fang straightened as Zedwig approached, and said nothing as he acutely attempted to sense where all things stood at this particular moment. Zedwig came to the opposite side of the small table, and as he did, Fang could see he still looked tired in a lingering way that gave him a certain look that brought to mind perfect beauty driven slightly past the edge. He wondered if the healer hadn’t been strong enough to fully restore Zedwig this time, or if he simply had reached the point where full restoration was no longer possible.

Zedwig’s eyes rose to look at him very directly, amethyst… always amethyst. Fang could barely stand how he loved, hated, and feared them, and at the root of it all, he knew despairingly that he could not live without them.

“What are we to plan, Fangline?” he asked him in a way that seemed resigned but efficient.

Fang poured his attention into the map below him and concentrated on losing himself in that which he loved second-best, because it was certainly not all bad, and really quite thrilling. He placed an index finger squarely upon the canyon some miles north of Schloeffelonia.

“There is nothing above us but wasteland until we should reach some simple human cities in the far north, and so I would like to pass through this canyon instead and begin working on the east.”

“Kazaad’sandish?” asked Zedwig.

“Perhaps we’ll get that far this year,” Fang replied. “Perhaps not.” And after saying this, he regarded Zedwig thoughtfully as they both knew it mostly depended on the mage’s health. His eyes left Zedwig, and he shifted his finger across the thick paper of the map to a city in the east. “I would at least like to make it to the City of Ena before the snows come.”

Zedwig drew a breath, and Fang knew he was shifting, oscillating between and collection and disarray. He leaned onto the map, where his loose fist covered the city beneath his hand, leaned towards Zedwig, and used all of his capacity to calm him with his presence. He gazed at him, and then did something he never had before.

“Do you have any suggestions?”

Zedwig was wholly surprised to hear this question from Fang, but Fang noted that physically he hid it well as it was only apparent through a glance and a change in his brow, however hiding it was all for naught as they were both aware of the array of emotion either one of them might be experiencing at any moment. Still, lifelong habits continued regardless of their combined intuition, and even so they were capable of surprising each other.

“Yes,” said Zedwig experimentally, as if his utterance could possibly bring out a sudden backlash, but it didn’t, and Fang simply watched him as his weight shifted slightly beside the map. Seeing the way was free, Zedwig’s finger fell to the east side of the canyon, where a very small town was nestled. “It is not necessary to do anything here, as long as they are docile. This town means nothing, and at the very most we should only gather supplies from them.” He moved his finger lightly across the few towns in the plains between the mountains and the range that hosted the City of Ena. “These are likewise. Easily we can bring them into the empire without any manner of violence.”

Fang moved a little, his tolerance waning, but Zedwig continued, pretending not to notice. “Perhaps the City, well-walled as it is, will require some work, however,” and his finger moved to the City of Ena, where Fang’s heavy hand still lay. “I don’t believe burning it to the ground is in our best interest, for what is destroyed has to be rebuilt.” He glanced up at Fang in the way of testing heated waters.

Fang himself was a study in painful conflict, as he found it extremely difficult to relinquish control of even the smallest matters in the course of his campaign. It was his, entirely his, and he delighted in it, and the greatness of his power gave him the release he had craved for so many years. But if he were to give in to Zedwig, there was the possibility for something that he had never had which was so compelling and terrifying that at any given moment he might cast it away like a scalding rock or clutch it to him with desperate need. Because, if he were to give in to Zedwig, it meant only one thing; he would be giving Zedwig power, not only power within the campaign, but a power over him so great and overwhelming to consider that it caused the deepest, most inner workings of him to tremble with the possibility of being wounded. Trust was foreign to Fang, and finding the means within him to rest in that invisible net of faith seemed a nearly impossible task for the overlord.

But as he feared this from Zedwig, he feared the loss of him even more and that particular thought brought out in him a searing, red spike of anxiety that seemed to eclipse everything and anything else. He moved his hand away from the city upon the map so that Zedwig’s delicate finger could mark it and he could feel Zedwig consciously sensing his conflict and responding… with comfort. It was nearly more than Fang could bear, and he could not look at him.

“We will see,” he replied in a clipped manner that indicated the ending of discussion.

But it did change, something did, anyway, and as they marched eastward the army and those involved with the campaign from the beginning marked it with a quiet curiosity, for, though no one dared to ask Fang directly why there were changes, everyone noticed there was a distinct, although not total, lack of violence, and a greater bounty of negotiation.

It was also possible for even the most casual observer to note that Zedwig, although he had always been the constant companion of Fang, became such in a more equal way, and there was much backroom theorizing among those who watched on why or how this could be. That Zedwig was still a slave to Fang was not a question; the overlord continued to order the mage, although perhaps with less force and without the flaming temper that once possessed him, but the overlord and the mage were often in consultation with each other, and it seemed, although it was hard for nearly everyone to imagine this to be so, that the overlord listened to the mage and even obeyed his wishes from time to time.

As it was the army of the empire of Schloeffelonia marched across the plains east of the mountains like a great dark cloak, and even though they did not burn all that they came to, the spreading infamy of their past caused most to surrender without pause. The others, the larger towns, would sometimes negotiate, but all laid down before them eventually as there was no other choice, and at these meetings of negotiation, Fang, Overlord of Darkness would sweep into the room as menacing as a cruel shadow, but beside him was always the mage, whose gentle countenance brought to many who faced them a measure of hope.

It was true that Fang became tempered by Zedwig, once he allowed himself to be, and on occasion he wondered if he was losing his edge to the mage. It was directly after one of these negotiations that he stood with him and watched the relieved and sorrowful humans leave: relieved for their lives, and sorrowful for their loss of independence. As the guards around them began relaxing and moving onto the next topic with the chink of weapons and the low murmur of male voices, Fang looked over at Zedwig, who always had a sense of regret about him, even long ago when he first came to know him well at the palace, and now was no exception to the rule. He never asked the mage what could be wrong; he had always known it was him that was wrong, the confrontation of which made a certain rebellious fury rise in him that he didn’t want to pursue right now, but still, at this moment, he badly wanted to ask for the normal way it felt to simply inquire after another’s well-being. He touched Zedwig’s arm.

“What is it?” he whispered to Zedwig, whose attention immediately shifted to Fang, although the regret on his features lingered. Zedwig looked at him wearily and did not deign to respond, although it wasn’t haughtiness that caused his silence, but conflict over how much to say. “Do you need another healer?” he asked him, but regretted it instantly, for Zedwig began to withdraw, looking pained.

“Zedwig,” he said to him as he stepped away, and then, feeling very conscientious of an eavesdropping guard nearby, he drew himself up and began again. “Mage Zedwig,” he said, forcefully. Zedwig stopped immediately, although Fang hadn’t compelled him to do it, at least not with the artifact he possessed.

“Could we speak elsewhere, Overlord?” replied Zedwig, giving all respect and behaving perfectly distant for the subject of an overlord. Fang replied in kind, ordering the eavesdropping guard to escort Zedwig to his tents as he finished his lingering business. The guard’s eyebrows only rose slightly, but it was enough to cause Fang to sigh with exasperation as he turned away. He made a mental note to have that one put on the front lines.

It was later, far too much later, that he came at last to his own quarters, for much of Fang’s time was occupied by others who needed his words on a myriad of small details, all of which seemed to compound on each other and multiply unless immediately tended to. He thrived on it, in a way, and was certain this was what he was meant to do, and there was something within him that prevented him from relinquishing even the smallest parts of the campaign to anyone else. He worked tirelessly, and this was because he loved what he did.

Within, Zedwig had several of his students around him, and it appeared that he was instructing them, although in what sort of field, Fang couldn’t fathom. They looked weary, some more than others, and Fang made a mental note to form a committee to research the best way to heal this particular ailment brought on by destructive magic.

Zedwig noticed his presence immediately and sent his students away. They loathed him, Fang was aware, but he saw them as weak, and began to form the idea of Zedwig training a legion of mages as powerful as himself. Well, not quite as powerful, but close, and faithful to him and the empire. Within Fang’s mind the possibility occurred to him that perhaps it was better for the old mages to die, so they could be replaced with ones who did not remember what once was.

“What are you teaching them?” asked Fang as the last of the students glowered by and left via the slit that marked the tent entrance.

“We are working on ways to use destructive magic without killing ourselves,” the mage replied.

“How is that coming along?”

“Poorly.”

Fang made a quiet, noncommittal noise and sat on a chair near Zedwig’s own.

“And you thought you would simply have class in the middle of my tents?” Fang asked Zedwig, not actually reprimanding him, but finding humor in it. There was no humor in Zedwig, though, because he had just been faced with his dying students that he could not help, and there were few things in the world that made him more depressed. In fact, Fang’s humor came off wildly tasteless, and the overlord coughed uncomfortably.

Fang stood, and Zedwig followed suit.

“I have to teach them when I can,” said Zedwig from behind Fang as the overlord removed his cloak and began folding it in his singularly compulsive manner.

“Of course.”

There was a pause.

“What did you want to talk to me about?” Fang asked finally, placing his cloak on a small table and turning to face Zedwig.

“The war,” was the immediate reply.

“What of the war?” rejoined Fang, making what he hoped would appear to be a patient face.

“I would like for you to end it.”

This wasn’t altogether what Fang wanted to hear, nor what he had expected from Zedwig, although he knew the mage had never liked the war at all, and in fact loathed it. Still, one simply doesn’t walk into an overlord’s tent and tell him to stop conquering things. It even made him laugh a little.

“End it? But it is going so well, Zedwig. At this rate we’ll own the world in a few years. Do you think the world would be better off under one government, or separated into tiny groups, struggling for existence?”

“We both know the reason you are doing this is not to bring happiness to the world, Fangline.”

Fang paused, and then admitted, “I enjoy conquest.”

“I believe that would be putting it mildly.”

“Why would I end it?”

“Because it is wrong.”

Wrong?” asked Fang incredulously, and his temper began to bother him. “And who are you to define what is right and wrong?”

“I am nothing, but I do know it is wrong,” said Zedwig, too mildly. It irritated Fang and he turned aside as Zedwig approached him further. “It is not the case of my standard elven upbringing that I am averse to what you are doing. It isn’t cultural. It is the result of my conscience, and within it I know that the taking of lives and livelihoods at will is entirely, if not damnably, wrong.”

“What are you trying to imply about me, Zedwig?”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“That I am damned?” he demanded further, pressing the mage.

“I … don’t know what you are.”

“If I am, wasn’t I from the beginning?”

“No, of course not…”

“I was born who I was, wasn’t I?” Fang asked of Zedwig, feeling a familiar flash of anger and frustration. “You knew me; I was never right. I was always the vine that, somehow, grew twisted and in the wrong direction. That’s because this is what I am, Zedwig. I excel at it. I am brilliant at what I do, and you know this. Why would I have been made like this if I wasn’t meant to do it?”

Zedwig only stood and allowed his brow to darken as he gave Fang a look of intense consternation. It forced Fang’s mind to begin to work, which irritated Fang further, but he let it go on. It was true, and they both knew it; Fang was a brilliant conqueror, and one who seemed to never lack for energy or intellect. If there were anyone in the world who could be meant for this, it would have been him. However, even standing before him was a force within Zedwig that seemed to be coaxing him into realizing that this was perhaps not the only fate he could pursue. Perhaps temperance had its merits. Perhaps wanton destruction, though wholly and addictively cathartic, could be milder and rounded into a more intricate and compromising tool. Perhaps the world he had always hated and sought to escape and the one he wanted to mold with his own will could come to terms.

He stood, meeting Zedwig’s gaze and wondering how much of this was his own thoughts, and how much Zedwig was putting into his mind. He wanted to be angry, furious about it, if only he didn’t like Zedwig’s attention focused so intently upon him. His breath grew short with compromise.

“Perhaps,” he began slowly, and watched Zedwig’s countenance begin to change as the mage sensed the words Fang would say as they were being formed in his mind. He looked grateful, relieved, and exhausted, and Fang said the words aloud anyway, but very quietly and only for Zedwig, and though the words themselves were distant and efficient, they were laced with a deeper meaning indicating parley and even surrender. “We will continue to the City of Ena, then adjourn for a season.” After a pause, he continued softly. “And then we will re-evaluate.”

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