Fang woke slowly, darkly, and thickly, like a tangible fog held him close and would rather not let him return to the world. His consciousness wavered in and out between dreams and life and he lingered for a very long time on the edge of waking, hearing that which occurred around him, but not able to muster the last bit of strength required to move or to open his eyes. He heard movement, the occasional voice of a guard, and the voices of Regnar and Zedwig intermingling: one low and staccato, the other tenor and silken, and it was this latter voice that kept Fang from drifting back into the fog, but made him fight for full consciousness.
Even so it took him some time to manage it, and by the time he opened his eyes there was no conversation at all and the world was dark and dampened with night and snow. Within his tent there was no lamp or candle lit, but in the darkness he could see Zedwig asleep above him in a chair. There was no one else within, but he heard a guard shift outside. He stared at the ceiling of his tent for a long while, thinking.
Eventually, perhaps an hour later, moving didn’t seem quite so difficult, and he rose, sitting up and regarding Zedwig’s still form on the chair. His head was resting in his palm, his hair was in disarray, and his chest rose and fell with regular solidarity. He looked tired, even while sleeping, and his position appeared to Fang to be extraordinarily uncomfortable.
Rising to his knees, he touched the arm of the chair and moved closer to Zedwig, if for nothing else, then to take advantage of the opportunity to study him in unabashed detail. In the things he had heard while sleeping, and from where he was placed, and from the bearing of all things presently, Fang intuitively concluded that it had been Zedwig who ran the empire in his absence, and this caused the overlord to wonder at him, and why he should show such loyalty to Fang when he was finally defenseless. If nothing else, he could have simply done his own work and left whatever Fang usually did to molder. But, he did not.
Fang touched Zedwig’s hair; brushing a silver lock gone astray into place in a gesture that was more affectionate than necessary and Zedwig woke with a start, his face rising from his hand and his mind instantly cognizant of his surroundings. His eyes immediately found Fang’s and he said:
“Fangline, you’re awake.”
“How long did I sleep?”
“Two days,” Zedwig replied, and Fang’s mind immediately scattered with the possibilities of how much could go wrong in two days without his guidance. Zedwig perceived his stress and put a hand on his shoulder. “We left for the canyon two days ago, as the snows have continued, though it isn’t a heavy snow… not yet. I placed a small force in the City of
Fang replied to the last, though uncharacteristically. “I’m sorry,” he said to Zedwig regarding his past student and in a consolation that held no personal accountability. Perhaps it was that Fang only believed he was doing what he must, and thus felt no remorse when others died due to his actions, but, for some reason, Fang’s conscience was scarcely pricked when it came to the things he did. He did, however, feel empathy towards Zedwig and his loss, and as he spoke the words that had always been spoken to mourners to the mage he touched his face, then slid his palm across the smooth roundness of his cheek and then, in a rush of sudden motion, they embraced.
Zedwig clung to him, and he clung to the mage equally, in frustration and unhappiness, as they were fully aware that they were two sides of a coin that could never be reconciled.
“It can never happen again,” Fang felt Zedwig whisper against his neck. “It can’t… it can’t. What have you done to me?”
He pulled Zedwig with the need for more and more of the embrace between them, and as he struggled with this, he knew they had both, through compromise, shifted from black and white to shades of gray. Zedwig made a quiet noise, and Fang pulled back, looked into his face and saw for the first time his exhaustion and his sickness had returned with furor, and he whispered, “You’re so sick…”
“Yes, and I’m going to die,” he said to Fang as simply as discussing the falling snow outside. Fang began to reply, but Zedwig stopped him gently, speaking before he could. “I need to die, Fangline. Can’t you see that we cannot both exist in this world? Combined we are far too powerful; the balance is all wrong. You were right: together there is nothing that can stand before us. We could destroy the world if we wanted, and bend it to our will. We could make everyone and everything bow before us. Our power would be great… how great it would be, but how horrible. It is wrong… it is all … wrong… and I don’t know how much longer I can force myself to stay away from it.”
Zedwig drew a trembling breath and continued, “It’s what you wanted all along, for me to see what we are capable of and to want it, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Fang whispered.
“That’s why I have to die.”
“I won’t let you.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
“I’ll find another healer.”
“I used all we found on the other mages.”
“Curse you, Zedwig!” Fang erupted, and stood, moving away. He hated Zedwig with a blind fury at this moment, and couldn’t seem to regain his breath no matter how he tried. A guard looked in at the entrance to be certain all was well inside, but quickly ducked away as surreptitiously as possible. It didn’t matter; the only thing Fang was cognizant of was his own roiling thoughts. “I will send riders in all directions to find one! You will not die, Zedwig, no matter how badly you want death, I will not allow it!”
Zedwig merely sat silently in his chair and watched Fang’s tirade with little or no reaction upon his features. “And then, when I am healed, what will occur?” he said to Fang, a calm sadness around him. “Will I never use this power again? Could you live with that? Or will the same thing that has happened over and over happen again?” He leaned forward slightly in his chair. “Could you stand near me, day after day, and never use it?”
Fang couldn’t respond, and after a long moment Zedwig said quietly, “I don’t think I could either, not now, not since…” He trailed off as if unable to discuss it. Fang’s fury was spent, and as ardency rushed in to fill the vacuum, he moved to Zedwig, lifted the mage’s hands to his face and kissed them, again and again. Then he pulled him from the chair, laid him upon his pallet, and asked him to sleep.
“I am going to discover the state of things,” he said quietly as he knelt over him. “Surely there is work enough to do until sunrise, and I’ve no more need for sleep. You, if I can manage it, will rest until we get home, and then until we procure a healer. You will not die.” His brushed Zedwig’ hairline with his fingers, and his voice broke as he said, “You can not die.”
Zedwig looked away from Fang to the space beyond him and did not reply.