He woke up screaming again.
The bracelets locked on his wrists burned like iced iron, and he could feel the spell tapped into his magic channels like hot needles under the skin. Every time he moved, the sensations shifted - now at his fingertips, now at his knees, wherever his thoughts and focus strayed, the pain followed. Like a viper attached to his thoughts, it would bite wherever his mind's eye looked.
A hand swum into focus in front of him, holding a dropper. He grabbed for it and missed; his limbs still weren't cooperating. Another blurry hand easily batted both arms out of the way and grabbed the back of his neck. He let it happen - it's not like he really could stop it, could he? - as the hand holding the dropper expertly dripped poppy elixir into his open mouth. He was also allowed a few sips of water, then both hands withdrew, only to come back and cover him with a rough blanket.
There was a rough voice, to go with the rough blanket. "Your symptoms will fade with a bit of time, Raston. Your wrists will always hurt, but it will fade to a dull ache, and your limbs will move a bit slower than you'd like. Oh, yeah, and no magic. For twenty years. That should teach you to flout the Council."
He tried to get his lips to move properly. "Fuh...fuh...fuh...."
"Yeah, like you could, in your state! Nice thought, but you're definitely not my type. Especially now." The hand tried to pat his arm, but it only sent a fresh wave of pain across his torso. "Remember, just remember, this is all your own fault..."
"Master, are you well?" A solicitous voice from the safety of the doorway.
Raston heard him. "Awake, yes. Well? No. And I am no longer anyone's master, not even yours, Anton." He rolled over slowly, painfully. Of course the Council enforcer lied; he woke with shooting pains every day, and he had to be careful with movements or he'd send his limbs into convulsions. "Am I summoned?"
"Yes, Master. By the Council."
"Civic, in this case."
"Joyous. Well, at least they'll send an armed guard to escort me. Time?"
"Two hours hence."
"Enough time to prepare. Thanks, Anton, is there breakfast?"
"Sent by that very same Council."
"Ah, then there is urgency. Well, we shall feast, for a time. Let the others know, please?"
"By now they've already gotten their shares."
"And you saved some for me? My thanks." Slowly, carefully, he sat up. "I'll do my exercises, then check stores, and if we need to sell more of the furnishings, we'll make that decision next. Then I'll see to the Council's pleasure. No, Anton, you do not need to bow-"
Anton bowed, and withdrew. Raston sighed.
Walking the streets was so different now.
Then, he'd needed no guard; the Power was quite literally at his fingertips, and he could fry anyone who so much as looked at him funny from across the road. And had, on occasion, just to keep everyone else from trying anything. Magic wasn't forbidden, as such - magic and its effects were feared, and the sum total of the Civic Council avoided it at all costs. Most of the higher nobles followed suit of course, at least in public. Only a few ignored the political implications and used it or hired it done, because their money ties lay in interests less controlled by the Council's laws and edicts.
If you were high-powered, or were clever enough to use what power you had to devastating effect, most curried favor and left you alone. But there was always a street element that wanted to control their fear by destroying it, and mobs had been known to take out some of the best if they weren't careful enough.
He was now helpless, so the Council's guards escorted him to and fro. Mess with them, and you mess with the Council's business, and no self-respecting citizen would want to be caught in the "cleanup" that resulted from the action.
Before, he was arrogant enough to wear full wizard's robes in public. Heavy velvet, real gold spangles, impressive hat, stupid gold-wrapped wand with crystals dripping from it. Enough silver jewelry to feed his servants for three years. (And it had.)
The robe was one of the first things he sold to feed them. The ones foolish or loyal enough to stay with him.
Now, simple brown linen tunic. Brown trousers. Both a bit faded, but serviceable and comfortable. If he survived for the next fifteen years, he was never going back to the heavy velvet, even when a wisp of a spell kept him cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
In through the guard's gate, a brief frisking. Even though magically he was defenseless, the guards were thorough in their checking for material weapons. When he came to Council chambers he didn't even bring an eating knife. Why antagonize them, when they would deign to give him jobs on occasion?
A smaller but more deadly guard met him at the exit from the guard's chambers. He knew these two from his past life - both deadly assassins, both blood-sworn to protect the Council members. And they both looked haggard. Each grabbed for a forearm, and there was a warning flash and a high ringing.
He flinched, and so did the guards. In the afterimage, Raston could see the magic channels binding each of them. And it was coming undone, taking their life forces with it.
That could only mean one thing. Small wonder the Council asked him to come in - he was the only one desperate enough to want to help them.
He sighed heavily. "Take me to the body."
Traces of magic littered the room.
Wait, scratch that. Traces, and older traces, and even older traces, littered the room. Splashes, drips...if this were blood, he'd assume that there was a massacre in here.
Just one body, though. Hm.
He walked to the wall, feeling gossamer touches flare and vanish into the spell on his manacles. The streaks in the air were still fresh, and even though some were now obliterated by his movement, he could see enough to know the point of origin. He carefully touched the air in front of the wall, and closed his eyes to the resultant flash as more magic was sucked away. He counted to three, and opened his eyes. There was another, older trace there. Touch, flare, count to three...another one. And another, and another, fourteen in all.
He did a bit of mental sums. A slight cough startled him, and he turned to see the guards still peeking at him from the doorway. Even with the Power gone, they were still afraid of him. "My apologies, I was deep in thought."
"Are you learning anything?"
"Too much, in fact. Who is our deceased?"
"The honorable Councilman Chadrick Vintner, he has served for seven years."
"Who owned this office before him?"
"Um, I think it was empty before that, since Councilman Garund Cooper died long ago."
"Could someone check on that?" He looked around - interior room, no windows, oil lamps at the standard four corners and above the desk. "Any secret passages to this room?"
"None, we know them all, and none connect to this room."
"Anyone else ever die in here?"
"No. We checked before we let him take the office."
"Then lock and guard the door, and take me to the Council head."
Lady Jane Candlewick was a battleaxe on a good day, and today was not a good day. "Make your report concise. I want my guards to be alive by sundown."
"Murder, by magic, murder weapon is under him and I can't touch him without destroying evidence, and someone was using that room for a number of years to practice magic."
"What??" Lady Jane usually wore a sneer on her face to be so close to a magician she loathed, but shock wiped it entirely from her face. Even the guards were startled. "A councilman? Practising magic??"
"I can't tell yet if it was him, or someone in his entourage, or someone who had a key and was just using that room. Or an assassin sneaking in and setting up the room for a kill. I can probably eliminate suspects rather quickly, since they can't remove all traces of magic from themselves, but that means I'll have to be in charge of the investigation. Even your crack diviners can't work as fast as I can, and speed is what we need right now."
"I see." She eyed him suspiciously. "You've already given me more than my - what did you call them, 'crack diviners"? - gave me, and I may not trust you, but I know you can't meddle." Her eyes flicked to his bracelets. "Wes, you're with him, Danyel, you round up the suspects and take them to an unused room in the south wing. Let's see what he can learn in a few hours."
Surprisingly, very much.
The entourage was depressingly easy to sort out. Most had no magic traces at all, a small handful had tiny wisps that were probably secondary transfer, and only two had more: his body servant, and his secretary. Neither had the telltale traces that would make them the killer.
Back to the room. Two regular servants were commandeered and asked to gently move the body, and when they did, the device that triggered the murder spell was made clear: a simple silver letter opener. The secretary confirmed it was a gift that arrived earlier that week.
"But that doesn't explain the yearslong magic traces I see on the walls. And the magic on the murder weapon doesn't match the wall trace, except where the spell went off. Secretary, was the councilman dabbling in magic?"
The man trembled, and Raston saw the truth written all over his face. "Very well, who else knew?"
"You ask me that? No one! He'd be run out of house and city if anyone knew! I think his family will disown him posthumously just for the shame that will taint any who try for civic duty now. I knew because he truth-swore me to secrecy when I entered his service, I couldn't communicate what I knew to anyone or I'd drop dead."
"Indeed, the only reason you're walking around now is because he only bonded you to your own death, not his. Have you been in communication with other magicians, to facilitate that freedom?"
"No! Except for the magic, he was a good master, and he treated us well. I would not betray him just to free my tongue."
"The body servant?"
The secretary hesitated. Spoke slowly. "I am reluctant to spill secrets not my own, but my master's death makes some things....irrelevant. Cleve....and the master...."
Suddenly Raston got it. "A quarrel?"
"I don't think so. They were fine the past few months as far as I knew."
"Was he in communication with other magicians?"
"And expose himself to bribery or expulsion? Not a chance."
"Of course it wouldn't be that easy. Then we will hunt abroad."
Raston had a suspicion, and he didn't like it one bit. Magic left traces, and if you were a good enough diviner, you could follow the traces back to the origin. Only a few like himself were such a high level of magic user to see magic, and though his ability to use magic was taken away, he could still see it clearly.
Not that he would ever tell the Magic Council that. He'd see them burn before admitting it.
Magic not only left traces, it left specific traces, which to the very best hunters could lead you right back to the caster. And these particular traces were unique, and he'd seen them before.
So Raston roused a very grumpy diviner - neither was happy to work with the other - and only after Lady Jane screamed in the diviner's face for a good five minutes did he deign to leave his bed to help. Raston could probably very well do it himself, and better, and faster, but he needed a squad, and witnesses for what he...suspected. Not what he knew, but where he thought he knew this was going.
You can take away the raw ability, but you can't take away the mind. You can dull it, for a time, but beware when it returns and starts imagining how to break free! But for now he ruthlessly shoved those dark thoughts to a corner of his mind, and dutifully followed a loudly-complaining diviner and guards through crowded streets. It was deceptively easy; the diviner had no problem following the traces back and forth (once he had the trail pointed out to him, the lazy jerk), and straight to a familiar door that he hadn't entered in five years.
Civic Council summoned, a warrant issued....Raston was impressed, he knew they hated magic users, but even he was surprised at the depth of their information network. Within a few hours all the members of the Magic Council were sitting in a row within a hastily-inscribed ward circle deep in the Civic Council's chambers.
He stayed far, far away from the circle, and its contents. The guards had handy pillars to hide behind - within reach of their charges, but out of sight. Perfect. He'd gotten used to the shadows in his last five years of existence.
The Civic Council was pretty thorough at their job. Even though they hated magic and its users, they had a grasp of concept and execution that belied their hatred. They questioned, they examined the answers, they used a scryer to sort fact from fiction...
And they already knew the killer. Raston had told them. His signature aura definitely matched the traces through the city, and on the murder weapon itself. He could see traces on the killer's hands even now.
So when the killer was named, and he protested, and the other mages predictably put up protective shields between themselves and the killer, trapping him between their own and the circle ward, he snapped. He'd thought to frame Raston himself for the murder, not knowing the diviner had already done the tracing and identifying to both Council's satisfaction.
The murder weapon, lying on the table, rattled and rose into the air, aimed straight at Lady Jane.
Raston snarled as he jumped from the shadows. The guards were responding, but they were slow, too slow; the spell was draining them faster with each second towards midnight. It was too easy to push between them and slap the letter opener between his open palms - he remembered to shut his eyes -
The soundless explosion crashed through the room. The light flash was blinding, all his senses skewed sideways with the magic discharge, right through his hands into the spelled bracelets, driving the spell higher -
He shrieked, and it was answered within the now-broken circle by the killer. Eaton, the blasted mage that tracked him and accused him and had him locked him these blasted cuffs, everyone did the same blasted things Raston did but Eaton wanted him out of the way to gain more and more power. Eaton, trying to always take out any competition that crossed his path, eliminate anything in his way -
Raston knew the risks. He grabbed a guard with each hand, hoping he was right, Eaton was gathering his mage energies to attack -
The guards' spells were powerful and intricate. They were also finite. Eaton's spell on the manacles was rather unsophisticated, and Raston had deduced long ago that they might be overridden with enough raw magic pouring through them. He kept his eyes closed, though the energy seared images in the inside of his eyes: Eaton raising his hands, the broken manacles falling from his own wrists, the other mages not reacting fast enough to defend the helpless civilians, the guards wilting at his feet but alive -
POWER. Running through channels warped with bone-ripping pain, but there to use. He screamed the spell in Eaton's face, and saw one last image of the idiot arcing as pure magic stabbed through him.
First rule of magic, you idiot. Ground yourself before attacking! And rule two, always expect the unexpected.
Raston saw Eaton's eyes burn out first, and magic fire followed the nerves right back to his brain.
Then he passed out on top of the broken charred body.
When he woke, a long time later, he'd had such nightmares of being back in those blasted bracelets that they'd had to tie him loosely to the bed. By his shoulders, not by his wrists; they knew death by frying when they could sense it crackling in the air. Anton was there, and the two guards. They looked better, and Anton looked....well, mussed, which disturbed Raston greatly.
He tried to speak, but Anton touched his mouth gently. "Master, please do not try to move much, or try to talk. There is so much magic swirling around you that we are not sure what you would do unwittingly. We're the only ones they would allow within the circle to tend you."
The surprise must have showed through bandages and salve. "So. Update. Killer is dead, at your hand. Magic Council is back in their homes, muchly chastened. Civic Council must declare you a hero and reward you for saving their skins, and are muchly sour about the whole process. These two have resigned their commissions to the Council and have sworn to you, even if you don't need them, because they know you saved their lives. Technically you are still under arrest, but everyone knows they can't lock your magic down again. Eaton was the only one who knew that spell, and it died with him. They've checked all his spell books just to be sure, and cursed while doing it. The mage circle we're in is only to prevent you from lashing out in delirium. We are free to go when you are well. Did I cover everything?"
His hands didn't want to work properly, but he remembered the language of signs and could coax some cooperation out of his fingers. Anton knew it as well.
"Lady Jane? Singed, but alive and well. The rest of the Council, and the servants and such as well. They were impressed with your defense of all of them, though baffled by it." Anton eyed him sideways. "You have changed, if you care about her to specifically ask."
More signs, but the first sign was rather vulgar concerning the Lady Jane comment. Anton chose to ignore it. "Oh, they'll never believe you've learned something like humility in the last few years. Better to fake your old arrogance, and keep them guessing." He slid into position at the bed, and again Raston felt like there was a doubling behind his eyes: five years ago, with his hands not working and Anton the only one who would approach to help him through the worst of the pain. Again, a bowl of gruel appeared in his vision, and Anton gently spooned it in the general direction of his mouth.
"My new friends here and I have rather substantial bets riding on how fast you will recover, with your magic restored. Please do not disappoint us, and we expect to be handsomely rewarded for our loyalty." He smirked, but Raston knew from old that the quirk of his lips meant he was being cheeky to get a response from his patient. "And I'm sure there is a Magic Council to reform when you're ready..."
If any of the three saw his tears of relief, they politely didn't mention it.
About the author
Mix equal parts anthropologist, biologist, geologist, and artisan, stir and heat in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, sprinkle with a heaping pile of odd life experiences. Half-baked.