12. Everwood VI
Gentle hands shook me awake. I started, sitting up in bed and immediately bent forwards, hand clutching my heart. What the hells? I was dead. No one survived a sword to the heart, not even with healing magic. Maya stared at me in confusion, her hands clasped in front of her waist. “Boy, are you well?”
Shit. I was still in Barion’s house. I fell back, placing my hands on my face.
“Of course I’m not well, I got stabbed.”
Maya’s eyes roamed up and down my shirtless form with clinical thoroughness and I felt myself blush. “Where?”
I looked down at myself. The spot on my chest was flawless. Several things occurred to me at once. Maya had played me, sending me into Barion’s lair and setting me up to die. And someone was fucking with me. A sudden burst of anger took me. “Whatever game you and that hack bastard Barion are playing, I’m done.” I stood, not caring about my state of undress or the way she shied away from me. I summoned the spark and held it to the cottage wall. Maya’s eyes went wide.
“I’ll burn this place to the ground-“
Instead of backing away, Maya stepped forward. Her hand glowed green, and she placed it against the back of my neck before I could react. There was a loud snap and bright flash of pain as the vertebra in my neck detached themselves. I fell to the ground limply, head bouncing off the bed frame with a hollow thunk and saw black.
I flew through the darkness. The speed felt slightly different from last time.
Gentle hands shook me awake. I opened my eyes and stared at Maya.
“Boy, are you well?” She asked. There was no suspicion or hostility in her face, nothing to imply she had just tried to murder me. Had murdered me. I sat up, flexing my neck carefully and finding no pain. My heart beat rapidly in my chest. I was terrified of her.
“Please leave me.” I said, unable to look at her.
“Okay,” Maya said quietly, seeming to sense something was off. “But Master Barion wishes to see you. Don’t keep him waiting too long.
As soon as the door closed, I began to hyperventilate, head hung, staring at the comforter. The puzzle pieces slid into place with damning clarity. I hadn’t been sent a vision of the future.
I’d lived it.
And then I died, then was sent back to my childhood. To quote a certain asshole, the why and the how of it were beyond me. Barion and Maya had both killed me. There was no question of that. It meant everything I’d learned was true. Not a dream, not a vision. Barion was a monster. Maya could not be trusted. And there were a half dozen tortured children in the basement.
It occurred to me that I knew this story. I’d been so distracted it hadn’t really come to me until now. Whenever I was on one of my many drinking expeditions I’d often go to the military bars and hassle the rangers for tales of the Everwood. A particularly surly—or perhaps haunted—veteran regaled me with the awful tale. They’d come across an abandoned house in the Everwood, found the bodies of dozens of children buried there. Only three were found alive in the cellar, all horribly maimed. Between long pulls on his mead, he mentioned what really kept him up at night was how fresh everything was. Some of the corpses had been there a while, but several were recent, possibly only hours old.
I did the mental math. The rangers would find this place… approximately four years from now. Well, that was no help at all. But wait. If he hadn’t already, father would soon be sending out massive search parties. They’d be thorough. All I really needed to do was run away. Once they found me, I could direct them here, and they could save the children in the basement.
Nothing about it was illogical, but it felt wrong, craven somehow. As if I was betraying them.
I could feel guilty later. Now wasn’t the time to take unnecessary risks. I had already died twice, three times if you counted the first. There was no way to know how many times I could come back. I’d bide my time for a few days to gather supplies and give the search parties time to cover ground. Then I’d make my escape. I just needed to do things exactly as before.
That plan lasted as long as it took for me to walk out of the room. Almost immediately, things were different. Barion seemed markedly less friendly than the last time, always watching me out of the corner of his eye and interrogating me on the uses and makeup of whatever mixture I was demonstrating. The gathering went much more quickly now that I knew where to look, and I spent almost all of my free time practicing with my flame. My feelings for the magic had not changed, but avoidance was simply a luxury I no longer had.
Maya’s demeanor had changed nearly as much as Barion’s. Where before, I’d been lucky to get a single sentence out of her, now the words gushed from her, as if they’d been held under pressure for quite some time.
“So lucky.” Maya said, mesmerized by the spark in my hand. She lounged in the field as I practiced, our work done for the day.
“I’d hate to see what you consider unlucky.” I focused on the spark, trying to make it move independently. No dice.
“There goes the storm in your eyes again.” Maya said. I grimaced. It was hard to remember what she was capable of and how she’d turned on me when she was so damn affable. “But you are lucky,” she continued. “The dantalion flame is completely lost to my people within this realm.”
I closed my hand around the spark, not actually touching it, just letting it fade the moment my fingers closed around it. What Maya said slowly registered. That was different from before.
“There’s no infernals left who can use it?” I asked carefully.
“Most of its practitioners were defending our home during the reckoning. The human tyrant destroyed the dimension gate, separating us forever. Perhaps there are a handful left out there, but they are unknown to the Magus Enclave.”
I winced, increasingly grateful my name was not as well-known as my father’s. “Forever? So, there’s no way to make another gate?”
“There is, but it involves dantalion fire and other high-level magics. A difficulty, when-“
“Your strongest practitioners are on the other side of the gate.” I finished, realizing the problem. That explained a lot. Why Maya was working with Barion. More concerning was that during the invasion, there was no shortage of infernals using demon-fire. More than a handful. Meaning at some point between now and the next ten years, someone fixed the gate, and weaponized them against us. And I had a pretty good idea who. I grimaced.
“Where did you go?” Maya asked. She was far too close to my face, her white eyes studying me. Memories of how she’d killed me suddenly surfaced and I shied away slightly, trying not to offend her.
“Nowhere.” I stood, gathering my satchel. “Let’s see if we can top off the bounty for today.”
Among the ingredients for healing, I gathered edible plants and filled several water skins under the guise of needing it for the mixtures. “Some of these are easier to stomach with food.” I lied. During the increasingly awkward dinners—which Maya attended this time—I did my best to slip portions of meat away, which I later cured with salt. The days slipped by like a ticking clock. I was all too aware of them, growing more anxious and stressed each passing evening. The longer I waited, the more likely I’d run into a search party as I made my escape—but also, the more likely Barion’s cage would be completed. I couldn’t rely on him taking the same amount of time.
Every evening after the meal, I took a walk around the grounds to clear my head and wound up in front of the small garden. It really was beautiful. A bounty of green tomatoes grew on trellises and I studied them. Tomatoes never grew this late into winterscrest. I crouched in front of them, taking a leaf into my fingers gently.
The secret to growing crops in this accursed land is fertilizer. I only use the best fertilizer for my plants.
I removed my hand from the leaf as if I’d been pricked, feeling very ill. It was all too obvious, now, where that fertilizer came from. Suddenly, the thought of staying there one more night was unbearable.
“Do you dislike my garden, child?” Barion’s voice broke the silence. I whirled, turning to face him, my heart pounding.
Act normal, stupid.
“Sir Barion,” I rubbed the back of my neck and smiled nervously. “You scared me.” He inclined his head towards me but did not smile.
“You have been a bit jumpy as of late.” He said. His steady gaze made me feel totally transparent.
Say something. I needed to say something. Something to take his mind off the fact that simply being in his presence had unsettled me.
“Do you believe in time magic?” I blurted out. Somehow I kept my face neutral, while internally screaming and metaphorically bashing my head against the ground. Why did I say that? Why the hells did I say that?
Barion’s eyes narrowed and his gaze intensified. “Quite the non-sequitur for a casual evening discussion, child.”
I gulped. “I don’t meet many intelligent folk like yourself, Sir Barion, much less those who know much about the arcane. It’s… a personal obsession of mine.” A few seconds later, “I read about it in a book once.” It sounded so false and untrue when I said it aloud, some part of me feared that Barion would murder me on the spot.
Instead, his face suddenly softened. Mirth played across his features. “Allow me to guess: Percival and the Chrono-Sphere?”
I blinked. That had been the exact book I was thinking of when I threw out the excuse. It stood out in my mind not just because of the topic of the story, but the fact it had been the first tragedy I’d ever read. It seemed so unfair to me at the time, that despite all his hard-work and effort to the contrary that the hero could lose.
“That’s the one,” I admitted.
“Of course it is. Come. This conversation is too heady, my garden will start getting ideas.” Barion beckoned to me and walked away. Fear lanced through me, thinking he might have finished his preparations early and intended to take me into the cellar, but instead he headed for the white gazebo off to the east of the cottage. We passed Maya on her way back from the Everwood.
“Maya, darling, would you bring us some tea? The chamomile if you would.” Barion smiled winningly at her. The infernal grumbled something indecipherable in acknowledgement. A few minutes later we were seated in the heated gazebo.
“So, how does a young apothecary develop an interest in chronal magic?” Barion asked suddenly. But he’d made the mistake of changing locations instead of pressing me in the garden. There’d been plenty of time to shore up my excuses. Theo gave me invaluable advice once, when I made up a wild story to cover for a night drinking and was solidly walloped for it: the best lies are mostly truth.
“Wish fulfillment, I guess. I've always dreamed of changing the past. When... when I was very young, my mother died of a wasting illness.”
It still hurt to say, even if she was still alive. I vividly remembered sitting at her bedside, trying to work out how to read and hold her hand simultaneously when the book was simply too large. That had always been our tradition, reading together. As I grew older and no longer needed to someone to read to me, we began reading the stories separately and discussing them after the fact. There were so many books in the royal library with an extra copy. It must have cost a fortune. Then she could no longer read, so I read to her.
One book became two, then became one again.
“What kind of wasting illness?” Barion inquired.
“Some sort of blood imbalance,” I answered, slowly recalling things I drank for years to forget. “It was exceedingly rare. Her mana to blood ratio was upended. It had a name, though I couldn’t tell you what it was called.”
My head snapped up, the familiarity of the name rousing me from my memories. “You’ve heard of it.”
“I knew a powerful mage once by the name of Yves—They call them mages in Panthania. I lived there for a time, studying the difference between their magic and ours. We grew close.” Barion waved a hand, “I digress. Brilliant mind. But Yves was a bit of a braggart. He called it hitting the lottery twice. Despite having Nithias, which should have been a death sentence, as a mage, he was able to discharge the mana surplus. If anything, it only made him more powerful.”
That was new information.
“Well, my mother was just a normal person,” I said bitterly. It somehow felt unjust, describing her that way. “At first it was mostly manageable. Just a nosebleed every few weeks. But… as things progressed it became…”
The memory forced its way to the surface. Mother on her back, shaking uncontrollably, flecks of blood bubbling from her mouth and blotching her eggshell-white dress. A pool of blood blossoming where her head had cracked against the floor. Me on my knees, hands frantically trying to cushion her head and neck as she seized, flecks of spittle wetting against my cheeks and face.
“… More difficult,” I finished quietly. “The doctors couldn’t do anything. It was only a matter of time.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Barion said. Strange as it was, it felt like he actually meant it. “I take it you read the book around that time? Towards the end.”
“I did,” I admitted.
Barion placed a hand on his head, looking aggrieved. “I swear, that book has a higher academic body count than Cyrus II and Walden of Tarn combined.”
Huh. I was about to ask how when Maya arrived with the tea. “Giving Cairn a history lesson, Master Barion?” She asked with feigned disinterest. Had it not been for the tail twitching nervously, she would have looked completely composed.
“Thank you dear,” Barion took his tea and flooded it with milk. “Come sit with us, Maya. Our guest had some questions about chronal magic.”
Maya hesitated, then took at seat between us. She folded her hands beneath her. I could see her knee bouncing restlessly beneath the table. The absurdity of it hit me all at once and I had to hide a smile. A child-murdering monster, an infernal, and a reincarnated prince, all sipping tea together in a quaint gazebo and discussing time travel.
“Where was I?”
“The book with the body count.” I prompted.
“Right. Well, other than proliferating the proletarian farce that all the rabble must do to raise their station is rise up and overthrow their betters…” Barion rolled his eyes, pausing to sip his tea. “The problem with Percival is that it just sounds so damn plausible. Almost malfeasantly so.”
“I’m lost,” Maya looked between the two of us. “What are we talking about?”
“Time travel and how it relates to a particular example of Hestrian populist philosophy thinly disguised as fiction. Do try to keep up.” Barion said, with the barest hint of a smile. Maya only looked more lost, and I couldn’t really blame her. “Do you remember how Percival described the chrono sphere when he found it?”
I considered that and furrowed my brow. “It’s been a long time since I read it. If I remember correctly, it was a mixture of different magics held within a sphere.”
“Not just any magics.” Barion said. “Water. Earth. Stone. Air. And life.” He glanced at Maya.
“Healing magic?” Maya guessed.
“Yes. Those basic elements, held within a spatial field. All arranged in the exact ratio of the elements in our world. The idea being to create a microcosm of earth herself.” Barion explained. Maya’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head. “So you already see the problem.”
“Now I’m lost,” I said.
“The only reason a mage would create a simulacrum like that,” Maya said, still astounded, “Would be to form a sympathetic link between the sphere and the earth. But the power required would be…”
“Colossal.” Barion finished. “We’re talking about real, world level magic. Literal fields of mana batteries as far as the eye can see. But once you’ve overcome the logistical nightmare of powering the thing, you still have to deal with the sphere. The idea is you create a sphere so similar to earth in its ratios of elements that the only difference is scale. The elements are held within a spatial field, the sort of the spell used to fix expensive objects that cannot be replaced or repaired by traditional methods. Like with any direct link magic, the closer the link, the higher the likelihood to succeed. What, then, is the problem?”
“The ratios,” I mused. “There’s no way to know if you got the math right.”
“It is impossible to know if you’ve gotten the math right.” Barion nodded in approval. “Even if a dedicated institution of magicians had teams on all four corners of the earth, taking samples, and an entire team of arithmeticians working on the calculations, at some point they would be guessing. And the only way to know for certain is to try.”
Maya looked grim. “You could destroy the entire world.”
“Yes.” Barion said. “But only if your math is right. Astronomically improbable. More likely, you blow yourself to the seven hells and everyone else within a mile radius.”
I sipped my tea, quietly pondering that. “So regardless of how powerful the magician is, it’s impossible.”
“Sadly, yes.” Barion looked at me sympathetically. “Given the author’s… thematic proclivities… it’s fairly widely theorized that the point of making time travel seem so plausible was to act as a honeypot for the very elite it demonized. What better way to get petty revenge on your betters than to have them blow themselves up?”
“No one can change the past, try as we might,” Maya said, in a faraway voice that gave the impression she was no stranger to this line of thought. “It is better to look forward.”
It wasn’t the answer I wanted, but it did clarify things. What was happening to me wasn’t the work of a single mage. There was something driving this on a much greater scale.
Some time later, I gathered my things and prepared to slip into the dark.