It was a nightmare. No, worse than a nightmare. Dreams he had some hope of waking up from. This this was a living death. Trapped in his own body; forced to obey the instructions of another without even the power of speech to express his anger.
Standing at the top of the stone tower known as Bysha's Spire, Vin silently struggled against the magic bond that held him while his eyes looked down at the street that lay far below and the mass of people lining the avenue waiting for their king to appear.
"Look closely. Orrin will be riding at a casual pace. It would be best that he dies with the first arrow but go ahead and put as many into him as you can. I do not want some healer saving his life at the last moment."
'No! Bysha no. Don't make me do this. Please. Let someone kill me first. Let me fall from this tower. Anything. Any death. So long as it's mine and not the king's. Chris. Buck. Josiah. Someone please, stop me.'
"Here is your bow and a quiver of arrows. Prepare yourself as you normally would before killing an enemy."
Vin watched his hands receive the weapon. Not having to actually think about the motions he found himself observing other small details he might have otherwise missed. The way the sun reflected from the polished wood of the bow and the brightness of the white fletching against the darkness of the arrow shafts. The knuckles of his right hand looked bruised but the absence of pain seemed to be a part of the controlling spell. Except . . . it wasn't all gone. Vin watched his left hand as it reached for the quiver and spotted the small red marks on his palm. 'The thorns from the vine in the gallery. Nathan didn't have time to take them out.' And he remembered the way his palms had stung and he thought that perhaps he could still feel the bits of wood embedded in his skin. 'But what good is that? Unless I can somehow use that feeling to spoil the aim of the shot? Oh Bysha, please don't leave it up to me. Let someone stop me.' And while Vin still prayed for one of his friends to arrive in time, having something to focus on helped to calm his thoughts and give him a very small sense of hope. Hope that he would not remain trapped in a body he could not control for many turns to come.
"There it is!"
"Looks like two soldiers guarding the entrance. Think they're working for Listrel?"
"If they try to stop us it won't matter who they're working for."
Chris and Josiah barely broke stride as they reached the base of the tower. Drawing his sword as he ran, Chris took on the soldier to the right of the door leaving Josiah the one on the left. The two guardsmen were so surprised by the head on attack that they hesitated a moment too long in drawing their own weapons. Any other time, any other place Chris might have settled for knocking the men out and tying them up but the king's life was in danger and he couldn't afford to leave live enemies at his back. Josiah understood that fact without having to be told and put his staff to effective use.
Once inside the tower the two men paused to check for additional soldiers but the tower was empty except for the spiral steps that lined the circular wall. Standing at the center and looking straight up, they could see the sky through the opening in a panel of stone lattice work at the top. The stairs ended against a trapdoor that was no doubt bolted from the outside.
"C'mon. They must be pretty confident not to leave guards on the stairs." Josiah started toward the first step but Chris grabbed his shoulder.
"Wait. Maybe they have a reason to be confident. Listrel is a metal wizard."
Josiah made a sweeping gesture that encompassed the entire structure. "Yes and the Spire was built by stone wizards. These blocks of marble cannot be tampered with in anyway except by the wizards that set them in place and I believe they all died out long ago."
"What about you?" If the situation had not been so deadly serious Chris might have actually smiled at the shocked look of surprise on his friend's face.
"I . . . suppose knowing what I do now I could read the spell that sets each stone in place and work within the guidelines of that spell but that would be all. I would have to be Wartolin to actually remove the spell or set another in its place. But as long as the three objects of power are still safe, even he does not have that ability."
Chris thought about that for a moment then nodded his head. "Alright. Let's go."
Parel suppressed the shudder that tried to run up his spine as he watched the half-elf mechanically sort through the arrows picking out the straightest and best fletched of the lot. When Listrel had placed a collar on the old commander, the man had spent several marks simply lying on the ground twitching. When he'd finally fallen under the complete control of the magical device his movements had been horribly jerky and sluggish. As bad as that had been to watch, there was something about the unnatural smoothness of the archer's movements that was even worse.
Listrel noticed his companion's expression and chuckled. "Amazing isn't it? Think what I could do if I could incorporate speech into the control."
"Yeah. Amazing. What makes this collar so much better than the other one?"
Never one to miss a chance to show off his abilities, the wizard eagerly explained. "It's the gem stones. Metal is a most difficult medium for holding spells. The magic must be forced into the object during its shaping which is why metal wizards team up with blacksmiths or jewelers. Metal is also limited to how much power it will hold. Iron is the strongest but the most difficult to work with. Gold and silver are easy to manipulate but cannot hold much energy. I realized that in order to perfect my control spell I needed more energy than the silver needle and collar would hold. And for such an intricate spell iron is simply not acceptable." Listrel stepped closer to the half-elf and pointed out the details of his work. "See how the collar is made up of links? Each one holds a portion of the spell but the power is actually in the gems. Only a gifted genius such as myself could have found a way to combine the two magics together. The energy stored in the gems is fed through the links and into the needle in his neck and then his own blood carries the spell to his mind. And the beauty of using gems is that they are rechargeable. If our young friend wasn't slated to die shortly at the hands of an angry mob I could keep him like this indefinitely."
This time Parel didn't even try to control the shudder that stood the hairs on the back of his neck on end. To hear the wizard gloating over his twisted bit of magic was unnerving to say the least. When he had first agreed to serve the wizard he'd done so for the promised wealth and power. The first time he'd been a little hesitant in following one of Listrel's orders he'd suddenly found himself waking from a drugged slumber with a fire ruby planted at the base of his skull. Still, he had to admit he'd rather have that then one of those collars. Parel's thoughts were interrupted by the clatter of an arrow hitting the stone of the tower floor. Looking closer at the half-elf, he noticed that the archer's hands were shaking as he bent to retrieve the dropped arrow.
"What's causing that?"
Listrel frowned as he watched his puppet assassin. "I'm not sure. The collar seems to be working . . . perhaps it has something to do with his elfin blood. . . "
"Is he going to be able to kill Orrin?"
"It shouldn't be a problem. To be sure I'll increase the amount of energy feeding through the needle right before he gets ready to shoot; that should control the shaking."
"Well judging by the sound of the crowd below you might want to do that now."
"Look! It's the fore guard of the king's party! What do we do?"
"Keep going and dodge them as best we can!" Ezra chanced a quick look up and saw that they were directly beneath the Spire. He hoped that Chris and Josiah were close by because he knew what a good shot Vin was and he didn't think they'd be stopping Orrin far enough away.
Jaydee tightened the grip on his borrowed sword as he stepped carefully past the bodies of the two guards that lay outside the tower's entrance. It had been difficult following Josiah and Chris through the maze of streets but he'd managed just fine up until the last intersection. It hadn't taken him long to figure out his mistake but evidently just long enough to miss the first encounter with the enemy. Entering the circular building the young fighter heard the echoing sounds of boots on the stone stairs. Looking up he spotted his two friends nearing the top of the tower. "Bysha! That's a long way up." Taking a deep breath Jaydee firmly placed his foot on the first step. The battle might be over long before he reached the top but he knew he had to be there. He had never felt so entirely helpless as he had at the moment Listrel had placed that horrible collar around Vin's neck. For his own peace of mind he had to be there when Josiah removed it. There was no doubt in his mind that the wizard would succeed. He had to. For Vin. For Chris. For all of them. They had started this quest together and that was the way they were going to end it, together.
'Pits!' Vin would have howled his frustration had he been able to. 'Damn it! Too soon! It worked but too soon.' He'd been concentrating on the feel of the thorns imbedded in the palms of his hands and at first that small pain had been all that he could feel. Actually, it had seemed like the more he concentrated the more painful his hands had become. He'd almost stopped but decided that any feeling was better than none and as his eyes had studied the arrows being turned between his fingers he'd noticed a slight trembling and he thought for just a moment that he could actually feel the wooden shaft and feather fletching. It was at that moment that the arrow slipped from his grasp and clattered to the stone roof of the tower.
"Is he going to be able to kill Orrin?"
"It shouldn't be a problem. To be sure I'll increase the amount of energy feeding through the needle right before he gets ready to shoot; that should control the shaking."
"Well judging by the sound of the crowd below you might want to do that now."
'No! Bysha no! Not now.' Vin started to panic as he spotted the wizard approaching him from the corner of his eye. 'Chris! Where are you?'
"Hey, is that blood at his feet?"
Listrel paused in his reach for the collar. "Blood? Where?" Looking down, he also spotted the bright red drops that stood out in stark contrast to the white marble tiles. Puzzled as to their source, he grabbed the archer's right wrist and pried the arrow from his fingers. "Odd. His palms are bleeding. It looks like there are pieces of wood sticking out from the skin. Did this happen during his capture?"
Stepping forward for a closer look, Parel shook his head. "No, we would have noticed something like that. Did he get them from the arrows? Is that why he dropped one?"
Using his fingernails Listrel dug out one the splinters and examined it. "This looks like a thorn. How did . . .?"
A muffled explosion caused the two men to jerk in surprise while the enslaved half-elf remained frozen waiting for his next command.
"The door! Someone's coming through!" Parel drew his sword and leapt for the wooden panel as it flew back with a crash. A brilliant flash of light made him duck and cover his eyes. By the time his vision cleared there was a man armed with a sword charging directly at him.
"I'll take care of Parel! You get that wizard away from Vin!"
Listrel hissed in anger at the intrusion but did not really feel threatened. Parel was an excellent swordsman and knew a number of dirty tricks; it would take more than one lone guard to kill him. And as for the larger man, looking at his staff Listrel knew he was a stone wizard and while they did tend to be the best fighters, the fool would be no match for him. Releasing the half-elf's wrist, Listrel brushed his fingers across the gems of the collar and murmured the words to increase their power. "Remember, kill Orrin as soon as he comes within range and kill anyone who tries to stop you."
"Halt in the name of the king!"
Ignoring the soldier's demands Kyle and Ezra tucked themselves tight against their horse's back. Ezra was actually pressed more against the half-elf's back and knew that if they rode too close to a guard he would be the one to feel the bite of a sword. That fact was not lost on Kyle either and he used his small ability with animals to coax the horse to a final burst of speed.
Buck's hand had dropped to his axe at the first sound of trouble from the front of the procession while beside him Nathan palmed one of his daggers and moved his horse further away to give his friend room to maneuver.
Though he still waved and smiled to his subjects, Orrin had not missed the sudden activity. "What is it?"
"Ain't sure yet but might be best to stop here until we . . ."
"Guard the king! Assassins!"
"Buck! Nathan! Get Orrin off the street! They're in the spire! They're using Vin!"
The orderly procession erupted into chaos as the horse bearing its two riders thundered right down the center of the road closely followed by armed soldiers waving their swords. Despite the noise Buck recognized Ezra's voice and drove his own mount forward to block the other soldiers thus buying the two a moments respite. Nathan meanwhile turned his horse back to put himself between the stone tower on their right and the king. Ezra's words hadn't made a lot of sense but obviously there was some kind of danger to the king and it was coming from the direction of Bysha's Spire.
Orrin rose in his stirrups and called out to his guards. "Stand down! Stand down! Let those men through!"
A few of the guards reigned their horses in sharply at their king's command while others continued to advance and it quickly became obvious that their loyalties did not lie with the crown. Buck freed his axe and took out the first turncoat with one swing but was immediately on the defensive with the next. An axe was a great weapon for close ground fighting but on horseback the longer reach of the sword gave the soldiers the advantage.
Nathan was able to fell two of the enemy with accurately thrown daggers but then found himself thrown from his horse when it was rammed full on by one of the would be assassins. The healer managed to roll clear of the thudding hooves and when he regained his footing he found himself outside the circle of battle. Looking closely he spotted Buck holding his own against two of the enemy soldiers while others were engaged by those still loyal to the king. He also noticed what appeared to be ordinary citizens welding swords then remembered what Orrin had said about having some strategically placed men along the procession route.
The king himself was still issuing commands from the back of his horse. Beside him the elfin ambassador calmly sat as if a melee in the middle of a crowded street were an everyday occurrence. Nathan moved to the body of a fallen soldier and pried the sword from the corpse's hand. Straightening up he was just in time to see Ezra and the ambassador's aid reach Orrin's side. At the exact same moment the king gave a shout of surprise and toppled from his saddle with a white fletched arrow protruding from his chest.
'Chris!' Vin had been as startled as the other men to hear the explosion that opened the door to the tower roof but unlike Listrel and Parel, he rejoiced at the intrusion. Even though his back was to the commotion he had a pretty good idea of what was happening. He heard Chris shout for someone to take on the wizard and guessed that it would have to be Josiah he was addressing. 'Yes, thank Bysha! Get him away from me before he . . . ' But Listrel was too close. Vin felt a wave of pain flow from the collar around his neck. A hot point of agony grew at the base of his skull until his vision darkened from the growing intensity. At that moment even without the controlling magic he would have been unable to utter a sound simply from a lack of oxygen in his lungs.
When at last the pain receded and Vin was able to focus once more on his surroundings he was horrified to find himself standing on the wall of the tower with an arrow nocked and aimed at a figure down below. 'No! Josiah! Where are you?! Chris? Anyone!' The muscles in his arms tensed, as the string of the bow was pulled taut. He could hear the sounds of fighting taking place behind him but his eyes remained fixed on his unsuspecting target. Vin knew his own body and he knew when the moment came for the arrow to be released. Concentrating as hard as he could, he reached again for the feel of the thorns in his palms. He felt the burn and his hand twitched just a fraction as his fingers let go of the cord. But it was too little too late. A rider on the street below tumbled from his saddle.
'Oh Goddess! I've killed the king!"
To stop Vin and remove the collar, Josiah knew he had to first get past the wizard. Jaydee had said that the man's name was Listrel but as Josiah drew closer and got a good look at the other wizard's staff, he felt a surge of dread.
All wizards carried wooden staves as both symbols and storehouses of their power. Those that were gifted with stone magic liked to embed gems in the wood while those who used metal found tempered bands and rings to be highly useful. What Josiah saw when he faced Listrel was an intricately carved wooden staff with bands of various types of metal alternately spaced with brightly gleaming gems. There was only one wizard that Josiah knew of that had ever had a good reason to combine all three magics on one staff.
"At your service." Listrel/Wartolin grinned as he took a mocking bow. "It is good to know that you lesser wizards still hold me in such awe."
Josiah shook his head. "That wasn't respect you heard in my voice, that was horror. The things you did . . . the people you hurt . . . the council should have locked you away instead of merely banishing you."
"Merely? You make it sound like a simple change of surroundings." Wartolin stalked forward, bringing his staff into a fighting position. "First they took my own blood and used it against me; sealing away those powers which are mine by birth, then they sent me packing like some common criminal. The narrow-minded fools even destroyed all of my research! Turns spent experimenting and developing new spells ..."
"You mean new weapons. I saw some of your 'experiments'." Josiah shifted his stance and braced himself both physically and mentally for the attack he knew was about to come. "You're right, the council did treat you like an ordinary criminal and you are anything but that. You're a sick, twisted fiend and even imprisonment would have been too lenient."
Josiah could hear Chris and the other soldier fighting behind him but it was the movement to his left that caught his eye and momentarily distracted him from his opponent. With his bow in one hand and a quiver of arrows slung on his back, Vin was in the process of climbing onto the low wall that surrounded the top of the tower. That small drop in his guard was almost the wizard's undoing.
Seeing the stone wizard's gaze shift to the archer, Wartolin seized the moment to strike first. Swinging the head of his staff forward, he released a burst of energy aimed straight for his opponent's chest. He snarled in frustration as the man ducked and rolled clear of his attack. It had been many turns since he'd last fought against another wizard and even then he'd relied heavily on the element of surprise. Still, he was Wartolin, the greatest most powerful wizard to have ever lived; it would take more than an aging stone wizard to stop him.
Jumping back to his feet, Josiah returned his staff to a guard position and began trying to circle around Wartolin in order to reach Vin. He didn't know what progress Ezra had made in stopping the procession and feared that Chris would not end his own battle soon enough to help. That left him to prevent Vin from slaying the king and judging by his friend's stance on the wall; he was running short on time.
Wartolin guessed his opponent's intention and refused to give ground. Grinning maniacally he purposefully stepped forward, closing the distance between them. "I see quite a number of gems on your staff, why don't you give me a demonstration of your power? Or perhaps like so many of your brethren, they are merely there for show. What, no answer? Well then, why don't I just help myself?"
By placing himself directly in front of Vin, Wartolin had unknowingly checked any attack Josiah might have made. He didn't dare launch an energy assault for fear that Wartolin would dodge the blow leaving Vin to suffer in his place. Of course Wartolin was counting on the archer to kill the king so he might stand his ground but that was a chance Josiah was not prepared to take. He was thinking of launching a more physical attack when Wartolin took matters into his own hands. Literally.
Shifting his staff into his left hand, Wartolin lunged forward and wrapped the fingers of his right hand around the head of Josiah's staff where the gems were clustered closest together. He used his abilities to read the spells sealed inside the stones and his eyes widened in surprise at the intricacies of the enchantments and the amount of energy stored within each gem. This was no mere run-of-the-mill stone wizard. "You . . . who are you?"
"Your worst nightmare." Josiah gritted his teeth and mimicked Wartolin's movements. Unlike his opponent however, Josiah was not interested in reading spells. Spending the last few years of his life fighting raiders, bandits and orcs with Chris and the others had taught him a very important lesson; never rely solely on the power of magic. Because when the power was gone all that was left was a stick and some pretty rocks.
Using his superior weight and strength, Josiah grasped Wartolin's staff and jerked it forward knowing the wizard would hang on for dear life. He had one moment to relish the surprised look on the smaller man's face before the top of his head connected solidly with the bridge of his opponent's nose.
Wartolin's vision danced with spots as he staggered back trying to catch his balance. The pain from his nose made him gasp and wheeze while blood flowed freely down his face. Just as he managed to come to a lurching, swaying stop another blow, this time to his gut sent him crashing to his knees. His mouth opened and closed but no air passed his lips or entered his lungs. A loud crack heralded the blow of the other wizard's staff against his own and his fingers were left stinging and empty from the shock. Breathless. Weaponless. Powerless. He was the greatest wizard of them all and he had been defeated without a single spell being uttered.
Josiah kicked the fallen staff well clear of Wartolin's reach then stood back to take a quick survey of his surroundings. His enemy was down for the moment but he would have to be bound and his robes searched before he could no longer be considered a threat. That would take time and Vin was . . .
When it came to one-on-one sword fights, Parel was usually confident of a victory. He was a good swordsmen and he kept himself physically fit with regular practice. He was also not above cheating whenever the opportunity arose. Seeing a slimly built, liveried guard waving a sword and charging him like a madman was surprising but in no real way frightening. Drawing his own sword, he turned his body to brace for the attack and to hide the small blade that suddenly appeared in his left hand.
"I'll take care of Parel! You get that wizard away from Vin!" Chris spared only the briefest of glances toward his Partner but that one look set the blood to boiling in his veins. Sunlight glinted from the jeweled collar around Vin's neck, its evil purpose making a mockery of its beauty. When he remembered what Jaydee had told him, the way he had described the moment that the collar had been placed around Vin's neck and that Parel had been one of the guards to hold him down . . . the man was going to die. Chris' only regret was that the captain's death was going to be a quick one.
Steel rang against steel as the first series of blows were traded in a lightning fast exchange that left both men winded and positioned on the opposite side of the roof from the two wizards. Chris tried to steady his breathing and control his temper. He knew his anger was getting the better of him. Parel was a decent swordsman but not so good that he should have scored a hit, even with that wicked little dagger he'd kept concealed in his left hand. Ignoring the burn of the wound in his side, Chris tightened his grip on his sword and pushed thoughts of Vin from his mind, focusing on the simple task at hand; separating Parel's head from the rest of his body.
"Damn, you're pretty good for a hired sword." Parel grinned and waved his bloody dagger in the air. "Shame to waste such skill risking your life for the ungrateful rich. Not too late to change sides." Of course both men knew the words were a lie but the captain was badly shaken and needed the bravado to calm his nerves. Whoever this swordsman was he was better than just 'good' and even with his second blade, Parel knew his life was in serious danger. As he readied himself for the next exchange, Parel met the green-eyed stare of his opponent and found himself captured by the man's hate filled gaze. He watched as the flame of anger cooled and was replaced by a cold, determined need to kill. A shiver of fear raced down Parel's spine. This wasn't just some paid guard out to save the king; this man was fighting for a personal reason. "Why? What is this to you?"
Chris raised his sword and his teeth flashed in a feral grin. "Everything."
In that moment Parel knew he was a dead man; even if he threw down his weapons and fell to his knees, there would be no mercy for him. Knowing he was about to die caused something in the captain's mind to shift perspective. A small snort of amusement escaped his lips followed by a high-pitched giggle. All this time he'd worried about the ruby embedded in his neck and in the end his death was going to come from a common sword. Parel laughed out loud even as he raised his own weapon in readiness for the final exchange. He laughed as he fought. He laughed until the bite of steel against his neck stole his breath and his life.
Chris staggered back from the captain's body; his left hand pressed tight against the wound in his side. Sweat stung his eyes and he wiped his sword arm across his face only to find another wound that he hadn't felt until that moment. "Damn it." He hissed at the sudden flare of pain even as he looked around to see how Josiah was faring. "I'm getting too old for . . .Vin! Stop!"
Too late! The arrow flew from the archer's bow even as the words left Chris' mouth. "Bysha No!"
His own injuries forgotten, Chris threw down his sword and charged across the tower. He barely noticed Josiah standing over the fallen wizard and Jaydee emerging from the broken door; his focus was entirely on his partner who was fitting another arrow to his bowstring. "Vin! Don't do it!"
'Remember, kill Orrin as soon as he comes within range and kill anyone who tries to stop you.'
The words played themselves over again in Vin's mind as he watched his own hands prepare the next arrow. He heard the combined shouts of Josiah and Chris behind him and he tried desperately to cry his own warning but the magic in the collar held him in thrall. From the corner of his eye he saw his Partner running toward him. Then he felt his body tense and begin to turn . . .
'No! Chris stop! Please! Don't make me do this.'
As Jaydee finally reached the roof of the spire, he realized he was too winded to be much use in a battle so it was a relief to see all his friends standing and their foes on the ground. The shouting confused him until he realized that Vin was still wearing the collar and had an arrow ready in his bow. 'He's going to kill the king!' But even as he thought that, Jaydee watched in growing horror as Vin swung his upper body around to face away from the street.
"Goddess! Vin don't!" As the words left his mouth, the lethal projectile flew through the air, striking its target with deadly accuracy and Jaydee could only watch in stunned disbelief as Chris staggered back and then fell to his knees. He watched as Chris' hands reached up to grasp the wooden shaft as if he intended to pull the arrow free himself only to drop limply back to his sides as his body slowly collapsed to lie motionless on the white marble stones of the spire roof.
"No." The whispered denial ghosted across the silent rooftop as Jaydee stood frozen at the top of the stairs. It wasn't supposed to end like this. They were the good guys. Ezra was going to write a ballad about their adventures and they were all going to return to Four Winds as heroes. Jaydee took one hesitant step forward, his eyes never leaving the body of his friend. How could this happen? How could they have been so close to victory only to lose Chris? And at the hands of one of their own?
"Jaydee, stop right where you are. Don't move."
It took a moment for Josiah's words to penetrate the blanket of despair that covered the young fighter's mind but instinct had taken over and his body had halted even before he made the conscious connection. Tearing his gaze from Chris' still form, he looked up to find himself the apparent target of the next arrow. He suddenly remembered Listrel's command to Vin when he'd first placed the collar around his neck; ' You will follow my order and let no one stop you. If any one tries, you will kill them.'
"You're too late! The king is dead and soon this land will be under the rule of Cardimal and then you'll all pay dearly for . . ."
"Oh, shut up." Josiah put the butt of his staff to effective use and silenced Wartolin's ravings with a carefully aimed blow to the side of his head. It was important the vile wizard lived so he could suffer for his crimes but also to answer questions regarding the exact plans of the rogue duke. The man would need more than just the death of the king to secure the throne and hold it. But for Josiah those concerns were secondary to the current problem of reaching Vin and releasing him from Wartolin's spell before he killed any more of his friends.
"Josiah? What do we do?"
The anguish in his friend's voice was very clear but Josiah had no time to offer words of comfort. "A good question. I wish I had an equally good answer." He took a small step forward but quickly froze when Vin twisted his body even further to focus his aim on the new threat. "I have to find a way to get close enough to . . ." Josiah stopped speaking and tilted his head to the side. "What's that sound?"
Jaydee listened and realized that he could hear something as well. "I don't know. The wind?"
It did sound something like wind blowing through a small opening or narrow passage; a haunting, keening sort of sound; but even as high as they were there was hardly a breeze. And it sounded more like an animal, wounded and in pain. Suffering. . .
"Sweet Bysha." Josiah gasped and looked closer at Vin's face. The eyes were still dark and vacant and while the half-elf's face remained expressionless, sunlight glinted from tears sliding down his cheeks. "It's Vin, he knows what he's done. He's aware of his actions even though he can't control them."
When Nathan had fallen under the control of the wood wizard Hurough he'd been completely unaware of his actions, waking only when the splinter of wood was removed from his neck. Though he had suffered from guilt when he'd learned later that he'd actually wounded Jaydee, he'd been saved from actually experiencing it.
"It's like Vin is trapped in his own body. If I'm right, he can hear what we are saying, he just can't respond."
"But how does that help us?"
The whole time Josiah and Jaydee were speaking, the mournful keening had continued almost continuously. It was heartbreaking to hear but the two friends forced themselves to ignore it and concentrate on finding a way to save the archer.
"Not us exactly, but Vin may be able to help himself. Jaydee, back away slowly. I need to have Vin's attention focused entirely on me."
As Jaydee moved to follow the wizard's command, the nocked arrow turned back in his direction. He continued to move away and finally reached a point that the spell considered him no longer a threat. He stopped moving when he saw Vin turn his aim once more to Josiah.
"That's it Vin, focus on me. Vin, I know you can hear me. I know you didn't want to shoot Orrin or Chris but you had no choice. It wasn't you that fired those arrows, it was Wartolin using your body." Josiah heard Jaydee's surprised gasp but kept talking to the half-elf. "Listen to me Vin, we have to get the collar off of you so you won't hurt anyone else. Vin, I need you to concentrate on my words. Vin? Vin, listen to me."
Finally the faint cry faded and silence once more fell on the strange tableau.
"Good. That's very good. Now listen close. I want you to think back to that day in the woods after the battle with the orcs. Remember how I tried to help you find the core of magic that I thought was inside you? Well, I was wrong Vin. Not wrong about you having power, just wrong about how it was a part of you. Vin, I talked to the elvin ambassador. It seems that half elves are considered very special. They even have a name for children that are both human and elves; they're called Ferrilis children. Are you listening Vin? They actually called you 'the Ferrilis Child'."
Josiah paused and waited but Vin remained motionless. Licking his lips, the wizard decided to keep trying. "The ambassador said that all half-elves have a Gift; a special power that allows them to put energy into a human's spell, just like you did with that light stone I gave you. But Vin, he also said that you could take the energy back. You might be able to remove the power from a spell just like you put it in. I'm not sure how but you've got to try."
Taking a chance, Josiah edged a tiny bit closer. He was relieved when the arrow remained tight against the bow. "Vin, you couldn't find a core of energy in yourself because your Gift is a part of your entire being. It's not a separate well or pool that you can reach into; it's simply a part of you, like your soul. You may not be able to feel it but it's there and you can use it now; use it to pull away the energy that's in that collar. Once the power is gone, the spell won't have any effect on you. Vin? Are you listening? Vin?"
Yes, he was listening. After all, it wasn't like he had much choice. But what difference did it make if the elves thought he was special? Why waste time with magic now? Why didn't they just kill him? Why didn't Josiah just raise his staff and send him down into the lowest Pit where he belonged? And if Josiah didn't want to be the one to end his miserable life then they could find another wizard or an archer. Anyone, it didn't matter who. All he wanted was to stop seeing the surprised look on Chris' face and the arrow sticking out of his chest. Maybe it wasn't entirely his fault. Maybe Listrel or Wartolin or whoever that wizard was, really was the one to blame but that didn't change the fact that he'd killed his Partner; that his arm had pulled taut the string of the bow and that his fingers had released the arrow that had stolen Chris' life. How could Josiah expect him to live with that kind of guilt? Why bother trying to free himself of the collar now? He'd murdered the king and the one person he cared most about in the entire world; what was there left for him? Nothing. No one.
"Josiah? Couldn't we just wait for the energy to run out?" Jaydee shifted nervously from one foot to the other as he questioned the wizard. It didn't look like Vin was going to be able to use his Gift and he hoped there was another way to remove the collar.
"Those stones Wartolin used can hold a lot of energy and I'm guessing he figured out a way to combine them with the metal links and the needle that make up the collar itself." Josiah shook his head sadly. "There might be enough energy there to last a dozen or more days and the magic would keep Vin's body going well past the point a person would collapse from lack of food or water."
"What about shields? Couldn't we get some metal shields to block his arrows and approach him that way?"
"Whoever reached for him would have to drop his shield at the last moment and Vin doesn't have to use a bow to kill. I suppose we could try to make him fire all of his arrows and then several of us rush him at once but considering his position on the very edge of the roof we might very easily cause him to fall."
Jaydee shuddered at the thought of that kind of death. He was about to offer another suggestion when a new voice called out Vin's name. Even though he had to strain to hear it, the young fighter recognized the speaker immediately and his breath quickened in his chest.
"Vin . . . listen . . . to . . . 'siah." Chris' eyes remained closed and it was obvious that he was struggling to make his words loud enough to be heard. "You . . . can . . . you're . . . not . . . not . . ."
It was painful to listen to the fallen man struggling to find the breath for each and every word. Jaydee's hands clinched into fists as he fought the urge to rush to his friend's side. There was a long pause as Chris somehow found the strength to continue.
"Not . . . alone . . . not . . . . lost. . . . . I . . . I . . . . will . . . always . . . . find . . . . . . . "
"C'mon Vin, you heard him, now do it. Concentrate! If you want us to fetch a healer for Chris then you're going to have to free yourself of that collar first." He was gambling with his friend's life but Josiah knew it was the right thing to do and that Chris would have approved had he still been awake.
'No! Josiah! Don't do this! Josiah!' A flare of anger sparked in Vin's heart then began burning away at the shroud of despair filling his mind. 'Damn it! Son of a Pit Viper!'
"Yes! I saw that Vin, your hands shook. Are you mad? Good. Use that anger to help you focus. Can you feel the metal band around your neck? It looks tight. Is it cutting into your skin? Can you feel the links? There's a needle stuck into the back of your neck; can you feel it? Is the pain sharp or a throbbing ache? Concentrate Vin. Hurry. Chris doesn't have much time left."
Vin used Josiah's words like a guiding rope through the darkness. Yes, he could feel the tiny links digging into the skin of his throat. As for the needle, a throbbing ache? Hah! Getting his nuts ripped off would hurt less. As Vin became more aware of the collar he also rediscovered the pain in his head and hands but rather than try and ignore the pain, he rode it, mastered it and suddenly discovered he was breathing. He could feel his chest expanding, his heart beating, the sting of tears in his eyes and the taste of salt on his lips.
"Yes Vin, that's it. Keep going." The signs were small but Josiah knew what to look for; a slight change in the half-elf's grip on the bow, an extra blink of the eyes, a slightly deeper breath. "C'mon, now find the energy in the collar. The power will be concentrated in the stones. It looks like there are five of them set at regular intervals."
Right, back to the collar. 'Hold on Chris, I'm trying'
Vin tried to remember what it had felt like to hold Josiah's light crystal. Had it felt like anything other than a rock? A little warm maybe . . . Was that it? Could it be that simple? 'Oh Bysha, please let it be that easy. After today I deserve a little easy.'
If Josiah hadn't known better he would have sworn that Vin's lips twitched in a very small, barely noticeable smile. But maybe that idea wasn't so far fetched. Eyes squinting, the stone wizard stared hard at the gems on the collar. Were they glowing just a little brighter? Was the bow in Vin's hands starting to lower? 'Blessed Bysha! He's doing it!' Josiah controlled his enthusiasm and unconsciously held his breath as he waited for the right moment.
'Goddess, it feels like. . . like . . . well damn! I've never felt anything like it before! It feels . . .'
"Like sunlight under my skin."
"Vin! You talked!" Jaydee practically leapt forward and started to charge across the rooftop but Josiah quickly waved him off.
"I'll tend to Vin! Get a healer for Chris! Hurry!"
Jaydee changed direction in mid step and practically threw his body down the stairs. "He's alive! Vin is free! Everything is going to be fine! We did it!"
Josiah shook his head as a jubilant cry echoed back up from the stairs. It was a little premature maybe but he could understand how the young man felt. Reaching Vin's side, he was just in time to catch the swaying archer before he fell from the narrow wall. Avoiding the loosely held bow and arrow, Josiah grabbed Vin by his right arm and pulled him down to the safety of the roof.
Vin swayed as he allowed the weapons to fall from his hands. He blinked and tried to focus his eyes but everything remained slightly dark and out of focus.
"Easy Vin, I've got you. I still need to remove the collar. It will be a little easier if you lay down while I do it." Josiah eased his friend down on his stomach and then helped him position his hands beneath his forehead. "That's it; now try to hold still."
"Jaydee's fetching a healer right now." Josiah spoke as he carefully examined the joining of the collar. 'And please let him come back in time otherwise I've killed two friends.'
Vin closed his eyes as he felt the strong but gentle fingers move across his shoulders, brushing his hair to one side. His hands were crossed one on top of the other with his right palm pressed against the marble stone of the roof. It felt warm beneath his hand, no doubt heated by the sun. But that was just the way the magic had felt, a gentle warmth flowing into his flesh. Did it feel like that to wizards? Maybe he should ask Josiah. Later. Right now he'd just enjoy the way it felt. In fact, he was feeling better with every breath he took.
"S'good stuff, thish majick. Oughta bottle it. Shell it fer gold."
Pausing with his fingers resting lightly on the collar, Josiah frowned at the slurred words of his young friend. There was definitely no energy left in the stones so it couldn't be the collar affecting him. "Vin, are you all right?"
"S'fine. Jest fine."
Had that been a giggle? "Uh, right. I'm going to pull the needle out now. I'll try to do it as gently as possible."
Yes, that had definitely been a giggle. Grasping the base of the needle, Josiah began pulling it free of the half-elf's neck. A thin trickle of blood ran from the tiny wound but Vin showed no sign having felt the slightest discomfort. As the wizard pulled the collar free he was dismayed to see the perfect imprint of each and every link starkly red against pale flesh, almost like they had been burned into the skin.
"Vin, is your neck hurting?"
"Nope. Dun feel nuthin. Nuthin cept the majick. Filsh good. S'warm."
Feeling magic? Warm? Josiah sat back on heels and stared down at his friend in confusion. A loud cracking sound made him jump in surprise and he was shocked to see a thin, jagged fissure suddenly appear in the stone beneath Vin's head. "Sweet Bysha have mercy! The magic in the Spire! Each stone is sealed in place with a spell. Vin! Stop!"
Grabbing the half-elf's shoulders, Josiah tried to pull him up and away from the empowered stones only to find Vin's right hand held strangely in place. Wrapping his left arm around his friend's chest to hold him up, Josiah grabbed Vin's wrist with his free hand and gave it a hard jerk. The release proved far easier than he was expecting and the wizard landed on his butt with Vin sprawled face up across his lap.
"Hey 'siah. Watcha do that for?"
"Goddess! You're drunk on magic!" Looking at the crack in the stone, Josiah saw that the starting point was a small hole at the center of a bloody handprint. Shaking his head in bewilderment, he gathered the half-elf up as close as he could manage and hoped that a lack of direct contact would stop Vin from drawing in any more power. "I suppose next we'll have to find something safe for you to put all that energy into to sober you up."
Vin squinted up at his friend's face and tried to smile reassuringly, blissfully unaware that he was grinning like a besotted fool. Josiah couldn't help smiling in return and giving a heavy sigh, looked over at Chris' still form. "If Jaydee gets back in time with that healer you're in for quite a surprise. This is probably a once in a lifetime occurrence. If we're lucky."
Letting his eyes roam across the rest of the roof, the wizard suddenly felt a cold wave of fear race down his spine. Where he'd expected to see the unconscious body of Wartolin, there only remained a small, round crystal. A transport crystal. Somehow, while his attention had been focused on Vin, the man had come to his senses and found enough energy to make his escape. But when did he leave? Before or after the explanation of a Ferrilis Child? Had he still been unconscious or was he now in possession of that very dangerous bit of knowledge? Josiah's arms tightened around his friend. "Forgive me Vin, I may have put your life in great peril."
"s'kay 'siah. Chris'll fix it."
"If he lives. If I haven't killed him as well by the delay." Josiah regretted the words the moment they left his mouth but he was too shaken by Wartolin's disappearance to hide his thoughts. He felt a light tap on his arm and looked down to see a slightly more sober expression on Vin's face.
"Yeah did right. Chris'll tell yah the same thing. 's ohkay to fight dirty if yer friends need help."
"But at the cost of another friend's life?"
Vin seemed to think about that for a moment and then shook his head. "Chris won't die. He's too . . . too . . . "
"Worse 'n a she dragon on eggs."
"I . . . heard . . .that . . . you . . . un . . . grate . . .ful . . .Child . . ."
He laughed. He couldn't help it. It started out as a chuckle and erupted into a full, belly aching roar of laughter. And that was how Jaydee and the others found him a moment later, sitting on the roof with Vin cradled in his lap and tears of mirth running down his cheeks.