Sunday, January 22, 2017

Battle Damage

Battle Damage
By Cliff Hicks

It may not be the most overly complicated form of suicide ever committed, but I'll wager it's damn close. Call it the Rube Goldberg of magical euthanasia. All the pieces are laid out, all the plans set.

All that's left is to actually do the deed.

The warding circle is drawn. Everything I'm going to let loose needs to stay in. Until someone comes and claims it, naturally. And someone will come. Someone always comes when there's something to be gained, and rarely otherwise.

The location is chosen. Down in the sewers, a nook undiscovered by the elements or travelers. Not as pristine a place to die as I would have liked, but it'll have to do. I'd have preferred somewhere sunny, but I'm dying in inches, and I'm sick of it.

All that's left is to say the incantation, to get the whole thing rolling. The final sentence I'll ever utter in my life. It's only a few words, a handful of ancient forgotten words that'll cut me loose of this, let me have peace, at long last, peace.

I step into the circle, taking care not to break any of the lines, and for a moment, one singular moment, I wonder whether or not I should do this. I decide to leave it up to chance. I reach into my pocket and fish out the coin, the last thing Yoshi gave me before, well, before she stopped being Yoshi.

It's a tiny gold disc, nothing much remarkable about it. Some low level enchantment on it, but nothing dangerous. It's got two sides, which is all that matters, a phoenix on one side, a dual-faced god on the other.

I perch the coin atop of my thumb and flick it into the air. A god to take me away from all of this, to die; a phoenix to tell me to be reborn. Both options feel a whole hell of a lot like losing. At the apex of its arc, I snap my hand up and grab the coin and slap it down atop of the back of my other hand.

“Whoa there,” I hear a voice say to me before I can lift my hand up to reveal my fate. “That had better not be what it looks like it is.”

I sigh, lifting wearied brown eyes to look over at the mage standing across from me now. She couldn't have waited five damn minutes? “You're early. You can't get what you want until I'm dead, so mind easing off and letting me settle this?”

“You're... you're Emilio, aren't you? Youngest of the Survivor Seven?” she says. She's a bit younger than me, and I barely look out of high school, but looks don't mean much in my line of work. Her ponytail is a deep shade of faded emerald, her outfit mostly made of leather and brass, and she's on edge. “Thanks for saving, well, everything about a week ago. But I have to ask – you do know what that circle's meant for, right?”

I can't help but have a tiny gallows laugh. “I do. And there isn't any Survivor Seven any more. There's just me.” A week ago, the Seven had been faced with an impossible task, a breach from one of the Infernal Realms. We pushed it back as best as we could, but to close the breach, a sacrifice had to be made.

I'd been part of the Seven less than two years, and now I was all that was left. From Seven to One.

“That particular warding circle's pretty complex,” she said to me. “It looks like you built it to withstand a lot from the inside, but not a whole lot from the out.”

I sighed, rubbing my thumb along my wrist, desperate to lift my hand up and look at the coin's results. “That's sort of the point. I'm carrying around the full energy of the Seven in me right now, and I can't keep that up.”

She whistled a low single note, somewhere between admiration and a little bit of fear. “You want to tell me what happened?”

“It took six. Six souls to open the gate, six souls to close it. So the seven of us drew blind stones from a bag, and we didn't know who was going to live, right up until the end.” I inhaled a long breath, my fingertips curling around the top of my hand, squeezing down on it a bit more. “I wish I hadn't drawn the one survivor's stone. They were all better magicians than me, smarter, wiser, more capable of handling this. Instead I'm the one left standing. But being the survivor means all that power from the others is infused in me. It's burning me up, cutting its way through me. The others are gone, and I'm just battle damage, a mess of scars barely able to stand. I mean, Christ, look at me. My hands are shaking. They haven't stopped shaking all week.”

She raises one of her hands, extending it towards me. “You're still in shock.”

“The hell would you know about shock?” I snarl.

“More than you'd think. You don't know who I am, do you?”

I shake my head. “Sorry. Like you said, I'm pretty new at this.”

She smiles, trying to put me at ease. “Yeah, well, me too, but we all get reputations pretty quick. They call me The Reconstructionist. I rebuild things, repair them, fix them.”

The hand that the coin is on the back of curls into a fist before I catch myself doing it and unclench. “Some things can't get fixed.”

“Your friend Anatoly used to say that too. And I'll tell you what I told him – what you can't fix, you just rebuild instead.”

“God!” I sputter. “If only it was that goddamn simple! I'm burning up. I'm not a candle burning at both ends, I'm engulfed in the damn flames. For seven days, I've searched, trying to find some notes, some spell that will ease this tempest trapped inside of me, and this... this is all I can come up with.”

“Which is... what? Trap all the raw power in the circle and then off yourself? There are better ways out of your mess than that.”

“And if I was an older mage, a smarter mage, I'd know them! I'd know who in our shitty line of work I could trust to help me solve the problem, but I'm no ancient sorcerer. I'm barely used to getting three meals a day at this point! So why don't you back off a bit, give me five minutes to do this, and then you can take all this power for yourself and you can deal with it?” There's a weariness in my voice I didn't suspect I was capable of, not any more. But right now, I feel like that poor, lonely homeless kid on the streets of Barcelona all over again. Aimless, unfocused, afraid and fragile, exactly where I was when Yoshi found me twenty months ago.

“I don't think that's what you really want. It might feel like it right now, but I think deep down you know better,” she says, as she's walking around the circle. It means I have to keep turning to keep my eyes on her. I half suspect she's going to try and break a line so I don't go through with it.

“I... I can't,” I exhale. “I know the rest of the Seven would want me to keep going, but I can't. I just can't. I'm coming apart at the seams. I've barely eaten, I'm crying all the goddamn time. They even have a term for it – survivor's guilt.”

She nods, just a tiny shift of her head. “It's a specific subsection of post-traumatic stress disorder. I know. But you know you didn't cause this, right? You're not to blame for living.”

“Again, you're arguing rationality with emotion,” I grumble. “How did you even find me, anyway?” The beacon spell isn't supposed to go off until I cut all the power loose inside of the circle, and I know it didn't go off early. My mind's a mess, but my spellwork is still solid.

“The twinning coin,” she says, pointing to my hand that still covers it. “It's part of a pair, a summoning talisman between me and Yoshi, only meant to be used in extreme emergencies, although I think this qualifies. Did she give it to you?”

“Yeah, she...” Dammit. I close my fist around the coin and then throw it against the sewer wall as hard as I can, yelling out, and I feel the brickwork shake a little, as the magic inside of me ripples out like a tiny earthquake. I see her jump a little bit in response to the shockwave of magic that bends through her for a moment, and after it's passed, I snort in a heavy breath before I can speak again. “Fixed.”

“What?”

“She fixed it. Yoshi rigged the survivor's stones, made sure to give me the one unsacrified. She... she rigged it so I would live.”

She smiles, sage and calm. “And she gave you the coin, so it would bring me... to you. So I could help you. She wanted me to help you rebuild.”

“There's only scars left. Not even a foundation on which to put something new.”

She walks away from me for a moment, far enough to pick up the coin, tucking it into her pocket. “Only one way to find out, right? Tell you what – let me give it a try and if I fail, then you can get back to whatever mad plan you had.”

“One try.”

She nods at me again, walking up to me. “She didn't have time to give you the lesson you needed, because if she did, then you'd have known she fixed the draw. But she told me I was going to need to know this one day, so why don't you listen while I'm making a few changes here.” She kneels down and starts to add additional lines to the circle, changing the spellwork.

“Nice of her to tell you and not me.”

“Listen,” she says, added a few extra curls and curves before standing up, directly in front of me. “It's called the Survivor Seven because it, as a group, always exists. There's always someone left to carry on, to keep going, to rebuild.”

“Why weren't you in the group instead of me?”

“I'm even newer to this than you are. But you aren't alone. Here, take my hand,” she says, holding a hand out to me. I look at it for a moment, then shrug and take it.

As soon as our skin touches, her fingers close firmly on my hand and hold it, as she steps into the circle. She leans in and kisses me, her lips to mine for just a moment, a brief instant, but in that moment, I can feel some of the pressure ease off, some of that power fade, no, shift, from me into her. “What...”

“Yoshi also told me she had this great guy she wanted to set me up with. A little headstrong, too proud to ask for help. Well, you're getting help whether you like it or not.” She smiles, her face close to mine. “You just need to lighten the load. No one person can handle the magic of seven. You're not the Lone Survivor any more. Now there's two of us. We just need to find five more...”

“Are you sure?”

“Too late for that now. I couldn't let go of your hand even if I wanted to until we've split that magic you're carrying in half. Could be hours.”

“...thanks.”

“Zelda. I'm Zelda. Your new partner.”

2 comments:

theurbanspaceman.net said...

Nice! I enjoyed how you wove fantasy with reality, magic with psychology. And having both sides of the coin toss feel like losing... very poignant. Sometimes there are no good choices, only different degrees of bad ones. Enjoyable ending, too; there's a real sense of potential that the Seven will be whole once more.

M. D. Flyn said...

The tension on this is great.