October 2

Fictober, Prompt 2 – “You have no proof.”

Original fiction.

Warnings: magical battle of sorts, non-graphic description of someone being dead.

The man clutched the scroll to his chest and looked at me as if I had just insulted all of his ancestors.

“Of course I won’t hand it over to you! It is mine, and acquired only at great trouble and cost!”

“And you didn’t stop to think about why that might be the case?” I asked him, keeping my voice even and my face calm. He had no idea what he was holding, and it was going to cause trouble for more than just him if I couldn’t stop him from using it.

“Obviously, because it confers a great boon to the user,” he huffed, as if this was obvious.

“It was stolen,” I said, losing a little bit of my temper, “out of one of the most secure magical facilities in all the known lands. I know that you know this, because that is why the thieves you hired to steal it charged you so much, and why you had so much trouble finding anyone to even attempt the theft in the first place. Has it not occurred to you that it was under such heavy guard because it doesn’t do what it claims to do, rather than because it does?”

A brief – very brief – flicker of doubt crossed his face, but then it settled into a scowl again.

“You have no proof,” he spat at me, “no proof at all of those rumors! Have you ever even seen it yourself?”

I had not, of course, looked at the scroll myself. Its rolled-up exterior was all anyone I knew had ever seen.

“No one,” I said slowly and meaningfully, “who has ever looked at that scroll is around to tell us what exactly happened to them.”

“And when I gain the promised powers,” he sneered, “I certainly won’t be remaining in these petty little principalities either. Are there not vast cosmos to explore? Lands beyond even the Empire? Why should I or anyone else who has gained such magical control be contented to stay where we were trapped before?”

In that instant, I knew there as no way I was going to be able to convince him to hand the scroll over. It would almost have been better if past attempts to use it had left behind an immediate devastation, because at least then the connection and disappearance of the user would have been obvious.

Unfortunately, the harm was not so obvious. It was something creeping, insidious, a spreading blight that our known magics could slow but not completely cease or reverse, as the people of this very area had come to know all too well.

That was why it had taken so long to identify this scroll and its use as the likely cause, and it was only the previous Emperor who had ordered it found and destroyed.

Someone – we still did not know who – had convinced both the Emperor and the senior Magic Council that the potential backlash from the scroll’s destruction was too dangerous to attempt, and so it had been locked away.

Locked away…but not destroyed.

This man was not responsible for that decision, but he was certainly the latest in a line of pawns being used by whoever had been responsible for it. Unfortunately, there were always men who thought that they could get something for nothing, and who were unwilling to work to earn their way, preferring to leech off of others in one way or another.

I tried one more time, just in case. “It is proven beyond doubt that blight has spread in every place where this scroll has been used, and no other possible cause has been found. There is a price for everything, and it is clear that this price for using this scroll is everything the user has to give and more. For your own sake, if nothing else, I implore you not to use it!”

He scoffed. “It is all rumor, begun by powerful men who wish to keep power limited to themselves. You have no proof.”

I took one quick breath, then another.

“Very well,” I told him. “In that case, since you have admitted to the theft of this scroll, then I will take the steps authorized by the Council.”

And, I had already decided, one that had definitely not been authorized by them. I thought of the nearby villages, and hoped desperately that they had listened to me.

“You really think you can arrest me?”

“Yes,” I told him, “and it’s the one way you might make it out of this alive, so I’d recommend coming quietly.” I pulled out a talisman and activated it, conjuring a pair of magical restraints for his wrists. “Set the scroll down, and let me bind you, and I’ll send you out of here.”

I would, too, if he stopped now.

But his hands were already untangling the cord holding the scroll closed. “So that you can use the scroll yourself? You must be mad to think I’ll give it up now! All I have to do is open this scroll and then I’ll be—”

I snapped out a scroll of my own with one hand, flicking another two talismans across the room. One latched onto the scroll, yanking it out of his grasp just before he could start to unroll the paper, while the other hit him with solid force to slam him back against the wall. Grabbing the other end of my scroll with my now-free hand, I spoke the activating word as the stolen scroll hovered briefly between us. There wasn’t much time before he’d grab it back and he wouldn’t hesitate again—

Deep purple lines of magic burst from my scroll, binding the other in a sphere that filled with the hottest fire magic could conjure, pulled from the heart of a volcano.

Instantly, I could tell that something about the other scroll was fighting back, and fed more magic into my spellwork, keeping the conjured fire burning at full strength. Slowly, the resistance lessened, and I squinted at it through the containing sphere and the flames. One end of the other scroll seemed to be burning now, and that was enough, the fire would take care of the rest, and I could burn myself out permanently if I wasn’t careful, using such intense magic was always a risk…

I stopped myself from drawing my active stream of magic back just in time.

Only the barest hint of other, gibbering voices underneath the coaxing whisper in my mind had alerted me that something was wrong.

Doing the opposite of what that whisper said seemed like the best possible thing I could do, so I reached deep and poured absolutely every drop of magic in my body into my scroll.

It hurt, and I could trace the damage being done to the magical veins as the pain spread and branched along them.

But the fire kept burning, and burning, and burning, and now the only voice the other scroll could conjure was a gibbering, shrieking thing as it finally began to heat, and then singe, and then blaze.

Still pouring my rapidly dwindling magic out, I gasped for air against the pain, and didn’t stop.

At the moment when the last of the scroll vanished into ash, power exploded outward and slammed into the containing sphere.

A scream wrenched itself from my throat as I tried and failed to hold the spell against it, and the backlash threw me back into the wooden wall of the house that crumbled under the power almost before I made contact with it. With that barrier gone, the next thing for me to slam into was a rock that I did not remember being anywhere near the house itself, and black engulfed my mind.

Rain woke me, an unknown amount of time later.

Rain, in this place that had not seen rain for nearly two years.

There was almost nothing left when I finally managed to stagger to my feet and hobble over to where the house had been. The man who had stolen the scroll lay where he had fallen, and his staring eyes and the stillness of his body told me that he was dead. I could not summon even distant pity for him right now, given that this was undoubtedly a kinder fate than he would have found through the scroll. But he had given me the chance I needed, so I would make sure that he received a proper burial at some point.

Some of the stone foundations and part of the chimney were all that remained of the house itself. All the wood and thatch, and even the trees for a wide distance around were gone, fallen into a gray, dead-looking dust now turning to mud beneath the rain.

Concerned, I let myself slump to my knees, and pleadingly summoned a spark of violet from my battered body. But the dust felt inert, magic-less, and the ground beneath it felt different too. It was hard to describe what the blighted areas felt like, but it wasn’t like this.

And there was the rain.

I knelt there for a long time and didn’t examine too closely how much of the wetness on my face was rain and how much was tears.

There would be consequences, I knew. I could tell already that I probably wasn’t going to fully recover from this, if at all, and there was still the question of whether there really had been someone out there trying to keep the scroll intact. Given how insidiously it had protected itself, I wasn’t so sure about that anymore, but it would still have to be investigated.

There would be time, now. The scroll was gone.

So I let myself weep, and then I pulled myself to my feet again, and began the long, slow, painful walk to the now-distant edge of the forest. I let the returning villagers catch and carry me when they found me, unable to go another step.

And for the first time in a very long time, I let myself hope.

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