Magicless, page 1
FIRST EDITION, AUGUST 2014
Copyright © 2014 by K. Ferrin
All Rights Reserved
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by K. Ferrin.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the copyright owner of this book. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the copyright owner is illegal and punishable by law. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
This is a work of fiction. Names characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover Design Ravven Kitsune
Editing Services: ExLibris Editing
Interior Design: Tugboat Design
To all those who dare to dream, to imagine, and to look at the undersides of things.
[ 1 ]
Magicless looked up from the forge as he heard the heavy beats of a horse in full gallop. Sweat dripped down his back despite the cool rain steadily falling from the gray sky. He wiped the sweat from his brow and watched as Leali streaked past him, throwing clods of dirt high into the air as her horse’s hooves pounded through the mud. She didn’t spare him a glance. She leaned low over the horse’s neck, her short blond hair plastered to her head, fear and determination clear in the lines around her normally expressive mouth. His stomach flipped and the sweat on his body turned chill. Riding at that speed could only mean one thing.
The Ghosts were coming.
He tossed his hammer aside and ran to the house. “Ma!” He shouted as he shoved open the front door. “They’re coming.” His mother looked up from the vegetables she’d been washing, her eyes widening with concern.
“I’ll get your father. Grab your things.”
Magicless dashed into his room, throwing bandages and salves into his pack. He strapped a large knife to each leg, threw a sword across his back, and darted back outside to douse the flames in the forge in a matter of moments. Smoke billowed into the air as his parents joined him, and together they ran for town.
It had been raining for days—the steady patter his constant companion as he’d worked at the forge. Everything felt heavy and sodden. Tree branches hung low with the extra weight of soaking leaves and flowers lay flattened from the driving rain, the sucking mud holding them captive. The air itself was so laden with moisture it was practically unbreathable. Everything that could hide away in a dry corner did, and everything else huddled and waited for the sun to break through the thick clouds and restore warmth and dryness to the world.
Everything except Leali, Magicless thought as he ran. He’d bet anyone any amount that from the moment she’d heard rumor that Ghosts were nearby she’d been out in the wood watching for them. Magicless would have considered joining her if he’d known—not that she would’ve welcomed his company. No one would.
Magicless remembered how she’d stood with eyes ablaze and arms crossed tight at her chest, watching as the Ghosts marched all the nursing mothers out of town three years ago. They’d taken several of the infants with them that time, too, rubbing salt into an already open wound. Her muscles had been taught, ready for action, and Magicless had been convinced she’d try to stop them then and there. But she hadn’t. She’d stood and watched with the rest of them, but something had hardened inside her that day. From that point onward she’d railed at the village elders to mount an attack, to fight back, to refuse to cooperate and stop allowing their own people to be taken away. She’d been unable to sway them from their ages-old passive acceptance of the raids.
She’d refused to give up, though. When she’d realized she couldn’t convince the elders she’d turned to the villagers themselves—the women, men and children who’d lost their mothers, wives, sisters, and children to the Ghosts. She had sympathized quietly with them, tears in her eyes as she listened to their stories of loss. She had talked about vengeance with anyone who would spare a moment’s attention. She had spoken eloquently about how the power of the Dark Wizard and the Ragers had waned, was now only an illusion—she was convinced that the continued success of the raids was only due to the people of Aclay having convinced themselves of their own weakness. Magicless could still hear her voice, filled with passion, urging them all to take their power back, to fight, to refuse their roles as easy prey. Her words wore the villagers down like water wears down stone. Magicless still wasn’t sure if she’d actually convinced them or if they’d finally given in to stop her pestering them. Either way, Magicless respected her conviction.
He slowed his breathing, his lungs beginning to burn with the effort of running almost flat-out for town. His mother and father were only steps behind him, breathing easy and slow. Long sprints were easier with magic.
The Ghosts, oddly, had not come the year following the start of Leali’s campaign. They hadn’t come the year after that, either. Magicless couldn’t ever recall so much time passing between visits before, and even the elders were baffled by the seeming peace. People had started to believe Leali’s words. They feared outright rebellion against the Dark Wizard, but they wanted to fight back in their own way. Leali had turned the quiet years to her advantage, and now, all their planning would be put to the test. He thought of the deep cave far outside of town with its hidden mouth and large cavern buried deep in the mountainside. They’d stocked it heavily with food, bedding, and wood for fire.
Magicless’ lungs began to ache. It would take a couple of hours at least to get the mothers and infants to the cave. He prayed they had enough time. He may be an outcast, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t in favor of fighting back. He’d offered to help Leali some time ago, but she’d rebuffed him. Three years had passed, yet a part of him still stung from the way she had scoffed at his offer. It was true he didn’t have the powers they had, but he could wield a sword, and mages still bled when cut. He was not completely powerless despite his condition, but Leali refused to see it. They all did.
Still, he was one of the lucky ones. His mother had not been taken when so many others had been. Magicless was tired of the anguish that lay over the town like a thick and permanent fog. Sorrow was a constant part of all their lives—a current running under everything, part of the very fabric of the town. He was willing to do anything to stop more of their own from being taken. Leali might dismiss him for his lack of powers, but he had nothing but respect for her desire to protect the mothers and infants of Aclay from whatever unknown evils awaited them at the hands of the Dark Wizard.
He listened to the thud of his parents’ footsteps as they ran beside him. His heart pounded in his ears. It is excitement he told himself. There is nothing to fear. He had always been told that no power in all of Dorine Lillith could stand between Ghosts, the Ragers, and their targets. Even the greatest mages didn’t have the power to stand against the Dark Wizard and the creatures that did his bidding. He pushed the thought out of his mind and upped his speed—they weren’t fighting them, they were only hiding. The Ghosts will never know, he thought, and smiled to himself. They’ll come and then they’ll leave none the wiser.
Magicless could taste the sweet flavor of success on his tongue. The Dark Wizard had been using Ghosts to steal nursing mothers for much longer than he’d been alive, and the stories of the abductions went back generations. Dorine Lillith was full of children raised by their fathers because their mothers had been taken shortly after they were born. If this works, never again will a ch
No one understood exactly how the Ghosts found their marks, only that they somehow could detect the fresh, open channel of magic between a new mother and her babe. No one had any idea to what purpose the Ragers—or the Dark Wizard himself, for that matter—put their captives, only that once they were taken they never returned. Leali had convinced everyone that the Ghosts would be unable to find the mothers in the cave no matter what technique they used to track them. Deep in the wood, hidden in a narrow crack in the earth, the cavern snaked over a mile into solid granite. After Magicless had stolen out to see the cave for himself he’d become convinced she was right.
Aclay was a frenzy of activity when Magicless and his parents reached town. Magicless was breathing hard and sweating freely. He could see Tredon and Leali not far from them, shouting orders as worried partners pushed the town’s new mothers onto horseback, the horses themselves prancing and snorting with nervousness at all the activity. Parents ran their children home, locking them indoors. Others loaded fresh food on horseback to bring up to the cave. Still more simply lined up along the one dirt road running through town, waiting.
For a small farming village deep within the Oakwood, Magicless was impressed at how quickly and efficiently everything seemed to be moving. He wasn’t naïve enough to mistake the tightly controlled panic for calm, he saw fear in the eyes of everyone he passed. He watched as Tredon and Leali led the convoy out of Aclay up toward the cave, followed by a host of the town’s strongest mages. Soon he could no longer see Leali’s bright blond head or Tredon’s tall form sitting high atop his horse. Silence fell on the town. Magicless wiped his brow and glanced around the street. Everyone seemed to be trying to act as if it were a normal day in Aclay, just as Leali had urged them all to do if—when—this day came. Magicless and his parents walked into the general store, lingering near the front windows as they pretended to browse the wares. Many others stood with them, some picking random items up and setting them down again with barely a glance.
Magicless turned from the window and his breath momentarily lodged in his throat as he caught sight of a familiar face framed by light-brown hair. Alekka. Magicless tried to smile encouragingly at her, but she only stared back, eyes wide and her face pale. While Leali had argued in favor of resistance Alekka had argued that the power of the Ghosts and of the Ragers had not waned, and that attempting to resist in this way would bring disaster on all of them. She’d fought Leali quietly for the last three years, but Leali’s passion had convinced the townsfolk—and Alekka, with her customary gentleness and dislike of conflict, had receded into the sidelines.
Alekka had always been kind to Magicless. She was friendly and gentle, and the only one besides his parents to ever call him by his given name instead of the nickname he’d been branded with as a small boy by his peers—a constant reminder that he lacked what everyone else in his world held most dear. Alekka was the only person who never teased him about his lack, and he respected her for that. He set down the small knickknack he was handling absently and approached her.
“Micah,” Alekka said in greeting, still looking fearful and distracted, her eyes darting up to his face briefly and then back to the windows at the front of the shop.
“They won’t know,” Magicless said gently, trying to offer some level of comfort. Alekka brought her eyes back to him but said nothing. The silence stretched out between them. He considered reaching out to touch her shoulder, but thought better of it. “…Or lost your nerve,” he muttered to himself ruefully as he turned from her and moved closer to the window. He tried to focus on watching for the Ghosts, all the while feeling Alekka’s anxious gaze on the back of his head as acutely as the flames of his forge. The floor of the shop creaked as people shifted about. No one spoke.
They didn’t have to wait long.
That was fast, Magicless thought, glancing back at Alekka, who had approached the windows alongside almost everyone else in the shop. Leali and the others won’t have had time to reach the cave. He shifted, uncomfortable at the sudden reappearance of dampness under his arms and on his forehead. He glanced at his parents. His mother’s eyebrows were scrunched at the top of her nose and his father’s hands were clenched into fists. Magicless breathed deep and even, trying to still his pounding heart. Outside, villagers lined the road and windows were crowded with faces, all illusion of a normal day vanishing as the first stark-white Ghost appeared at the edge of town.
The Ghosts moved slowly along the main road running through the center of town, their white-leather-covered faces pushed forward as if scenting the air. Magicless could see nothing of their features—their heads were fully covered. As they approached, Magicless could see a bulge where their noses must be, and a single zipper running from their left foot up to the top of their heads, crossing their faces where he thought their left eyes should be. Assuming they had eyes. Their shape looked human underneath their coverings, but no one knew if they were—no one had ever seen even the slightest glimpse of the flesh of a Ghost. Some believed that the head-to-toe covering was to block all sensory input save whatever sense they used to track the link between a mother and her newborn babe, and truly, Ghosts were relentless in their search. When they came to town, no mother with milk still in her breast was safe.
There were three in total, all pulling to the ends of their leashes as they snuffled at the air around them like pigs rooting for mushrooms. Their Ragers moved silently behind, holding to the leashes but not interfering with their movements. The Ragers’ cloven feet left deep tracks in the mud of the road and they towered over their charges. They were easily eight feet tall—taller than any man Magicless had ever seen. Sharp canines protruded from their thick lips and goat-like horns curved from their foreheads.
The Ragers protected and tended to the Ghosts, but the Ghosts led the way. While Ragers were certainly monstrous to behold, Magicless had always been far more disturbed by the blank white forms of the Ghosts. Ever since he was a small boy and had only heard of Ghosts and Ragers from the stories his mother would tell, their unknowable nature had left him cold to the core.
Magicless left the store and moved onto the porch. He felt more than saw Alekka come out to stand next to him, close enough for their shoulders to brush.
The Ghosts stopped where the line of nursing mothers had been only thirty minutes before, and Magicless heard Alekka take a slow, controlled breath and hold it. Her hands clenched the rail in front of her, fingers turning white from the force of her grip. He considered placing his hand over hers, but thought better of it again. Now is not the time. She doesn’t need the distraction.
The Ghosts fanned out and continued wandering through town. They moved out of sight, but the villagers all remained on the main street, waiting, their numbers swelling as word of the Ghosts reached the outlying homesteads. The air felt charged, as if an invisible lightning storm swirled above Aclay. Water ran down the sides of oaken buildings and deep puddles littered the muddy road. Water dripped from hats, down grim faces, plastering hair against foreheads. No one spoke, but all stood ready for whatever was to come.
It occurred to Magicless that they’d made no plan for what would happen if the Ghosts were somehow able to detect what they had done and track the path of the fugitives. There were only three Ragers in town that he could see, but were there more lurking on the outskirts? He reached down on impulse to touch the blades strapped to his thighs, and then forced his hands back to the railing in front of him. Each moment that passed was agony, but Magicless felt each as a blessing. The longer the Ghosts searched here in Aclay, the closer Leali, Tredon, and the others got to the cave and to safety.
The Ghosts returned to the spot where the riding party had stood now only an hour before. They milled around restlessly, bumping int
“I wonder how often they come into a town this size and find no one to claim,” Magicless whispered to Alekka. Aclay almost always had at least one woman in town with a newborn babe at her breast. Alekka made no answer, knuckles still white on the railing.
Suddenly, the Ghosts stopped moving and stood completely still. Magicless swore he heard a collective intake of breath from the townspeople around him. This was the moment. If Leali’s plan had worked, they’d leave now.
They stood like that for what felt like an eternity, and then two of the Ghosts turned back the way they’d come and began shuffling towards the end of the road that led north out of town. Magicless heard Alekka sigh in relief, but his eyes were on the third Ghost, its head facing up the road that led to the cave. It took a few waddling steps and paused. A few more steps, and it paused again. It turned in the direction of its two companions, and the two of them stopped, turned, and rejoined the third. The Ghosts joined leather-covered hands and stared up the road. Magicless felt fear blossom in his chest, and he shifted his sword closer to reach. He felt Alekka put her hand over his on the rail in front of them.
One of the Ragers threw back its head and let out a roar.
Magicless barely had time to blink before Ragers came spilling into town from every direction. The inn across the road leapt into flames. Two people fell to the ground, charred and screaming. The town’s paralysis broke—he heard a whoomf from behind him as his mother called forth her magic, her hands and forearms bursting into flame. She yelled in outrage as she launched down the stairs, his father at her heels.
He heard someone shout and turned in time to dodge a lightning bolt that sizzled outwards from one of the Ragers in the road. The three Ghosts began scampering up the road toward the cave, and Magicless knew that the Ragers would soon follow. He shook his head firmly, finally feeling his limbs unlock as he sprung into action. He leapt over the deck railing, intent on taking them out before they got to the cave. He felt Alekka moving beside him, lithe and light, and was grateful for her presence. He wondered briefly why she’d choose to follow him, but pushed it from his mind as he yanked his sword from its scabbard and ran, keeping low to the ground, breathing hard and praying the Ragers had no armor under the thick shaggy hair that covered their bodies.
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