Friday, July 30, 2010

Chapter 27 - TREACHERY

After three more months of no news, I asked to use the phone. Mr. Preston had no reason to object, though I don’t think he really wanted me to. It took me two hours before I got through to the hotel where we had stayed. They couldn’t tell me where my parents had gone since they didn’t book my parent’s departure flight.

I needed someone to look for them who might know how to do that and I knew no one who could do it. I didn’t know who else to call. The memory of the man who was so helpful to me at the sword shop came to mind. What could I lose? At least he would know the people around him.

After another hour, I got through to the shop. “Hello, I’m hoping you will remember me. I came into your shop about eight months ago. I was the kid on crutches with both of my feet in casts up to the knees. My name is Liam McTavish.”

“I remember you. You bought my dragon blades and a little sticker. What can I do for you today? Surely you aren’t having any trouble with the blade.”

“No sir, the blade is great. I’m very happy with it, but I need some help. I have been waiting all this time for news from my parents and there has been nothing. I would like to hire someone to look for them.”

“I’m very sorry to hear about your parents, but why are you calling me. I just run a weapons shop.”

“I know. It’s just that I have no way to do this myself and you’re the only other person I could think of to call. All I’m asking is if you could find someone who would be interested in the job. You’ve got to know the people around you; you live there.”

He was quiet for a long time, but then he said, “I’ll ask around. How can I get in touch with you?”

“I don’t stay near the phone and I’ll be gone again tomorrow. I’ll call you back in a month.”

“A month. You’re willing to wait another month?”

“Not really, but I can’t wait around here. I have other obligations.”

“Where are you?”

I couldn’t imagine why he would want to know that, but I answered anyway. “Planet 663-457.”

“I’ve heard a little about that place. Is that where you got all beat up?”

“No, that happened after I left here. It’s all healed up now though.”

“Well that’s good. Listen, I have a customer walking in now. I’ll be here for your call in a month.”

“Thanks, I appreciate your help. Bye.”

Mr. Preston gave me an appraising look after I hung up. “Why didn’t you just contact your father’s base office? They could have told you where your parents had been assigned.”

“My parents haven’t been assigned anywhere. It’s been almost eight months since the last time I saw them. There is no flight that takes that long without some sort of stopover somewhere or some means of communication from the ship. My parents would have left a whole file of messages for me if they were able to. Something is wrong.”

“I still think you’re jumping to conclusions. Why don’t you wait here for a little longer? I’ll call the base office and ask after your parents.”

I shrugged and sat down on the couch.

He got on the phone in his turn and started to run the gauntlet of making interplanetary phone calls. Forty-five minutes later, someone came crashing through the front door and a similar sound told me that someone else was crashing in the back door too. In fact, it sounded like someone was smashing in through every opening in the house that was large enough for a body to fit through, and they weren’t interested in turning doorknobs or opening windows.

I leapt to my feet at the first sound, noticing only peripherally that Mr. Preston didn’t seem to be all that surprised, then again, maybe he was just shocked; he was just standing there crowded against the wall holding the receiver. When one of the men shot me, I knew that I had to be in deep doo-doo. I drew my sword and heard someone laugh. Eight guns against one sword was laughable, but I had a secret - or at least I hoped that I had a secret.

The fight was a whirlwind that bore little resemblance to my lessons with Tsan, who had always been unforgiving during our exchanges. Leaving it up to my magical reflexes to protect me, he would use all of the strength in his arm that was well over twice the size of my leg.

My sword dealt out some awesome damage thanks to that training. I cleaved more than one gun into pieces and took down several of the bodies behind them. When it was quiet again, Mr. Preston and I were the only ones left standing. Some of the men sprawled on the floor were moaning; others weren’t moving at all. I had time now to notice and recognize the uniform of the imperial guard. Why had imperial troops raided this house? Why had they shot at me?

I had a number of bullets in me, but right now, I barely felt them. Mr. Preston had not been touched. He hadn’t moved a muscle. Now that the house was silent again, I could clearly hear the beeping tone coming from the receiver in his hand. If he had made any call at all, it hadn’t been the arduous call across space to the home office, and the receiver had been off the hook long enough to complain about it.

“Call for a doctor,” I said and had to shake his shoulders to make him listen and then do it. “I’m going into the village for the healer. She can get here faster.”

He nodded. I’m not sure if he understood what had happened, but it still felt strange to me that he had been untouched during the whole ordeal. I took off for the healer. I’d ask my questions later.

Brom and Lagge met me on the edge of town. “Liam, are you all right?” said Brom.

“No, but I’m alive. I have to get the healer.”

“Liam, we have to get you away from here.”

“What?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “I have to get the healer.”

He saw that I was determined. “Okay, we’ll send the healer out there, but then we have to leave.”

We ran on to the healer’s house. “What’s going on? Why are you out here?” I asked.

“Your people have been asking all around about you for most of the last month. All our families are under guard. Lagge and I only just managed to sneak out. I haven’t seen Carm yet,” said Brom.

I got the healer sent out to the house, but Brom wouldn’t let me go with her or wait for her to return. We hurried on around the village and then out to Carm’s house. As we moved, I could pick out a few guards that were placed around the village now that I was looking for them. I hadn’t noticed a thing when we arrived. I was thankful for the moonless night.

Carm’s father was a farmer, so his house was a little ways outside of town though still within sight. As we approached, I could see more guards. We circled around and saw that the place was surrounded.

I felt certain that we could eliminate these guards without much trouble, but I didn’t want Carm’s parents to get in trouble with the empire. Then I watched one of the men yawn.

I motioned for Brom and Lagge to remain where they were and slipped forward like Oskan had taught us. When I was within ten feet, I made the man fall asleep. Fortunately, he was already sitting on the back steps, so there was no sound of a falling body to give us away. I slipped in the back door and caught the attention of Carm’s mother. She nodded and directed Carm’s attention toward me.

As soon as we rejoined Brom and Lagge, I made the guard wake up again. Aside from feeling a little embarrassed at having dozed off for a moment, he didn’t notice any difference and I’m sure he wasn’t about to admit falling asleep on duty, not easily anyway.

We were half way back to the caves by the time the adrenaline started to wear off and we slowed down enough to exchange our separate stories. The guards had been in place, waiting for us to show up, for almost the entire month, and as soon as each of my friends showed up at their homes, the whole family was shut in. They weren’t citizens of the empire yet, so there was little that the troops could do to them other than detain and perhaps question them. I was a different matter and it was obvious that someone had wanted to take me by force, though I couldn’t imagine why. Nor could I understand why they were willing to shoot at me.

As we talked, I began to feel some of my pains from the battle, so I called a halt to take a look. We discovered that I had five bullet holes in me, one in my back, one low in my left shoulder, one in my right thigh, one in my hip and the one that was hurting the worst was the one about an inch to the right of my navel. None of them was bleeding much, which meant that my magic was doing its thing, but now that I was counting up the damage, I was beginning to feel it rather acutely.

“They look like little arrow wounds,” said Lagge.

“They’re little metal projectiles and they have to come out,” I told him, feeling dizzy.

“Of course they have to come out,” said Lagge and we headed out again albeit somewhat slower.

It was almost dawn when we reached the cave. I tripped and fell down the slope into the little valley just at the foot of our cliff and I found that I couldn’t get up again, so Brom picked me up and carried me on into the cave.

“Master Durmas, we have a problem,” he called as soon as we were inside of the mountain, and within a few seconds Durmas was there to see.

By the time they were done undressing me, I was feeling very shaky; as a matter of fact, I was shaking like a leaf. Durmas had noted all of the wounds as I was being undressed, so when they lay me down in my bed, they covered me warmly immediately.

Durmas lay a warm dry hand on my forehead. “Do you trust me, Liam?” he asked. “It’s important that you trust me completely or I won’t be able to help you much.”

I didn’t know what he was going to do, but I did trust him so I nodded. The bulk of my pain was thankfully still on the other side of my magic, but it was really quite nice to have it all washed away by a thick and peaceful darkness.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Chapter 26 - CHECKING FOR MESSAGES

Eventually, I learned where it was they had taken me for my magic taming. In order to isolate me as completely as I needed to be, and more completely than I ever thought possible, they had taken me to the core of one of the moons. That explained why the walls were so cold and why I burned so much magic just to survive. It explained a lot of little anomalies I only remembered later, like why my attempts at making food only produced the approximate in stone, and why there had been no water within reach. I was impressed with their skill and strength. I only hoped I could do as much someday.

My lessons progressed day after day, but none of them was like the first one. Instead of anything that might resemble formal training, our lessons were more like war games. More often than not, all three of my teachers were involved every day and all at once.

Instead of getting up in the morning and saying to myself, ‘Okay, yesterday I had sword lessons with Tsan so today will be lessons with Larak,’ they would take us to a suitable location, outline the day’s ‘mission’ to us and then help us accomplish it. Our missions were usually something like ‘track one of the other teachers then try and subdue them’ (ha).

There were different scenarios where different weapons were used and there were many breaks where we were taught different techniques that would help us with the mission of the day. There was no end to the imagination when it came to our lessons, so our days were never dull.

Thanks to my leather armor and my magic, I could take the punishment and was learning many different tactics and skills with my magic. My friends had the advantage of size over me, which meant that their armor was somewhat thicker and they themselves were tougher.

One day, almost as if I had some sort of internal clock, I heard my father’s words echo in my head. ‘My replacement should be there by the end of the month. I’ll send you a message as soon as I know someone’s there.’ Though I hadn’t counted the days, I had to have been back here at least a month now. That meant that my father’s message should have been waiting for me for at least two weeks.

The four of us headed out for our first day of freedom like a pack of wild horses let out of the barn for the first time in the spring. We ran, laughed, pushed, fell, rolled, wrestled and then did it all over again. We got most of it out of our systems by the time the village came into view, but we were still giddy.

We were all dressed more or less the same with our swords at our hips, so we felt the need to enter the village with the dignity such attire warranted. We entered the town, walking abreast of each other; I felt like we were in one of those old western movies as we strode into town ready for a gunfight.

As we made our way through the village, my friends pealed off to go visit their families. I went on ahead to the house that had been my home for three years. The place looked forlorn, but I wasn’t convinced until I walked through the door. Dad’s replacement wasn’t here yet.

I walked through the place and numbly began to pick up the little things that had been left in disarray during our hasty departure. At first, it was just closing a few drawers and cabinets, and then I found myself sweeping the floor and vacuuming the carpets. I even allowed myself to wash the dishes, and then went around with a dust rag; not that I was particularly domestic, but I was waiting for something . . . for someone to come . . . for the phone to ring.

Eventually, I sat at the kitchen table and made myself a big fat sandwich, rivaling one my mother would have made, and chased it down with a tall glass of milk. When I was finished, I had to smile. There had been no mess to clean up aside from a few crumbs.

I tried to find something of interest on the television, but though a couple programs I used to like were on, they didn’t hold my attention for very long. It was dark outside now, so I went to my room and lay on the bed after shucking my sword belt and leathers. The house felt so empty. I wondered where my parents were now.

The next morning, we headed back. Our trip back was only a little more subdued than our trip out.

We then made that trip every month. I rattled around in that house two more times before I found a resident on my fourth visit. He was a youngish man and he was alone. He also seemed very surprised to see me.

“Hello, I didn’t know there was anyone else outside of the space port. Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Liam McTavish. I’m here to see if there’re any messages from my father.”

“McTavish. I’ve read some of your father’s papers. They’re very insightful. I’m told they left some time ago. Why are you still here?”

I ignored his question; my business was my own. “Are there any messages for me?” I asked again.

“No. I didn’t know I was to expect any messages. Let me check and see if there is anything on tape.” He allowed me to follow him into the house.

While he checked the message machine, I looked around. The place looked different now; it felt different too, though little had been changed. This was his house now, so aside from a peek into the kitchen, I didn’t intrude into his house very far.

“No, there is nothing for you,” he said. “I’m sorry. Now tell me, why are you still here?”

“Everything should have been explained in my father’s final report. Do you mind if I spend the night? I’ll be out of your hair in the morning. I’ll make other arrangements next time I come.”

“Of course you can stay. I was just about to fix myself some supper; would you like to join me?”

“Oh, all right, if you have enough, I don’t want to impose.”

He continued his questioning during a supper of beefsteaks and mashed potatoes followed by beer. “That’s a fine sword you’re carrying; where did you get it.”

I was having a bit of a problem with the beer. Mother had never had much in the house. Father liked to have one or perhaps two in the evenings once in a while. It had never been offered to me and I had never bothered to try it.

“My sword? Oh, I bought it at a sword shop at the mining colony where we first landed after leaving here.” I would have changed the contents of my glass into something more palatable, but I couldn’t think of anything that would look the same and I didn’t want to insult this man’s hospitality. “You never did tell me your name.”

“Oh, how careless of me. I’m so sorry. My name is Jonathan Preston. Why in heaven’s name do you find it necessary to carry a sword around here?”

“I have been taking lessons for the last few months. Wearing it has become a habit. I feel . . . odd without it anymore.”

“Sword lessons? Why on earth would you want to do that?”

“There’s nothing wrong with sword lessons. My father took some, he told me.”

“Well, yes. I suppose some people do that, but no one goes off on some little known planet to do it for months at a time, disregarding all other education. You look to be still in high school at best. How old are you?”

“I’m fifteen years old, sir, and I’m here with my father’s full knowledge and consent. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to go to bed now. It’s been a long day.” I wasn’t really tired, but I was getting very tired of this interrogation.

He seemed a little affronted, but he didn’t say anything. He just showed me to the room that used to be my parent’s room and wished me a good night.

I lay there and listened to Mr. Preston move around in the other room. Eventually, he settled down, but he didn’t go to bed until very late. I couldn’t sleep in my parent’s bed; it was just too creepy for me. I left before the sun came up.

I still came back every month to check for messages from my father, but I slept at Lagge’s house at night.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Chapter 25 - TESTING MY SUCCESS

Tsan took me to a grassy clearing where my friends were waiting. Brom handed me my sword belt. Feeling lethargic and dull, I did my best, and I think Tsan was taking it easy on me after having watched a good deal of what I had just gone through.

He divided himself into four and paired off with each of us, teaching us each the beginning moves and stands that would become the foundation of our skill with a sword.

My friends could only learn to be skilled with a blade. I needed to learn how to use my magic along with my sword, making my sword do such things as flame or freeze, and even shoot one or the other a short distance. I was pleased to learn that my magic was functioning just fine, which was probably the reason for the lesson rather than taking me back to my room and me sleeping for the next forever.

Finally, it was lunchtime and Tsan took us back to our chamber. I sank down at the table along with my friends who did so with an assortment of groans and complaints about the morning’s lessons. Then they were looking at me expectantly.

I groaned. “Yes. All right. Lunch.” I made a large platter and loaded it with meats, cheeses and fruits, then I made them all cups of water as well as a large pitcher filled with it. I started to lay my head down on the table, but Lagge pulled me up again. “Eat first,” he said. That was his part in our fledgling team.

I ate, and if I slacked, Lagge filled the gap by feeding me my next bite. He wouldn’t let me stop until the platter was empty and the last drop of water had been tipped down someone’s throat. I did lay my head down on the table after that and no one was going to stop me from falling asleep, even if only for a few minutes.

I slept through them pulling my leathers off and putting the wool nightshirt on me. I even slept through them putting me to bed. I startled awake when I heard the clash of swords coming from the other room. I listened for a few minutes and knew that their lesson had continued without me. I barely had the energy to roll over on my way back to sleep.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Chapter 24 - TAMING MY BASILISK

Back at our quarters, before Oskan left us to our own devices, I asked, “Oskan, I would like to speak with Master Durmas, please, alone.”

He looked like he might be inclined to object, but then he just nodded. Then we were in another chamber. This one was much like the one we had just left except that it looked much more lived in. “Wait here,” said Oskan, and he left.

A few minutes later, Durmas appeared. “Yes, Liam, what did you learn today?”

Oskan and the others reappeared as I answered. “I have learned that I must be alone. I must force my magic to submit to my control and no one must be allowed to come near me until it’s over. I’m thinking we’ll all know when that time comes.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” said Durmas.

I retold the part about my recovery, about how my magic had fed from another when it could no longer feed off me without killing me. My idea was to go beyond that point. I felt certain that I wouldn’t die; my magic wouldn’t allow that. I also felt certain that I would know the instant it bowed its great alligator head in submission, and I needed the teachers to make sure that no living thing came close to me; it wasn’t something I thought I could do on my own - not well enough.

Durmas was reluctant, but he agreed. They took me to another rock chamber. This one was about twice the size of my bedchamber, but there were no furnishings at all. The walls were different too; they were made of a glittery black substance that at first I thought was wet. Instead, I found that it was quite dry though very cold.

“Are you sure about this?” asked Durmas. The others looked dubious too.

“Yes. Don’t let anyone come close to me, not even you, no matter what I might do or say. I expect I may end up begging.”

Larak looked appalled, Tsan glowered, but they all eventually nodded. “We’ll be looking in on you, often,” said Durmas. “This is no place for you to be left alone.”

It was very cold so I figured he meant that the place must be high in the mountains or perhaps beneath one of the ice capped poles. I had no idea how far off I was.

They left me then. What was I to do now? Waiting would only leave me hungry. I needed to spend magic, a lot of magic and I figured the faster the better. I walked around the chamber. If the freezing cold wall was any indication, I was already spending great gouts of magic just to keep me warm; it was a start.

Tsan was my first visitor and I was glad he came. I was glad for the company. I was bored. I had never been very good at waiting. His presence also gave me an idea. I moved to the other side of the chamber away from him. “Master Tsan, I still have two swords to make. I can do that here, can’t I?”

“Yes, I suppose you can, but are you sure you want to try that again?”

“Yes, just stay over there and tell me what to do.”

“Remember what I said; think of what you want and who you want it for, and then draw it out of the ground.”

He continued to coach me through it. It wasn’t nearly as easy without his help, but I did it. When I held the massive heavy blank in my hands, I was elated and stunned. I never got a very good look at the other sword I had created. I was also more than a little dizzy, so I propped myself against the wall at my back.

After he got me started on the refining part, I had to cry out. Last time, I had drawn on Tsan’s magic, and even Brom for energy; I didn’t have either source now. I found myself on my knees long before I was finished, but finish it I did.

My hands felt numb again. I suspect that the rest of me was rather numb too, but I was concentrating hard on staying awake.

I didn’t know how long I stayed like that, but eventually, I was able to string a few words together in my head and make them come out of my mouth. “I did it.”

“Yes you did,” said Tsan. “It looks every bit as good as the other one.”

“I didn’t see it.” I was still sitting on my heels with the big sword across my lap, wholly thankful for the solid stone at my back. As feeling slowly returned so did my hunger.

“I looked at it,” said Tsan. “I figured I might have to do some finishing, but all that was necessary was a little stoning on the edge.”

My hands didn’t feel numb any more, only heavy, so I ran my thumb down the edge; it reminded me of the backside of a butter knife. That move called my attention to the fact that the metal of the blade was black; I’d never seen a black metal before. Actually, it wasn’t totally black, but it was gray; not the shiny silver color I was accustomed to when thinking of steel.

I struggled to my feet, and as soon as I felt steady enough to do it, I tossed the blade to Tsan. “This one’s for Carm.” He caught it deftly though the throw ended up being rather clumsy. “Why is it black?” I asked as I once again retreated to the support of the wall. With its slick surface at my back, my slide to the floor wasn’t a fall.

He studied the blade closely and then hefted it experimentally, testing its balance. “Another good blade. It’s black because of the metal you have to use here in this rock. It has more carbon in it, but you’ve compensated for that just fine. You rest for a while.” He left.

His comment made no sense to me, but then, I wasn’t a blacksmith or a sword smith; I wasn’t even sure if there was a difference. It took me a while, but eventually I could stand on my own two feet; I swayed for a moment. I was starving, but I wasn’t about to make anything to eat. I walked around the chamber, making about three pointless rounds, and then I lay down on the cold stone floor.

I was ravenous when I woke up. I was surprised that I had fallen asleep, as hungry as I was, but I was determined not to make anything to eat or drink. I was alone so I didn’t feel any embarrassment in curling up around my aching belly for a few moments. It didn’t help any.

Oskan came, asked how I was doing and then left after I growled at him. Some time later Larak came and then left as well. All of the teachers showed up briefly in turn. They intended to keep a very close eye on me.

Eventually, my solitude began to wear on me again, so I buckled down to making Lagge’s sword. The next thing I became aware of was someone calling my name. The hilt of the sword was under my hand. I slid it across the floor toward the sound and then I pushed myself over onto my back.

Still unable to open my eyes, I raised one hand at the elbow and made a feeble attempt at a wave. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” I whispered. I heard the sword being picked up. I guess he left.

I think I started to become delirious after that second sword, but I was determined to weather the storm.

I opened my eyes to see Durmas kneeling over me. Fear washed over me. “No,” I said, and forced myself to roll away from him.

Oskan was there next and he was holding a thopper leg. “You need to eat. You’re starving,” he said. Helplessly I reached for the meat, but it, and he, melted at my touch. I think I cried.

Next, I became aware of a dripping sound. Water was dripping in a well with an echoing sound. I rolled over to locate the source of the sound and saw it on the other side of the chamber. I made a cup. It was rough and heavy but it would hold water. I looked up toward the dripping water - it was gone.

In desperation, I pulled on my magic and sought to bring water into my cup. The effort caused me to pass out again. The next time I woke, I found that my cup had been broken in my fall - it was dry.

I struggled to my hands and knees, and then, when I had caught my breath, I pushed myself to my feet using the wall for support. I had attained the middle of the floor on my own two feet when Tsan showed up. I smiled at him and slowly reached one of my hands out, but he must have seen the glint of insanity in my face and he stepped back.

Furious at his retreat, a sword of shiny black glass was suddenly in my hand and I was swinging it at him with all the force I could muster.

He vanished before I had even begun my swing and the sword hurtled into the wall and shattered, thrown there by the force of my swing and my inability to hold onto it. That same force spun me back onto the floor with bruising force.

With a gasp, I felt myself being drawn into a cocoon. Larak appeared and tried to speak to me, but I didn’t have the strength to respond. Soon after Durmas was there and he was almost too close.

“Not . . . yet,” I managed. The effort to speak was tremendous. I held up my hand. I had made an apple before. It was such a good apple, but the orb that appeared in my hand was made of stone and in an evil, angry frustration, I threw it against the wall where it shattered into a million tinkling pieces. Then I found myself reaching toward him and I heard my traitorous voice beg. “Please, please help me.”

Durmas looked grieved. “I can’t, Liam. I don’t dare. I’m sorry.” He left and I screamed a stream of curses after him that would have made my mother blanch. My father might even have slapped my mouth if he had heard the words pouring out of my soul. My anger spent, I slept again.

I woke to a cool rag on my forehead and opened my eyes to see my mother there. She was smiling at me. Helplessly, I watched my hand reach out to her and just as helplessly, I watched her reach to accept it, but just before our hands met, I realized there was no way she could be here now. She vanished. I sought comfort in her memory.

I’m not sure how long this sort of thing went on. A parade of people I knew came to me; all of them were willing to sacrifice themselves for me, but none of them could have been there.

When the parade was finished, I felt my heart tear open. Surely, I was bleeding all over the floor, yet I was still breathing. The air was cold, very cold and so dead. I was beginning to shiver.

Oskan was there. “Liam?”

Air was good; it smelled of sunshine on rain-wet grass. “Wait,” I whispered. My cocoon no longer huddled around me. It had become a small shell around my heart.

The others came and went, and each of them brought a wash of fresh air. Eventually, I found the strength to curl into a shivering ball. My muscles were cramping from the cold.

Durmas and Tsan appeared together next. They took one look at my haggard face and said almost in tandem, “It’s over then.”

I only nodded. I fervently hoped it was over. I don’t think I could go through that again. It’s easy to endure what you don’t know; it’s almost impossible to repeat the act knowing full well the horrors that went before.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Chapter 23 - THE HUNT

I don’t know where we went; Oskan brought us here the same way Tsan had taken us up into the mountains this morning. I think it would be so cool to be able to do that. We were in an area that was covered with a thin forest with little underbrush between the trees, which made way for plenty of grass. Among the trees, just on the edge of our view, was a large herd of bastons. They’re kind of a cross between a camel and some kind of ox. They had long droopy horns that eventually curve forward. Older adult bulls use them to rip up big gouts of turf. Apparently, the more turf they can rip up the more popular they are with the ladies whose horns are positively delicate by comparison.

This wasn’t what we were looking for. Oskan led us on around the edge of the herd. A couple hours later, he drew my attention to something on the ground. It took me a moment to digest what he was showing me. The grass was crushed and swept down; close to it was something that reminded me of a duck’s footprint, except it wasn’t webbed, and it was huge. I could have paced, heel to toe, three times in order to measure the middle and longest toe. I absolutely had to see the creature that left this enormous track.

“Stay close to the trees,” whispered Oskan. “If it sees us, it might decide to attack us, and if it does, we’ll have to climb, and climb very high, or leave.”

I let my eyes follow the trail as far as I could see. “How do you tame something that big?” I asked.

Both Brom and Lagge made an inarticulate protest at the idea. Oskan just said, “Wait until you see it, then you can ask that question again . . . if you still feel the need to.”

We followed that trail for another hour before we caught our first glimpse of it. All I saw was the end of a snake’s tail twice the size of my leg disappearing between the trees, but that small glimpse was chilling.

A few minutes later, we heard a commotion up ahead and we ran to see. Taking cover behind the big trunks of the trees around us, we watched this . . . thing . . . laying waste to a herd of wild thoppers, killing and maiming indiscriminately as it slithered through the small herd with amazing speed.

When the survivors had escaped beyond reach and interest, the basilisk turned back to consume those that remained. Dead or alive, with all the delicacy of an alligator, it ate. Its snake-like body had to have been three hundred feet long. It had four legs, but they were almost vestiges and had little to do with how it moved. I had thought the footprints were big, but attached to this monster they seemed quite small.

Oskan spoke softly in my ear. “Its fangs are highly poisonous, and if you don’t climb high enough when it comes after you, its breath burns the skin. One this size must eat like this at least once a week, so it must travel many miles every day. They mate once a year, early in the spring. They come together in groups that can number up to a hundred and they tangle together in a great and terrible orgy. That is the best time to hunt them. When they become a nuisance to our herds, we must kill them. During the mating, they have only one thing in mind. They can be killed almost safely then.”

I watched it chomp down another body. “You didn’t say how it could be tamed.”

“It can’t be done. They are nothing but a killing machine. They kill anything they come across, even each other, when it’s not mating season.”

“But I must, even if only in my head, I must tame a basilisk.”

He seemed to understand then. I’m sure Durmas had told him everything. He looked back at the monster and shook his head. “I suppose I might try and starve it first; to teach it that it must look to me for food. After that, I’d have to find some way to impose my will on it. Such a thing has never been tried. I’m not sure it can be done.”

Starve it. How can I starve my magic? My magic feeds on me, and if I do not eat, I die. But I didn’t die. I had spent four days on that ship, burning magic in great quantities with nothing more than an IV. But I did kill. When my magic couldn’t feed on me anymore it fed on someone else. I knew what it was I had to do. I had to try it. At least I wouldn’t be broken and bleeding this time. “I’m ready to go back now.”