Tajor strode over to the bodies of the two attackers. He picked up one of the long metal and wood sticks. Jerryck felt no magic on these devices. They were purely mechanical. Using a metal protrusion on the side, Tajor pulled back some sort of bolt on the top. A metal cylinder popped out. He looked down inside the device, then pushed the bolt back into place. He raised it straight, the wood end held tight to his right shoulder, exactly the way the attackers had carried it. He tilted his head and looked down the length, pointing in the direction of the magic-user with the correct signature. He released his breath without taking another. With a finger, he squeezed the small metal piece on the underside. The same loud pop resulted. The device flashed and jerked. Jerryck felt a brief flash of natural magic from the element of fire. The searching stopped. The magic withdrew around the caster and morphed into something different. Jerryck couldn’t quite make heads or tails of it. Trying to focus on it, too many other distractions demanded his attention. The pain in his shoulder alone was nearly enough to overwhelm him. And what had happened to Sakila? Was she hurt too? Or was she safe? Two more men dressed like the enemy ran up. One of them shouted in that harsh, guttural language, pointing another, smaller device at Tajor. The other was the blond interpreter, carrying another of the long weapons, also pointing it at Tajor. “Put it down!” the blonde yelled. “And keep your hands where we can see them!” Tajor slowly complied. Jerryck looked over to the rock face, clearly visible now with the fog gone. That strange magic hadn’t stopped, and now someone was dead from it. What exactly was going on over there? The blonde put down his long device and knelt by Jerryck, examining the shoulder wound, his bruised face pressed with concern. He exchanged a few guttural words with his comrade, who still pointed his smaller device at Tajor. Then the other man raised a black box to his face and talked to it. The box responded. The voice that came through it was scratchy. They must have understood it anyway. The blonde whipped his head to look behind himself at Tajor. “You shot Ziegfried in the chest!” “The chest?” Tajor put on his malicious expression. “That’s too bad. I missed. I was aiming for his head.” The other man and the box kept exchanging words. It had to be a device for communication. There was no magic on it. How did they make something like that without magic? Jerryck had never even thought of making something like that with magic. Though he probably could. His brain whirled, blocking out his attention on the strange magic still going on at the rock face. If he modified some sort of traveling spell to translocate sound, rather than an entire object, that might work. Of course, he would also want to perfect a translation spell. That way the box would speak intelligibly no matter what language was used by the person on the other end of the communication. Nevermind that no one had ever perfected a translation spell. Surely it could be done. Look at what these people had done without the help of magic. And yet they had a magician. Jerryck turned his focus back to the strange magic on the rock face, reaching out with the ragged remains of energy left in his aura. The magic was worked by one man lying on the rocks, wounded, bleeding, unable to hardly breathe. The man had pierced another’s aura with hooks like a quepota, but through physical contact. He sucked the last bit of life out of his victim. That was the second man this strange magic had killed. Then the man let go, grabbed a third victim, and latched the hooks on again. Was he an animal that he consumed other humans like one? If this was the kind of man these people followed, was it any wonder they were attacking villages and killing innocent people? This was unacceptable. This had to stop. Without thinking, Jerryck started to roll to his side to get up. The pain that shot through his shoulder, despite the numbing spell, had him hissing and gasping. The interpreter put a hand on Jerryck’s chest, holding him down. “Lie still.” “That man has to be stopped.” Jerryck’s voice sounded wheezy. “You are safe,” the interpreter said. “I will let none of our men hurt you more.” “No, not me.” Jerryck tried to point to the deadly magic on the rocks. “That man!” The interpreter glanced over that way. He shook his head in confusion. He wouldn’t be able to see magic. Jerryck snorted, frustrated, disgusted with himself. He was going to have to be the one to do something about it. And at the moment, magic was his only option no matter how dangerously low he was. He shaped some of his meager supply of energy. Then he whispered the words that detached it. The spell hit the other magician, forcing his muscles to go slack. The spell was so weak, it lasted only a moment. It was just enough. The physical contact was lost. The hooks contracted. And turned on Jerryck. While part of Jerryck’s mind screamed at him not to do it, he reflexively jerked his aura back to himself. The hooks dragged at the other man. The connection combined both their energies, washing over Tajor as it translocated the rogue magician down into the village to lie right at Jerryck’s side. “Ziegfried!” The blonde fell back, scuttling away a few paces in shock and alarm. The other man shouted, at him, at Magician Ziegfried, at the box. The box shouted back. Tajor groaned, gritting his teeth, kneeling on all fours in dirt. Ziegfried turned his head, looking at Jerryck out of eyes glazed over with pain. Reaching out a hand, he grabbed hold of Jerryck’s arm. The hooks dug in. This time, Jerryck pushed like he should have done the first time. The surge drove Ziegfried away. His body rolled over to his side. His aura stretched beyond that, washing over Tajor all over again. Jerryck’s energy was too depleted. It stretched taut, too thin. The hold on his body snapped. The recoil shot him away. He latched onto Ziegfried now out of desperation to stay and regain stability. Ziegfried’s connection to his body snapped as well. The two of them went tumbling in just their projected aural forms. They disengaged. For a moment they just stared at each other. Jerryck had only seen one other person in this form. And he had been a child, terrified and unable to understand what was happening. He very likely had worn the same expression that Ziegfried now did. Ziegfried’s eyes refocused looking past Jerryck and out across the village. The terror on his face intensified and he drew back. Jerryck looked around. Everything was awash with color, as it always was when he was out of his body like this. Everything’s aura glowed as bright and real as if he could touch it. Fire flowed everywhere. Humans writhed in death throws by what was left of their bodies. Black smoke roiled across the ground, reeking of sulfur. Not smoke. The void. Jerryck gasped, and stumbled desperately toward his body. He had never stood right over the void. Always, he had done all he could to avoid it, keep it at bay, far off near the horizon. Now, he couldn’t see his own feet, lost in the stinking smoke rising up out of it. Now it pulled at him, keeping him from his body, from his physical form. Then he noticed the shafts of light piercing down from above. People moved up and down those shafts, collecting some of the dead, singing to them, cradling them, soothing them. Others among the dead screamed in agony and torment as the black smoke from below engulfed them, dragging them down. Many of them left behind wisps of energy. The wisps took on the shape of the original person, without the ability to attain wholeness or stability. Ziegfried whispered, magic flaring, interpreting his one word into the language Jerryck understood. “Ghosts.” A translation spell? Jerryck looked at him again. He hadn’t ever even thought of talking while in this form. What more did this magician do that Jerryck had never thought of? Or did he even want to know? If it included more ways to kill people, he probably didn’t. A malicious light pierced through Ziegfried, discoloring his entire being. He smiled with hunger, staring at the energy spilling everywhere from the carnage of the battle. The translation magic flared again as he said, “So much to draw from!” He reached for the nearest ‘ghost’. Jerryck stopped trying to get to his boday and whipped out a tendril of his aura, an arm of himself in this form. He grabbed onto the ‘ghost’ himself and altered the energy, shifting it into a wall. Ziegfried smacked up against it. He reached for the next one. Jerryck did the same thing. Ziegfried scowled at him, color as black as ink curling through him like the smoke below. They circled around each other. Ziegfried crept tendrils out, almost as if testing. Jerryck blocked every one of them with walls. “You’re fast,” Ziegfried said. Jerryck wasn’t fast. He was experienced. He wasn’t even thinking about the actions. In this form, he didn’t have to shape the energy, or speak words to sever the magic from himself. He just reacted as if he was going to go through all those processes, and it happened. Good thing, too. He was so weak right now, if he had to go through the entire process, it would be at the pace of a slug. Ziegfried looked over at Tajor. The mass of colors in his aura swirled so fast and thick they could hardly see the man where he had curled up in a fetal position. It pressed in on him, crushing, squeezing from every side, every angle, pushing him toward the void below. The hungry look intensified on Ziegfried’s face. He glanced at Jerryck. They both were thinning, their own colors fading with every action they took. Many live men milled about now. A few of them looked up at the sky, where a volash circled high above. They brought makeshift litters to pick up their own wounded and Jerryck and Tajor. Then energy from the sun flashed briefly on a silver thread stretching between Jerryck and his body. He had never seen that before. Ziegfried’s hooks shot past, straight at Tajor. Jerryck lunged. He couldn’t redirect Tajor’s energy into a wall. So he grabbed Ziegfried’s reaching arms, and yanked them back. The hooks dug in. He couldn’t tell if it was on purpose, or accidental. It didn’t matter. He pushed again. In this form, that moved his entire being. He ended up tackling Ziegfried, and they both fell. Instead of hitting the ground, they went down beneath the roiling, stinking smoke. And fell, and fell, and fell. Tumbling. Twisting. Turning. The agonized cries from below blocked out all other sounds. The black smoke pressed in on all sides, crushing his entire being, pushing him further down. Ziegfried clung, still latched on with hooks. Jerryck didn’t have enough energy left to push with his entire being, so this time he pushed with only an arm. Ziegfried stretched too thin, just as when they had snapped out of their bodies. When his connection to Jerryck broke, the recoil tumbled him further away. The smoke swallowed him up out of sight. Alone, Jerryck still tumbled. Despite the crushing press pushing at him, he instinctively reached out, grasping for anything that might help. It couldn’t end this way. There had to be some way back. He couldn’t leave his family like this. Who would care for Leanne? And what about the baby? He didn’t even know if he was having a son or a daughter. He had to get back. It wasn’t fair to make Kendra lose another family member in less than a year. And who would help take care of her children? And now Sakila was another sister to worry about and care for. His hand brushed against a thread so thin, it might have been a spider’s web. He closed his fingers around it, even as his mind told him it was just going to break. Except that it didn’t. Echoes of his fear and desperation rippled up through it. He needed help. Tajor was not going to be able to help. With all the magic that had washed over him, he likely couldn’t even help himself at this point. Maybe Sakila? If she was still alive. And unhurt. The vibrations going up the thread changed, tuning to his intentions. Nothing else changed. He still fell and tumbled. The smoke still crushed him. And his plea for help was lost in his ears among all the cries coming up from below. Light raced down the thread, the same energy that earlier had flowed to him from her. The smoke withered back, away from it. It pulled at him, drawing him up. It was just enough to counter the pull from below, checking his fall. The chaotic tumble ceased. His motion stabilized. Holding on with one hand, he reached up with his other. Then he crossed his hands, reaching up to grab hold again. And again. With each new handhold, the crushing pressure released incrementally, the easier he gained the next handhold. The smoke thinned enough he could see more light through it from above. Then he was above it. Tendrils of the stink clung to him, threatening to drag him back down. So he did the only thing he knew that had ever held the void at bay before. He willed himself to return to his body. Sakila drawing him along had more affect now. He flew so fast that everything was a blur. Just one heartbeat later, he slammed into his body.