Seconde

By Richard Fife

Betran took a deep breath and looked over at scrawny, straw-haired man next to him.  The man’s violet eyes were fixed down the dark hallway, and his jaw was set so stiffly that Betran was surprised he did not hear it groaning under the strain.

“Alphix,” he said softly.  “Calm down.”

Alphix glanced over at Betran and forced a smile.  “Sorry, I’m just nervous.  Morigan isn’t exactly a weakling amongst dark mages, you know.”

“We’ve killed as strong,” Betran reminded him.  “And he’s hardly on the scale of Tergar and his army.  You’ll be fine.”

“Says the greatest light mage of our generation.”  Alphix laughed and shook his head.  “You’re right, though, I guess.  Morigan isn’t even going to notice me when he sees you.”

“Don’t be so sour,” Betran said.  “Only the best are Hunters, and the dark mages know it.  Now calm down and let’s put another notch on the belt.”

Alphix sighed and looked back down the hallway.  Morigan’s stronghold had already been a challenge enough to get into, and the dark mage was surely aware of them and waiting.  Betran took another deep, even breath before starting down the passage to the dark mage’s throne room.

He was only faintly aware of Alphix following behind him; his attention was on the fight ahead.  A large set of doors seemed to materialize out of the darkness, and he twitched his fingers at them.  A ball of solid air whistled down the hall, and the doors slammed off their hinges only moments before the two men were there.

The room beyond was large and well-lit.  Heavy tapestries lined the walls, and tall, marble pillars lined a red carpeted pathway up to a dais.  The dark mage Morigan, seated in a heavily gold-worked chair on the dais, did not even appear surprised to see them.  Instead, he almost lazily raised a hand and sent waves of fire and lighting with the same gesture and disinterest he might use to dismiss a servant.

Betran met the magic with his own as he dodged to the left and behind one of the thick columns.  He felt Alphix do the same to the right.  The flames and lightning came much closer to the small man than they did to Betran, but they did not touch him, and that was what mattered.

Betran jumped out from the other side of his column and sent razors of air and ice up to the dais.  Lightning and fire arced out from where Alphix was hiding and met Betran’s magic over the throne with an explosion.  Morigan, though, was nowhere to be seen.

Betran kept his hands outstretched in front of him as he looked around the room.  Alphix stood in the space between two pillars, but his hands were at his sides and he was looking around in confusion.

He turned to Betran.  “Where’d he go?”

Before Betran could say anything, he felt a faint tingle back towards the front of the hall.  He glanced towards the large door, and Morigan was standing there, hands raised, and a bolt of lightning already forming straight towards an unaware Alphix.

Everything happened at once.  Alphix followed Betran’s gaze to Morigan and vainly tried to raise his hands in defense.  Morigan smiled and released his lightning bolt.  Betran twisted one hand towards Morigan, the other at Alphix, and released a blast of air from both.

The air collided with Alphix and slammed him into a nearby wall, and the lightning missed him by mere inches.  Morigan twisted and tried to release his own magic against Betran’s, but he had taken a moment too long in the casting, and a ball of fire harmlessly splashed against the vaulted ceiling as he was blown backwards into the doorframe.

Betran followed Morigan with one hand, and soon as he stopped moving, Betran sent a dagger of razor sharp air into Morigan’s middle.  The dark mage convulsed with the impact then was still.

Betran dropped his hands to his side and let out a long sigh.  It was another notch on the belt, and one that had nearly been fatal.  He walked over to Alphix, who was just now pulling himself up from where Betran’s spell had thrown him.

“You alright?” Betran asked.

Alphix rubbed his head and winced.  “I’ll be fine.  Where’s Morigan?”

“Dead.”  Betran gestured back towards the door.  “Which you almost were, I might point out.  Why’d you lower your hands?”

Alphix blushed and rubbed his head again.  “I’m sorry, Betran.  I just . . . I don’t know.”

Betran smiled slightly and patted the other man on the shoulder.  “Just don’t let it happen again, OK?  You should never lower your hands around a living enemy.”

“I’ll be more careful,” Alphix said.

“Good.”  Betran walked back over to the body and pulled the signet ring off its right hand.  “Now let’s get back and report to the Council.”

* * *

The Grand Chamber of the Council of Light Mages was more than befitting its opulent name.  Marble floors and walls and pillars were intricately carved with both decorations and spells.  A massive gallery filled most of the room, save for the small, empty circle in the middle where someone who addressed the council would stand and the raised bench that occupied one wall by itself.  Behind that bench, the eleven High Mages sat and listened.

Betran told the story simply, although he omitted Alphix’s gaffe during the fight.  As far as Betran was concerned, they had killed Morigan together, and that was all the council needed to know as well.  When Betran finished, High Mage Starling leaned forward and nodded.

“The world is well rid of the likes of Morigan,” he said.  “You have done well, Betran, but we should expect as much from the son of the great Ingram.”  Starling’s gaze flickered back to where Betran’s father was surely sitting in the gallery.

Betran bowed and pretended to not notice.  “Thank you, High Mage, although, as I said, I would not have been able to do it without Alphix.”

“Ah yes,” one of the other High Mages said.  “I think I speak for the council that our reservations over letting a pair of Hunters work together have been laid to rest.  You have more than impressed us, Alphix.  I daresay none of us ever expected you to rise to the rank of Hunter, much less to have become such a hero in the eyes of other light mages.”

The High Mage paused, but not of his own accord.  The gallery erupted with thunderous applause, and it took several nasty glares from behind the bench to restore order.  Once it was quiet, the High Mage continued.

“You would be wise to not let your fame go to your head, lest pride bring about an untimely end to your career.”

“Of course, sir,” Alphix said.  “Besides, I’m still not a mark on Betran.”

The High Mage nodded slowly and leaned back, obviously mistaking Alphix’s earnest response for appropriate, if false, modesty.  Betran coughed slightly and took a half step forward before any more could be said.

“My High Mages, if I may,” he said.  “I was curious as to whether or not any course of action has been decided in regards to Tergar.”

Starling frowned and shook his head.  “You are eager, Betran, but you should not be blinded by your own potential, least you reach too far.  Sometimes I think it was a mistake for us to allow you and Alphix to become Hunters without having been governors first.”  He shot a brief glance at the other High Mage.  “As to your question, the light mages will make no move against Tergar and his so-called army of dark mages.  Convention since time forgotten has dictated that open warfare between our peoples is forbidden and for a good reason.  Besides, dark mages cannot abide each other.  It will not be too long before Tergar is killed by one of his own and his ambition is ended.  After that has happened, the Hunters can pick off the remnants of his followers when they are alone and confused.”

“He has been gathering his force for a decade,” Betran said.  “Surely—”

“That is enough, Hunter Betran,” Starling said.  “You have earned due honor today; do not undo that with impudence.  We shall meet tomorrow afternoon to announce our choice for the new regional governor to bring Morigan’s lands back to the way of light.  Until then, this council is adjourned.”

Betran clinched his jaw but stood silently as the High Mages rose and filed out.  The room was filled with the cacophony of conversation and movement as the gallery started to make its way out, and Alphix put a friendly hand on Betran’s shoulder.

“Don’t take it too harshly,” he said.  “They’re just doing what they think is right.”

Betran shook his head.  “They can’t accept that things change.  Just because no gathering of dark mages has ever lasted doesn’t mean that this one won’t, and by the time they are willing to see that, it will be too late.  And then they reprimand me for trying to push beyond my ability right after praising you for it!”

Alphix frowned and looked away.  “Speaking of that, here comes your father.  Do you want me to . . . ?”

Betran looked up and over Alphix’s shoulder.  Ingram was slowly making his way towards them, even if he had to pause every few feet to talk to one important person or another.  Betran frowned as he looked at his father.  There was no denying the relationship: they shared the same broad shoulders, and only small wings of gray at the temples marred Ingram’s curly black hair.  The violet eyes, at least, Betran shared with all mages.

“No,” Betran said softly.  “Thanks for the offer, though.  Go on ahead and relax some.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Alphix looked back and frowned but only gave Betran a pat on the shoulder before he turned and left.  Betran waited with his back straight and eyes firmly on his father.

“Betran,” Ingram said when he was close enough to be heard.  “We should talk.  In private.”

Betran nodded—the barest movement that could still be seen—then followed his father out to the hall.  They walked through the vaulted corridors, stopping often to speak briefly to well wishers.  They all gave due praise to Betran, although nearly every one commented at least in passing about the wonder that was Alphix.

Betran made his replies without really even hearing what was being said.  He had grown used to constant questions, and he could hardly blame the questioners.  Alphix’s ascent to glory was far more romantic than Betran’s.  It must have taken an hour to get several hundred feet down the hall and to the more private sitting room Ingram had been after.  The entire time, as Betran showered his own praise on Alphix and demurred at any of himself, Ingram’s face grew more and more severe.  When Ingram latched the door behind them, his face could have been a marble carving of a thunderstorm.

“Do you think you’re doing the boy some service out there?” Ingram said.  “Feeding his reputation will only make it all the more painful when they realize that he is only a below average rider of coat-tails.”

“Alphix is a good Hunter,” Betran said.  “He has saved my skin numerous times, and—”

“And I notice that you never fail to tell the council when he does.”  Ingram’s lip curled in disgust.  “My son, proud to have been saved!  And yet, why is it that we never hear of when you have to save him?  Don’t tell me that it’s never happened.  You can lie to the council, but not to me!”

Betran forced a smile.  “What does it matter?  Dark mages are dying and the humans they dominate are being brought back to the light.”

“You could have killed Morigan alone,” Ingram said.  “No other Hunter needs help, and my son least of all should.  You have done a disservice to Alphix.  He would have done well as a governor of some backwater county.”

“Done well until he was killed in the night by a power hungry dark mage,” Betran snapped back.  “What do you think he’s doing?  Holding me back from some greater glory?  I don’t want that, father!”

“This isn’t just about glory!”  Ingram closed the distance between them and narrowed his eyes.  “That boy is holding you back from your potential.  You could be a High Mage one day, but not with some craven fool clinging to you.  The greatest light mage of his generation was not meant to be second best.”

“Is this about me?”  Betran said.  “Because it sure sounds like this is about how you’re only ‘The Great Ingram’ and not ‘High Mage Ingram.’”

Ingram’s face twitched with rage, but he schooled himself and grasped both of Betran’s shoulders.  “I only want what is best for you, son.  You’re better than this, and you know it.  All I am asking is that you live up to your potential.”

They stared at each other in silence.  After several tense moments, Ingram loosened his grip and walked back towards the door.  He paused as if to say something more, but instead only shook his head and left.

Betran stood alone in the sitting room well into the night.  When he finally left and made his way to his quarters, it was through empty hallways.  Thankfully empty.  This way, no one could see the tears that still occasionally trailed down his cheeks.

* * *

The next morning he found Alphix eating alone in a little used pantry.  No one ever seemed to think to look for him there, but Betran knew to check it first.  Betran laughed when he poked his head through the door and sat down at the small table in the middle of the room.

“Hiding from your fans as always?”

“If I am, then you’re hiding with me.  Here.”  Alphix pushed a plate of bread, fruit and ham across the table.  “How’d last night with your father go?”

“As well as always,” Betran said.  “I swear, the man wouldn’t be happy if I won the war single handedly and ended world suffering.”

“You shouldn’t let it get to you,” Alphix said.  “There’s just no pleasing some people.”

Betran picked over his food.  “But of all the people that can’t just be happy with all I’ve done . . . .”

“I’ll stop being a Hunter.”  Alphix said it so quickly that Betran had to stare at him for a moment to realize what he had said.

“What?  Why?”

“I know it’s me that your father hates,” Alphix said.  “Even if he won’t say it to my face.  I know that he hates it that you let me take all the credit.”

“We share the credit,” Betran said.

“Close enough for your father.”  Alphix sighed and shook his head.  “Seriously, I’ll accept a governorship and stop Hunting.  You don’t really need me.”

“Yes I do,” Betran said.  “I had a lot of time to think last night, and I do need you.  You’re a good Hunter.  I need others too.”

“Others?”  Alphix tilted his head then frowned.  “Don’t tell me you mean to—”

Betran pounded his fist into the table.  “To the abyss with convention.  It’s time that we prove to the council that Tergar needs to be dealt with, and we’ll do it by dealing with him ourselves.”

“He has over fifty dark mages,” Alphix said.  “We’d need at least as many Hunters.  A conflict that large could destroy half the world.”

“It would take hundreds, maybe thousands of mages fighting to do that,” Betran said.  “A mere hundred wouldn’t even bring down a mountain.  But if we don’t act now, it will come to a full out war.  Only by acting now can we stop that.  The council will see that in the end.”

“And your father?” Alphix said.

Betran winced.  “This isn’t about him.  Like you said, there’s just no pleasing some people.”  He leaned in.  “We can do this.”

Alphix bit his lip and sighed.  “It’s going to be hard to gather up that many Hunters, especially if we’re going to keep this a secret from the council.”

Betran smiled and leaned in closer.  “Oh, I have a plan.”

* * *

Betran ran down the black corridor of Tergar’s castle with his hands outstretched.  Explosions rocked the mountain fortress, if not the mountain itself.  That he was even here still seemed a shock.  It had not taken even a month of quiet recruiting to find the needed manpower.  He had underestimated Alphix’s fame, even if it was the center of his plan.  Hunters had almost flocked to their secret agenda.

And now, it had come to a head.  Not even an hour ago they had started the attack, laying into the outer walls with torrents of power unlike anything before unleashed, and after that, it had been a blur.  He did not know how many dark mages still remained, or how many of his Hunters, but he did know that he was close to his own goal.

“Hold on!” Alphix called behind him.

Betran slowed and glanced behind.  Of the five Hunters that had started to accompany him towards Tergar’s inner chambers, only Alphix was left.  Two were dead, and the other two had run off after other dark mages.  If it had not been for the constant explosions, he could have almost believed they were just after any other dark mage.

“Everything alright?”

Alphix looked at him in disbelief.  “We’re charging headfirst towards the most powerful dark mage ever, and you’re asking me if everything’s alright?”

“Just another notch,” Betran said.  “Right?”

Alphix opened his mouth to say something, then his eyes widened and his fingers twitched as they unleashed magic.  A blast of air knocked Betran to the side as a blast of lightning shot out from behind him.  A moment later another blast of lightning, this time from Alphix, coursed back down the hallway, and then nothing.

Betran eased himself back up and looked down the hallway, where the charred remains of a dark mage still smoldered next to the alcove he had been hiding in.  Betran only frowned at the body, but gasped as he turned back to Alphix.

“He only grazed me.”  Alphix tried to smile, but his bloodied leg made it a weak attempt at best.  “I’ll be alright.  Let’s go.”

“You’re in no condition to face Tergar like that.”  Betran rushed over to his friend and helped him into a side room.  “Come on, stop fussing.  I’ll be back before you know it, and with Tergar’s signet to boot.”

Alphix winced as he settled into a bench next to a window.  “OK, I’ll stay put, but only because you’ll probably have an easier time of it without having to save my skin.”

Betran pointed at Alphix’s leg.  “Are you already forgetting how you got that?  Just sit tight, I’ll be back soon.”

Alphix made a shooing motion, and Betran only fussed over him a little more before hurrying back into the hallway.  The doors to Tergar’s throne room were just ahead, and Betran walked up to them with slow, deliberate steps and his hands in front of him.  When he was nearly in arms reach, they opened on their own.

The room beyond was wrought from the same black stone as the rest of the castle, and large bay windows on either side painted stripes of light from the morning sun across the floor.  Across the room, standing before a throne carved out of the wall, a middle-aged man with bright red hair, sharp violet eyes, and an imposing height had his own hands up.  He was smiling, and the burst of magic that Betran expected never came.

“Decided to face me alone?” Tergar said.  “Have you finally grown tired of sharing your glory with the unworthy, Betran?”

“This is nothing about glory,” Betran said.  “I’m here to put an end to your evil.”

Tergar’s smile broadened and he took a step down from his throne.  “By breaking convention that not even I would dare bend?  How . . . noble of you.”

“I am noble!”  Betran snarled at the dark mage.  “By killing you, I’ll liberate half a continent from the thrall of your tyranny!”

“Liberate?”  Tergar laughed.  “You pretend that what you’re doing is giving the humans freedom?  Please, don’t insult me.  I may be a tyrant, but at least I’m honest.”

Betran blinked and swallowed hard.  “Honest?”

“Yes, honest.”  Tergar took another step forward and his smile become more vicious.  “Do you honestly think any human living under light mage rule is free?  When a governor is there to tell them exactly what they can and cannot do, to ‘advise’ their councils and kings on exactly what must be done?  Humans are chattel, Betran.  The difference between you and me is that I’m brave enough to say it out loud.  Beyond that, we are the same!”

“I’m nothing like you!”

Betran released his magic as he screamed.  A wall of fire and rain of lightning sprung from his finger tips and towards the dark mage, who released his own spells at the same moment.  The waves of power collided in the middle of the chamber, and the entire castle shook with the violence of the impact, but Betran did not relent.  His power coursed through him like a flood.  It was more power than he had ever pulled into a spell before, yet he pulled more yet.

Tergar was hidden by the inferno, but Betran could feel the dark mage’s spell pounding against his own and the strain that was within it.  The wall of fire moved back, only ever so slightly, and Betran drew even more magic in.  Cracks climbed up the walls with a deafening roar that pierced even the din of the magic, and several pillars toppled over.  The resistance of Tergar’s magic suddenly vanished, and Betran fell forward several steps with the momentum of his own spell.

The roiling fire and lightning disappeared as Betran dropped his hands to catch himself.  Beyond, the throne room was blackened and breaking apart as surely as the rest.  Even without the magic, the tortured screech of stone grating on stone made Betran want to cover his ears and run.  Somehow, he heard the haggard cough from just in front of the throne and under a pile of rubble and walked over to it on shaky legs.

“Such . . . rage.”  The voice was barely recognizable as Tergar’s, as was the charred body under the rubble.  “You have brought the mountain down on top of us, boy.  Can’t you see?  We are as gods!  What are humans compared to that?”

Betran realized the roar was growing louder and ran over to one of the large windows in the side of the chamber.  Outside, the sun was well into the sky and painted a mountainside that churned like an angry ocean.  Betran could feel that the last of the fighting had ended with him and Tergar, and yet the air crackled for how much leftover power surged around.

They had unleashed too much magic, and now nature itself was rebelling.  In the distance of the valley, he could hear the screams of humans that must be looking up at what would seem the end of the world to them.  Perhaps it was.

Fatigue wracked Betran’s body, but he still raised his hands.  He could stop this, if only he stayed focused.  Just the right application of magic in the right places, and he could neutralize it.  All he had to do was focus.  He took a deep breath and readied the magic in his mind, but before he could try to release it, a series of glowing orbs crashed into the mountain side from Betran’s left.

He lowered his hands in confusion as the mountain grew still and looked over to see Alphix leaning out a window with his hands still outstretched.  He was pale and drenched in sweat; that correction had most likely taken every mote of power the small man could conjure.

Betran nodded and staggered back over to Tergar’s body.  The man was dead, but Betran did not feel any joy over it.  He stood over the body in silence for a moment then bent down and removed the half melted signet ring.  In the eerie silence of the morning, he turned around and left the throne room of the most dangerous dark mage to have ever lived.

* * *

The antechamber to the council hall was silent and empty save for Betran.  They had called Alphix in some time ago, most likely to give his own accounting for the how and why.  Betran could only wonder if his friend was sticking to the story—the truth—that it was all Betran’s idea.  The chamber doors opened ever so slightly, but instead of the council guards he had expected, Betran saw his father slip out.

“Father,” Betran said.

“Son.”  Ingram had an odd expression on his face, part fear, part anger.  “Do you know the price for what you’ve done?”

“I was unaware that saving the world had a price,” Betran said.

“Is that what you think you’ve done?”  Ingram shook his head.  “I can still fix this, for you at least.  Soon as they call you in—”

“I will not leave Alphix alone,” Betran said.  “It was my plan, and I still hold that it was the right thing to do.”

“Leave Alphix alone?”  Ingram laughed bitterly.  “He has more than shown for himself.  I was wrong about him, I think.  Or should I say I was wrong about you.  Alphix is the hero that stopped reality from unweaving itself.  You are the coward that had to hide behind fifty other Hunters.  Perhaps you’ve been the coward that had to hide all along.”

Betran felt his lip twitch up into a snarl.  “I’m the one that killed Tergar, father.  Killed by myself.  Is that not what you wanted?  For your son to be a great hero that could stand on his own?”

“Alas, all I see here is a great fool,” Ingram said.  “If that is how you feel, so be it, but show some humility to the council.  All you need do is convince them that you regret your actions, and instead of your life, they will only ask for you station.  Even if you will be relegated to a governorship in some backwater county, it is better than the alternative.”

Betran opened his mouth to say he did not want his father’s goodwill, but the chamber door opened again, this time for the council guards.  Ingram looked back at them and nodded, and they opened the door wide.  Betran followed the guards inside and took his place in the center of the room.  The eleven High Mages looked down him with neutral faces.

“Betran,” High Mage Starling said.  “You have long troubled this council.  Since the first day all those years ago when you asked to be allowed to Hunt with Alphix, we had feared this day would come.  Yet, we felt high hopes for you, so we allowed you that indulgence, and now this is how you have repaid us.  Do you understand the consequences of your actions?”

“I know that I have freed millions of humans from the thrall of dark mages,” Betran said.  “And put to rest the greatest threat this world has ever seen.”

“The greatest threat?”  Starling shook his head.  “No, Betran, that threat was not Tergar.  He would have collapsed under his own delusions of grandeur eventually, but now dark mages everywhere are scared.  They’re—”

“That’s a bad thing?” Betran said.

Starling frowned and ignored Betran’s interruption.  “They’re unsure of what the light mages will do.  The status quo had kept them in check.  Hunters walked alone the same as dark mages.  They never felt the need to overcome their own petty differences and band together, but now, now they have seen light mages defy convention.  How long before a small army of dark mages attacks us in retribution?  Escalation is the only answer.  You may have well started this world on a path to destruction, which means that you are the greatest threat to it, not Tergar.”

Betran shook his head in disbelief.  “I hardly think—”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it,” Starling said.  “You say you have liberated millions?  And to what end?  We hardly have the resources to bring so much territory back to the light so quickly.  Even if I was to turn every one of the surviving Hunters that foolishly followed you into governors, we would not have enough.  Humans will be without mage guidance, left to their own shortsighted ways.  Even the rule of a dark mage is better to the lawlessness that is sure to follow.”

“What makes you think the humans can’t fend for themselves?” Betran said.

Starling made a dismissive gesture.  “I am tired of trying to explain simple truths to you, boy.  Tell me, do you have any regret for your actions?  Any at all?”

“Yes.”  Betran left it at that simple word.  It was true, but the High Mages need not know that his regrets lay in their inability to see the nobility of his actions.

Starling let the word hang in the air for a long moment.  He glanced to either side of him, where the other High Mages nodded reluctantly, and Starling sighed.

“In light of your exemplary service, we shall spare your life,” Starling said.  “You will be given a governorship in the distant Morilin province, and the mage there shall join Alphix in his attempts to bring order to the recently liberated lands.  I pray that you take our mercy with some measure of grace, Betran.  Further transgressions . . . .”  Starling trailed off, leaving the threat unspoken.

The High Mages silently stood and filed out, and Betran again waited as he had the last time he stood in this chamber for his father to approach him.  Ingram looked at Betran wordlessly for a moment then gestured for him to follow.  They walked back to the same private sitting room, although this time they did so without having to stop to talk.  The accusing and frightened looks were more than enough, though.

Ingram latched the door and sighed.  “I’m glad you took my advice.”

“They asked me a question and I answered honestly,” Betran said.  “I did not lie to them as you asked me to.”

Ingram tensed and took a step forward.  “Do you still think you are a hero?  After you nearly killed thousands of humans and have endangered our entire way of life?”

“I saved millions and saved our way of life,” Betran said.  “Tergar was a threat that needed dealt with.”

“Saved millions.” Ingram laughed.  “Sentenced them to darkness more like it.  Without light mage guidance, who knows what will happen to most of the humans you supposedly saved.  They’ll probably come to think they don’t need us, and then they will spread it other counties and providences, and then what?  Mass rebellion?”

“How can they rebel when we only guide,” Betran said.  “You speak as if we rule them.”

Ingram furrowed his brow.  “What are you saying, boy?”

“Isn’t that what makes us different from dark mages?  That we guide instead of dominate?”  Betran stood up straighter and clenched his fists at his side.  “That seems to be what I remember being taught in my youth.”

Ingram frowned and shook his head.  “Perhaps a governorship will do you good.  Get you away from wherever these fool ideas got into your head.  Humans living without mage influence, bah.  They are little better than livestock, boy.  You will see soon enough, provided the plague of dark mages doesn’t sweep us over from your foolish instigation.”

“If they do, it will be because of the council’s cowardice to face them,” Betran said.

Ingram half turned, then bright light filled Betran’s eyes.  His cheek stung, and it took him several moments to realize that his father had backhanded him.

“Go to Morilin and try to redeem yourself,” Ingram said.  “But know that even if you can ever come back, you will find no father waiting.  I no longer have a son.”

Ingram started to leave, and Betran screamed.  A dull impact shook the air, and Ingram stopped.  He stumbled as he turned around, and only when Betran saw the small red stain that was steadily growing larger in his father’s side did he realize that his hand was extended.  His fingers were still in the form of the released spell.  Ingram took a shaky step toward Betran then fell to his knees.  Betran lowered his hand and rushed to his father.

Ingram sputtered, and blood bubbled out of his mouth.  Betran tried the spell forms for healing, even though he had never been any good at them.  The room shook from the power, but the wound did not close.  Ingram stopped moving, and Betran stood up and stared at his father in disbelief.  Without another thought, he left the room at a dead run.

* * *

Rain hammered the ground, and Betran looked out from the small overhang where he had taken shelter.  He was soaked the bone, his jaw quivered from a chill he had taken, and he was not entirely sure where he even was.  The days since he had fled ran together, and for all the clouds above, he could not even say with any certainty if it was day or night.

His father was dead.  The thought still fell like a hammer.  His father had always been there, as everlasting as the sun and stars.  True, one day he would have died as all men do, but he was still in his prime.  That day was far off.

No, it was now past.  But it had not been old age that killed him, but Betran’s own hand.  He could not say why, but it was devastating.  True, the man had never had two kind words together, but Ingram had still loved his son.  Even for all the abuse, Betran still believed that much at least.  And how had he repaid his father?  An ignoble death.  Only being killed by a human would have been more shaming.

Humans.  His father had spoken of them as little better than animals, the same as Tergar, the same as any mage, even if they hid the view behind flowery rhetoric.  All mages, light and dark both, dominated humans.  All of them except Betran and Alphix, the only two to not be governors before they took up the mantel of the Hunt.

“He was right,” Betran said to the rain.  “I shouldn’t have joined the Hunt.  Then I would never have realized.  I would have seen the humans the same as everyone else.”

Yet, was that such a blessing?  He might have still had a father, but Alphix would surely have been killed in the constant give and take between the factions, and he would have been no better than the likes of Tergar.  No better, the same as his father.

“The plague of dark mages,” he said softly.  That was what his father called it.  His father, a man who deep down was the same as the very mages he despised.  He followed the line of thought slowly, already knowing where it would take him.  The idea frightened him, and yet compared to what he had already done—killing his own father—was it truly so bad?

His jaw stopped shaking, and he stood and started out into the rain.  “You were almost right father.  There is a plague of mages, and it is time for me to resume the Hunt.”  He pulled out a knife and carved another notch on his belt for his latest kill.

* * *

The mountain fortress was in severe disrepair.  Every time Betran visited, it was a little more crumbled.  It was hard to believe that only a year had passed since it had been the stronghold of Tergar.  It had only been a month since his last visit, and two whole wings had collapsed as if years had passed.  Yet somehow, the throne room, where Betran stood now, was no different than it was when he first left it, right down to the skeletal remains that were half buried near the cracked throne.

His visits were hardly without purpose, and honestly were fewer and further between than he would have preferred.  Seeing the room reminded him of the reason he had chosen his path, of why his belt was notched so heavily.  It did nothing for the feeling of having hands drenched in blood, but that was a small price to pay for the true Hunt.  Now, all mages looked over their shoulders.  Before, light mages had feared the dark that would be power hungry for lands to conquer, and the dark feared the Hunters, but at least knew they would come only if they were seen to be weak enough for their lands to be reclaimed.  None knew what to make of this wondering killer who slew light and dark alike and was gone before the body was cold.

He had left messages enough for them to understand, but it hardly mattered.  Whenever he faced a mage, light or dark, they all questioned him in doubt, unbelieving that his only goal was the death of all magekind.  Even High Mage Starling had been unbelieving.  He had died the same as the rest, though.

“Ah, Tergar,” he said.  “I’ve come far, do you not think?”

The skeleton did not respond.

“But of course you’re right, in your own, twisted way.  I have so much further to go.  Much further.”  So many notches, but so many more yet were needed.  One man could only move so fast.

A sound from the front of the room drew his attention, and he raised a hand casually as he turned to the door.  While some foolhardy mages had sought him out before, it had never been here.  Perhaps he had been coming here too often.  He almost released a bolt of power before he even saw who had walked in on him.

“Alphix?”

“Betran.”

Not until the man spoke was Betran sure.  He barely recognized the straw-haired man.  He was still the same person, yet different somehow.  Worry creased what had been a youthful face, and there was a strength that had never been there before.

“You’ve changed,” Betran said.

“I’m not the only one.”  He stood exactly where he was, with on hand raised the same as Betran.

“I’m glad to see you.”  Betran laughed at the confused look that elicited from the other man.  “Oh, I should have sought you out long ago, old friend.”

Alphix tensed.  “That eager to kill me?”

“Kill you?”  Betran took a step forward, smiling, but he did not lower his hand.  “You of all people should understand me.  We should be embracing as the old friends we are!”

“You still have a hand raised,” Alphix said.

Betran frowned and pointedly looked down at Alphix’s own raised hand.  “One can never be too careful these days.  But if not to talk, to join me, why else . . . do you truly mean to say that you came to kill me, Alphix?”

“Better to seek you out than wait in fear for when you decided to come for me,” Alphix said.

“You must think me a monster,” Betran said.  “I have only sown discord and strife, yet you must see the greater good that will be served.  Mages are a disease on this land!”

Alphix shook his head slowly.  “I don’t know who’s right or wrong in this new war, but you are right in one thing: you have turned the world on its head.  Entire continents of humans are without mages over them, and who can say if that’s good or not, but they’re doing well enough that humans still under mages are wondering if mage rule is really for the best.  Even if I kill you now, nothing will ever be the same again.”

Betran smiled, but there was no mirth in it.  “A sad but necessary evil.  The lesser amongst worse options.”

“You’ve won, whether you’re right or wrong,” Alphix said.  “It’s time to stop, Betran.  There are plenty of places you can go and never see another mage again.  Stop and give us some measure of peace.”

“No!”  Betran used his spare hand to wipe a small bit of spittle from his chin.  “It cannot stop, not now, not ever!  Join me Alphix.  If you want to see peace, join me.  The two of us, side by side again, just as we once were.  With you, it could be over inside of another year.”

Alphix slowly raised his other hand.  “No, Betran.  You have chosen your path, and I’ve chosen mine.”

Betran lifted his other hand reluctantly.  There were no other words, and a long, tense moment passed, then his fingers twitched into the spell forms.  White-hot light erupted from his hands and impacted against Alphix’s fire.  The fire stood for a moment then buckled under the light, which then continued on to rip through the wall on the other side of the room.  Alphix was not there, though.

Betran turned smoothly and started sending bolts of air towards any debris that was large enough to hide behind.  The piles shattered from the blows, and it was not long before one shattered with a scream.  Betran, deadly spell forms already on his fingers, slowly walked towards the pile as the dust still settled.

Past the remains of the debris, Alphix writhed weakly on the floor, his face covered in blood.  Betran looked down at his old friend and aimed for his chest.  Quick and painless.  Alphix deserved that, at least.

Moments passed, and Betran still did not release the magic.  He had killed countless others, elders he had looked up, juniors that had looked up to him.  He had even killed his own father and no longer even regretted it.  Still, he hesitated.

He lowered his hands and looked away.  Light and dark mages alike called him a monster, and he embraced it.  But not with Alphix.  The man would most likely come after him again, but it was of little consequence.  He would subdue him then, as well.  Even if they were the last two mages, he would not kill his old friend.

Pain surged through his middle, and then numbness.  He twisted as he fell and saw Alphix, still on the ground.  He saw Alphix, with a hand raised.

“You should never lower your hands around a living enemy,” Alphix said.  “Someone I respected told me that, once.”

Betran tried to clutch his hands into a spell form, but they refused to make the exact shapes he needed.  “Even in this, I could not be the best.”

Alphix groaned and dropped his hand.  “It was never about being the best, Betran.  You know that.”

Betran closed his eyes as the life drained from him.  He had failed.  Even if the humans were rebelling against mage rule, he had failed.  It was about something more, or perhaps something less.  Not being best, not freeing humans, and not ridding the world of dark mages.  He had failed that night in the sitting room with his father.  Everything since had just been a poor, second choice.

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