Chapter 10 Hat

        They'd reached the rain belt three days ago. Conley had picked up a waxed riding cape from a tinker heading south, eight clicks and a smile. It fitted well enough, kept the saddlebags dry. She'd managed to waterproof her hair, but had to wear it straight and down to keep it from holding drips and dribbling them through to her scalp. Roween had a leather cap with a detachable skirt, which she'd arranged so as to direct the unending flow as a stream down her back.
        Neither had spoken for several hours, the constant pitter-patter precluding any conversation except that held in raised voices. They were high in the mountains now, following the old herding route into Davia. These days, most travellers took the eastern road instead - longer in terms of distance, but level, and passing through the coastal climate-control zone.
        Roween pointed to the right, a large cave. They walked their horses up the grassy approach, dismounted inside. It was empty, but the ash-filled circle of rocks and the graffiti-covered walls were evidence of its popularity as a stopover.
        "How much farther?" asked Conley, unbuckling her saddle.
        "Can't say, we won't be out the wet until we cross the Rodya. Maybe another day?" She took both horses and led them outside to graze.
        Conley surveyed the stone-strewn interior. It extended some way back, but the ceiling dropped dramatically a short way in. Large boulders had been placed to block whatever passageways fanned out at the low end. Safer that way, she supposed.
        When Roween returned, Conley had started a fire. They had little tinder left, but wrap-pouch food tasted a lot better hot. Conley noted how gingerly Ro took them out of her saddlebags, like they were alive or something. Maybe to her they were?
        "So do you think The King will have taken Vothland by now?" asked Conley, skewering a kidney on the end of a dagger, Roween-style, poking it into the flames.
        "I expect so, yes, the Voths don't have anything to counter an army the size of ours. Was probably all over in a day, we'll buy a KNews update when we reach Vadessa."
        "Well couldn't we have waited a week or so and then taken the east road?" She sighed. "This rain, it's depressing."
        "We're on a tight schedule as it is, you took longer to find me than I'd planned for, and I wasn't expecting you to sleep for twelve days out of Cala Bay Town." She frowned, irritated, as her horsesteak fell into the embers.
        Conley hid a smile, watching Roween's lunch ably resisting her attempts to spike it back. "You say you have some kind of plan, Ro."
        Roween froze. Then, hooking the meat out of the fire, she spoke, not altogether natural-sounding. "Depends what you mean by a plan..."
        Conley sensed her unease, moved to defuse it. "Well, you say we're on a tight schedule - I was wondering what it is, that's all."
        Roween nodded. "Might as well tell you now as leave it." She returned her steak to the heat. "You want to know how I kill magic, so you can do it yourself: correct? Well, there's more to it than that - lots more. First, you have to learn the way magic works."
        "I know how magic works!"
        Roween paused, patient. "Sorry, Con, but you know damn all about it. What's more, you're going to stay ignorant until I'm sure you won't trash things up. Me, all I can do is poop spells, but you, you'd have unlimited powers. And I do mean unlimited."
        Conley was silent. Roween's kidding, right?
        "So before I can explain, you'll need to accept a few unpalatable facts about magic. You have to see for yourself the frightening things it can do, how it can oppress, control, impose tyranny."
        "But it can be used for good, too. It can - "
        "No. No, Con, it's too powerful. If it were just cures, art, dinky spells to clean teeth, that would be fine. It's not, though, is it? It's domination, pain, power. Remember Cala Bay Town?"
        "That's not fair, CBT is almost a one-off, there aren't many places like that. Birgue, maybe Zrenin..."
        "They'll all be like that in the end, just one giant territory. That's if we're lucky. If we're unlucky, there won't be anything at all."
        Conley was worried, now. She's serious. She bit into the kidney. Hell. What am I doing here? Following around a doom-struck cynic, trying to find out how she blasts magic - only she won't tell, in case I do it myself. Maybe paranoia was a prerequisite?
        Roween brushed her hair back off her face. "I'm sorry, Con, I just get so bothered by the whole thing sometimes." She smiled at the mage, apologetic. "Look, I don't expect you to believe any of this yet, but please hear me out. You see, I've discovered something very, very disturbing about magic: anyone can use it, any time, and do whatever they want. Anything. You understand that? If you want the rain to stop, it'll stop - it'll fall upwards if you like. People will do whatever you say, if you choose to have them exist at all. Complete power over life, death, creation, destruction. Control of minds, their thoughts and ideas, of personalities. Anyone can have it, anyone can be a god. Anyone except me."
        Conley was staring at her like she'd just broken free of a straitjacket.
        "I know you don't believe me, but you must give me a chance. I'm the first to figure this all out, but I won't be the last. Soon as anyone else does, we're all good as naught - it'll be the end of everything worthwhile. All there'll be is the product of someone else's will. We have to stop it."
        "`We' do, do `we'?"
        "It's the only way, Con. You have to be the next person to know. When you get the power, you have to use it against itself. If you decree that it's not to work, it won't, ever again. Magic will be gone forever, but everything else will still exist, still be bounded by the limitations that make existence meaningful. We'll be free, just people again."
        Conley stared into the flames. These were the ramblings of a mad woman. Roween had some grudge against magic, tried to rationalise it, and come to believe some half-baked nonsense that it threatened the Entire Universe As We Know It. She couldn't possibly be right. Could she?
        "Well that's it, I'm finished. What do you think?"
        Conley looked back at her. "I think you're crazy."
        Roween withdrew her horsemeat from the flames. "You'll come to wish I was..."

* * *

        It was dark outside, they'd decided to spend the night in the cave. Roween had been upset; she'd tried to hide it from Conley, but not with any success - smoke in your eyes doesn't make them water for forty minutes. Conley felt a twinge of sadness herself. Roween always seemed so vulnerable, with her outsize coat and her girl-like looks. Maybe I'll indulge her awhile, cheer her up a bit. No harm in it. She didn't act touched, but it was what she said, not how she said it.
        "So how are you going to shatter my scepticism?"
        Roween looked up, hopeful. "You'll still come with me?"
        "You can still cancel magic?"
        She grinned, ruefully. "You're persistent, Con, I'll grant you that..."
        "Obstinate, yes, that's me!" She returned the smile. "So where exactly will I be going if I tag along behind you? Anywhere exotic?"
        Roween sat cross-legged by the dying flames of the fire. She was pleased beyond belief, her confidence flowing back. "I'll - I'll tell you where I think our travels'll take us, can't be sure though."
        "Well do you know our destination? Where will I finally be made privy to the wondrous secrets of this cancellation technique?"
        "The library in Liagh Na Laerich."
        Conley groaned. "So that's why you met up with your friend Medreph: we're going to meet up again in Elet..."
        "In part, yes, but my main reason was to keep him updated, he's guiding some important decisions and needs the latest information. The Elets have to determine what to do once Justan and the Messenger have fought it out. He'll feed his dispatch into their foreign affairs network, and - "
        "Their what?"
        Roween stopped, thought a moment. "Elet has a very different society to ours. It'll take some time to explain, but they're essentially a race of individuals, no leaders. Everyone makes their own decisions, independent of everyone else. To make sure they're all well-informed, they have a number of contact networks, where information is passed among a group of interested parties by members of that group. Medreph will tell foreign affairs, they may release it into another network, say magic or warfare, maybe some will be picked up by specialist nets concentrating on the countries or the people involved. Might even make the main all-network summaries." She almost baulked at saying that; what Medreph would impart was going to dominate the summaries for weeks to come.
        "A country with no leaders? Everyone decides collectively what to do?" She raised an eyebrow. "You snicking me up?"
        "No, not collectively, individually. People do what they want, not what others tell them. Even if everyone else disagrees. To them, personal responsibility is everything. It's kind of hard to describe."
        "So everyone is equal, right? Archetypal idealist society, everybody equally badly off..."
        "No, they're not all equal, some own big estates, others run farms, shops, businesses. Some are very poor. It's true that if someone is a great thinker, simpler folk might set great store in what they say. But everyone makes up their own minds about everything they do." She sighed. "It's real difficult to explain, you have to go there to feel it."
        Conley shrugged. "So how do we go there? Davia isn't on the way."
        "Davia, Akrea, the Purasan states, maybe some Purian and Western Vothic countries, maybe a coastal ferry, then the Lowlands to Elet."
        "The long way..." Conley coughed a short laugh. "Look, we heard yesterday that Justan has attacked the Eastern Voths. They'll have lost all by now, and it won't take a week to have them completely subdued. Davia must be next on his list, then Akrea. The Messenger, a Western Voth, has already marched all over the Herans, Purians and Nairads, and must be well through the Purasans by now. He'll turn on Estavia and Akrea next. If we follow your path, we'll hit war after war."
        "I know, it's why we're going. You have to see, first-hand, what magic can do when misused. The Eastern Voths, they would have fallen anyway, we could have taken them ten years ago. Davia is needed as an ally, and won't be captured; it'll be won over by subtle magics instead. Justan and the Messenger will eventually clash in the democracies - neither want to send in troops, but I can't see their avoiding it. You'll witness then what spells can really do."
        "They can defeat a madman, that's what they can do."
        "Well, not directly, no." Roween licked her top lip. "The Messenger and I share similar gifts in that respect."
        Conley's eyes widened. "He's immune to magic?"
        "He doesn't keep it secret, it's too handy, justifies his ancestry. He's not cursed quite the same way as me, but good enough to stop a magical assault on his person. Our magic or Chaeinish, doesn't matter."
        A cold shiver ran through Conley's cheeks. "You don't think he's onto the same theory as you, do you? Absolute power and all that?"
        Roween laughed. "No, no, he wants power alright but he won't get it that way. That's not to say that in future someone like him won't, course, unless we stop them now."
        Conley winced - she didn't want to set Roween off again. Abandon that subject, quickly. "So who'll win in Akrea?"
        "Doesn't matter, we press on either way. The winner will advance on the loser's homeland, that'll take time, then after that they'll annex the Lowlands. I'm hoping Justan will carry the field, then you'll see some more of magic's dark side as we cross over to Elet. If he doesn't, well you might not hate it enough."
        "But I'll never hate it, Ro. How could I? It's my life."
        "You hated your life enough to try destroy it. Twice."

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif10.htm