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Choosing a Life

by Mike Soldat

Sur’in stretched his old bones, still sore from the two-day ride out of the city. He grinned as his hired help brought another deer over the hill to their campsite. A businessman at heart, Sur’in never understood how hunters found and captured prey so easily. Thankfully, as long as they did their jobs well, he didn’t have to care.

Soon enough, the animal’s life would ease some of his pain. Each consumed life dulled the ache in his bones, if only for a while.

When he had first learned how to manipulate life force, Sur’in never thought he would need his own services. Putting life back into dead bones, be it for labor or war, made him quite the profit. In the past few years, though, the strain had become bad enough that the thought of using his resources for his own benefit became a reality.

Giving up his profession wasn’t even worth considering, because his private research into the depths of his power was growing more costly in terms of both gold and life force. And ever since he had learned the trade, Sur’in wanted to know what the upper limits were to his power.

While six hunters were leading the animal to the campsite, the mage prepared his mind. It was no difficult task to siphon the essence of a woodland creature, but Sur’in still liked to focus on each individual action as if it were his first time. Missing a step somewhere would let some of the vitality slip into the aether, a mistake he would not allow at his age. Now, the deer lay at his feet as five of the hunters kept it bound, forcing it to the ground.

“Well done. That’s a young-looking deer. Keep it still, please.”

Each tracker nodded. He could see their troubles in their faces, but he ended that train of thought by asserting to himself that the prospect of paychecks would keep their hands steady. The mage laid his own hands on each side of the deer’s head and began to whisper to it.

Two men shot each other confused looks, but kept holding the deer down. The spell required that none of them know what Sur’in was saying, though they did notice the hypnotic cadence of his voice.

The sole member of the hired help that wasn’t focusing on holding the deer shook herself awake, slightly entranced. “How long do we—”

“Quiet!” Sur’in yelled before returning his focus to the animal.

As the spell unfolded, the deer’s head dropped to the ground. Each person holding the animal looked around, confused; the forest seemed to go silent. One mouthed ‘what?’ to the others.

It was then that the deer began to screech.

Each hunter grasped the beast with all his might as it flailed around, moving every part of its body except for its head, which Sur’in was still gripping tightly. For what seemed an eternity, the deer howled louder, until in an instant its entire body went limp. The mage carefully placed the head down on the ground, lifeless.

“I apologize for any distress that caused,” Sur’in said, “but I assure you, this was very important and will benefit your city. Now, please dispose of the body a fair distance away. I won’t be needing it.”

“What just happened?!” asked the woman in the back of the group. “It sounded like you were stabbing the life out of it!”

“That is how life force is extracted. Though you couldn’t hear, I assured the beast it would be used for a greater good. Through my magic, it understood. Then, the process started, and the deer hurt. I don’t like hurting creatures, but I must do what I do so that I may help the world.”

“Greater good, eh?” another hunter by the name of Eruk said. “We’re out here wasting deer that could feed my family.”

“Do you think the living built the city of Glarr? Consider the benefits of my labor before you judge how it is delivered. More energy for me means more energy for the improvement of society.”

Eruk considered this for a minute, then sighed and nodded.

“Are there any other beasts nearby?” Sur’in asked. “If they’re too hostile to approach, I can calm them.”

“I found a cave over the ridge there. It might have something in it,” another man said. “I think I saw a fur, but I’m not going alone inside some beast’s lair this close to dusk. Hey, would you mind if we carved up the deer? I could use the—”

“I told you. Bodies are useless, we’re only here for their lives. Dispose of this one and lead me to the cave at once.”

It didn’t take long to get to the cave from their campsite, but each hunter appeared surprised when the older man easily kept up with their pace. Though he knew the effects of siphoning life force, it still surprised the mage how good he felt after each ritual. Still, Sur’in wanted more. He wanted to feel even more alive.

“Found it!” one of the hunters yelled from ahead.

And there it was, a cave surely enough. Sur’in failed to see any fur, even with the improved clarity his eyes possessed. Regardless, he took a torch and ventured in, just to be sure. Rocks lay strewn about, though no creatures seemed to live here. Sur’in nearly turned to leave before one of the hunters called out.

“Here! I found a pelt! It’s still warm!”

“A pelt? I need the creature inside of it. Fur does me no good!” An idea formed out of the blue in Sur’in’s mind. “Wait. You mean a pelt someone would wear, not remains, yes?”

It was forbidden to do what he was thinking, but Sur’in was desperate. He couldn’t get around as well as he used to, mainly because the quota of animals he was allowed to consume had been reduced recently. The Council of Mages that imposed that limit supposedly to benefit all of their kind, in order to ensure that everyone had access to enough resources. Failing to register with the Council incurred the penalty of death, and yet Sur’in yearned for the freedom that anonymity could bring, to use life as he saw fit and to discover the limits of his powers.

“Guess so. Too bad, I bet we stole somebody’s lunch. We can leave them the deer corpse and head back, right? I should go home and see my kids.”

“Absolutely not. We will wait and see if this person can help us. Probably homeless, if they’re living in a cave. I’ll double your pay, just follow my instructions.”

“And what are those instructions?” one man asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m going to talk to whoever owns this fur. You’re just here to ensure they hear me out. Since the pelt is warm and the sun is setting, they’ll probably return soon.”

“What are you going to talk about? We found all the animals around here. You’re not gonna suck his brains out like the deer’s, are you? I don’t want to deal with those nightmares.”

“Double the pay, or leave right now. I pay more than you’ll ever see elsewhere, and you knew what I do for a living when you started. Don’t forget the contracts, either. If I don’t come back alive, you’re all dead, no questions asked. I can hide out for a few weeks.”

The hunters looked at each other. Sur’in had them cornered. They needed the money, whether to clear gambling debts or drown themselves in liquor to escape them. One of the hunters had just had a child, and other work wasn’t nearly as lucrative. The contract was essentially foolproof. None of them moved an inch.

“I thought so. I will do my best to make sure this goes as smoothly as possible and that you are all recognized for your work. Of course, what that means will depend entirely on what story we tell. As far as I’m concerned, we cornered a bear, and I put it to sleep with a spell. Then, things proceeded as they did with the deer. Sound good?”

Each person nodded, though several scowled. Sur’in smiled. He knew the depths of their need, and he knew not one of them would say a word. If they did, they’d have not only their families and creditors to deal with, but an angry mage as well.

Once the group scouted out the cave, the mage bade them all hide in an arc around the entrance so they might surround whoever came back to rest. The sun dipped below the horizon, and still they waited. Without complaint, the hunters sat quietly for some time. Occasionally, they would cough, but none moved from their spot, instead dreaming of the pay.

A sole torch appeared in the distance nearly an hour after the sun had disappeared. Right then, Sur’in and his band stayed as close to the cave walls as they could, hoping shadow would conceal them long enough to get the jump on this person. Sur’in watched as a ragged young man sat to his left, either inattentive enough or too tired to notice those around the cave. The mage let out a bird call, signalling the others to converge.

“Hey! Who are you?! What are you doing here?!” the man yelled.

“Easy! Easy, friend. We were in the area, and wondered if you could help with something,” Sur’in said, hands in the air, palms facing out.

“So you snuck into my cave and surrounded me? Fat chance!”

Quickly, the man drew a small bronze dagger. Unfortunately, he focused long enough on Sur’in for the woman in the party to sneak up behind him. She swooped in, grabbed his hand, and disarmed it.

“Hey! Give me that!”

“I said we were asking for help, not a fight,” Sur’in said. “It isn’t our fault you opted to interpret that as something more barbaric. Sit, please.”

The man stayed on his feet, constantly turning around as if he could hope to keep eyes on everyone around him.

“I said ‘please’!”

A gust of wind suddenly blew the man down on his bottom.

“Thank you. Now then, we were in the area looking for wild animals. Have you seen any?”

“I haven’t seen anything! I don’t know what you’re talking about! I was just gathering wood, is all!”

Sur’in grew annoyed, though he couldn’t tell if it was the additional youthful energy running in his veins or the blatant lie of a man searching for wood but returning with none that stoked his ire.

“Listen, I don’t have time for this. Do you know who I am? I am Sur’in Aldaarn of Glaar! I am asking you a question, and very politely at that!”

“You? You’re ol’ Surrey?! Ha! Why would he be out here, when half the city needs him to build places? I bet you’re lyin’!”

Very few people enjoy being called a liar. Sur’in, out of all of them, had never accepted such barbs. His eyes rolled up a moment, and the man cried out in fear.

“Hey, what are you doing?! Why do I feel cold?!” he screamed.

The timely wind was real, and Sur’in was faking. His reputation as a mage meant that anyone unfamiliar with his skills had no idea what they looked like. Any weird jerk of the head or strange eye movement was enough to frighten the uninitiated into thinking they were about to be magically destroyed in any number of ways. Sur’in knew this and frequently took advantage.

“It will only get worse from here unless you cooperate. Now, I’ll ask you one more time: are there any wild animals nearby? Deer, bears, that sort of thing?”

“N-n-no, I haven’t seen nothin’. I’m... I’m sorry, Sur’in.”

The mage sighed. “I know when people are lying to me, son. What’s your name?”

“I don’t lie! Why would I do that?! I’m... Aeryn, sir. Lost my job last week because they told me I was worthless. So, I live here now.”

“And are you worthless, Aeryn? You seem of able body to me.”

“No, sir! I can do many things! I just... I drink a little too much, some nights. I work just fine, but my boss, he yells at me when I show up in a bad mood. It’s because my head splits so bad from the drinking, but I can still do my work. I tell him, I just don’t want anyone bothering me those days, but that’s not enough. They told me to leave.”

“Well, if you can work, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy your pay any way you want. I guess it follows that you’re looking for a job, then?”

Aeryn’s eyes lit up. “I... yes! Would you be havin’ one for me? I swear, I don’t look like it, but I can lift and work with the best of them!”

Sur’in smiled, then turned to his hired help. “Everyone, remember how I told you not to let word get out of what we’re actually doing tonight?”

The six nodded.

“Aeryn here is going to join us, though I will discuss payment with him later. You don’t need gold, boy, you need a place to live that isn’t a cave. We’ll talk.”

Sur’in grinned and pointed to the man who had questioned his directions earlier. “Hold him for me.”

“What?!” Eruk yelled.

“Quick, before he gets away! His share will be split among the other five! Aeryn, help them!”

Despite Sur’in’s command, no one moved. The five hunters and Aeryn eyeballed Eruk, who had been designated as prey. They circled him, an easy task, since he was farther in the cave than the others.

“You really want to do this to me?! I’ve been to the bottom of many bottles with all of you, save the runt!”

“I know, Eruk,” one man said, “but I’ve got a family to feed.”

“And I’m aiming to have one someday,” the sole woman added. “Can’t do that with the bookie breathin’ down my neck.”

Eruk drew a short blade, though he was quickly disarmed by the woman, who had taken Aeryn’s blade away. With the help of a few fists, the new target of Sur’in’s plan was brought forth.

“I’m sorry, but I need people who do as they’re told and keep their mouth shut. The other five of you know that I am generous with my gifts. Eruk here, he fell to a mighty bear. He distracted the beast from you all until I could handle it. He will be remembered well.”

“Please don’t do this to me, don’t make me cry like the deer.”

“I need your help,” Sur’in said. “Just like I said I did in the beginning.”

The mage put his hands on Eruk’s head, just as he had laid them on the head of the deer. Eruk began to cry.

“I was gonna marry that barmaid,” he wailed, just before his former boss began to whisper.

Though Eruk couldn’t hear Sur’in speak to the deer earlier, the mage’s words now stormed through his head. He felt calmer somehow, despite being aware of his impending doom. The voice told him that he was helping, and that Eruk’s life would aid a greater cause. With Sur’in guiding him, Eruk slowly dipped down to the ground.

Eruk seized up as the pain began. He could feel every vein in his body erupt in agony as the blood itself seemed to attempt escape. Despite this, Sur’in’s voice rang clearly in his mind, continually asking for forgiveness and reminding Eruk what his sacrifice meant. The hunter thrashed about as best he could, but could not escape the mage’s grip.

Eruk’s movements weakened as he felt his strength leaving him. Moments later, he opened his eyes, saw Sur’in staring back at him with orbs of darkness, then closed them one last time.

Sur’in laid his hired hand down to rest. “Give him a proper burial outside. Deep as you can before the torches begin to run out. We return to the city afterwards.”

Sur’in stretched his body as power surged through it. The others stared for a moment after hearing the order; one man was clearly holding tears back. Sur’in couldn’t focus on any of them; he was too caught up in the consumption of his first human life. He smiled, now full of vim and vigor. “I can do so much more for Glaar like this.”

He walked past the others, standing straighter and taller than ever before. If one life felt this good, a few more might help convince the Mage Council he needed more.

For research, of course.

Copyright © 2017 by Mike Soldat

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