Welcome to the second chapter of the first draft of The Final Calling, the eleventh Ethshar novel, which was eventually published as The Unwelcome Warlock. See About the Serial for an explanation of how this worked, the official blog for discussion and questions, and Misenchanted Tales for other nifty online fiction.
The cold air rushed past Sensella's face, drying her eyes and chilling her skin, but was not enough to distract her from her ferocious need to reach Aldagmor -- or rather, a specific place in Aldagmor; she knew she was probably somewhere in Aldagmor now, but she still had a league or two to go. Nothing else mattered -- not the cold, not the dark, not the family she had left behind. She knew her children and grandchildren would be upset that she was gone, that she had flown off in the middle of the night, but that wasn't as important as getting to the thing in Aldagmor, to whatever it was that was calling her. Her magic didn't matter, other than in helping her get there; if it were to suddenly vanish and she survived the fall, she knew she would just get to her feet and walk, or better yet, run, to answer the Call.
She had left before dawn, flown the day through, and now the sun had been below the horizon for more than an hour, but it would not be much longer. Dark forests rolled past beneath her feet as she flew through the night sky, stars twinkled overhead, and she knew she was getting close. That was so important, so urgent, that she was barely aware of her surroundings --
Until the sky above her lit up in a blaze of light and color that flashed in an instant from red through orange to yellow, and then turned impossibly white, lighting the World so brightly that everything was washed out, every shadow banished.
And while the Call did not stop, it was suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of reassurance, of comfort. The Calling was wordless, but put into words it would say more or less, "Come to me"; this new message, equally wordless and far more powerful, answered, "We have come."
But it wasn't speaking to her.
Sensella slowed in her flight, and blinked, trying to understand what was happening.
The landscape ahead was lit with that strange, intensely white light that leached the color from everything. It was fading somewhat, not as bright as it had been, but it was still more than enough to see. There was a valley, and there were forested mountains on the far side; it was uninhabited wilderness, no roads, no houses, no farms.
But in the middle of the valley was a mound, a strange dark mound directly ahead of her; Sensella could not make it out clearly. It was not overgrown with trees or grasses, like a natural hill, nor was it bare stone or earth. It was made up of hundreds or thousands of objects piled one upon another, but in the eerie whiteness Sensella could not judge their size, or discern their colors.
The source of that unnatural light hung directly above the mound, and was descending slowly toward it.
The Calling, she realized, came from the mound. This was what she had come to Aldagmor to find. This was the source of the warlocks' magic. She could feel the power surging through her. Until just a moment before she had been unaware of it, unable to use it for anything but flying closer, but now the spell was -- not broken, but countered, by that gigantic thing that was slowly sinking down from the heavens.
She looked up, trying to see through the glare, and her brain refused to resolve what her eyes saw into a comprehensible shape. There was something coming down from the sky, something the size of a small city, something that glowed as brightly as the sun, but in a different spectrum, and Sensella could not make herself see it. She thought it was more or less round, and at least twice as wide as it was tall, but beyond that she could not make sense of it.
And that message of reassurance came from the thing in the sky, just as the Call's demand for aid came from the mound -- or from something beneath the mound. The thing in the sky had come in response to the Call, just as she had herself; she knew it. She could not have explained how she knew it, any more than she could have said exactly what the Calling had been whispering to her all these years, but she did know it, completely and irrefutably.
Sensella had slowed in her flight, but not stopped; she was still approaching the mound, and now, as her eyes adjusted to the glare and her mind to the alienness of what she was seeing, she realized what the objects composing the mound were.
They were people. Hundreds of people, packed face-down into an immense pile. Most of them were dressed in black -- warlock black.
Shocked, she stopped in mid-air. She hung about sixty feet off the ground, staring at that great heap of humanity.
She could not hear anything; the Call and the Response made no actual sound, but they drowned out everything else all the same, filling the part of her brain that might otherwise have reacted to what her ears detected. She could smell nothing but the cool night air of the forested hills of Aldagmor. She could see the mound, but the strange light made it hard to know exactly what she was seeing, and she could not tell whether the people stacked up before her were breathing, whether they were alive or dead. Certainly, they weren't moving.
The idea that she was looking at a gigantic pile of corpses horrified her, and she reached out with her magic, with that awareness of location and movement that was a part of a warlock's supernatural abilities. She tried to sense the people she saw, to tell whether they were dead or alive.
She couldn't. Something stopped her perceptions.
It wasn't just that they were dead; warlockry could sense a dead body perfectly well. No, something was blocking her magic.
She looked up at the glowing thing. It was still descending.
If it didn't stop, she realized, it would land upon that mound and crush all those people.
"No!" she shouted. She moved forward again, descending, and landed running. It was only when her feet hit the dew-covered knee-high grass that she realized she was barefoot; she had risen from her bed in the middle of the night, and had been drawn away by the Calling in her nightgown, without shoes or a coat.
That didn't matter, though. She had to get to that mound, she had to help.
Somewhere deep in her mind she knew that she was confusing different urges, that she was combining the Call's demand to come to this place with her desire to help those poor helpless people, but right now that didn't matter; they both drove her toward that mound.
To her surprise, she reached it before the descending monstrosity did -- she guessed that she had misjudged either the thing's speed, or its size. She stopped just short of the mound, despite the relentless Calling that still tugged at her; she forced herself to stop, to look at the situation. The Response had drowned out enough of the Call to let her think, to allow her to remember that no Called warlock had ever returned, and she looked at the great pile in front of her and guessed that if she touched it she would be pulled in, never to escape. She was inches away from the motionless back of a gray-haired man in a black tunic, she saw, and to one side of him stood a white-haired woman, and beyond that a black-haired man; to the other side were more, wearing the black garb of warlocks, or assorted nightclothes, or in some cases nothing at all.
Looking between the shoulders of this front layer she could see more people, jammed together skin to skin, and stacked atop the people at ground level were others, standing or kneeling on shoulders and heads, leaning forward. The entire mound seemed to be a great mass of people, piled together too tightly to move or breathe, all utterly still, completely unmoving. She heard no movement, no breathing, no heartbeats -- yet they did not look dead. And her warlock perception could not detect anything at all; it was as if the World ended a step in front of her. The surrounding hills and forests, the grass beneath her feet, the air around her and the earth upon which she stood were all their normal, natural selves, composed of a myriad of tiny particles and subtle forces moving and interacting in ways that she, as a warlock, could sense but not explain, but the pile of people in front of her was just... blank.
She let her gaze move up, past the head of the man in front of her, past the woman sprawled above him, to where the stars and moons should have been, where the mysterious, incomprehensible thing was.
If that thing did come down to crush the mound, she realized, she wouldn't be able to get out from underneath it in time; it filled the entire sky above her, a gently-glowing immensity she still could not bring into focus.
But then the descent stopped, and something protruded from the hovering mass, reaching down toward the mound of people.
Something shimmered, and something moved, and she sensed thumping and rustling -- sensed it more than heard it, though she realized that her hearing was beginning to adjust to the overwhelming presence of the Response. She stepped back -- and even as she did, she marveled that she could step back, away from the source of the Calling.
She knew she should be terrified, should be mad with terror, being here and seeing these things -- that gigantic thing in the sky, the huge pile of what could only be Called warlocks that were neither alive nor dead, these displays of magic completely outside human understanding -- but somehow she was not; the Response, even though it was very clearly not directed at anything human, was so reassuring that it calmed her and let her watch everything with a certain detachment.
And then the first body rolled down the mound and thumped onto the ground a few feet away.
She started, and turned to find a middle-aged man lying on his back in the grass, looking dazed. She turned to help him.
"Are you all right?" she asked, as she reached for his hand.
His gaze was fixed on the thing in the sky, and he did not take her hand. She was unsure he had even heard her. "What is that?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said. "Can you sit up?"
He finally turned his head enough to see her, and her outstretched hand. "Am I dead?" he asked.
"I don't think so," Sensella replied. "But if you don't move, that may not last."
"But I -- "
He was interrupted by the thump of another body hitting the ground.
"Come on," Sensella said. "I don't think we should stay here!"
He finally took her hand and allowed her to help him to his feet, just as an elderly woman fell to the ground a dozen feet away.
"What's going on?" the man demanded. "Where are we?"
"We're in Aldagmor," Sensella told him. "But I don't know what's happening."
"That thing," the man said. "Who is it talking to?"
Sensella glanced up. "Then you hear it, too?"
"Of course I do! How could I not? It's deafening!" He turned and looked at the mound. "And... the Calling? I answered the Call?"
"So did I," Sensella said. "I think they all did."
"Was I in there?" The expression on his face worried Sensella; it seemed not so much the apprehension or revulsion she would have expected, but eager longing.
More people were tumbling down the sides of the mound, falling onto the grass; a few cried out in pain and surprise as they hit the ground.
And then one of them, a woman Sensella thought looked about thirty, caught herself halfway down and flew to one side.
As if that reminded the others that they were warlocks, several people took to the air; suddenly curious, Sensella did the same, lifting herself up, leaving the confused man behind.
Her magic worked as well as ever -- better, in fact; she shot upward with astonishing ease, and had to catch herself before she slammed into the underside of the gigantic glowing object.
Once airborne, she had a clearer view of what was going on. A long, thin, grayish-white projection of some sort, vaguely tubular, was reaching down from the hovering thing, and pushing down into the mound of people, pulling some of them out and heaving them aside, where they tumbled down to the ground -- or if they reacted in time, caught themselves before they fell that far.
Some of them, Sensella saw, then flung themselves back against the mound, trying to get back into it; she couldn't tell whether any of them succeeded.
Most of them, though, were able to resist the Calling, as Sensella could, now that the Response had come. They were flying about the scene in a cloud of warlocks, like gnats around a lantern, looking at the mound, and at the thing blotting out the sky.
"It was Called, too!" someone exclaimed, pointing up.
"Listen to it," someone else replied. "That's what was being Called all along! Whatever's down there didn't want us, it wanted that!"
"And we just got caught up by accident?"
"But what is it?"
Dozens of people were talking at once now, in a dozen languages, and Sensella could no longer follow it all; she ignored the other warlocks as she tried to understand what was happening.
The pile, she knew, was made up of warlocks who had answered the Call, and the only reason she had not plunged right into it and become part of it, trapped in whatever spell held it together, was that the Response, as she thought of it, the voiceless message of comfort that came from that gargantuan flying thing that had come down out of the sky, had drowned out the Calling and let her think again.
The Calling came from beneath the pile of warlocks, she was sure, and whatever was down there was protected by a spell of some kind, a spell that had frozen the warlocks when they got too close, a spell that had made them imperceptible to her own magic. It was probably a defensive spell, a magical barrier, guarding the Call's source until the thing it was Calling came for it.
And now the Response had come, more than thirty years after the Calling began, and it was digging through the trapped warlocks to get at whatever was down there.
But it had been Calling warlocks for all those years; that was a lot of warlocks. Thousands of them, surely! Already, dozens were flying around, and most of the mound was still untouched.
But it couldn't be all the Called warlocks, could it? Could there be people who had been trapped in there since the Night of Madness, back in 5202? That was thirty-four years ago! Sensella herself had been a baker's apprentice, fifteen years old, the night she woke up screaming, hanging in mid-air above her bed, suddenly aware of every motion in the room around her, her mind filled with images of fire and falling. Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, had vanished that night, flying off to Aldagmor, and ever since then any warlock who grew careless, who used too much magic and made himself too receptive to the Calling, had eventually been drawn away, as well -- just as she had herself, less than a day ago.
Sensella turned, to see a man she judged to be in his late thirties staring at a young woman; both were flying above the mound, and their almost random flight had brought them near one another, and near Sensella, as well.
The woman turned to look at the man. "Do I know you?" she asked.
"I'm Chanden! Your nephew Chanden! Luralla's son!"
The woman blinked at him. "But Chanden's just a boy!"
"I was on the Night of Madness, when you vanished, but that was more than twenty years ago."
"Thirty-four," Sensella interjected.
The young woman looked confused. "I don't understand," she said.
"Thirty-four?" Chanden turned to Sensella. "How do you know?"
"I wasn't in there," Sensella said, pointing down at the pile of humanity. "I was just arriving when... when that appeared." She pointed up.
"So -- so it's 5236? I'm eight years in the future?"
"It's 5236, yes -- were you in there for eight years?"
"I... I suppose I was." He looked down. "It doesn't feel like it. I was... I answered the Call, and I flew here, and I saw that, and I didn't understand what it was, but I knew I had to get in there, so I flew down to it, and then -- then I was thrown back out, and that thing was up there saying everything was all right now, and..." His voice trailed off.
"If it was 5228 when you came, then it's been eight years."
"It didn't even feel like eight minutes."
"Magic," Sensella told him. "Strong magic."
He looked up. "Yes," he said. "It must be."
"Your aunt," Sensella asked. "She disappeared on the Night of Madness?"
"And that's her? She's out now?"
"Yes! It flung her out just now; I saw it, and recognized her, but she doesn't know me..."
"It's dug down to the first warlocks, then?"
Chanden turned. "Oh. I guess it has, yes."
Sensella was not sure why, but that troubled her. The Response, whatever it was, must be almost down to the source of the Call. She looked down, and was suddenly aware that she was standing on nothing, perhaps a hundred feet up.
She had done that dozens, maybe hundreds, of times since the Night of Madness. She had flown for miles without feeling any worry, but now it troubled her. She swooped down, eager to get back on solid ground. She landed perhaps fifty feet from the mound, and turned -- just as the next big change came.
The first had been when the flying thing had appeared out of nowhere and she had felt the Response; the second had been when it started burrowing down into the mound, flinging warlocks aside.
And the third was when the spell holding the immense mound of people together suddenly stopped.
The change was abrupt, completely unheralded -- one instant the pile of people was motionless, undetectable to warlock senses, magically frozen in time, and the next instant they were awake and aware of their surroundings, aware of being trapped in a gigantic three-dimensional mob; they were writhing and screaming, spilling outward in all directions, trying to get out before they were smothered or crushed.
"It's all right!" Sensella shouted, using her magic to snatch the nearest person out of the seething mass. "You're safe! Just use your magic!" She pulled a second person free, and a third, dropping them unceremoniously on the grass a few yards away from the suddenly-expanding ball of screaming, crying warlocks.
The mound collapsed and vanished, and still people came spilling out, flying, running, walking, jumping, or crawling. The mound was gone, and in its place was a pit, and the pit was jammed full of people.
Sensella was not the only one helping; dozens of other warlocks were calling reassurances and pulling panicky people to safety. The crowd surrounding the pit extended for a hundred yards in every direction and was still expanding, and hundreds or even thousands of warlocks were flying above, as well.
Sensella looked up at the swarm of warlocks with an inexplicable sense of foreboding. She didn't know why, but she was absolutely certain this was a bad time to be flying. "Get down!" she called. "It's not safe up there!"
Still more people were clambering or flying out of the pit. Sensella could not see it through the crowd anymore, but she could sense it magically now, and she knew it was deep, very deep -- the people at the bottom needed their magic to get out.
Thank the gods, she thought, that only warlocks heard the Call; every one here had the magic they needed to escape.
Some of them, though, might not know it -- if they had been among the very first, drawn away on the Night of Madness, they might have no idea how to control their power, how to use their warlockry to do anything other than answer the Call. Sensella was no longer close enough to be heard, or to reach anyone in the pit with her own magic when there was so much other power seething in the air, but she could sense that others were helping, the pit was mostly empty now.
Then the fourth change came.
The Calling stopped. With staggering abruptness, the constant demand, the need to come to this place, that had filled every head, was simply gone.
And with that, the warlocks' magic vanished.
The remaining thirty-eight chapters have been removed at the publisher's request.
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