Iliya blinked against the sunlight. It seemed like years since he had last felt its warmth on his skin and breathed fresh air for more than a short moment. The Keeper led him across the courtyard to an armoured gate in the wall surrounding Larkon. A few guards were patrolling, but it only took a single gesture from the Keeper to convince them that everything was in perfect order. They passed without any trouble and walked away from the rigid building blocks that made up the prison. A gravel road wound away from the gate. The Keeper strode in the opposite direction where an open meadow littered with clumps of trees met them.
They really were outside the prison’s walls. Iliya’s heart nearly somersaulted.
“Well, here we are,” Cornelius said and opened his arms to indicate the surroundings. The grass came up to his calves, and a light breeze played with his long, perfect hair.
There was plenty of space … And no witnesses? Iliya tried to banish the thought from his mind. Surely the Keeper wouldn’t go to extremes. For one brief moment, the thought crossed his mind that the Keeper may intend to kill him off, but that was absurd. They would execute him if the Keeper told them to. There was no need for anything as elaborate as this. No, Iliya had to assume there would be some sort of test.
“Are you ready?”
Iliya cleared his throat. “I suppose I am. For what?”
The Keeper smiled. “Don’t hold back. Whatever you think you are, I assure you there is no need for holding back.”
So they were going to have a duel. The fresh air almost stung Iliya’s lungs. He hadn’t felt magic run through his body for a long time. The cell was heavily warded so he wouldn’t perform any magic, and it would have been stupid to do anything when he was in the same room as the Keeper. Latent power always emanated from Cornelius himself, and Iliya had noticed him doing little things now and then, but that was all. Now Iliya’s senses were tingling and itching and his body and mind almost pleaded for him to use his abilities. It almost didn’t matter that he was aching from being locked up in a cell. His magical inclination sprang to life immediately.
The Keeper stepped backwards ten long paces. No holding back? A smile tugged at Iliya’s lips. Cornelius was awfully sure of himself. He knew that Iliya was powerful, a death speaker, a seasoned soldier and offensive combat wizard. Once again, Iliya couldn’t help wondering if Cornelius also knew he had been considered for special training to become what the Keeper was today.
Nothing happened. Was Iliya supposed to go first? He breathed in, absorbed as much energy as he could. For one moment, he felt a strange, unfamiliar panic well up. What if he killed the Keeper? Not holding back meant lethal spells, attacks that were intended to annihilate the enemy in battle. Attacks that would kill unless a blocker deflected them or shielded the target and … He stopped himself. He really should just follow the order.
He launched an attack that would hit only a small radius. Magic surged through him, impossible to contain for long, and erupted into a blast and a flash of light that soared towards the Keeper. Whiteness almost blinded Iliya upon impact. But the Keeper was still standing. His arms were stretched out, and the grass around him was seared. Some of it was still burning. He had parried or deflected the attack. Iliya couldn’t help smiling. It was impressive. But his opponent had been prepared for an attack.
Cornelius raised his hand, and before Iliya could react, before he could even detect a spell being cast, he was hurled into the air.
He landed, rolled, and scrambled to his feet again, dizzy and sore and somehow, despite how much he hated war and life on the front, back in his right element. He hadn’t practised for weeks, hadn’t been able to exercise physically, but it hardly mattered. Magic greeted him, rubbed against him like a loyal pet. He found a suitable spell in the back of his mind and he began to cast, to chant ancient words that would turn the ground under the Keeper into a molten mass when combined with the right intention. But before he finished, an invisible hand closed around his throat. Iliya gasped and spluttered as darkness began to seep into the edge of his vision. His counterattack would have to be non-verbal. He managed to coax enough magic to halt the grip on his neck. When the Keeper let go, Iliya’s breath came in ragged heaves, and he staggered to stay on his feet.
He was better than that. He could do this. Iliya muttered a spell, gathered the energy and sent another bolt towards the Keeper. It, too, would have killed an ordinary man on the spot, but Cornelius just took a step backwards and held up his arms, and the blast happened in the air above him. The force caused the leaves on the closest trees to curl up and die an ashen death.
Cornelius directed another wave of magic at Iliya. This time, Iliya managed to intercept it, but it still sent him floundering backwards.
The fight continued for probably far shorter time than it felt. Iliya had to admit the Keeper had not overestimated himself. The ease with which he overcame every single one of Iliya’s attacks was inhuman. Was he really that powerful? Or was it the influence of the demon? Iliya heard himself roar as he gathered enough energy to keep attacking, but he was getting drained quickly. Even in a real battle, he would not have to defend himself and repeatedly attack this quickly. He was sweating and panting, and his legs were starting to tremble. If the Keeper had wanted to harm him, he would have been dead after a single spell or two, he now knew.
How long were they going to keep it up? Iliya sent one final blast towards Cornelius and then his whole world began to go dark. No, no, no … He tried to stay on his feet, but his body was giving up and he crashed to his hands and knees and …
And they were all around him.
His comrades falling, dead or dying, and the woods smelled of blood and mud and burnt trees and fear.
And those who were still alive were surrounded in the clearing. There was a blocker next to Iliya, struggling to keep the shield from breaking. They were ten left, and the enemy soldiers outnumbered them by far, but they were going to fight until death. They had all drawn their sabres. All but the blocker. Iliya found the energy to strike, but before he could cast, the blocker fell, and they were stormed. Shouts and screams and cries pierced the air.
Iliya narrowly avoided the tip of a sabre, countered the attack, but was swiftly pushed backwards. They swarmed around the Geranian soldiers, and Iliya’s arm was stung by a sword. The jab was followed up by a blow to his head, and Iliya found himself sprawled on the ground with strange faces looming over him.
He didn’t have time to see who else was still alive. He didn’t have time to think. He absorbed everything, sucked in every last bit of magic lingering on the dead blocker. The energy that still hung in the air of the battlefield, anything that he could touch. And then he heard his own voice, hoarse and twisted, pound out the words he needed.
Above him, the enemy faces distorted. The soldiers’ hands dropped the weapons and flew to their faces or their chests to claw at the pain, but it was no use. They were dying. And as they drew their last breath, Iliya continued to shout, and somehow he managed to get to his feet and raise his arms to control his puppets. He made them turn on their comrades. Made them crash right into them. And the horrific cacophony reached a whole new crescendo as everyone, the Derean as well as the Geranian soldiers, realised what was going on.
In that moment, Iliya couldn’t care. He was saving them, wasn’t he?
Someone was yelling at him. It was one of his comrades. Calling for help? Iliya made an enemy soldier behead another and then turned to the shouting man. No, his comrade wasn’t calling for help. He was begging Iliya to stop.
But he couldn’t. The magic was tearing at him, invisible threads from the walking corpses sticking to his fingers, and as he tried to sever the connection, it felt as if he were set on fire.
He screamed. And …
“That’s enough,” the Keeper’s voice said.
Iliya opened his eyes. The tall wizard was standing right in front of him. He could have delivered the finishing blow easily.
“Can you stand?”
Iliya didn’t reply. He struggled to get to his feet instead. Then everything around him began to fade and slip away again, and he must have slipped too, for the next thing he was aware of was a sharp jerk in his shoulder and arm, and he was almost dangling from Cornelius’ hand.
“So no, I take it. Sit down before you hurt yourself.” The Keeper slowly let go so he could compose himself.
Iliya rested his forehead on his knees and concentrated on breathing. Deeply, slowly. He was sweating and trembling and his stomach was not certain that it wanted to keep his breakfast down.
“Well, Iliya, that was impressive.”
Iliya scowled at the Keeper. But he didn’t look or sound sarcastic.
“Keep breathing,” continued the Keeper. “I mean it. You really are a powerful and dangerous criminal.”
“Am I meant to thank you for that?” Iliya panted.
“No. It’s not a compliment. Merely an observation,” replied the Keeper. He stood for a moment, looking at the meadow around them, perhaps considering the seared grass and the withered trees. “Did you remember?” he then asked.
How could he know that? Or perhaps a better question was if he had actually brought Iliya out here to jolt his memory as well as to test his strength. Iliya nodded.
“Well, then?” Cornelius encouraged.
It wasn’t easy to convey. Now that he did recall, the event was raw and painful in his mind, and his words came out in a disjointed heap. But they must have made sense because the Keeper didn’t ask more questions. Iliya still had no recollection of being captured or brought to Larkon, but it wasn’t hard to piece together what had happened after the incident in the forest, and his interrogator probably already knew from other sources.
“Now,” the Keeper said a moment later, “while you recover, will you consider this: What would you do if you had the choice?”
Iliya frowned. Run away? Was that what he was supposed to reply?
Cornelius sighed as if he had read Iliya’s mind. “I meant,” he clarified, “if you could walk away from all this with no consequences imposed on you by me or the judge or anyone else. If you could return to your former life without any problems or do something else.”
“Why?” Iliya asked.
The Keeper crossed his arms over his chest. “Indulge me, Iliya.”
“Well, I ...” He thought, then the shadow of a smile found its way to his lips. “I would not return to the army. I would find a quiet town somewhere and settle down. Not as a wizard right away, I think. No, I’d be a thatcher or a farmhand and earn my living. I would do magic, a little bit. Simple things like boiling water for tea or lightening a lantern. Just for myself. I’d live there and … and enjoy being alive and all the little problems that life would throw at me. And maybe I’d meet someone ...”
“And have children?”
“Maybe.” Iliya shook his head and got to his feet without much trouble this time.
“Hm. I see. Thank you for sharing that with me.” The Keeper gestured for him to walk, and side by side they strolled towards the prison again.
Iliya wished the trip there would take a little longer. That he wouldn’t be back in the cell in a few minutes. That he could keep this bright day with its cool breeze and its sunlight and its fresh air that smelled like grass and leaves and soil for a little longer.
“It matters. I don’t believe in lumping people or their deeds together,” said the Keeper suddenly. “I believe that different people have different motivations for the things they do in life and the crimes they commit. I came here to make up my mind about you. And I have.”
Iliya only nodded. He was afraid to ask what the Keeper had concluded.