It was the throbbing in his skull that finally dragged William up from unconsciousness, and for a moment it was the entirety of his universe. He couldn't remember what he'd drunk or where, but he'd clearly had far, far too much.
"Dammit, Rogers," he muttered as something cold under his cheek finally registered. Something cold and hard and uncomfortable. William wove the spell he used on hangovers by reflex. "You left me to sleep on the floor, you bastar..." He trailed off as the spell cleared his head and reality hit.
It was dark, and he was in a cave. He wasn't waking up on his living room floor, and his butler was a thousand miles away. The men who had come with him were dead, and the carpet he'd flown in on was shredded. He was numb with the cold, but he was pretty sure he was badly hurt. Oh, and there was a griffon out to kill him.
That's when the panic set in.
He was going to die. That's all there was to it. He was going to die slowly and painfully of starvation, or quickly and painfully at the claws of the griffon, but either way, he was dead, and there wasn't anything he could do about it. He had no help, no supplies, no plan, no skills, and no talent. There wasn't a damn thing he could do, and it was all because he felt the need to prove something to his father, a man who didn't care if he lived or died.
"It isn't fair!" he wailed.
The griffon answered. It started as a quiet growl, but quickly rose in volume until it turned into a vicious screech. It was filled with hate and rage, and echoed through the cave in a way that made it seem like it was coming from behind him as much as from outside.
"Just shut up! Shut up, you stupid, mangy, flea-bitten, misbegotten monstrosity!" he shouted back, waving his fists at the creature he could feel waiting, just out of sight. "This is your fault! Bloody cretinous, bone headed, patchwork beast! You started it, you, you... aaaah!"
Panic and righteous indignation can only hold back reality for so long, and when they wavered... there was pain. A lot of pain. His hands hurt from where they scraped the ground, a warm, almost burning pain. His back hurt from the fall, a dull throbbing ache from shoulder to ass. His head hurt where he'd slammed into the wall, a sharp, almost rubbery pain tied to a twisting nausea in his gut. His hip hurt where the griffon's claw had caught him, a long, searing pain.
William collapsed to the ground as every bit of him screamed in its own unique way. It had, perhaps, been a bad idea to storm around and shout when most of him was broken.
The cave was quiet, save for William's soft whimpers and the faint sounds of the griffon's breathing, all wet and raspy. The cold darkness wrapped around him like a shroud, its ghostly touch like fingers grazing his face and hands. He could almost see them, vague shadows that might be people. Their voices slid past, carried on the sound of the griffon's soft panting.
Then, suddenly, they were there. Shadows of his men, darker than the gloom, nothing but outlines with eyes and mouths.
You should have known, whispered one.
We trusted you, said the second. It waved the stump of an arm at him. Drips of black oozed off the end.
We thought you knew what to do, said the third.
Despair, cold and empty, washed over him. "It's not my fault," he whispered, almost sobbed.
The shadows twisted around themselves. There were hints of a rough beard, a crooked nose, a peaked receding hairline, a scowl. You always were useless. That voice was his father's. Even in the quiet he could hear the scorn, the stinging contempt. William's face burned as if he'd been slapped, like he had so many times before.
"Fuck you, Father," William growled. The shapes in the darkness faded away under his glare. "I did my best." His best wasn't very good. Maybe he should've been better, or smarter, or more talented. He wasn't, and he wouldn't let them blame him for things he couldn't do. He was alive. They weren't, but he was and he'd be damned if he was just going to give up, lying there on the floor of a cave in the middle of the wilderness. If he died it wasn't going to be for lack of trying. It hurt but he forced himself to sit, ignoring the protests of his broken body.
It wasn't entirely dark in the cave. Night had fallen, and the stars and moons were up. Their light had been dim enough to fool him into seeing shapes that weren't really there, but bright enough to make out some of what really was. He was ten feet or so into the cave, far enough that the griffon couldn't reach him. The cave walls by his head were perhaps five feet apart, though the cave opening itself was much narrower. The cave curved off to the left, into darkness.
The view out of the cave mouth was breathtaking. Kadel and Thedel, the tethered moons, had risen. Kadel was out of sight, but Thedel was partly visible, cut in half by the right-hand cave wall. The blue ribbon that tied the moons together shimmered softly in the sky, and the air was so clear he could almost see the trees that grew on it. The stars, too, were bright, untold thousands of them casting their light on the land.
He couldn't see the griffon. William wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. He wasn't leaving the cave, though, not at night. Checking on the griffon could wait.
William slumped back against the cave wall and closed his eyes. He was in bad shape, but he'd been hurt worse. Granted, that time he'd only had to make it from his father's study to his bedroom and now he was two thousand miles from home, but at least he didn't have any broken bones this time. It probably evened out. And it was better than the Marchioness Claudins's last birthday party. That had been a complete disaster.
William shifted, trying to get comfortable. He ran his fingers lightly across his hip. His tunic and breeches were ripped and there was blood crusted all over the gash. Nothing felt wet so he didn't prod any more. It was too dark to see anything, but if the wound wasn't bleeding he'd last until morning. He'd decide what to do once he had some light.
When he put his hand back down on the ground, his fingers brushed a fist-sized rock. He grabbed it, feeling a regular, familiar shape. The flight crystal.
His thumb caught on a rough spot on one side where a piece had chipped off. It felt odd, a little slick, and it made his hand tingle. That was a good sign: it was still magical. The crystal started to glow as he let a little of his mana trickle into it. There was a dark crack through it, running from the edge of the chip to the heart of the stone.
Even with the damage he could feel the warmth from it. He relaxed and pushed more mana into the crystal, but while it brightened nothing else happened. Its flight spell was gone, or damaged enough that it didn't work. Either way the result was the same -- he wasn't going to fly anywhere. Still, the crystal had power in it. Being able to fly would have been great, but light and spare mana was good enough.
Holding the glowing crystal to his side, he looked at the wound. His tunic and breeches were both ripped, and underneath them so was he. The gash ran from just over his left hip to his crotch. It was scabbed over, the edges of the fabric stuck in the dried blood. It hurt like hell, but he'd been very lucky: an inch longer and he'd have been castrated, an inch deeper and he would've bled to death.
William ran through the few first aid spells he knew. He could cure a hangover, keep a wound from festering, or patch up small cuts, but nothing bigger. He'd always been told it was just a matter of scale, but he'd never been that good with even the small fixes, and wasn't quite willing to put anything to the test.
Small was better than nothing, though. He let his Sight slip in. The Sight was what let wizards see the colored threads of mana that they created and wove into spells. His was fuzzy at the best of times, barely good enough to See a few feet. He didn't bother most of the time he wove spells, going by feel and hope. But, then, most of the time his spells didn't work too well. This time he was patching himself up, and wasn't taking any chances.
The spell he needed to weave was simple, one most wizards could do in a second. William traced out the pattern he needed with his finger. As it moved it left a yellow thread behind, stitching together the end of his wound. The spell hummed a low note as he built it up, and tiny orange discs appeared from nowhere and spilled across his lap.
He had to cast it eight times and his teeth ached from the discordant notes from each one, but the wound on his hip was, barely, closed. As a small bonus, his bruises had subsided a little, replaced with a gnawing hunger. William ignored it as best he could. He hoped some of the supply boxes had crashed nearby.
Fixing his tunic and breeches was easier than fixing himself. The rent fabric was too badly damaged to truly repair, but the spell to tie the rough edges together was simple, and one he could do almost without thinking. He'd used it enough in school, patching up the tattered toy bear he'd brought with him, his only real reminder of home. A decade later it still sat on his bed, held together mostly by magic.
It was probably a waste of mana, repairing his clothes, but William didn't care. He wasn't sure how long he would be stuck in the cave, and he didn't relish the thought of bits of him sticking out.
William knew he needed to look around. He was in a cave, and there was no telling what else might be in it with him -- bats, or stone vines, or rot worms, or a dozen other nasty things. Better to know than not. That meant getting up and surveying his surroundings.
It was a good plan, he thought. No, it was an excellent plan, the best one he'd had in months, which made failure inevitable. When William tried to stand he wobbled a little. The world around him wobbled a lot. Then it all went a little strange and faded to black.
The warm sunlight streaming onto William's face roused him, bright enough that it had to be late morning or early afternoon. He couldn't tell for sure but it didn't make much difference. Either way he'd lost more time. His stomach rumbled, the sound echoing throughout the cave. That got him moving. Nothing had bothered him yet, but there was no way he was going to count on the cave being empty, not without checking.
Sitting up hurt less than it had the previous evening. His head was clearer and most of the smaller aches seemed to have faded. The throbbing in his head, the fire in his side, and the dull ache in his stomach were all that remained.
Putting one hand against the cold cave wall, William braced himself and tried to stand. He was shaky and stiff and hurt, but he wasn't going to let that stop him. He'd survived the griffon, the fall from the sky, and his own attempt to escape. He grabbed the wall as best he could and pushed through the pain.
Once he made it to his feet it wasn't too tough to stay upright. With one hand on the wall for support, he limped to the back of the cave. As he'd feared, it went deeper into the cliff. He went too, using the flight crystal as a lamp. The cave went on another twenty feet, then turned to the right. He followed. As soon as he turned the corner he shivered; it felt as though someone was running a cold, wet finger down his spine. The passage turned again another three feet in, this time opening into a small, roughly circular chamber.
It was maybe ten feet in diameter, and in the center was a pool taking up half the floor. The water wasn't deep, six or seven inches at most, more a puddle than an actual pool, with pebbles and small chunks of stone scattered in it. Looking up, William could see the blue sky far above -- too far to climb even if he wasn't hurt, but too far up and too narrow for the griffon to get down.
The pool was probably just rainwater and snowmelt. He wasn't sure what else might be in it, but the water was clear and he was thirsty enough to risk it. He used his cleaner hand to scoop up some water and lift it to his lips.
It tasted fine. A little metallic, and very cold, but it was refreshing. Some of the pebbles in the water were interesting, round pieces of black glass and white marble. Pretty, and a handful of them thrown in the griffon's face might distract it. He put some in a pocket of his cloak. The feeling of cold fingers faded away as he left the little pool room; the chill of the cave seemed positively balmy in comparison.
He gingerly lowered himself to the floor as soon as he got far enough away from the back of the cave. The short walk left him far more tired than it should have, and he was going to end up on the ground one way or another. Not falling over seemed an excellent idea.
Though he was, at least temporarily, safe in the cave, safety wasn't getting him home. He had water, but no food. A cloak and heavy clothing, good enough for the weather. A small dagger, mostly useful for eating with. A broken flight crystal with some mana he could draw on, enough to weave a few spells. He dug through the pockets of his cloak and spread the contents on the ground. Pebbles. Some lint. A handful of coins that totaled a bit more than ten crowns. An amulet.
Nine of the coins were gold. It didn't matter that he was so far from home that they wouldn't be recognized -- gold was good almost anywhere. If he was careful they should be enough to get him most of the way home. If he could make it to civilization.
The amulet was brass, a small seven pointed star with a yellow enameled center. A smile edged across his face as he fingered it.
The safari master at the university had insisted he take the thing. There was a preservation spell stored in the amulet, one he was supposed to use only in emergencies. He wouldn't get cold, or need to eat or drink. He wouldn't heal if he got hurt or replenish any mana he used, though, and when the spell was finally broken something unpleasant would happen. He wasn't sure what, and more than ever he was regretting not paying attention when the expedition started. Regardless, it was an option. One he'd wait to use until he had to, but if the supplies from the carpet weren't nearby he wouldn't have much choice.
Before he could do anything, he needed to get out of the cave and look around. The griffon was still waiting for him. He could feel it somehow, its hatred hot and fetid, tickling the back of his head. It was an unpleasant feeling, one he'd never had before. He'd been tested in school, and wasn't clairvoyant or empathic, so it was probably just his imagination.
He snorted. His brains weren't so scrambled that he believed that. The griffon was outside, and he needed something better to fight with than a four inch knife. He needed something, but he couldn't think of any spells that would help. Not any he knew, at least. A great wizard could call down huge blasts of lightning from the sky. A good wizard could stun the griffon and tie it magical knots. William... could light a candle.
That might be of some use if William actually had a candle, but he didn't. Right then he wasn't sure if he could even manage that. William held his hand up and stared at it, trying to weave a simple flame. It wasn't difficult, just a single red thread in a circle. He traced it out in his mind, and felt the tingle in the back of his head as he tapped his mana.
The orange disc faded in first, then the wavering hum. As the circle's ends met it burst into flames. Not big, about two inches high, but given how battered he was, William felt inordinately proud he'd managed that much. He forced more mana through the weaving and watched the flame grow bigger. He grinned a nasty grin. If the griffon was waiting, he'd singe its feathers.
Carefully he edged to the entrance, the small flame held in front of him like a shield. It was almost invisible in the bright sunlight that streamed into the cave, but that was fine. He wasn't looking to scare off the griffon, just burn it. William was almost looking forward to that.
The scenario played out in his head. He'd step out. The griffon would see him. It would lunge, he'd throw the flame at it, then its head would catch on fire and it would fly away, shrieking in pain. William smiled a little. It was a good plan, one he liked. True, in his little preview the ball of flame in his hand was a lot bigger, but that was a minor detail.
At least it should've been a minor detail. As soon as he stepped out of the cave there was a vicious growl and a flash of brown. William squawked and threw himself backwards into the cave, the flame flashing away to nothing as he fell over himself to get out of the way.
The griffon's claw tore a piece out of his cloak, but missed flesh. He landed flat on his back and scrambled backwards as fast as he could. It hurt like hell, and the griffon wasted no time trying to get him. He almost didn't make it, but the griffon was holding its left wing tight against its body and that made its movements awkward.
William's flight backwards ended when he slammed against the cave wall. It set off a wave of pain, each hurt bit of him making itself known. Hurt or not, he was far enough back that the griffon couldn't get him. That didn't stop the beast. It raged and struck at him, trying to squeeze through the too-small cave opening. William could see the sparks its claws raised as they hit the stone floor.
The beast reared up in the cave mouth, blocking out the sun. It screamed, full of rage and hate. The noise echoed in the small space, making William feel as though he was surrounded by an army of griffons, all out for his blood. This close he could smell the thing, a near-overpowering musk with a thread of something fetid that made his stomach churn.
William's fury rose. His guide was dead, his porters were dead, his expedition was destroyed, he was hurt worse than he wanted to think about, he was trapped in a cave, and it was all this stupid griffon's fault. William screamed in answer to the beast. He threw everything he had into that scream, all his fear and frustration and pain.
His magic answered, though he hadn't called it. A blast of flaming orange discs and discordant noise filled the cave mouth and enveloped the griffon for a moment, then vanished. The griffon's feathers were singed, and the smell of burning cat hair overwhelmed the musk that had filled the cave, but the beast didn't look hurt. Neither had expected the fire, though, and William and the griffon looked at each other in surprise.
The griffon moved first. With a low growl it ducked to the left, but the noise didn't stop when the beast was out of sight. The rumbling filled the cave, letting William know it was waiting for him, daring him to try and leave.
William let himself slump against the cold stone wall. He could hardly lift an arm, and his hands were trembling with fatigue. He didn't know how he managed the fire, but he had. Not that it mattered. It had used all his mana, but all it had done was singe the griffon.
"I am so dead," he whispered.
The ball of flame hit the cave wall with a musical ping and splashed into a shower of tiny orange discs and a few small puddles of fire that quickly burnt away to nothing. The little scorch marks they left on the cave floor merged with the dozens of other black spots. William frowned at the flame in his palm. It was smaller than the one he'd just thrown, but it was his ninth. The first time he managed nine in a row, so it was a triumph of sorts.
He didn't feel particularly triumphant. He'd been stuck in the cave for three days, and the best he'd managed was nine balls of fire before he had to rest. Not exactly the stuff of legends, though it was nice that his head was still clear. Normally he was a little woozy by the time his mana ran out.
Nine balls of fire weren't going to get him out of the cave. Two days ago he'd blasted the griffon with everything he had and all it had done was annoy the beast and leave the cave reeking of burnt fur and feathers for the rest of the day. It certainly hadn't convinced it to go away. When it was quiet he could hear the thing's rough breathing. William was waiting for it to leave, and it was waiting for him to step out.
He was getting better weaving fire, though. That was something. A sad and kind of sooty something, but it was the only thing that had gone anywhere near right since the expedition had started. Sighing, he let the ball evaporate away. It had taken everything he had left to conjure that last bit of flame, and fatigue washed over him as the fire vanished.
William's stomach chose that moment to growl, reminding him of yet another problem he had. So far he'd managed to ignore his hunger, but it was getting tougher. He'd hoped the extra padding a decade of easy living had left around his waist would help, but so far it hadn't.
The sun glinting off the amulet caught his eye. He'd set it aside earlier, near the entrance to the cave. Part of him was afraid his sloppy spellcraft would damage it. Another part was afraid of the temptation to use it. Its preservation spell would stop the hunger, but it would stop his healing too, and he wasn't willing to risk that. His side was feeling a little better, and even if he managed to get past the griffon it was a long walk back to civilization. The healthier he was the more likely he'd actually make it.
William forced his eyes away from the amulet and grabbed the flight crystal instead. He relaxed, letting its mana flow into him. It took the thing most of the day to recharge, but its power meant he could practice more, and who knows, maybe nine tiny little balls of fire would be enough to kill the griffon.
It was something to do, at least. And the extra mana kept the hunger at bay a little.
Not that there was any point. He was stuck, and he wasn't getting out. He was going to die there, in his cave, from hunger, or the griffon, or his injuries. He wasn't sure which, but one of them would get him.
"Dammit!" He struck at the wall, with fist and anger and magic. The ball of flame he'd let go reappeared, glowing a hot blue and ringed with orange. It slammed into the stone but William didn't let go of the spell. He threw everything he had into it, all the fury and frustration and fear. He couldn't do a damn thing about the griffon, couldn't get himself out of the cave, couldn't save himself or his people.
He raged at his impotence and incompetence until he collapsed, too weak to stand. The flame snuffed out, leaving behind a spot on the wall that glowed cherry red for a moment.
William gave a savage grin as he watched the spot cool and dim. He'd done that. Maybe it wouldn't be enough to stop the griffon, but he'd hurt it, hurt it badly and make it remember him. He may not have done much with his life, but his death would leave a mark on something.
After he rested, of course. The crystal was empty and so was he, and a nap would be good.
In his dreams William was running. Something was chasing him, something in the darkness, just out of sight. He didn't know what it was, but he knew it was there. The sound of its breathing, raspy and wet, tickled his ears. Its smell, harsh musk and the stench of death, filled the space around him.
He ran because he had to. If he stopped, even for a moment, it would pounce and kill him. He couldn't get away from it, no matter how fast he ran, but he couldn't stop. Rough, mocking laughter came from the darkness as he took a bad step and stumbled.
William jerked awake as an angry shriek echoed through the cave. There was something big blocking the cave mouth, casting a long shadow over him. With a strangled shout he pitched a ball of fire at it. It was one of the best he'd done -- the flame was blue-white, centered in a thin orange disc that hummed a clear middle C.
A sword flashed out, slicing the small fireball in half. It shattered into a dozen little pieces that splattered against the floor and flashed to nothing. William scrambled backwards, trying to conjure another ball of flame as he did.
"Don't," said the shadow.