THE END OF HER LINE • by Leigh Kimmel

When Hettar’s emmissaries brought their master’s demands of surrender to Oludai Tower, the senior mages had offered Sarai an opportunity to leave with the children. She had bristled at being lumped with the untested students and proudly proclaimed her intention to stand by her colleagues in defense of their order’s sacred trust.

The siege concluded, Sarai now wondered whether she had spoken as much in hubris as allegiance. Not that repentance did much good, for Hettar had made escape impossible. Nothing to do but watch one after another mage be summoned to answer Hettar’s demands.

Now it was her turn to walk down that path, lined with the impaled corpses of her colleagues. They had died rather than relinquish what they guarded, the instrument the Old Tongue named the Key to Power. How would she fare when faced with the same choice?

As she approached the sable tent, her stomach churned with nausea. Only her rigorous training gave her the control to walk through the entrance the guards held open for her.

Within, Hettar lounged upon silken cushions. “Welcome, Sarai, last mage of Oludai Tower.”

Fear gave way to anger at hearing the memory of her colleagues mocked. “Because you murdered the others.”

Hettar sat up and drew his jeweled sword. “They died because they were fools who tried to resist me. I trust you will choose more wisely.”

By every speck of Sarai’s self-control she kept her gaze level and voice firm. “We have told you from the beginning, we cannot simply hand — ”

He gave her no time to explain about the years of training, the winnowing process which selected only those few students with all the necessary qualities. “Prate, prate, prate. If you will not aid me, I will raze this tower stone by stone until the Key to Power is mine.”

“You are mad.”

“No, merely practical.” Hettar’s tone was so matter-of-fact as to be frightening.

To break the oath she had taken at the completion of her training was a grave matter. But compared to the disaster unleashed by demolishing the Tower…

Only how to ensure this trespass harmed no innocents? A desperate plan formed in her mind. “I may be able to show you a different way.”

Hettar’s eyes narrowed. “No tricks, girl.”

All the way back to the tower, the empty eyes of her slain colleagues stared in silent reproach. Even as she led Hettar down to the hidden chamber, she wondered whether she had given in to hubris yet again.

At the entrance Sarai paused. “Here only those who work the Key may pass.”

In answer Hettar snarled his contempt.

The door closed behind them with a solid thump. Before the pale shaft of light rising from the rune-scribed floor, Hettar stopped to stare.

“Yes, that is the Key to Power.” Sarai recalled her own moment of truth. “You can yet withdraw if you feel unequal to the task.”

“I do not retreat.”

Sarai thrust her hand into the cool beam, letting the magic flow into her. “Then reach forth and grasp the Key to Power.”

Hettar hesitated for the barest moment before thrusting his own hand into the light. Power surged and Sarai barely managed to damp it before it could rage out of control.

After the initial jolt she refocused upon her surroundings. She barely recognized the twisted ruin upon the floor as Hettar. Yet he clung to life with a tenacity fit for a legendary hero. “You tricked me.”

Sarai shook her head. “No, Hettar, you deceived yourself. We tried to warn you, but you refused to believe in your certainty we must be withholding it out of selfishness.”

She saw no point in telling him the rest — that the one who brought an unworthy student before the Key to Power also faced a heavy penalty. Never again would she wield magic, for the Key had burned it from her, forever.

Leigh Kimmel is a writer, artist and historian with degrees in Russian language and literature and in history.

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