Even as Ryla completed the ritual design on her forehead, she felt her fingers begin to twitch, and fought down panic. She had been able to fight the demon's deathspell for this long; she must finish what she had begun, or she and her one chance both died here. There was no alternative, not since her legs had given out on the way to the temple, making it painfully obvious that the tiny thicket just off the road was as far as her palsying limbs would take her.
It had been a disruption demon, a kind she had never seen before. Had she not been in the position of having been hired to help kill it, she might have liked to study it, to find out what it did and how it had changed to a demon from its bland spirit-force state. As things had been, she had barely had time to recognize that its power was over things electrical before all the ten hells broke loose. Rosst, with his usual snap judgment, had decided that a two-foot-tall demon must be easier to smash than the taller specimens the band had dispatched in the past, and acted accordingly. And then there had been no Rosst, just a fizzle of silver-blue, a red fog, and a warhammer clunking to the floor.
Ryla blinked at the memory, refocused, and continued with the ritual, clumsily nicking her left middle finger with a tiny silver knife already bright with blue dragon's blood. Guiding one shaking hand with another, she pressed the bleeding finger to the confluence of drying blue lines on her forehead, the site of the Third Eye. A tingle ran through her as it awakened, running all the way to her useless feet, and memories came flashing back. Rosst. Her sister Lyrinne, casting an elemental spell outside Ryla's expertise in wards and mentalism. Her own shouts that it could not be touched, that it would scramble all the currents of the body, mingled with its nerve-grating screams as Davra fired volleys of quartz-tipped arrows at it. Jondrel, nearly weeping in frustration at not being able to attack with his twin blades; and Hessam, throwing his knives, his sling stones, pieces of glass and pottery, whatever he could find, keeping the demon from getting off a spell. And the terrible moments just after its final death wail, watching the crackling ball of energy spin out from its corpse, and the spasming death that met anyone it touched.
She had managed to put up a ward in time, but it had been too small to save anyone but herself and Lyrinne. She remembered the terror on Hessam's face as he ran for the ward at the back of the courtyard, the near-triumph as his fingers touched the glistening wall, and the horrible contortions as the spell caught up with him. And she had that touch, that slight breach of the ward, to thank for the creeping palsy that had crept up her body and Lyrinne's afterward. She was lucky, though; Lyrinne had dropped to the ground many minutes behind her, inert and barely breathing. Ryla had forced herself to continue toward the healing temple for both of them, on feet that felt shredded by flame and icicles and then, mercifully, felt nothing at all.
Her ward, this time, was against the spell itself. She had already placed staying-spells on her vital organs, tying them to the glowing golden topaz power focus in her necklace rather than to her own reserves, in case her mind-ward lost its hold. Her mind was what was important; it had to be preserved even at the cost of the rest of her body, except for the parts that kept it alive. Awakening the Third Eye would allow her to see and hear when the currents controlling those functions were eventually disrupted; and the use of blue dragon's blood, with its affinity for current, would help keep the ward in place and keep her brain from getting scrambled. In theory. She finished the ward just before losing complete control of the fingers of her left hand, and began shaking from something other than the disruption and recent trauma at the realization of what could have happened. When the pain began to shoot up her arms, she had no reserve of strength left to fight it, and just managed to send out a last mental cry for help before she passed out.
--haven't seen this before--
--like something just tangled all the lines--
Ryla tried to open her eyes, found no feeling in them or any part of her body, and then remembered. She reached out with her Third Eye instead, cringing at the riot of unfamiliar sensations flooding into her mind. Gritting teeth she couldn't move, she tuned her control until sights and sounds came to her in a fashion near normal. There were people moving around her, dressed in pale yellow robes with deep gold sashes. Healers of Eronia. She wanted to weep, but without the bodily response, she found herself unable to do it mentally. It didn't matter, she told herself. Her call had worked; her spell had held. They would heal her--
--cannot heal this damage, not without the Goddess herself--
Mentally, she blinked. Who had spoken? No one's lips had moved. It took her a moment to realize that the Third Eye was also good for reading thoughts, something she had never been told. Probably the old witch who had taught her the ritual had simply been no mentalist.
--must know who she is, the Goddess will not heal without upstanding citizen, no causing pain--
The thought hit her like a slap she couldn't feel. How had she forgotten that condition on the kind of healing she would probably need? What kind of upstanding citizen could she be judged, with her adventurer's criminal record? She reached out with her thoughts to a nearby cleric. Can you hear me?
"What?" The cleric looked at her, taking in her still form. I'm supposed to be the one asking that, came the thought, and Ryla giggled mentally in spite of herself. "Did you say that?"
Ryla decided to give him all of the story at once. Yes. I'm a mentalist. I managed to preserve my mind and what I could of my body against the deathspell of a disruption demon. Can you heal me?
The cleric looked first calmer, then more agitated. "I will call the others. Now that we know what has happened, we must consult with all before any decision can be made. One will come to you when we are sure."
Others. Lyrinne. Wait!
There was another woman with me, my sister Lyrinne, taller than I, with short dark hair, in a wine-colored dress. She fell to the deathspell not far from where you found me. She was still breathing when I had to leave her. Ryla was glad that she didn't have to fight her body now; she would have been close to tears again. I would be grateful if you would find her, whether it is a woman or a body you find.
"Of course." The cleric glanced around, then bowed slightly to her and left.
They all left eventually, through a door in the side of the chapel where she lay. Their thoughts smelled of a search, and varying pictures, attached to Lyrinne's name, that for the most part looked nothing like her. Ryla grew impatient with the sounds of the crackling fire and the unchanging look of the room. How often had she wished to be only a brain, to be free of the distractions of flesh and just think for the rest of eternity? If she had known how boring, how madness-making it was, she would never have wished it.
Her thoughts turned, as she had been certain they had, to her friends. They began auspiciously, with some of the adventures they'd shared--Jondrel nearly decapitating Rosst in his haste to kill his first dragon, the rest of them pulling Lyrinne out of the grasp of a water nymph, Hessam stealing the engagement ring of the Princess of Andiria. Then she flashed forward, to their reputation for slaying demons, the contract that Jondrel had procured for this one, and the battle itself. Without tears to release her sorrow or get in the way of remembering, she saw unending scenes of Rosst exploding, Davra and Jondrel writhing in cocoons of silver sparks, Hessam falling convulsing to the ground. And Lyrinne, crumpling wordlessly to the packed dirt of the road, the penultimate victim of the deathspell. Ryla's mind screamed. She knew, somewhere, the madness this locked-in cycle could cause, and she looked desperately for a way out.
The idea came to her that she might try sending her Third Eye through the door the group of clerics had come from, and no sooner had she thought it than she did it. Objects on the other side of the door were blurry, and sounds took on an annoying buzz, but it was far more interesting than her physical surroundings and more cheerful than her memories. And one of the clerics seemed blurrier than the rest, though she couldn't figure out why. She tried, not sure she could do it, to sense a thought from him--or her, she couldn't be sure--
Ryla's mind snapped back into her paralyzed body, with the knowledge that she would be trembling if she could. She knew without looking any deeper that she had read the thoughts of a goddess. Petrified, she waited for the death blow, for someone above to strike her truly dead. It did not come. Instead, in a few moments, the door she had looked beyond squeaked open, and several clerics came out into the chapel, surrounding her. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, she gibbered to as many of them as she could.
"There is nothing to be sorry for, child," said one of the clerics, an older man with a smile like her grandfather's. "You have done what we cannot. We hear our Guide's words; you have read the words written on her heart."
Ryla tried to think of an answer, but the cleric spoke again. "You are a demonslayer. Our Guide has seen your heart, and found it full of sorrow, but also full of light. We are all sorry for what we must tell you."
You cannot heal me. Ryla was certain she could feel her heart sink.
"Our Guide Eronia has not the power to sort out the threads of dark magic that have sunk into your flesh. Were she to heal you to being truly alive again, you would be forever as you are, unable to move. She is not certain that she could render you able to speak with your mouth, or to see with your eyes. This is the domain of her dark brother Sovoren, one he has locked away from his brothers and sisters to keep them from succumbing to the power and corruption it worked on him. It will not stop living in your body until it ruins your mind."
So I live as a cripple or die when my stay-spells fade, Ryla thought, glancing at the topaz around her neck. It was dark as tiger's-eye now, its power reserves low. At least she would join Lyrinne soon, before she went mad.
"I was not finished," said the grandfatherly cleric. "You have worked your own protections, to keep your mind from dying. Your consciousness, your knowledge, and therefore your talent are intact. With your permission and our assistance, our Guide can transfer your consciousness to another body."
No! I can't take over someone else's body. Not even with the blessing of a goddess. Ryla felt her phantom skin crawl with revulsion.
"It is not as you think. We have had a patient here for a short time whose mind is dead. Her body still lives, her heart still beats, and her lungs still breathe, but she is no longer there. You would be filling a vessel too soon empty, not ending a life." He looked into her third eye. "Our Guide told us you would be hesitant. You know better than we how much time you have to decide."
Ryla looked again at the darkened topaz, then at the rest of her, feeling entranced. She took in the mouse-brown braids coiled atop her head, the eyes she knew were sea-green behind the closed lids, the forest-green dress cleverly sewn to give her a semblance of a figure, and knew, deep down, that she was telling herself good-bye. A part of herself, at any rate, and one she had to be able afford to lose if she wanted to have some semblance of a life. I have not enough time. I will agree to do this.
The elder cleric nodded to the others, and two of them left Ryla's side. The others began to pray in a language that sounded magical, but different from the words she and Lyrinne used for spells. Her attention became caught in the words, which wrapped her mind in comfort. She thought she saw the blurred cleric again. And then there was a sensation like astral travel, of being free from her body, but there was no connection to return by. She nearly panicked before remembering that she was not in control, and that was as it should be.
There was a sensation like the click of returning to her body, but slightly off center. Ryla felt what had become her being stretch and settle, filling a body that was both right and wrong. She waited a bit, feeling opened her eyes and saw a circle of clerics around a nearby pallet, a glimpse of forest-green fabric between the pale yellow. Her Third Eye had vanished with the transfer, and she missed the freedom and range of sight. Feeling nauseated, she tried to sit up, then to speak, and could do neither.
Then the clerics were gathering around her, offering her water she could barely sip. "Do you feel well?" asked the elder.
"I'm all right, I--" she began, shocked not at the cracking hoarseness of her voice but at the voice itself. Feebly, she tugged at the sheet covering her to the neck. Wine-colored fabric covered a full figure, with hands surprisingly slim for the size of the body. She didn't need a mirror to know that her hair was short and dark, her eyes still sea-green. "I'm--"
"You are alive." The elder cleric looked into her corporeal eyes, Lyrinne's eyes, this time. "I am certain this is the way your sister would have wanted you to continue."
"But the deathspell," Ryla persisted. "Is it safe?"
"It does not stop until it has touched the mind. Lyrinne knew this, and shielded her body so that it would have nowhere to go. She could not do what you did, not with her elemental magic, rooted in the body. Our Guide has told us it was her intent to shield you next, but the spell itself gave the disruption access to her thoughts."
"I never got the chance to shield her," Ryla realized, tasting tears.
"You did not think of it until it was too late," said the elder cleric comfortingly. "Do not blame yourself." Ryla tried to tell him it was too late, but couldn't speak. He saw, and spoke for her, attempting comfort. "As I mentioned, command of elemental magic is rooted in the body, not in the mind."
"And so I have her magic now?" asked Ryla, daring to hope.
"You will have to find that out on your own," he told her. "We will leave you now, if you wish . . . if I may ask, what is your name?"
Mind and body wrestled only a moment. "My name is Ryla," she told him. He and the others bowed and left, taking her old body with them, leaving her alone in a body that could finally grieve.
Copyright © 2000 by Katherine Foreman.