Fan fiction:The Mage Academy of Gea Kul/Chapter Sixteen
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When next I opened my eyes, it made little difference. My vision was blurred and my head ached so badly that I could not focus on my surroundings. I blinked several times, then squinted through the smoky air, but still saw little. I seemed to be in a large tent; I could just make out a sloping wall of tanned hide before me, and I felt more than saw a small fire crackling in a pit to my right. On the other side of the fire was a wide spread of sleeping furs, a weapon rack standing beside it. The rack was well loaded, with several swords, a huge axe, and one long spear upon which a bloody demon head was skewered. I saw no one, but I heard loud voices some distance away, shouting words in an unknown, guttural tongue.
I hoped the voices would remain outside the tent for a while longer, since I was in no condition to face a friend, much less a potential foe. Besides my groggy head, a condition no doubt related to the fact that my right temple felt grossly swollen, my shoulder was throbbing terribly. Worse yet, my arms were numb and tied tightly behind my back, leather cords were knotted around my ankles, and a heavy strap was lashed around my waist and secured to a huge spike driven into the rocky earth beside me. I could scarcely budge, and wasn't sure that I wanted to as much as any movement hurt.
Still, I had to try, and while I began trying to flex my fingers and toes to restore some circulation, I concentrated my thoughts. Most mages would have been helpless in such tethers, but I'd spent years of study at the Academy learning to cast spells without the aid of a focal device, or even the ability to move my hands. I was not up to any demanding magery at this moment, but I thought I could maintain a small flame below my ankles; one hot enough to burn through the bonds that held me.
I was about to try, my thoughts focused by a moment of meditation, when the flap of the tent was thrown open and Zia walked in, a hulking brute of a Barbarian on her heels. At the sight of her I lost all concentration, and could do little more than stare up at her face as she walked around the fire. Her eyes were on me as well, and when the Barbarian stomped to the weapon rack she grunted a few words at him. He replied, his voice and language like the breaking of a stone, and after a long and very hostile look at me he leaned the demon-head spear over his shoulder and strode out of the tent, letting the flap fall closed behind him.
This I saw only with my peripheral vision, for my eyes were focused entirely on Zia. She returned my gaze, a look of impatience on her face. I knew I must appear devoted to the point of derangement, but I could not help it. Lying there, I realized that I'd never expected to see her again, after she'd fled the Academy. True, I'd seen her earlier today, but that had only been from a distance, while she was routing the demonic hordes. Seeing her up close like this, in the soft light of a campfire... I could hardly breathe.
I wanted to speak, to say something meaningful, intelligent, and conciliatory, but my thoughts were a jumble. It was Zia who finally broke the silence, her voice hard and cold.
"You are the sole survivor, Yun. Your comrades, the Maesters you brought to hunt me, are dead. I killed them, and once the battle was over, Gothar used his great axe to hack their heads from their bodies. You know how Barbarians feel about Mages. Korth wanted to skewer their skulls on his spear, but I forbade it. My last gesture of respect to your Academy. I also forbade him to hew free your own skull, though I may yet grant him that pleasure."
I did not reply. Zia waited a moment, then knelt down beside the fire, not far out of reach. If I'd had an arm free to reach for her, I might have done so. As it was I could only stare, while trying to compose my expression into something a bit less yearning and needy. Zia's face was older, worn and thinned by the ordeals she'd survived over the past four months. She had a scar, a long, narrow white line that ran from her right temple down to the corner of her mouth. It drew the eye, but only intensified her charms, like a cracked frame around a masterpiece work of art.
I was lost, unable to speak. I opened my mouth anyway, with no idea what I was going to say.
"I'm sorry, Zia. It was all my fault." The words surprised me, and they appeared to surprise Zia too, for she sat back on her heels, her lips twisted up the way they did when she was thinking hard. I was surprised by her reaction, as well as by my analysis of it. When had I begun to make such a careful study of her face and emotions?
She did not remain silent for long, and after just a few seconds she replied, her voice harder than it had been previously. "Your apologies come too late, Archmaester. And they are unwanted!"
She was angry, I realized. It was an odd realization, since I'd never seen her angry. I'd once had to encase her in ice, to stop her from melting the stones of the novice dormitory, but at that time she'd been out of her mind and silent. Not talking. Not turning those furious eyes on me. I'd seen her frustrated. I'd seen her scowling while concentrating so ferociously that her lips were snarling. But I'd never seen her angry. Quite the contrary -- Zia had almost always been happy and cheerful at the Academy, or at least she'd seemed that way. In retrospect I knew that she had often worn a mask, hiding her despair and depression behind a smiling face.
I did not speak of that. I could not have; my thoughts and emotions were too confused. I did manage to reply to her, though. "I am Archmaester no longer, Zia. I resigned that position after your departure."
"Resigned?" She scoffed, glaring at me. "They sacked you!"
She was angry. Anger bordering on rage, and facing her fury, I felt stirrings of emotion within. I'd been numb for months, feeling nothing, caring not whether I lived or died. Even during the past few days, fighting for my life against demons in these Dreadlands, I'd been placid and calm to the point of disinterest. But now, as Zia's eyes sent daggers at me, I felt a stirring in my heart. I wanted to sooth her, make her understand that I'd never wanted things to go so badly, and I needed to do it quickly, before one of her savage protectors cleaved my head from my shoulders. I did not fear death, but I much desired to speak further with Zia before that final event.
"I resigned." I repeated. "They might have voted me out, but I did not wait for that. I did not deserve to remain Archmaester, after failing so miserably at my most important duty. I'd failed to protect the students."
Zia's reply was a snarl. "Protect the students! You drove me like a mule! Forced me into every class, mandated private lessons, raised me to fifth rank in a year, sent me hunting after ancient spells your Maesters were too stupid and lazy to find themselves!" She stopped abruptly, cutting herself off by leaping to her feet and starting to pace back and forth, too agitated to remain still.
I spoke as she walked, my voice low and heavy with emotion. "No, I did not protect you. I was even worse at protecting the other Fifths."
"Oh well." Zia muttered, her tone darkly cynical.
I didn't know what to say; my thoughts were a swirling mess. I'd rehearsed this scene countless times in my mind, but in none of those trial runs had Zia been raging and unaffected by my attempted apologies. All I could do was watch her stalk back and forth inside the tent and try to guess what she might do next.
Trying to make my mind work again, I took note of her clothing. She wore the same ragged leather as those filthy half-animal Barbarians, the tattered ends of the sleeves and legs showing how roughly the garments had been cut down to fit her. On her head was tied a dark red skull cap and the strands of hair that poked out from beneath it were dull with dirt; a far sight from the gleaming raven tresses she'd forever kept bouncing around her shoulders at the Academy. Yet she remained beautiful, radiant with her power and health. Even had I not known of her magery, I would have recognized her might and known to tread lightly.
Those thoughts helped calm me, and my thoughts were focused when Zia abruptly ceased her pacing and turned to face me, her face twisted with anger and conflicted emotions.
"I loved my time at the Academy, Yun. I learned so much, and was never bored. I liked working so hard, at so many things. And I enjoyed your private tutoring. But I hated every single student! They worked to earn my hate; the way those men panted after me, sniffing like dogs. The women were even worse, with their jealousy and gossip and lies! I nearly went back, once I was on that boat, hidden below decks and expecting a groping visit from the captain once the ship was safely out of the harbor. I nearly went back to your Academy to kill every one of them. Every man, every woman, and all the Maesters as well!"
I felt cold and sick as I listened to her ravings. I was disgusted, not that she could say such things, but by the fact that she was so serious, and so full of hate. She did not mean that she wanted everyone to die. She meant that she wanted to kill them all. Personally.
I tried a lighter reply, hoping some humor might please her, as it so often had in my office at the Academy. "I often felt the same way, when examination time came."
Zia did not laugh, and when she looked up at me her face was wet with tears, though her eyes remained furious.
"I wished only to help you learn, Zia." I said, my voice breaking with sorrow and sincerity. My chest ached as I struggled with unexpressed emotion. "I had your best interests at heart."
"You!?" she cried, wiping roughly at the tears cutting tracks down her dirty cheeks. "You were the worst! Condescending! You always knew best, even when you knew nothing at all! Your hands on my shoulders, always touching! Your eyes on my body! You think I didn't know what you were thinking, when you watched me nap on the chair in your office? When you saw me in a tight blouse? You claimed to be my friend! My only and best friend. The one I could trust! And then you left me alone with Gutherie! You let the other Maesters work me to death!"
Her outburst stunned me, and though I could hardly breathe, I could not look away. "Zia, I..."
She was not finished, and cut me off before I could think of anything else to say. "You were the one I thought I could trust! The only one I could let my guard down around! I loved you, like an older brother. But you were the worst of them. At least the others were honest! They were dogs eager to rut, and they weren't afraid to say so. You wanted me just the same, but you hid your lust behind false concern and bloodless dispassion. Even Shien was ready to give up on you, after so many years waiting for your heart to do something more than pump blood."
"Zia... I... I did care for you. I wanted what was best for you." I could hardly speak, her anger and accusations weighing on me like crushing stones. I was torn from within as well, as emotions I'd kept down for months came swirling up from within. I felt love, hate, anger, fear, and much more, all churning up from the maelstrom within my soul.
"Everyone cared for me!" she cried, her voice desperate. "They cared so deeply that I might show them what swayed behind my tunic! Or let them pinch what hid beneath my robe. 'Knowledge isn't free, my dear.'"
Her voice changed for the last five words, and I was shocked as I recognized the tone of Maester Cromwell in her impersonation. Cromwell was the chief librarian, revered by all, and I'd heard him intone that phrase a thousand times during my time at the Academy. But why did Zia bring it up now? Cromwell was well over a century old, and a devoted scholar; he couldn't possibly have...
Zia was staring intently at me, watching me think, and when I blinked and focused my eyes on her, she uttered a harsh laugh and spoke in the bleakest tone she'd yet used. "Oh yes, Cromwell. Those rumors? His spidery fingers? What I did for him in exchange for access to the forbidden scrolls? You never believed those rumors, did you, Yun? How could they have been true, when I was your favorite, pure little pet?"
She was right. I had never believed any of the rumors, and certainly not the ones slandering Maester Cromwell. I couldn't speak, and there was a sinking, miserable sensation washing over me. I could only stare at her while licking my lips and trying to swallow past the lump in my throat.
"I spread my legs for half the Maesters in your Academy, Archmaester." said Zia, her voice cold and serious. Dropping one hand to her crotch, she squeezed it and spit into the fire. Two of the men you brought to kill me enjoyed this treasure. They must have hoped for one last taste, since they smiled when they saw me. They smiled as they died."
I did not react. I could not; the shock had me immobilized. I'd never considered that those rumors about Zia... might be true? I could imagine that she might have kissed a student or two, and I'd sometimes flattered myself to think that she enjoyed the embraces shared with me... but sex? Molestation? Back at the Academy, I would not have believed anyone who told me that Zia had surrendered her body in exchange for favors. The very fact that there were so many rumors about her had helped me disregard them all. I'd especially disbelieved the ones about my fellow Maesters.
"Oh, you're wondering about the students?" she asked. I shook my head, struck dumb. I had not been; I was too stunned by the thought of Maesters acting so inappropriately, but Zia took my gesture as a desperate refusal to believe. "I only let two of them have me, both Eights with access to books and spells I wanted to learn. They were insistent, and I only made them beg a little. Most of the others I did no more than tease. A little rub here or there, a press of my breasts against their arm, a flick of my tongue on their ear when I hugged them goodbye -- it seldom took more than that to get what I wanted."
Again I shook my head, as overwhelmed by Zia's words as my own reaction. Months of sorrow, despair, and guilt were breaking apart inside me, like a great slab of ice floating over a boiling cauldron. I was betrayed, humiliated. This girl had played me for a fool! Leading me along by the nose, always letting me believe what I wanted to believe. No wonder the other Maesters had had their way with her. I'd set the example! What must the whole Academy have thought we were doing in my office during those private lessons?
My shock was fading, but as it passed my anger grew. Zia had betrayed me. Stolen from my Academy. I'd been her best friend. Her mentor. I'd done all I could for her, bent and broken so many rules, nearly lost the entire Academy to protect her, before her ultimate departure had destroyed everything. And this was my thanks? This whore, trading her body for secrets that would have been given to her, and gladly, in the fullness of time. Trading it to everyone else, for nothing. And lying, with her every breath, to me!
I knew it was horrible, and I hated myself for the thought, but I could not help it. She was a whore. A slut. One I'd desired more than any woman I'd ever known. She'd given herself to everyone else. Hadn't I been her best friend? Her only friend? How could she not have told me? How could she not have turned to me for comfort?
"Why not me!" I growled, my voice bestial. I had not meant to speak aloud, but Zia heard me and laughed, the sound musical and taunting.
"Because you gave me what I wanted without such persuasions, Archmaester."
I shook my head at that, unable to speak. I had not meant that. I had never wanted her body. Her trust, her faith, her friendship, yes. But not what she held between her thighs. What had she done for those men? What had they done to her? How could she have let them, when her beauty, personality, and talent would surely have earned her the same opportunities, with just a little patience?
"I might have, if you'd asked." she sneered, her voice turned cruel and teasing. "It would hardly have been fair to Shien, though."
I shook my head again, images of Zia lifting her skirts and lying back filling my head. She was so beautiful, but the act was grotesque, the lusting faces of Maesters leering over her, their ancient, withered bodies naked as they threw off their robes in their haste to avail themselves of the garden of delights Zia offered up to them.
Shutting my eyes, those images vanished as Shien's face appeared. Zia had mentioned her several times, and in such a strange way. Did Zia think that Maester Shien harbored those sorts of feelings for me? I'd never thought of that, but as I remembered Shien's voice when I led my party of death away from the Academy, I heard again the desperate plea in her cry. Would a woman, one who was just a friend, have sounded so wretched?
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