**UPDATED** Now Chapter 20
~From Book One of The Hunted Mage: HUNTSMAN~
The thumping sound had stopped, finally. He closed his eyes and pushed himself up from the stone step he sat upon just long enough to rest himself, to keep his head from swimming as he walked.
The journey from the cellar had felt like hours, as weak as his latest experiment had left him.
He leaned heavily against the wall and coughed. It was a wet rasp, and it made his chest convulse in painful spasms.
He tried to stand straighter at the top of the steps. Black flecks swam in his vision. He reached out to the wall with his uninjured hand and took some rapid breaths in through his raw throat. It was always raw, from screams he only dimly remembered making.
He was close now, closer than he had been before, teetering on the edge of finding a way to restore his body from the ravages of magic.
He walked down the hall and heard it again, the sporadic pounding at the door. He had not heard anything from his workroom in the cellar, only as he made his slow ascent to the hall.
I will find the formula for Restoration, or I will die in the search, he thought. It truly does not matter which, not anymore.
He tottered down the corridor, his legs weak and jittery beneath him. He could hear a scraping at the edge of the door and leaned heavily upon the stone jam to claw at the bolt with his nerveless left hand. He could not move the fingers upon that hand anymore but he could still use it for advantage against the handle.
He could hear Aila’s muffled voice through the thick planks of the door and sighed. He rested his sweat-soaked face against the stonewall and thought to hide, to leave the bolt secure, and to slip off to his bed.
He could hear the tears in her entreaty.
He slid the bolt back and pulled on the iron ring set on the door’s edge and paused with a weary sigh. He had no strength left to move the heavy timbers.
He did not need to. Aila pushed against the door and squeezed through the crack before it was fully open.
Eyulf stumbled back from the door frame as she swept in the dimly lit corridor. His shoulder struck the wall and he felt his shriveled leg begin to slide out from under him. He flailed for a hold on something and found her there, wrapping an arm around his waist to steady him.
He limped his way down the hall to the small dining room and sat, ragged coughs wracking his chest again as they settled next to each other on a wooden bench by the door.
Aila pulled back from him and ran her hands over his sparse hair, smoothing it back so she could see his face in dim light from an ensconced candle in the hall. She peered at him, worry lines etched onto her face.
“Eyulf, what has happened to you?” Her hands touched his neck and shoulders, gently searching for injuries.
He reached up with his right hand to pull her hands away from him and held one as best he could in his lap. Her hand was hot in his, he could feel that much but little else from his damaged nerves.
He Sang for the Elements and pulled the Rune for Light into the air above them. The bright glow illuminated her tousled hair and tear-tracked features, staring up at him with anxiety.
The hand he held was swollen and red, discolored bruises just starting to form upon it.
She has been beating upon that door for more than a few minutes, he thought. A sick dread grew in his guts. She heard your screams.
Aila was looking down at their hands as well, eyes wide with fear. He looked and saw what so alarmed her. His hand was burned, the skin broken on the back of his knuckles, black flecks of char along one edge of the raw wound.
He had not felt the damage to his already burned tendons. He would, he knew. The pain would spread and reach skin less damaged and would begin to ache, to torment him.
“I am close, Aila. I can feel it. A few adjustments and I will master the Elements of Restoration.”
He looked up at her face and met her gaze. There was nothing of the elation he hoped she would feel at his words. Her face held a horrified look.
“You…you are still using magic?”
Her voice held no tone, or inflection.
He nodded, eyes locked on hers, until she looked away, to peer uneasily at the shining globe he had set above them.
“God’s breath, Eyulf, why?”
He shrugged, a stiff roll of his shoulders, and reached out to grasp the orb and hold it out to Aila.
“It is a tool like any other, Aila.” She leaned away from the sphere, much the same way he wished to, as well. It had given him a dull, nauseated roiling in his stomach to reach out and take it as he had. It was bravado only.
If I do not conquer my fear of it, I can never be made whole, Aila.
She reached out with a lunge, tore the orb from his grip, and threw it. Her eyes narrowed to slits as the sphere stopped its movement as soon as she released it. It hovered inches from them as if mocking her attempt to be rid of it.
As it mocks each attempt of mine to do the same, he thought. I cannot control it if I do not keep it close, hold it dear. I cannot cast it aside. It is a part of me now.
“It is not a tool, Eyulf. It has almost destroyed you, and yet you meddle with it still?”
Aila turned back to him on the narrow bench, ignoring the magic and grasped his neck gently. She pulled his head toward her and shifted to keep her face between him and his view of the Light.
“You cannot look away from it, Eyulf. Why? You look at it as if seeing a lover yet I see fear on your face!”
He did not realize he stared at the globe so, until she spoke. He let his eyes look into hers as she leaned close to him.
There was love in her gaze. He could see it clearly. It held anger and fear as well. All for him, entwined in a twisting mass of confusion on her face.
He could not keep his eyes on hers, not when he was unsure what his own features would tell her.
He held his useless hand up between them and then dropped it to his lap.
“I can undo what I have done, Aila, I know I can. I simply need practice and more study and I can Restore my skin. I can be well again!”
“At what cost?” Her shout startled him, and he made no answer, simply looked at his hands.
She asked again, leaning to put her face closer to his.
“Answer me, Eyulf! At what cost? I heard your screams tonight, filled with pain and terror… what further damage have you done to yourself treating magic as a plaything?”
He stirred at that.
I am no child to scold, Aila, however feeble I may be, he thought with a trace of annoyance.
“There is no cost, Aila, not anymore. I work to take a payment, to call back some of my stolen coin from IT!”
He felt more than annoyance now as she shook her head at his words, dismissing them even as he spoke them.
“There is always a cost, Eyulf. You spoke of it to me before you went away, before the Mages changed you. How can you say there is no cost?”
She reached out, grasped his hand, and raised it before his eyes. She ran a finger along the freshly blackened skin and looked back at him.
“How can you say that you pay no price?”
“There is no cost, because I have nothing left, Aila!” The surge of anger that struck him surprised him. He shook the hand she had raised.
“I destroyed my flesh…killed my family… destroyed my home! One foolish mistake and all I know was taken from me. All I have left is my use of magic. I WILL master it Aila. It will Restore my body to me! I will have that, at least. I know my family is beyond all power to bring back but if Magic can destroy flesh, there must be a way to bring flesh back. There must!”
With a quick dart of her head, Aila’s lips were on his, bringing silence for a heartbeat. It was the first kiss they had shared since before his accident, since the sweet stolen kisses of the Kekri Night celebration in her home. It stopped his anger short.
Her lips were warm and soft on his. He could feel the rasping touch of his scarred and leathery cheek on hers and the anger flared once more. He would never hold her as he wished, not like this. He pulled away, hating himself for ruining that one precious moment.