Previously in Only Slightly
Bill, having become infected with the Arelon plague, continued his efforts to develop an effective counterspell. They prove largely fruitless, but then he is introduced to a native of Arelon who has recovered from the plague by himself; a man who has a strange burning fire behind his eyes.
Meanwhile, Yarek explained the situation to Bidet, Fridgara, Anneka and The Geraldine. As the last of a group of genetically-enhanced humans created and taught by an alien race called the Ikhshiid thousands of years ago, his task was to make sure that humans would have the capability to defend themselves against the Karema, another alien race who forced the Ikhshiid into hiding after a devestating war. After they ate, he set Anneka her mystery, and she found herself floating in empty air with no ground or anything else to suggest to her what to do.
After Anneka vanished, Bidet put his fork down.
'So what is our part in this?' he asked, gesturing to himself and Fridgara. Yarek appeared distracted, and didn't reply for a few moments.
'Your part? Well, I have to explain a little bit more for you to understand it,' he said.
'Then please do.'
'Now that Anneka is no longer here, I can do so,' Yarek said. Bidet frowned, but the ancient wizard continued without giving him the chance to speak. 'Ultimately, there will be a battle between humans and the Karema. After the last Ikhshiid left this solar system, I spent many centuries contemplating what could be done to ensure that, when that battle came, humans could win the first battle in such a way that the Karema would be forced to retreat, and never enter this part of the galaxy again. In that way, another war of destruction could be avoided, but without forcing a species who obviously have no interest in coexisting with other sentient life to do exactly what they least wish to do.'
'And you found a way to do it?'
'I did. I had studied Karema magic as part of my education, of course. From that knowledge I was able to formulate a five-part spell which would act as a counterspell to any Karema magic, eliminating it completely. Using this spell, which would have to be extremely powerful, it would then be possible to divide this part of the galaxy from theirs, with a barrier through which Karema would not be able to pass, because the only means they have of space travel is with magic.
'Due to the required strength of this spell, I could not simply write it, learn it and cast it myself. It would have to be tied into the life forces of five different people when it was finally cast.'
'You mean it will kill five people when it is cast?' Bidet interjected.
'No, that should not be necessary. Since my plan was to form and cast this spell before the Karema even started to move against humans, there would be no resistance to it, so it could be established slowly, and although the casters would be seriously weakened, they would recover with time.'
'But that's changed, hasn't it.'
'That has changed, yes. The Karema are aware of you, and they are starting to move against you. I have felt Karema magic moving through human-controlled space, although I don't know what they are doing with it at this stage. Their initial contact with the Ikhshiid was a frontal attack; perhaps they are trying something different since you are a magic-capable species.'
'However, the plan is still valid - the spell may still be cast without killing the participants, if we are able to move quickly and without the Karema noticing. The spell is tied into the five magical elements, hence the five parts; Fire, Earth, Air, Water and Spirit. Each element is represented by one of the five people. The Geraldine, here, is Water. Anneka, once she solves her mystery, will be Air. Earth, Fire and Spirit have yet to be located; this is your task.'
'And how do we go about finding these people?' Fridgara asked.
'Needless to say, it must be done as quickly as possible. I do not know where Earth is located, but I believe Spirit is in the city of Berlin on Earth. Fire is on another planet; I felt his magic awaken recently, although I don't know exactly where he is. I will entrust The Geraldine with locating him, as she can search many planets quickly.'
'How do we know who we're looking for?' Bidet asked.
'Look into my eyes,' Yarek said. Bidet did so. They were perfectly ordinary eyes... he blinked, sure he'd seen something else behind the pupils, but they were entirely ordinary eyes. Yarek smiled. 'That flicker you saw is the mark of the Ikhshiid upon me,' he said. 'I put the same mark upon the components of the spell. With the Karema nearer than they have ever been, it will be visible in their eyes. You do not, however, have to look into the eyes of everyone in Berlin; there are various spells which will help you find them, which I will teach you before you go. The Geraldine already knows how to find Fire, I believe, as once awakened the people in the spell can always find each other.'
The Geraldine nodded, and stood. 'I'll go now,' she said. Yarek nodded, and The Geraldine went to the barrel of water, dipped a finger into it and melted into the surface. Bidet shook his head.
'I will never get used to her doing that,' he said.
'It's not as creepy as Pord slipping underneath doors,' Fridgara said. 'That still freaks me out every time I see him do it.'
'Isn't that because you're just worried that your bathroom door won't stop him anymore?'
Fridgara laughed. 'Of course not. There's a spell on my bathroom he really wouldn't like to come up against.'
'You are an evil woman, Fridgara.'
'Oh, I know.'
'It's a counterspell,' Bill said. He had gathered in Harin's office with Harin, Elizabeth and Pen-Ghast, the man who'd recovered from the plague. 'Or rather, a countermagic. Pen-Ghast has what looks superficially similar to my own magical gift, but when in the presence of the plague magic, it simply nullifies it.'
'Why would that be?' Pen-Ghast asked. 'Why would my magic be able to do that?' He still looked a bit stunned, no doubt an effect of not only recovering from what had previously been a 100% fatal disease, but also finding out that not only was the plague caused by magic, he himself had magic, even though no human not born on Earth had ever developed it until very recently. And certainly nobody his age.
'Magical gifts manifest in many different ways,' Bill explained. 'Virtually everybody on Earth has some kind of magic or other, but when they are born they each have more or less the same potential, although the strength of what they can achieve varies. Some people, like myself, retain that potential through puberty, during which time it generally manifests itself as the gift of a wizard or witch - we can cast spells, work more or less any kind of magic within our limits of strength and skill. Other people, however - most people - will encounter some situation during their childhood or puberty or shortly afterwards which forces their potential to change, focussing entirely on one thing.'
'As a result of this, they will generally develop one or two, or perhaps three particular abilities which would not normally be possible, and are often impossible for a wizard like myself to duplicate, at least not without great effort.'
'What kind of situations?' Harin asked. Like most of the extra-solar humans who weren't scared of it, he was extremely interested in how magic worked.
'Well, the obvious ones are the life-threatening situations. A woman I know, The Geraldine, once got stuck in an underwater rockfall whilst diving during a geological survey of the sea floor near Portugal. She had quite considerable magical potential, in fact she'd been earmarked for possible training as a witch if she developed the appropriate gift. However, she did not - her magic instead turned to saving her life. Since that day, she no longer requires to breathe, can survive considerable extremes of temperature and pressure, and is able to move almost instantly between places connected by a body of water.'
'Impressive,' Pen-Ghast said.
'Indeed. I know another woman, Anneka, who fell off a balcony when she was twelve, but gained the ability to fly before she hit the ground - that's not actually all that uncommon. Sometimes gifts manifest themselves for other reasons. Sometimes it's sheer force of desire; I once met a man who was bullied at school, and as a result he can now turn invisible at will, and is mildly telekinetic, which, as I understand it, gave him hours of entertainment convicing his bullies they were being followed around by a poltergeist.'
There were appropriate chuckles at this.
'In your case,' Bill said to Pen-Ghast, 'I think we can go with life-threatening situation. You had the potential, which is rare outside Earth as I'm sure you know, and when you caught the plague you were able to nullify it. Although I must admit I don't understand quite how the fire thing fits in with that.'
'What fire thing?' Harin asked. Bill nodded to Pen-Ghast.
Pen-Ghast nodded a little nervously, then raised a hand. Abruptly, a flame was burning above his palm. He stared at it as if finding it difficult to believe that it was there.
'Impressive,' Harin said. 'Can you do anything else with it?'
'I'm not sure,' Pen-Ghast told him. The flame vanished. 'We have not had time to experiment, and trying to find a cure for the plague is more important.'
'And how is that going? Have you learned anything relevant from Pen-Ghast?'
'Actually, yes,' Bill said. 'First, we now know that magic I am at least partially familiar with is capable of stopping it. Secondly, from my investigations, I believe that it is possible to use Pen-Ghast's magic to nullify the plague spell over the entire planet. It will be difficult and extremely dangerous for both of us, but we have discussed it and we both agree the risk is worth it if we are confident of success.'
Harin looked at Pen-Ghast. 'Do you agree?'
'Yes,' Pen-Ghast said.
'Very well. Proceed, and the best of luck to you.'
They filed out of the office. Elizabeth caught Bill by the arm.
'When will you be ready to do it?' she asked.
'In a few hours, I think. I hope so, because if we do not do something I only have a few hours left to live.'
'Good. Be careful. I do not want to have to go back to Earth and tell your country that you are dead.'
'I will make sure you do not have to do that,' Bill assured her. She turned, then stopped at a hand on her arm. 'I just realised,' Bill said, 'nobody here has been gaping at you like they usually do. Not even me.'
Elizabeth looked at him, then smiled. For a moment, she was as she had been when they first met; the perfect essence of womanhood. Then she was as she had been for the last few days.
'It's magic, isn't it?' Bill said.
'After what you described in there, I think it is.'
'Have you always been able to control it?'
'No. But when I saw the situation here when we arrived... somehow I just stopped, and that's when I realised it was something...'
'Magical. You will be careful, won't you?'
Three hours later, Bill brushed more flaking skin from his face as he checked through the spell one last time. This was going to work - this would have to work. He was already starting to feel tired, and once the tiredness set in all the doctors agreed you had an hour at most.
'Are you ready? You know what to do?' he asked Pen-Ghast. The young man nodded, and Bill raised his hands. More skin flaked off inside his robes - he could feel it rustling against the fabric. 'Then we shall begin,' he said. 'We have no time left.'
It began as a rumbling and a light, a soft glow like that through the walls of the uterus, but then it was fire, roaring across the world, but nothing in its wake was harmed. As the fire passed, people rose from their deathbeds in wonder, and some cried out to their Gods in gratitude for saving them, but as with the story of one God so many years ago, for salvation there was a sacrifice. Elizabeth went into the laboratory when the fire had passed, and found Bill and Pen-Ghast lying cold on the floor.
Across the galaxy, Yarek felt part of his spell die, and the Karema magic surged forward.