I wondered if it was easier for those who had been born truly blind.
Having never known colours, light, or the relative pleasures and horrors of vision, I wondered if they lived in a state of blissful ignorance. Were they frustrated when told of something they could never experience? Or was it a matter of not being bothered what they didn’t know?
There had been times when my gift had been unpleasant, more a hinderance than a help. Through the eyes of others I had seen things I had not wanted to see – my ability was not restricted by walls, something that some didn’t know and those who did sometimes forgot. It was the habit of people to think themselves alone and unspied on when they closed their doors.
But my family, by and large, had adjusted for me. As befitted my station, I would have been given large personal chambers in the estate, but when my innate magic had become apparent my parents had deemed a change to be in order. When I was old enough to have my own room, I’d been given the expansive quarters in the west wing of the mansion, where it was unlikely that I would inadvertently spy on the lives of others in the Varr household. They gave me Maei, ordered the whining thing to be with me at all times as my eyes, and until I dismissed them entirely at my own ascension to head of the family, two other personal servants and a pair of bodyguards, all to make sure I’d never be alone.
That I’d never be truly blind, as I was now.
Most illusionary entities made by mesmers only had eyes for show, so by the time Elsif’s clones had deposited me in the snow after a near hour of leading me along I was well and truly lost. Elsif was out of range. No-one anywhere close to me. True blindness.
This, it seemed, was what Elsif had meant by doing something “different” in the morning.
“There’s a pack to your left,” one of Elsif’s clones told me. “There’s food and water there for the day. Kindling and flint too.”
“Leaving me out here alone then?”
“Your weakness, your inability to generate a fine-tuned spatial surge has nothing to do with any lack of power.” Elsif’s voice went on. “For you, it’s a question of awareness – of understanding that there is no distance between you and your target when it comes to it. When you fire, your beam is disrupted because you delude yourself into thinking about the distance, you’re distracted by where your target is in relation to where you are and the space between. For someone that is blind, you ironically rely too much on your eyes.” I heard footsteps crunching in the snow, moving away from me. “You need to be more aware of the air around you, to compensate for your dependance.”
“So your plan is to… what?”
“You’re going to stay right here,and you’re not going to move,” her clone told me, almost whispering in my ear as her voice took on a slightly mischievous lilt that sent an unexpectedly tantalising shiver running up my spine. “And I’m going to throw things at you.”
I heard it coming this time, whirled, and sent a bolt of energy from the end of my greatsword. I could picture it blasting through the clump of pink magic that Elsif’s – or perhaps one of her clones – had hurled at me, shattering the fragile illusion and scoring me my first small victory of the day.
My beam hit something – I could feel it running down my arms, hear it as something shattered, then bit back what would been an undignified yelp as Elsif’s magic hit me in a burst of stinging sparks.
I swore, vilely, using one of the worst collection of words I’d heard from Baen.
It’d been the third attack in the last hour or so. The first had taken me completely by surprise. With the second, I’d heard it coming but been unable to recognise the direction, and with this last one the results had been much the same.
I tried to calm myself with the knowledge that I’d at least gotten closer to my intended target, judging from what side the attack had hit me. Had this been a real threat, however, I’d be dead. Worse, I was sure that Elsif – from wherever she was watching – probably found my flailing hilarious.
Whatever progress I was making, it wasn’t enough.
Though I stayed on guard for a time, I let myself relax ever so slightly after a further hour had passed with no sign of another attack. I knew well the dangers of staying too high strung, and when I settled back on the fallen tree that served as a makeshift seat I forced myself to relax and think.
“You’re listening for them,” Elsif’s voice, delivered via clone, said. I stiffened, trying not to let my discomfort at just how helpless I was show. She had come to within a dozen paces of me, judging by the sound, and I’d not realised. “That’s good, but you’re missing the point.”
“And that is?”
“Anyone can listen. What can you do?”
With a sound like glass breaking underwater, I heard her clone dissolve, leaving me alone again.
What could I do? Or, perhaps, what could I do?
Evening had set in, and with it the wind had returned, buffeting me in howling gusts. It was more than cold, but the fire I had managed to stoke was, miraculously, keeping the worst of it at bay.
My body ached from constantly being forced into rapid action. My palms were bloody from catching myself as I fell. My knees were bruised. My clothing was torn. There was a scratch along my cheek that I suspected was bleeding.
While my strength was waning, Elsif’s onslaught had only risen in its intensity. Though my sense of time was less than perfect, I estimated that now there would be four of five attacks an hour, and they came at me faster, gave me less time to react.
And I had yet to score a single hit.
I spent the moments between sitting, calming my breathing, and letting my magic stretch out.
It had taken me longer than it should have to formulate this plan. Initially I had thought to surround myself with clones to act as shields, but I’d discarded the notion the moment it’d come to me – no strategy that bought pointless time could lead to a victory. Pure defence was inherently self-defeating.
So, instead, I’d seized on a more ambitious and considerably more challenging plan, one that I suspected would take even Elsif off guard.
I had crafted all manner of things with my powers before – from full blown simulacra of myself or others to makeshift weapons. Once, when I’d been twelve, I’d fashioned myself a fairly convincing hat at a gala my father had forced me to attend. It hadn’t been real in the sense that it wasn’t truly a hat, but it had been enough to keep the sun’s harshness off my face and left no-one but Maei any the wiser.
Now, settling around me on the snow in an ever expanding circle were strands of illusion, barely thicker than thread. I’d been making them between attacks, letting them form in my gloved hands and run through my fingers. It was painstaking, slow work – each strand needed to be solid enough to hold itself together, to channel just a sliver of my consciousness, but fine enough that would not tax me unduly or hinder movement. They needed to bend but not break, hold firm but not act as a true obstruction.
Hours of work passed, a dozens of attacks came at me that I did my best to counter even if only to pretend I was still trying to. Once, after being hit by another flurry of sparks my concentration slipped and I lost more than a quarter of the threads I had created, slowing my progress even further.
Twice, Elsif’s clones had come, offering either whatever form of goading she thought would inspire me or supposedly-deep questions I’m certain she thought would provoke me. She asked about my family – about my little sister, about Cymea. About Lucan. She asked about Tatianna. I ignored her as best I could, blotting out her words so that every moment was focused either on crafting my threads or readying my greatsword for another attack.
Time slipped by, hours and hours, and I was forced to stop weaving at one point to reignite the fire, tossing a few more brittle twigs on in the hope they’d keep me warm just long enough.
It barely helped, as the cold was beginning to work itself through my clothes, through my skin, flesh, and into the bones beneath. I knew I was running out of time.
“It’s getting late,” Elsif’s voice came. “You should consider giving it up for the day. We can always come back tomorrow.”
“Suit yourself, Daughter of Varr, but if you pass out from the cold I will be forced to come and get you as one might a child.” There was a flippant note to her voice, and I suspected the clone had shrugged before vanishing.
I was shivering now. Incessantly. My hands trembled, my face burned, and my toes were numb in their boots. Everything hurt, down to my bones, but none of it mattered now that I was ready. The threads were spread about me in a spiral two dozen metres across, and I felt it all, every tiny touch of power in every millimetre of them.
I knew I was in a forest now. Through the strands I’d confirmed that much. Trees – vast, ancient conifers – were all around me. Sparse, compared to some other woods I’d been in, but nevertheless enough for what I’d planned.
What, I had wondered, could I do? What could I do that no-one other could? What could I do that even other mesmers would struggle with? I had pondered this for a time, and eventually came to only real conclusion.
My vision was the obvious answer, but since that didn’t help me here, I stopped to think less about what I had and focus instead on what they – everyone else – didn’t.
They were limited, processing only the information that one pair of eyes gave them. How could they fathom what it must be like to spread one’s consciousness and attention across more? It would be an academic pursuit at best, one their minds simply weren’t equipped for, and that was a limitation I didn’t share. I had been using the vision of others since I was born, and while large crowds still overloaded me, I had learned to pay attention to a dozen different viewpoints at once. I could spread my mind further.
Leaving the greatsword imbedded in the snow, I stood, ignoring the pain and the cold as I brought my frozen hands together. Palms down, I intertwined my fingers, letting power flow through them and along my threads. I felt them twitch in the snow, and I couldn’t fight the ecstatic smile that spread across my face as I lifted my arms and swept my hands outwards, fingers spread.
The threads sprang up. I moved my hands, fingers weaving and dancing as I turned in a slow circle, sending the strands of my web across the forest. I bound them to frozen branches, secured them to fallen limbs, and wrapped them around sturdy trunks, expanding my awareness across a dozen, then a score, then a hundred metres in every direction.
I breathed out, keeping my arms and hands and fingers outstretched until I was certain my network was stable, then slowly lowered them to my side. I let myself sink slowly lower, until I was seated cross legged on the fallen tree, revelling in my new awareness. This was more than sight, this was better than sight.
I wondered if it were visible, the lattice work of illusionary thread I had built around me like a cage. Could Elsif see what I had done? Or was she baffled by whatever manner of strange dance I had apparently sprang into? I knew she was smart enough to know something was afoot, but was she creative enough to have wanted this result from the beginning?
It was minutes before the next attack came. Another ball of magic, coming from behind, and suddenly this challenge was all too easy. The blast passed through my threads, brushing past my mind and telling me not only where it was, but how fast it was moving and exactly how large it was.
Almost lazily, I reached out to pull my greatsword from the snow. I rose to my feet as I did and visualised a surge of power bridging the gap between the tip of my sword and the ball of magic’s core. Power lanced out, and I could feel it passing through the forest – through my web – before it stabbed cleanly through Elsif’s magic.
Sparks – heard and felt – spattered against the trees more than dozen metres from me.
Triumph roared in me, invigorating my senses and body, surging through my veins like a drug. The cold, already relegated to an afterthought, disappeared for me. The pain, the aches, the exhaustion all followed suit, melting into inconsequential nothingness as I realised that I had won.
“More!” I shouted hoarsely into the night. “Send more!”