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       The Hollow, p.5

           Andrew Day
 
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pulled a small flask out of a pouch on his belt and unscrewed the cap. He tipped a small amount of fluid into the cap and knelt down besides Serrel. “Drink.”

  Serrel downed the tiny mouthful of liquid in one swallow. It burned on the way down, and tasted eerily like the vile moonshine the locals of his hometown used to cook up. A second later, his fatigue vanished, replaced by a soothing warmth that spread from his chest outwards. His head cleared, and the last remaining inkling of the Hollow was filled with what felt like liquid fire. He all but sprung to his feet, suddenly overcome with limitless energy, like the ether was shooting straight through him.

  “How are you feeling now?” Holland asked.

  “I feel like I just swallowed the sun, Sergeant,” Serrel replied. His spoke very quickly.

  “Poetic, Hawthorne. Do any of you Pond Scum know what this is?” Holland held up the flask.

  There was contemplative silence, then Kaitlin said, slightly out of breath, “Is it the Elixir of Vorkeph, Sergeant?”

  “Good to see there’s at least one of you with an inkling of potential. Correct, Astral. This is the Elixir of Vorkeph. Also known as the Magi’s Bane. It is a very complex and expensive concoction that contains the distilled essence of the ether itself. Many a mage has died just trying to create this potion. As you can see, even a tiny amount of the Elixir will restore the ether energy within you and then some. You’ll feel like you can jump over mountains. Right, Hawthorne?”

  Serrel was only half listening. He was watching his hand wave back and forth in front of his face with a blissed-out expression. He could just see a second ghost hand waving in time, appearing just a millisecond before he moved his real hand.

  “Who else wants to try some?” Holland asked with a sly grin.

  “Oh, I do,” panted Justin. He made to take a step forwards, but Victor dropped a hand on his shoulder and held him in place.

  “What’s the catch, Sergeant?” Victor asked.

  “What makes you think there’s a catch, Blackwood?” Holland’s grin broadened. It only made him look more malicious.

  “Why is it called Magi’s Bane?” asked Kaitlin. “It’s dangerous, isn’t it, Sergeant?”

  “Well, aren’t you clever little Pond Scum after all. Quite, correct, Astral. The Elixir is almost pure poison.”

  Serrel paused, hand in mid-air. “What?”

  “It contains a piece of the ether in liquid form. No living thing was ever meant to ingest that. The amount of power in this flask alone could have the potential to sink this entire area into the sea. You took a capful, boy. Imagine taking a whole swig. Imagine downing the whole flask. You’d feel invincible. If you didn’t simply disintegrate into the ether yourself, which can and does happen by the way, the amount of energy flowing through you would almost make you a god.”

  Holland gestured at Serrel. “Until you got distracted by something shiny, of course. Many a good mage has become addicted to the Elixir, that feeling of power and invincibility. They waste their lives just trying to get another sip. It changes them, physically and mentally. Just that small amount will probably have some permanent effect on Caster Hawthorne here.”

  “I have four hands,” Serrel blurted out. “Did I always have four hands?”

  Holland frowned, but did a quick count. “I’d say you’re either hallucinating, or you’re seeing the future. It’ll pass. Probably. Stay away from anything sharp, and speak up if you start seeing dragons. That’s an important lesson actually. Never stay quiet about dragons. Now, does anyone else want a taste of liquid damnation, or are you going to make it back to the fort on your own?”

  Justin shrugged free from Victor. “I’ll take some.”

  Victor shook his head as Holland poured Justin a capful of the Elixir. “What part of “liquid damnation” sounded palatable to you?”

  Justin ignored him and downed the Elixir. His eyes bulged. “Wow. Oh... wow!”

  “Yes, yes, all the pretty colours and all that,” said Holland dismissively. “Who else? Astral? I see your mind working, girl. You just have to know what it’s like, don’t you?”

  Kaitlin chewed her lip thoughtfully, then stepped forward and took the offered cap. She hesitated a moment, then delicately drank the Elixir. She made a face. “Ugh. Tastes like cheap booze.”

  “That would be the other ingredient,” explained Holland. “Recipe calls for some form of strong spirits. The Legion being what it is, you’ll have to settle for the cheapest rot-gut we can legally source.”

  “If that were a real drink, there would be no chance I would ever stock it behind the bar,” Kaitlin commented.

  “Well, Astral, should you ever be in a position to mix the Elixir for yourself, feel free to use some fine aged whiskey. Gods know we’d all prefer something that doesn’t make your hair fall out...”

  “I don’t think it’s working. I don’t feel... Oh... Oh, I see. Wow.”

  “Indeed. Everything you’d hoped for?”

  “And then some.” A dreamy smile grew across her face.

  “Anyone else? Bullock? Paum? Mouse? How about you Glease?”

  “Never turn down a free drink, me,” said Greasy Tim happily.

  “My mother told me I shouldn’t drink,” said Mouse with unexpected volume and tenacity.

  “So did mine,” agreed Holland. “Good advice.” The sly grin returned to his face as he turned to Victor. “Well, Blackwood? How about you?”

  Victor carefully made his face neutral. “I think I’ll decline this time, Sergeant. I still have energy left.” He glanced at the rest of the group, and shot a pointed look towards Kaitlin. “I’ll meet you fools back at the fort.”

  He turned, and jogged away. Holland watched him go with a interested look. “Well, since you’re all back on your feet and raring to go, we’ll double time it. And no lolly-gagging this time, Tremmel.”

  They made it back to the fort in good time, where Victor was already waiting at the gates for them. Those that had taken the Elixir were still practically bouncing on the balls of their feet, which was good, because Holland was true to his word and set them about practising their newfound weaving skills without delay. First they attempted to get the now singed flag to fly using the word Soa, then when Holland deemed their attempts “Not nearly as contemptible as previous efforts” he made them weave the spell directly on him.

  Justin threw himself to the task wholeheartedly. His spell, unfortunately, battered impotently over and over again with no real effect against the magic shield Holland had conjured before him. The air was charged and stank of ozone by the time he gave up.

  “You’re flailing about like a child in a bath tub, Tremmel. Concentrate, Pond Scum! I want a gale! I want a hurricane! I want, at the very least, a bracing wind. All you’re giving me is a wet fart!”

  Serrel stepped up. He didn’t know why Justin had so much trouble. Having taken the Elixir, Serrel felt like he could have blown down mountains at that moment. He lifted his staff, and weaved the ether into a force that he threw with all his might at the Sergeant.

  His first attempt shattered against the shield with no effect. But his second hit hard enough that Holland swayed slightly on his feet.

  “That’s more like it!” Holland roared, happy for the first time that day, and without even having to hit someone. “Again! Concentrate! I want to really feel it this time!”

  Serrel didn’t realise it, but he was grinning. He hurled another wave of force at Holland. Then another in quick succession. The energy coursing though his body felt limitless. He figured he could do this all day. The third spell hit Holland hard enough to make him stumble backwards a step. It was a small step, but, to Serrel, a giant victory. He felt like yelling in triumph. He was a mage. How could he have resisted this? Look out world, here comes Serrel Hawthorne, and you are but an insect to him!

  Then, with utter suddenness, the feeling of power vanished. The fatigue of the day rushed back like a raging torrent and Serrel tumbled down into the Hollow.

  It
was even worse than it had been that morning. The shock of it, the sudden emptiness, and the sensation that he was being leached of his very being dropped him to his knees. He gulped air like he was drowning, overcome by the strange certainty that if he didn’t he would stop breathing. He thought, This is what it feels like to die.

  Hands held his arms and supported him, and voices asked if he was alright, but they seemed far, far away. After a few moments he finally noticed Holland looking down at him grimly.

  “Ah, that would be the Elixir running out, I see. You can see why they call it Magi’s Bane now, can’t you? If you use up that energy too fast, it leaves you even worse than when you started. Empty, completely and utterly voided. You’ll be lucky if you can even hold a staff for the rest of the day, forget about weaving. On the battlefield, you’d be completely useless. Now, you have two choices: lie there and die, or get up. You’ll feel better for getting up, trust me.”

  Serrel didn’t want to get up. His entire being was asking him what was the point in rising? He was going to die anyway, so why waste the effort? There was nothing worth getting up for...

  “I told you before, Pond Scum, the Hollow can only kill you if you let it. But you need to climb out yourself. Get. Up.”

  It took all his remaining willpower, and in truth there was precious little of that left, but Serrel managed to somehow to wedge the end of his staff into a crack in the ground, and pushed himself upright. When he was back
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