The Price of Existence by Stefan Magri
“I surrender,” Jacob said, hands held up.
The guards were confused. They were not used to people coming to the gates to surrender, especially when it meant certain death. Unfortunately, Jacob saw no other way this could end. Not without extracting a higher price in blood.
Two guards walked up to Jacob while the other stayed by the Court’s entrance, spear at the ready. Jacob looked up to see archers with arrows nocked, ready to fire. Guards were efficient in their work, no one could doubt that. Their master demanded it.
Whatever Reynard demanded, he got. That’s why he’s been hunting Jacob ever since he discovered his existence.
Reynard was a mage and Chief Justice on behalf of the Council of Mages that governed over the land of Magistica. The belief was that a Council of Mages provided better government due to their dedication to logic and non-familial ties, as well as due to their knowledge of magic for safety and security.
There was no doubt about the Council’s efficiency, especially when Reynard joined their ranks. Lengthy discussions and crime became almost non-existent and once perpetrators were apprehended, they were released, never to commit crime again. Grievances that the people had with the Council always ended in the Council’s favour, and the aggrieved always accepted the situation.
Things changed when Jacob was born. After being appeased by the Council, Jacob’s widowed father, Noah, went to check on his new-born son and proceeded to hold him up when he began crying. As Jacob’s head touched Noah’s, his appeasement vanished. That day, Noah knew that his son was a Negator, born with the uncontrollable ability to cancel out magic—it was a crime punishable by death.
They kept this a secret until, aged 17, Jacob ended up in a pub brawl. Reynard came to stop them, using magic to put everyone to sleep, but Jacob was unaffected. They had been hunted ever since.
With a council of mages, a Negator was considered a threat, or at least it was deemed to be so by Reynard when he had joined the Council. Magistica’s Negators had all been hunted down, put on trial, and killed as soon as they were discovered.
The same fate that Jacob was now marching towards.
They locked him in a cell and told him that his trial would begin within a few hours.
The cell was empty except for a thin straw mattress, a thin piece of cloth as a cover and a bucket. Cleanliness clearly wasn’t a concern.
‘Nothing more than what I deserve,’ Jacob thought.
He remembered, as he often did, his last confrontation with Reynard. After being hunted for 5 years, Jacob had decided that enough was enough. Against the better judgment of the small army that he had formed during their travels, he had decided to confront Reynard.
“It’s time I finally take control of my life!” he had exclaimed to all those gathered, “I will not let my life be dictated by the desires of others!”
They continued to caution him against this action, saying that a direct attack would be suicide. A siege against the Mages was impossible as, thanks to their magic, the Library (the Mages’ stronghold) could never fall to them.
“I don’t intend a full-scale battle,” he had told them. “I plan on fighting Reynard one-on-one. I just need a few men to safeguard me when I send the invite.”
Jacob managed to convince them by saying that he would go either way.
“If I have to die, I will die on my own account,” he told them.
“So, you’ve finally come to your senses,” Jacob heard, pulling out of his memories.
He looked up to find Reynard looking at him, satisfaction written all over his face.
“You didn’t leave me much of a choice,” Jacob answered. “You hunting me has caused too many casualties.”
“Yes, too many have died because of you,” Reynard said. “Unfortunate, but it needed to be done.”
“Why do you hate me?” Jacob asked. “What have I done to deserve this?”
“You were born!” Reynard said, scornfully. “Do you know what I was before I was inducted into the Mages Guild? A farm boy in a family barely able to scrape by.”
Reynard paused, trying to calm down. Clearly this was painful for him.
“My father did not take me being a mage well,” Reynard continued. “He grew to hate me. He beat me, saying that I was nothing special. He made me feel…”
“Powerless,” Jacob finished, “and when you joined the Council, you decided to control everything, so that you wouldn’t feel powerless again. You hate me because I could make you powerless.” He paused. “What about loved ones? Do you control them?” Jacob continued.
“I have none. No one can have power over me,” Reynard replied. “And soon I will be finally rid of you too.”
With that, he walked away.
Hours later, as Jacob was being taken to his trial, he remembered their last battle. Jacob, with a handful of young, half-trained mages, marched up to the Library’s gates. A message was sent with the guards for Reynard to meet him in the forest a mile away from the Library alone for a final confrontation.
Knowing that Reynard would still bring soldiers, Jacob did the same, keeping them close but out of sight.
However, Jacob quickly realised that he had still underestimated Reynard, because as soon as he saw him, he felt the air getting thinner until he could barely breathe.
“Did you think I have hunted your kind for all these centuries without learning your weaknesses?” Reynard had shouted.
Jacob found himself surrounded by guards cautiously moving in to arrest him. That’s when his allies came out and a battle ensued. A small drop of concentration was enough to weaken Reynard’s spell and Jacob took advantage—he joined the short battle, but soon realised that they were outnumbered. As his allies called a retreat, Jacob suddenly found himself losing his breath again.
“This ends now!” Reynard shouted, holding the spell and conjuring a lightning strike spell with his other hand. His preferred method of execution, which Jacob now realised he couldn’t avoid or negate.
“No!” he heard someone shout just as the spell was ready. He felt himself being pushed out of the way just as the lighting struck. Jacob turned around just in time to see Noah being consumed by lightning. Everyone was thrown a small distance away by the blast and Jacob managed to stumble away.
His breath caught as soon as he was dragged into the Courtroom; a giant room full of wooden benches and walls covered by dark wood. What affected him the most, however, was the number of mages present. The entire Council must have been there.
“We are here today,” Reynard announced from the central podium, “to stand in judgement over this man, accused of being a Negator. How do you plead?”
“Guilty,” Jacob answered. There was no other option.
“Let everyone know an execution is imminent,” Reynard announced. With a wave of his hands, bells began to toll.
Suddenly, there were loud crashes and everything shook.
His allies had acted as planned. The momentary distraction of the mages and guards was enough for Jacob to make his move. He had had to learn how to act extremely quickly to survive, so the guards’ attempts to grab him were hopeless.
Jacob ran right at the mages.
Tapping their craniums, Jacob began negating Reynard’s mind-control spell and shouting, “Reynard is controlling you!” over and over as he released mage after mage, preparing them for Reynard’s attempt to regain control.
“NO!” Reynard shouted.
Jacob tried to negate as many puppet mages as he could, but he knew that he would never leave alive.
As he saw mages begin to cast their lightning spells, he closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable.
Reynard then began shouting in despair. Jacob opened his eyes. A mage was standing over Reynard, the palm of his left hand outstretched in his direction and blocking his spells. The other free mages were busy freeing the still mind-controlled mages with quick hand movements.
“You had a problem, Reynard,” Jacob shouted, as Reynard was dragged away. “By controlling everything, you developed a pattern. Made it easy for my allies to know when to strike.”
Months later, Jacob was summoned back to the Library.
He was directed to the Courtroom and his heart sank.
“Don’t be afraid,” the Archmage said. He occupied the central podium.
“Why am I here?” Jacob asked.
“To be thanked,” the Archmage said. “This is where we were freed. Where injustices occurred. We’ve decided to make something new of it. Our Grand Hall.”
“What does this have to do with me?”
“Nothing,” the Archmage said, “but we have a proposition. We never believed that one of our own would act as Reynard did and we do not wish for this to happen again. We want you to help us ensure this.”
“I am only one man” Jacob stated.
“Yes,” the Archmage replied, “but in the months since you freed us, we have sent mages throughout Magistica and have since discovered numerous Negators. They lived on the edges of Magistica and since Reynard feared his control being taken, he never ventured very far, thus they were safer.
“If you accept, you will lead these Negators. Truthfully, you are the only one we trust.”
“I have conditions,” Jacob said.
“As you should,” the Archmage agreed, “but the negotiations start later. What is your answer?”
“When do I begin?”