"Calm down Johnsa!" Phanza said with authority.
"Why should I? What have you done to me?!" Johnsa said harshly.
"We have done nothing. Like Hosus said before, she found you unconscious among the dead. Whatever happened to you happened before we showed up. In fact, if no one has seen you like this before, it is safe to assume the change occurred during your battle."
Phanza felt pity for this woman. She had been changed, possibly forever, into something that even he could not understand. There was just no simple way to experience that. And although her expression did not look comforted by his explanation, the burning intensity of her crimson eyes had diminished.
"Please, let us help you. We can help you discover what has changed and if necessary, help you learn how to control it,” he continued.
Phanza stoically ignored Pral's murderous glance at his offer to help. A magic-stealing being was not something to be left alone and unguarded. With those eyes, she would not be able to hide from whatever might understand her newfound ability. Fortunately, Johnsa was so focused on Phanza's words she missed Pral's look.
"Control it?" Her harsh voice was softened by her hesitation.
"Excuse me?" Phanza was momentarily taken aback. "Control it?"
"You said control it didn't you? What do I have to control?"
Damn, I said too much! Phanza watched as fear crept into her features. How will she react to learning she absorbs magical energies? Phanza sighed. What to do? What should I do?
"Show her Phanza. She can handle it."
Phanza glanced in Hosus' direction. Did she know about Johnsa’s ability? But her words held such confidence in their new charge that Phanza nodded immediately. He didn't understand how she knew, but that was something he could ask about later. Phanza took a deep breath and closed his eyes, preparing himself for a little demonstration.
Raising his hands in a cup before him, he uttered, "Vrecta" three times in a swaying cadence. From his palms rose a small wisp, an ever-changing cloud shimmering with bright lights. The wisp started drifting toward Johnsa, who shied back but did not turn away. She seemed unaware of the savagely hungry look on her face as she watched every minute change in the magical cloud approaching her.
The rest of the group watched on curiously, some entranced by the wisp and others carefully watching Johnsa. When the wisp was an arm's length from Johnsa, it bumped against an invisible wall and stopped. Then, it vanished. A red flare erupted from Johnsa’s eyes, forcing everyone but Phanza and Hosus to shield their eyes. Those two watched intently as Johnsa's back arched with a sharp inhalation of breath, watched as an ecstatic smile spread across her face.
The flare up only lasted a moment, and ended almost as quickly as it happened. The group watched as Phanza nodded to himself and bent to whisper with Hosus. Nar glanced at Glyc and Wenley, who shrugged in unison but looked to Phanza with concerned faces. Bertran fidgeted, trying to emulate Pral, who merely looked on dispassionately.
Johnsa had her eyes closed, red pulses illuminating her eyelids, completely oblivious to the rest of the group. It took several vocal prods from Phanza and a sharp poke from Hosus before she focused on reality again.
She looked confused and somewhat disappointed when she opened her eyes again. Her eyes, still shining brilliantly, bathed the onlookers' faces in a bloody light. With everyone looking at her, Johnsa looked down sheepishly.
She slowly looked up to the young wizard.
"Through some unknown cause, you are now immune to magic."
There was a long delay before Johnsa reacted. "Wait...what?"
If the entire group hadn't been stunned into silence or taciturn by nature, one of the twins would have invariably made a rude comment about Johnsa's eloquence.
"I correct myself. What I should have said is that you absorb magic. I'm not sure how or why, but any magical energies directed at you disappeared. They just vanish into you. That is what happened with the wisp."
"Hold on, did something like that happen last night when you examined her? Is her ability to…to draw in energy what made you faint?" Nar asked quickly, a puzzled and worried look creating odd wrinkles on his brow.
Phanza nodded. "When my magic probed through her, it was absorbed almost immediately. What's more, because of my physical contact with her, Johnsa unknowingly absorbed a large portion of my innate energy as well."
"Something similar happened to me when I found her," Hosus added. "When that big Slandra came up on us, I tried using a blinding spell. It came off my blades, but it disappeared. I put it together after Phanza fainted last night."
Throughout this conversation, Johnsa sat with her legs tucked under her, a dumb expression covering her features. While everyone else was focused on Phanza's explanation, Pral had quietly made his way next to Johnsa.
"You are an odd one."
His quiet words jerked Johnsa out of her daze.
"You were just informed that something fundamental in you has changed. And although you've been hiding behind that stupid look, you've been assessing all of us, our combat potential."
"What are you talking about?" Johnsa asked, turning to face her examiner.
"Tell me, Johnsa. What were you before you joined us?"
"I am...well, I guess I was a Ramadan in the Human Protection Forces."
"A Ramadan eh?" Slightly raised eyebrows were his only betrayal of surprise. "That's impressive. Tell me, were you the one who rescued those men from the ambush a few days ago?"
"Yes, but how did you know we were attacked?" Could she dare to hope others had escaped? "Did you meet other survivors?"
"No we did not. However, Hosus was caught in the fight while scouting for us. She informed me of the battle's outcome."
"She was there?" Johnsa turned to stare at Hosus. As if she had heard her name called, Hosus stared right back, staunchly ignoring the argument concerning Johnsa's ability raging over her head.
"Indeed. Now tell me. What hand does Nar favor?"
"His left," she answered automatically.
"How does Hosus stand in defense?"
"With her left shoulder back and her daggers in a reverse grip. Why do you ask?" Johnsa was curious as to why Pral was asking these questions, but they also made her nervous.
Pral nodded to himself. "Yet you have never seen these things. How do you know?"
"I..." Johnsa paused, her confusion causing a small furrow in her forehead. She had no idea how she knew. "I don't know," she finished slowly.
Pral touched her shoulder, an almost sad look on his face. "You have an extraordinary talent," he said quietly.
Johnsa knew he was not talking about her new anti-magic ability.
"What do you mean?" she whispered, but Pral had already faded away, back to sitting with the group, adjudicating the argument with slight nods and waves of his calloused hand. Johnsa watched him for another moment, wondering about this enigmatic leader of such a diverse group.
What is your purpose with these people Pral?
Johnsa slept poorly that night. The revelations concerning her new abilities had left her badly shaken, and blinding red eyes dominated her nightmares.
It was the red eyes that made Johnsa flinch back into consciousness. It was almost the darkest part of the night, after the moon had set and only the stars remained, and Johnsa could barely make out a figure standing watch just beyond their campsite.
Pral. Sudden comprehension, void of any identifiable source, came to her. She suppressed a shiver at the realization that her new gift had bestowed that knowledge on her.
She watched him for a time before exhaustion dragged her back into unconsciousness.
Dawn greeted the small encampment through a thick covering of dark clouds. Hosus could almost taste the moisture in the air, and she was not looking forward to traveling through the wilderness in a storm.
Pral greeted her waking with a nod. He stirred from his post and began moving among their fellows, gently nudging them awake. Hosus yawned and knuckled the small of her back. An unkind root had taken refuge beneath her bedroll, one she had not noticed before retiring, and caused her minor discomfort all night. She would have moved her blankets but after there was no guarantee anywhere else would be more comfortable.
Hosus rose and shook Phanza and Bertran awake. The twins were already up and beginning their preparations for the day's travel, eager to be away from the stench of death that filled the glade. They were wise enough to fish out the oiled cloaks in anticipation of the rain. Bertran elbowed his brother, and Nar swatted at him drowsily. Nar was a notoriously late sleeper and everyone took great delight in finding new ways to get him out of his bedroll in the morning, and Hosus watched as Bertran began rolling him toward one of the corpses. She glanced over at Johnsa. The Ramadan was still in a deep sleep, her breathing easy and steady. After the shocks she received the night before, Hosus decided not to wake her yet.
Hosus noticed some movement from the sleeper when the smells of breakfast, mercifully prepared by Phanza, filled their campsite. She quickly filled a bowl with porridge, of which they had very little left she noted, and sat down next to Johnsa.
"Good morning," she said quietly.
Johnsa's eyes fluttered open, but a single ray of sunshine slipped through the clouds and made her close them tightly again.
"Morning it may be but there's..." she began, but a groan of pain interrupted her. She clutched her head, her face contorted in pain.
"What's wrong?" Hosus asked quickly, beckoning Phanza over.
"My...head..." was all Johnsa could manage, her jaw clenched tight.
Phanza joined them and knelt to examine Johnsa. Hosus noticed that he was wearing a pair of thin leather gloves but was still carefully avoiding lingering contact with Johnsa's skin. Hosus saw a great deal of sense in that, as they still did not comprehend the changes that had occurred in this strange woman.
Another outcry drew Hosus' thoughts away from Phanza's precautions and back to his charge. As she listened to Phanza quietly ask Johnsa about the pain, Hosus watched as Johnsa's skin glowed red for a moment and then...rippled. She could think of no other way to describe what happened.
Hosus snatched Phanza back from the groaning woman. Covered or not, she did not want to take the chance of Johnsa siphoning off more of his energy. What is going on?
Another rippled transfigured Johnsa's body, moving out from her center. Hosus watched as it reached her extremities and then, impossibly, continued. She watched as the rippled moved from Johnsa's arms and into the air. The ground it passed over turned to stone and roots to dust.
Hosus lay transfixed by the horrible thing emanating from Johnsa's body. Her mind screamed at her to move, but her body wouldn't respond. Time seemed to slow as the ripple spread, and Hosus could only stare in sheer terror as it spread closer to her.
But the ripple dissipated less than a foot away from its source. Johnsa now lay in a perfect circle of stone and ash. Hosus stared at Johnsa, still glowing, but now glowing white instead of red.
She glanced over at Phanza. He looked pale as a ghost, and Hosus imagined she didn't look much better. What they had just witnessed had only lasted a few seconds and had not involved them, but they were both panting as if they had run several miles.
"W-what was that?" Hosus managed, though it barely came out as a whisper.
Phanza swallowed hard and licked his lips before answering.
"I don't know. I'm not sure I want to know either. But one thing is for sure, we're both lucky to be alive and whole." He couldn't keep himself from shuddering.
What is she?! Hosus thought wildly.
The others glanced over, curious looks on their faces. Curiosity turned to concern when each noticed the newly formed stone circle. Almost as one, they rushed toward Hosus and Phanza.
"Stop!" Hosus held up her hand imperiously. "Don't come any closer."
They all stopped dead in their tracks, all except for Pral who was giving Johnsa a wide berth as he circled around to get behind Hosus and Phanza.
"What happened?" he asked quietly, still moving.
Hosus took a deep breath, trying to slow her racing heart.
"I'm not sure. She was waking up, some sunlight blinded her. She started to say something then clutched her head. She looked like she was in a lot of pain so I called Phanza over. She started to glow red like after she absorbed magic last night," she looked around to make sure everyone understood, "and then something...rippled through her." Hosus shuddered at the memory.
"Rippled through her? Explain."
Phanza continued. "Like a pebble thrown into a pond. Her body just rippled. There's no other way to explain it."
Pral was now almost behind them, though he had never taken his eyes off of Johnsa. He watched her as though she were a sleeping lion who would awaken and attack at any moment.
"Okay, so she rippled. Then what?"
"Hosus knocked me back. Thank the Gods she did, or I'd be dust right now," he finished hesitantly.
This statement stunned the group.
"You two are okay though right?" The concern in Wenley's voice was enough to bring Hosus back to her senses. She grabbed Phanza's arm and started crawling backwards.
"We're fine," she said as Pral helped them to their feet, "just a little shaken."
Pral looked them both up and down but noticed no physical hurt. He gave them a reassuring nod. Then all eyes went to Johnsa.
"What else happened? Why is she suddenly laying in a circle of rock?" Pral continued.
Hosus picked the story back up where Phanza had trailed off. "After I pulled Phanza back, she rippled again. Only this time the ripple didn't stop. It went right out of her body, right through the air. Everything it passed over turned to stone and dust."
Noticing Nar's shiver, Hosus flashed him a small, reassuring smile. "This keeps happening and even you might become a light sleeper," she quipped.
The joke hung still in the air between them all for a moment. Finally Bertran couldn't resist a chuckle, giving his brother a little shove. His laugh was infectious and soon everyone joined in. The twins were clutching their sides, gasping for air, and even Pral let out a snort of amusement. It was a nervous laughter, the type that followed a battle when one laughed at his continued survival. It helped relieve some of the group's tension.
After that one snort, Pral remained quiet, a considering look on his features as he continued to watch Johnsa.
You say she glowed?" he interrupted.
His quiet voice cut through the laughter, and Hosus nodded. Everyone was once more soberly examining Johnsa's still form.
"She glowed red. Just like her eyes after the absorbed magic last night, " Hosus reiterated, "And after the second ripple disappeared, she glowed white for a moment."
Pral's lips were pursed and Hosus could see what he was thinking.
"You think there's a connection." It was a statement, not a question.
"Possibly. No way to tell for certain. Any thoughts Phanza?"
All eyes turned to the mage.
"Her abilities are unlike anything I've ever seen or even heard of. I would imagine that the red glow of the absorption and the red glow before the rippled are linked somehow but as you said Pral, there's no way to know for sure."
Pral nodded at the assessment. "No more magic anywhere around her. From now on, someone watches her every hour of the day and night. She's too dangerous to leave on her own. Glyc, Wenley, finish packing up the gear. Bertran, Nar, I want you to go look for some vines or tough leaves. Anything we can use to bind her if it becomes necessary. Hosus, I want you to scout our back trail, see if our path is well-concealed. Don't go more than a mile. Phanza, I want you to keep a very close eye on Johnsa. Don't try to wake her until Nar and Bertran get back. If she stirs, call me. I'll start cleansing the site." He looked around to see that everyone understood. "Good. I want everyone finished and back in fifteen minutes."
At his barked orders, everyone moved out. Hosus was hesitant to leave Phanza, but Pral fixed her with a steady gaze. She sighed and faded into the underbrush back the way they came.
Phanza seated himself a few feet distant from Johnsa. She seemed to be asleep again, for her breathing was deep and even. Even so, she seemed to glow softly, illuminated more than the pale filtered sunlight could account for.
Although he had gotten control of himself again, Phanza was still badly shaken by what he and Hosus had experienced. In his years of studying, he had never before come across anything like the woman lying before him. He had read of demons who siphoned off the life energy of those around them, but from what he knew it had been restricted to living things. That ripple had turned even the ground to stone.
"What brought that on?" he muttered, thinking about the ripple. His analytical mind started churning through the facts, protecting him from the memory of almost being vaporized. They had found no similar stone circles where they had found her. She had not absorbed any magic but for the little he had fed her the night before. "Very curious."
Crouched and gazing at the still form, Phanza considered Pral's orders. His prohibition against magic was a wise decision, considering the circumstances, but it left Phanza useless. If they were forced to fight for whatever reason, he would be unable to aid the group. That thought troubled him profoundly. His magic was his entire reason for being and without it, he was a deadweight on the group.
With a shake of his head, Phanza turned his mind away from such dark thoughts. He would find a way to contribute and understanding Johnsa was the way to do it. He focused his thoughts on the problem in front of him.
In an effort to better understand what they were dealing with, Phanza attempted to systematically categorize what they knew of Johnsa's new abilities.
"She can absorb magic." He lifted a finger.
"She can do that ripple thing which apparently sucks anything living or life-giving dry." Another finger.
"She can read fighters," came Pral's soft voice from across the fire's remains.
The twins straightened abruptly and Glyc wore a positively shocked expression. Phanza nodded, curious as to how Pral knew but not overly concerned. He lifted another finger.
"How does she..." Glyc started, but Wenley threw a pot at him before he could finish.
"And she can glow." Wenley added smartly.
A fourth finger lifted almost begrudgingly, but Phanza had to admit it was something new and possibly linked.
Phanza looked at his raised fingers and wondered how many he would add as long as they traveled with this unique and enigmatic woman.