Vern dropped into the cavernous workspace in a tinkling shower of glass, his boots splintering the circular skylight set into the rock-hewn ceiling. He tightened his grip to slow his descent, adrenalin masking the pain as the rope bit his palm. His crossbow leapt into his hands the moment his feet hit the floor, bolt notched in readiness, his eyes scanning the room for immediate threats. Nothing stirred. No inner defenses manifested to strike him dead, despite the warded door that set-off warning tingles through his enchanted bracelet. Vern sighed, relaxing slightly.
The broken skylight dimmed in the falling dusk. The room remained lit by eerie luminescence, from runes that covered most of the floor. It hurt his eyes to look at the octagon-bounded pattern, not from the brilliance, but from the diagrammatic complexity of the interlocking symbols. This was it. The Deathspring spell that – once activated – returned a mana bounty to the initiating mage for each death subsequently caused. Invocable only by the most powerful Wizards. And the most diabolical. A handful of them had pulled it off, in all of Ordossian history. Kingdoms had been consumed in trying to stop Dark Wizards who grew ever more powerful for each life they took, which in turn empowered them to greater destructiveness, in an endless feedback loop…
The knock on the door shocked Vern out of his reverie. He spun around, aiming his crossbow at the entrance, his heart hammering in his chest.
“Don’t shoot,” a man’s voice rasped muffled through the door, “I’m unarmed. Impressive job, by the way, crossing the gorge on a tightrope. I was taking a leak downstream, when I spotted you landing on my roof. ”
The door creaked open to reveal a gaunt figure, sporting the dark blue robes of a Wizard, the cloak-clasp at his throat bearing the insignia of the UnAffiliated Order. Balding crown and a dirty white beard added to the forbidding impression.
“Oh, please, there’s no need for that,” discolored teeth smiled a rictus grin at Vern’s weapon, “I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
The Wizard spread his hands dismissively, and strolled into the room under Vern’s unwavering gaze.
“I know you can’t hurt me,” spat Vern, as the oldish man lowered himself into a large rocking chair with a grunt of relief.
“You do?” the Wizard seemed amused, “Do you know who I am?”
“Koschei,” spat Vern, “Patron Mage of the Nine Kingdoms. Savior of the Unborn. Boon of the Farmer…”. Vern struggled to control a flood of emotion, “Why, Koschei? Why turn Dark? You were the most powerful and revered Wizard in living memory. Kings sought your counsel. Maidens fought for the privilege to serve you…”
“A Wizard must plan for retirement,” Koschei shrugged, stretching, “Living a few centuries gives one a different perspective, compared to short-lived humans. But, I’m curious. What makes you so sure I can’t incinerate you with my power.”
“… because you no longer have any,” Vern retorted, tapping his bracelet, “haven’t had any, ever since you initiated the Deathspring… thirty years ago. I have studied your work. The last verifiable witness to your magic use predates that.”
“I’m offended,” Koschei smiled disarmingly, which came out looking creepy, “I think I have been of some use in later years. Some would even say my greatest deeds…”
“None that involved direct magic use,” Vern shook his head, “Your greatest achievements are the fruits of your research, which you bestowed upon lesser Wizards to implement. You practically eliminated death among newborns by modifying an attack hex to purify food and water. You created an endless supply of fertilizer by modifying an elemental spell to bind air to earth…”
“And from this you conclude…” Koschei prompted.
“You funneled all your power into the Deathspring ritual,” Vern stared at the Wizard, “So much power that I could track the spell aura all the way from the edge of the Vodniker Forest. There is a reason why so few Wizards are capable and willing to cast that spell. And you would have gotten away with it too, if not for the Royal Seer’s vision of an active Deathspring…”
Vern’s chest swelled with pride, recalling the Royal Seer picking him over all the seasoned Rangers. Queen Manasa herself – surrounded by her court – had blessed Vern on his mission.
“And yet in three decades, I have gained back none of my power, let alone surpass it,” Koschei smiled, “Strange isn’t it? I have ordered no villages slaughtered, and do not intend to. So, are you going to execute me? On what charge? ”
“I can’t kill you without unleashing all the power within the Deathspring,” Vern said slowly, pointing out the single window at the roaring waterfall below, “That much I know. So large an explosion would breach Sealake Reservoir. Thousands will drown far downstream. I’m taking you prisoner. You will be brought before the Queen, where you answer for your… if you mean no harm, why initiate the Deathspring? Why?”
“Oh, I do intend harm,” Koschei chuckled nastily, “just not on the scales you imagine. Do you know how many call Ordossia home? ”
“Huh?” Vern looked confused by the change of subject.
“Sixty million people,” replied Koschei, “now live in all the kingdoms of Ordossia combined. Though it was barely half that, before I bestowed my boons on the land, a quarter-century ago. How old are you, ranger? Eighteen? Twenty? Do you know how painfully slow progress was in your grandparents’ time?”
Vern shook his head.
“You would, if you lived as long as me,” Koschei’s tone was moody, “Most infants died soon after birth. The population stagnated. Nothing changed. And when nothing changes, do you know what that implies?”
Vern shook his head, again.
“It implies there are feedback loops keeping it stable,” Koschei smiled his ghastly grin, “death rates balancing out the birth rates. By eliminating infant mortality, I simply removed the negative feedback.”
Vern furrowed his brow, “Sounds noble enough.”
“How many sisters do you have, ranger?” Koschei’s changes of subject were keeping Vern off-balance.
“Two,” replied Vern slowly, “though I don’t see…”
“Once I eliminated infant mortality,” Koschei continued as if uninterrupted, “each woman bore an average of four healthy children. Two of which are female, on average. Each girl in turn would bear two more female children, after the age of marriage which happens to be twenty years for Ordossian women. So the population has started to double every twenty years. You see the implication?”
“More mouths to feed,” Vern began uncertainly, then his eyes widened, “but your fertilizer charm can double, even quadruple crop yield. Truly, my Lord, you are the greatest Wizard…”
“The population, you fool,” Koschei snarled, “how much will it grow in a century, if it keeps doubling every twenty years?”
“Thirty-two fold?” Vern ventured, after lengthy mental gymnastics.
“Correct,” Koschei nodded, “that’s nearly two billion. And how much will it be in two centuries if the doubling continues unabated? I’ll tell. A thousand-fold. That’s sixty billion people. Do you think even the vastness of Ordossia can support so many?”
“What?” Vern’s face showed shock, “No. That’s ridiculous. Populations can’t keep doubling like that…”
“True,” Koschei conceded, “fertility rates can fall. But the social forces I have set in motion will ensure that won’t happen for a long time. More children means more mouths to feed which requires greater crop yields. More crop yield requires more children to work the land. What do you imagine will happen when the population doubles a hundred years from now, and runs out of arable land?”
“Starvation,” whispered Vern.
“Billions will starve,” Koschei quantified grimly, “all their deaths directly attributable to me and feeding the Deathspring… I see that you are finally getting it .”
Vern raised his crossbow shakily, “Monster…”
“I surrender,” Koschei chuckled, “I can certainly spend another two centuries in Queen Manasa’s castle. A delightful lady if I remember. Her children will inherit me as their prisoner. And when the Deathspring finally channels a billion deaths to me, I will be more powerful than anything imaginable on this world. With such omnipotence, even my immortality is assured.”
“Not if I kill you now,” whispered Vern, his fingers sliding over the trigger.
“Can you truly, I wonder?” Koschei looked thoughful, “The cost to you and your people will be terrible if the Sealake breaches now. On the other hand, what will happen in a century or two will seem fuzzy to you. Humans can’t truly grasp long time scales. Even if the math checks out. So, what’s it going to be ranger? You can kill me now. Or let your children’s children accept me as their Elder God, Koschei the Deathless.”
This story was inspired by
Edits: Corrected to Thirty-two fold (2^5)