The Sceptre of Samnos

The Sceptre of Samnos

A Story by Ian Reeve
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This is the first chapter of The Sceptre of Samnos, the first volume of my fantasy series The Chronicles of Tharia. For more information visit my website Tharia.simdif.com

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CHAPTER ONE

THE UNIVERSITY

The room smelled of wood smoke. It always had. He’d noticed it the first time he’d stood there, five years before, and it had been the same every time since. He had no idea why, so far as he knew no fire had ever been lit in the Grand Assembly Hall of Lexandria University, and he couldn’t think of any reason why it would be, but the smell was there even so, just enough to be at the edge of awareness.
The young apprentice wizard, Thomas Gown by name, was standing perfectly still on the finely tiled floor that had been worn smooth by centuries of young feet, just one among the one hundred and forty six other students in his year standing in three rows like soldiers on parade. They were all wearing the plain white robes of apprentice wizards except for two nomes standing a few places beside him wearing droopy conical hats and whose robes were trimmed with the grey and gold of the school of illusionism. For some reason, known to no-one except, perhaps, the most powerful wizards in the world, illusionism and divination were the only kinds of magic that nomes were able to use.
The hall arched high above them like a vast gothic cathedral, susurrating gently with the sound of soft breathing and the occasional soft rustle of clothing as the chamber's superb acoustics magnified every tiniest movement of the apprentices. The beams and arches that supported the high vaulted ceiling were carved with the shapes of trailing vines and hideous gargoyles, and sunlight streamed in through the three giant stained glass windows high up in the eastern wall. The six windows, three on each side, depicted wizards of each of the six schools of magic, and these schools were also celebrated by a marble carving at the end of the hall, above the stage on which were set the twelve chairs of the University's senior staff. The six heads of schools, the five heads of years, and the Director, who ruled and co-ordinated them all. His chair was the most ornate of all, but they were all heavily decorated, to reflect the station of the person who sat there. At this time, however, they were all empty. The students had the hall all to themselves.
Thomas felt the hall pressing down on him, making him feel like a tiny insect on the floor of a giant's castle, horribly exposed and vulnerable to being trodden on and crushed. It was supposed to have that effect, of course, had been designed to be imposing and intimidating by the wizards who had founded the University some five thousand years before. The ability to draw the magic force into one's body, refine and condense it and then use it to perform acts that could seem miraculous to ordinary people sometimes made wizards feel like giants or gods, and if those illusions were allowed to persist the common people would begin to see them as enemies, people to be feared and hated. Wizardry had come close to extinction once before when those who could use magic had lost the trust and tolerance of the common people, and one of the functions of the University was to ensure that that would never happen again. The grand assembly hall towered over the students, therefore, impressing them with their smallness and insignificance, crushing all trace of arrogance and superiority out of them while they were young, so that they'd remember it all their lives.
The vast majority of the apprentices were human, with about two thirds of these being young men. The two nomes stood side by side within their ranks, accepted unquestioningly as colleagues despite being no larger than children, but the six pure blooded shae folk stood a little way apart, both they and humans still being uncomfortable with the others' presence despite the years of enforced intimacy they'd experienced during their training. The four half breeds, living proof that the two species did sometimes get along, stood between them like a living buffer zone. There were no trogs, however, the fourth of the four civilised races being incapable of using any kind of magic, and so the only trogs ever seen in the University grounds were the occasional contract workers brought in to repair the ageing buildings, the short but stout humanoids being stoneworkers of unsurpassed skill.
All the apprentices had completed at least five years of grueling training, during which half of the original three hundred entrants of the year had either given up and dropped out or been judged unready for the test and held back for a year. The survivors were now awaiting the much dreaded test that they had to pass in order to become fully fledged wizards, the test that had, in fact, begun the moment they'd filed into this room nearly three hours before, fearfully silent as they contemplated the whispered rumours of what awaited them.
Inside a much smaller room, separated from the assembly hall by a wall of black marble upon which was inscribed the names of all those former students who had been awarded the much coveted order of merit for outstanding contributions to wizardry, were two high ranking wizards. Tragius Demonbinder, who wore the silver and black robes of the school of Conjuration, and the head of the fifth year, Rogin Rastellin, who wore the dull grey robes of one who had chosen to remain unspecialised, uncommitted to any particular school. They watched the apprentices through the marble wall, which was transparent from their side, waiting for one of them to make an illegal movement.
Wizards were trained from the very first to be able to stand perfectly still for long periods of time, this being essential in the participation of certain powerful rites and ceremonies such as the summoning of a creature or a power from another plane of existence, something that only the very most powerful wizards would dare to attempt but which younger wizards might be called upon to help with. The spells used were so delicate that the slightest wrong move from either the master or his assistant could allow the monster to break loose, killing both of them and causing untold damage to the surrounding countryside before making its way home. The only sure way to avoid this was to keep absolutely motionless when not actively participating in the spell. They were allowed only to blink, look around with their eyes without moving their heads, swallow, and shift their weight slowly from foot to foot to help their circulation and ease the cramp. If they itched, or felt a cough coming on, they just had to try to ignore it, as they also had to ignore the sudden loud noises conjured up at intervals, sounding natural so as not to arouse the suspicions of the students. The crash of someone in a nearby room dropping a pile of books, or a loud argument between two angry men.
At the end of the third hour, Tragius finally allowed himself a grunt of satisfaction. "Your staff trained them well, Rogin. Better than that lot last year."
The other senior wizard nodded. "All that work put into them. And how many will still be alive a year from now?"
"Do you regret it?" asked Tragius, "All that time kept away from your own studies?"
"You know me better than that. Even if only a handful grow up to be senior wizards and spreads the word about what a great place this is... When I think of all those inept amateurs out there, training their own apprentices to make the same mistakes they do..."
Tragius nodded. "Yes, and they still outnumber us by nearly three to one." He sighed, shaking his head. "How can we still be so far from our goal after more than five thousand years?"
"The world is too big, they are too many, and we are too few. We're already doing the only thing we can, teaching as many as possible to do it properly. Come on, let's go and put them out of their misery."
The door took them out into the corridor, and then they had to enter the hall not by the first door they came to, which only the Director himself was allowed to use, and only for the weekly assemblies, but by the second door, fifteen feet further on. As they entered the hall, one hundred and forty seven pairs of eyes turned towards them, but not one single head moved. Through the open door came the sound of third year students hurrying along the corridor to their next class, but the sound was shut off sharply as the door closed behind them on its oiled, sprung hinges.
The two senior wizards climbed the three steps to the stage, their footsteps echoing like gunshots, and stood behind the podium, the place where the Director stood to make announcements and give speeches to the assembled staff and apprentices at the start of every new week. The spot was illuminated by a slanting shaft of light, made visible by a million dancing motes of dust, that shone in through a skylight hidden amongst all the gothic splendour of the ceiling. It made him a creature of golden radiance, and every apprentice stared in awe and wonder.
Tragius Demonbinder was more than just a wizard to them. He was a legend! Everyone had heard the tales of his exploits, his victories against the forces of evil in the days of his youth. He had been a member of a dozen armies, fought for a dozen different nations, not as a paid mercenary, although there were some warrior wizards who earned their living that way, but as a champion of law and justice, offering his services wherever they were needed. So great had his reputation grown that the merest rumour of his coming was often enough to make an ambitious warlord think twice, and even now, retired and passing on his skills to the next generation, the name of Tragius Demonbinder was enough to strike terror into young hearts.
Tragius paused for the required forty seven seconds, counting softly under his breath and trying to curb his irritation at the endless rules and traditions that regulated every smallest facet of University life. It was said that Lexandros himself, the legendary founder of the University, had always paused this long before the podium before speaking, and so every speaker after him who stood on this spot had to do the same. He resisted the temptation to cut the interval short. There was bound to be a proctor out in the corridor listening in, and he wasn't in the mood for a lecture from the Master of Ceremonies. He continued counting, therefore, while studying the assembled students with a critical eye, until the time had finally elapsed. "Stand easy," he then said, and his voice echoed out across the hall, transformed by the acoustics of the precisely designed chamber into a sound that could have issued from the throat of a great bronze colossus. The apprentices gave a collective sigh of relief as they stretched, scratched and swung their arms around, glad to be able to move again, until Tragius tapped a wand against the podium to get their attention, glaring down at them with cold, cruel eyes. He waited until everyone was still and silent again, then began to speak.
"You all know why you're here. You all know what is expected of you. The test is divided into three separate parts, the first of which will take place here, today. The general knowledge test is intended to determine how much background knowledge you have picked up during your time here. It is a test of your attentiveness and memory, indispensable attributes in a wizard. Maybe the most important of all the qualities that a wizard must possess."
He scowled down at the nervous students, some of whom were sweating and shaking with anxiety, but one or two of the youngest of the young men were smirking with confidence and winking at one another, amused and contemptuous of the heavy, serious atmosphere the wizards had laboured so long and hard to create. His silence made them look up curiously, and he locked eyes with each of them in turn, his scowl deepening. He held their gaze until they looked away, their faces pale with fear, whereupon he nodded to himself in satisfaction. He liked his students to take the test seriously. "First, however, Master Rastellin will remind you of what awaits over the next few days."
He stepped back and Rogin took his place, whereupon he also had to wait the forty seven seconds before speaking. He was a much more cheerful, friendlier man than the formidable Tragius, with a plump, round face and a fringe of white hair around his liverspotted bald head. He disapproved of the gravity and solemnity that Tragius liked to create, preferring to maintain a slightly lighter atmosphere, although he made sure that the students knew that magic was a serious business, not to be trifled with. You had to warn them, of course, make sure they understood that, in all probability, less than half of them would still be alive five years from now, but he was of the opinion that Tragius overdid it a bit and would scare the lot of them into abandoning magic altogether if he wasn't careful. We need these people, he said to himself, his customary smile fading a little. We need University trained wizards. The standards we've laboured centuries to uphold cannot, must not, be allowed to die out.
"The second part of the test will take as many days as you have spells in your spellbooks, which is three or four for most of you. Every day, you will read one of your spells and demonstrate that you can cast it safely and correctly. Any material components you need will be supplied, unless any of you requires any dragon's blood, in which case you can jolly well go and get it for yourself." A ripple of laughter broke out among the apprentices, releasing the tension, as he had intended.
"The final part of the test is the most difficult. You will each be given a spellbook belonging to a wizard who, for one reason or another, is no longer with us, and from it you will copy one spell into your own spellbook. To do this, you will need to use a read magic spell, which you should all be proficient with, a supply of magic ink, which you will mix for yourselves, and one cockatrice feather for each spell attempt, to use as a quill. If you spoil it and need a replacement you will be deemed to have failed. Just because we raise them ourselves on the premises doesn't mean we have so many that we can throw them away. Having said that, though, you may fail to learn the new spell even if you do everything perfectly, as this is something that not even a senior wizard can do with guaranteed success, so if you fail from no fault of your own you will be allowed to try again, as many times as you want. You will only fail when you yourselves have given up.
"To become a wizard, you will have to pass all three parts of the test. Fail any one part, and you fail the whole thing. Those that fail need not be downhearted, however, as you will be able to retake the test any time you wish, after a mandatory one year of further study and tuition. Indeed, I happen to know that there are a number of people here today who have been with us for twice as long as the average student, and seem to have become something of a permanent fixture."
There was a chuckle of amusement, and a small group of men in their mid twenties standing in the back row stared down at their feet in shame. Easy going though the wizard was for the most part, he wasn't averse to giving a lagging pupil a painful prod when necessary. And, of course, you had to be on the lookout for those who made a career of being an apprentice, who had no intention of ever passing the test. There was no official upper limit to how many years a student could hang on, but anyone who hadn't either passed or given up after ten or twelve years was looked upon with suspicion, and every so often a long term student was thrown out with great pomp and ceremony.
He looked out over the students and grinned down at them, making Tragius scowl. "I'm sure you'll all do very well, however, and that you'll all pass with flying colours. Now, any questions?"
A tall woman with long golden hair put up her hand. "What happens to those who never pass the test?" she asked. "Are they allowed to just carry on casting spells out there?" She waved a pale, slender hand to take in the entire outside world, full of helpless, innocent people who'd be at the mercy of a rogue, inept wizard. "And if so, what benefit do we gain from passing?"
"I'm glad you raised that particular point," replied Rogin. "Those who pass will gain enormous benefits in the years to come. A register is kept of all graduated wizards, and as they progress in their mastery of the art new spells are made available to them as soon as they are deemed ready to receive them. Also, you will be expected to return here from time to time for courses of further education, to prepare you for the higher level spells you may one day be able to master. Those who do not pass are denied these benefits, and their spellbooks are confiscated to deny them the spells they have already learned."
He paused, and a deeply unhappy look passed over his face, as though someone he'd trusted had done something deeply hurtful and thoughtless. "I understand that some Lexandrian dropouts apprentice themselves to outsider wizards, wizards who gain their education from other sources. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the dangers inherent in this. Outsider wizards are dangerous amateurs, stupid and irresponsible, and anyone foolish enough to go to them will learn only how to get themselves killed, probably taking several other people with them in the process. I understand the temptations, and the fact that some may see it as a way of revenging themselves on an institution that turned them away, but take it from me. Nothing is worth the risk. Nothing is worth the danger, either to yourselves or to others."
"There's an outsider wizard living not far from my home town," said a young man with bright ginger hair and the stubby beginnings of a beard, "and he's held in very high regard by everyone who knows him. It was he who first made me want to become a wizard, and it was he who advised me to come here for my apprenticeship."
Tragius hurrumphed loudly, and Rogin looked rather doubtful. "If what you say is true, he sounds like a man of unusual common sense, but I still wouldn't depend on him. If you need something doing, do it yourself or get a good University wizard to do it for you."
He looked out over the sea of faces. "Any more questions?" he asked. There was some shuffling and whispering, but no-one else spoke up. "Right then, in that case, the general knowledge test will now begin." He clapped his hands and a dozen teaching wizards, familiar faces from five years of tuition, came filing in, all wearing traditional testing robes with their high silver edged collars and carrying fancifully decorated staffs that, in ages past, had been used to clout a dim witted student on the head. Tradition demanded that the staffs still be carried, although they were no longer used for that purpose. "The first twelve of you will come over here, where you will be asked a number of questions, all of which you must answer fully and completely to pass. Afterwards, you will leave quietly and study for the spellcasting test, which starts tomorrow. From now on, you are excused from the routine that you have been following for the past five years. Your time, when not being tested, is now your own. I suggest you use it wisely."
He waited until the line had been formed, then moved to stand before the first apprentice, one of the nomes, while Tragius and the other teaching wizards picked out other nervous young men. The other apprentices, ignored for now, strained their ears to listen to the questions, desperate to know just how hard their own ordeals would be. "Ready?" he asked. "Right then." He produced a list of questions from among his robes, and read the first one. "Give me twelve different uses for the oil of the Winterfire vine, and explain fully the dangers associated with each use."

☆☆☆

An hour later, Thomas left the hall in a cold sweat, trembling at how close he'd come to failure. He had answered the first question easily enough, but the second had been a subject he'd only encountered once before, in his first year, a subject he'd thought to be of so little importance or interest that he hadn't bothered to study or revise it since. Hearing the wizard posing the unexpected question, he'd frozen completely, his brain locking up in panic. The answer was there, he knew it was, but it was buried so far down that it would take the rest of the day for it to surface and he knew his interrogator wouldn't give him that long. He'd barely started the test, and already he could see failure staring him in the face. Ignominious defeat. He'd seen, as clearly as if it was already happening, the wizard's eyes looking down at him in pity and contempt as he told him to leave the room, doomed to the shame and ignominy of another year of tuition, having to relearn stuff he already knew by heart. Sheer panic had gripped him, making him shake like a leaf as his blood was saturated with adrenaline. He had already seen half a dozen fail and walk out in a shocked, unbelieving daze, and he knew, with a terrifying certainty, that he was going to be next.
But he wasn't. Somehow the answer had come to him, popping into his head by some miracle and out through his mouth before he was even aware of it and the teaching wizard had nodded his acceptance and moved on to the next question, leaving Thomas quaking with relief and disbelief. The other questions, although hard and testing, hadn't posed him anything like the same problem, and it had taken about a dozen, with queries and follow up questions, before the teaching wizard was satisfied that his knowledge was as broad and deep as it needed to be and dismissed him with a grunt of satisfaction.
He almost danced out of the building, his soul singing with gratitude and relief, and raced down the rough stone path towards the dormitories, passing the statue of a young man frozen in the act of sweeping something up and looking round in surprise. Reaching his room, he stripped off his sweat soaked clothes and threw them into the laundry basket, then turned the tap to fill the wash basin with clean, cold water from the pipe that ran from the tank in the loft, the tank that was filled from Lake Magus by levitation spells in the supply pipe.
He was washing the cold perspiration from his body when the door opened again to admit one of his roommates, the one he liked the least as chance would have it. It wasn’t that Contrast was a bad person. He was popular with a lot of the other apprentices and he tried to be friendly with Tom, but there was just something about him that affected him like fingernails on a blackboard. He knew he was being unfair to the Haldornian and he tried to get along with him, but he just couldn’t help ending every conversation as soon as possible, even though it left him feeling a little ashamed of himself.
Contrast grabbed his arm as he entered, one of the habits that annoyed him the most and that made him tense up irritably. He rubbed the flannel over his face to mask his reaction. "You came a bit close there, didn't you?" he heard the other man say, almost laughing. "For a moment there I thought you were going to be staying on for another year. Glad to see you got through all right, though. Naturally, I got all my questions right, as you'd expect. There's been a wizard in my family for the past twelve generations and we've all passed first time..."
“Twelve generations, yeah,” replied Tom, gently pulling himself free. “I think you told me that once. Very impressive.” He grabbed a towel and began drying himself, noting that the other man had left the door wide open. Five years of enforced intimacy had left most of the apprentices with very few inhibitions and Tom was the same most of the time, but Conrast somehow brought out some residual childhood modesty in him. He rubbed his legs and waist dry and pulled a clean pair of briefs from the laundry cupboard, struggling to pull them on against his still damp skin. It wasn’t that he was self conscious or anything, but even so... “That’s quite some pressure to live up to, though,” he said as he towelled his upper body. “Imagine if you were the one to break the chain.”
“No fear of that,” replied Contrast with a chuckle, slipping out of his own clothes while Tom averted his eyes. “Even the guy asking the questions knew it was just a formality. I could tell.”
“Yeah, you were so confident that you sweated through all your clothes, just like the rest of us.” He pulled a new robe out of the cupboard and slipped into it.
“Well, it was hot in there!”
Tom crossed to the table and gathered up his study notes, grimacing with annoyance when he saw that one of Contrasts library books, tossed casually and allowed to slide across the scarred, battered wood, had creased his carefully drawn copy of Wilmart’s Seal. Then he took his spellbook from his personal locker, a cubIc foot of space that was purely his, the only part of the room apart from his narrow cot that none of his three roommates could or would invade. He stroked its leather cover lovingly. “I’m a natural talent, everyone says so,” continued the other man. “They say they could sense the potential in me even before I could walk...”
Tom wished he had a gold crown for every time he’d heard that. “Your parents must be very proud,” he said as his roommate drained the wash basin and refilled it. He gave thanks to the Gods that, on this occasion at least, he didn't have to listen to the whole performance. When all four of them were cooped up in their room together, their only escape was to pretend to be asleep until he shut up. It gave the rest of them something to joke about, though, even though his other two roommates were close friends with Conrast when they were part of a larger group. "Got a lot of studying to do if I'm going to get through tomorrow. See you tonight." He slipped out into the corridor as casually as he could, not wanting to offend. After all, he might be a wizard soon, and it didn't do to go around offending wizards. Then he grinned as he realised that his days of listening to his endless mocking condescension and self congratulation were almost over. He'd survived trial by Conrast, the fourth and hardest part of the test. He was grinning to himself as he dashed out into the sunlight.
When he got to the common room, he found that his favourite chair was being occupied by a shae girl, who was talking to the nome who'd been the first to pass the general knowledge test. He stood about three feet high, about average for his race, and had a neatly trimmed stubby brown beard, a sign of his youth. Nome babies were born with facial hair, and as they grew towards adulthood it became silvery grey until the very oldest of their race wore beards of the purest white. He was sitting in a nome chair, specially designed for his race to enable them to sit face to face with the taller races.
The shae girl nodded at something he’d said, and raised a hand to brush a stray strand of hair away from her face. She was just about the only person in the room who looked perfectly natural in her apprentice robes, as if she'd been born to wear them, and every man in the room was trying not to stare too obviously at her more than human beauty. Her dark, silky fine hair was spread out in a fan across her shoulders with her delicately pointed ears poking through it, making her look like a pixie. Her eyebrows were thin and slanted, giving her a slightly oriental look, and her eyes were widely spaced, brown and luminous.
She sat with an effortless grace, something common to all the shae folk and that made them stand out vividly from a crowd of humans even when completely hidden within the long flowing robes they often wore when in human company. This shae girl had it in abundance as she spoke with the nome, her knees together and her spellbook open in her lap. Thomas had seen her a few times before in the corridors, and seemed to remember that her name was Lenna, or something.
There were about twenty other students in the room, some quietly studying, the others chatting in small groups. A few sipped from cups of Astarian tea, or nibbled expensive sweetmeats imported from Fu-Nang and Belthar. The University spared no expense to attract young people from all over the world in an attempt to bring the level of competence within the magical community up to acceptable minimums. The walls were covered with posters and wall charts conveying a vast amount of important general information about the world, such as annual rainfall in different climatic areas, average temperatures, weather patterns, trade routes, main industries, imports, exports, population, racial breakdown and the government type of every country in the known world, and the space on the wall above the bar, where almost everyone in the room could see it, was covered with a huge map of the known world, with detail so fine that a magnifying glass would be needed to see it all. No matter where an apprentice looked in this room, he would find himself looking at an important piece of information, crucial to his studies.
Thomas almost looked for another seat, but the shae girl's beauty drew him like a magnet and he decided to risk introducing himself. She was sitting in his seat, after all. That gave him an opening, of a sort. He knew that she would be polite and charming, and make it very clear, without actually saying so, that she would prefer to be left alone, the fate of all the other male apprentices who'd tried the same. Even having her attention for those few, brief moments would be worth something, though, and so he sat down in a chair opposite the two nonhumans. "Hi," he said.
It was the nome who answered him, though, saying "Hi," in a high pitched, squeaky voice. "How's it going in there?"
Thomas cursed inwardly. Now the shae girl would quietly slip away, leaving him with her tiny companion. She stayed, though, and regarded him with a level gaze that sent his pulse racing, making him wonder how he'd never met her in here before. He reluctantly forced his attention back to the nome. He mustn't make it too obvious just how interested he was in her. If he wanted to be her friend, it must seem a natural, spontaneous thing. Nothing put women off faster than cold blooded calculation. "I'm afraid your friend, the other nome, didn't make it. He said oil of krallen root when he should have said krellen root. An easy mistake to make, but apparently not an acceptable one in a wizard."
The nome shrugged. "I hardly knew him. We weren't together or anything. I presume you passed, or you wouldn't be here."
"Just barely. I also nearly failed a question. Gave me the fright of my life!"
"Nearly doesn't count. You passed, that's all that matters." He suddenly cried out and slapped his forehead. "I'm forgetting my manners. My name is Geremy Blumintop, and this is my brand new friend, Lirenna Daliris. Like you, we met each other properly for the first time just now."
"I'm Thomas Gown," said Thomas, taking the opportunity to look the shae girl full in the face for the first time, something he'd avoided until then in case he scared her off with too much attention. "Pleased to meet you."
Geremy jumped down from the chair and bowed to him. "Pleased to meet you also," he said. Thomas got up and bowed in return, remembering that the nomes were renowned for their wicked sense of humour and hoping that, if he remained very proper and polite, Geremy would do the same. Lirenna held out a slender hand and he took it, marveling at the cool, silky soft texture of her skin, so pleasant to the touch that it took an effort of will to make himself let go. She smiled at this, as if it was a reaction she'd encountered often. "Thomas?" she said. "I've heard of you. They say you're the best in your class."
"Since there're only seven people left in my class, that's not as impressive as it sounds, even if it were true." He decided to change the subject. Talking about himself always made him terribly self conscious. "I don't believe I've never spoken to you before! We've been in the same school together for five years, in the same year, and yet we've never shared a class! Never even met in here before!" He turned to the nome. "Nor you!"
"Just chance I suppose," replied Geremy. "Pure pot luck that made sure we were always in different places."
"But for five years! It doesn't seem possible!"
"Well, we have the chance to get to know each other now," said Lirenna, smiling pleasantly.
"Just as we're all about to leave and return to our own homes!" protested Thomas, feeling badly cheated by fate. He wasn't going to spoil the moment by complaining, however. If all they had was a few days to get to know each other, then they had to make the most of the time they had. "You know, there’s something I’ve always wanted to know, ever since I first came here. There are huge empires of the Shae Folk down south and they educate their own people. Shayen wizards teach young shae wizards, have done for thousands of years ever since...” He realised he was approaching a tender subject and reined himself in hurriedly. “I mean, you have your own schools of magic, so how come there are so many shae students here? I mean, there aren’t that many, not many at all in fact, but why are there any at all? Why would a shae family send their child to a human school of magic?”
“Ahem,” said Geremy with an amused smile.
“You know what I mean,” said Tom apologetically. “There aren’t any great nome nations, just a few small communities scattered here and there. There aren’t enough nomes to make a nome school of magic possible. You’ve got no choice but to come here. The Shae Folk are different. I know the Shae Folk teach their own, and yet there are shae folk here, for which I’m very glad by the way...” Lirenna smiled shyly, looking down at the floor, and Tom cursed himself inwardly. Now she thinks I’m coming on to her! She’ll make some excuse and leave...
“You’ve never had an actual conversation with a shae before, have you?” she said though, grinning, and Tom grinned in return, sagging with relief. “I’m sorry, I know there are rules of conversation among your people, that you’re very formal and polite. Please forgive me, I don’t know the rules...”
"Actually, I'm only demi shae, you'll have noticed my hair." She touched it self consciously, combing a few of the almost invisibly fine strands between her fingers. Thomas gave a slight nod to conceal his ignorance. Every other shae he'd ever seen had had light hair, various shades of blonde from light golden honey to a pure silvery white, but he hadn't thought anything of it. "Well, three quarters. My grandmother was human."
"That's unusual, isn't it? I mean, usually it's a human man who falls in love with a shae woman, or at least that's what I heard."
"By all accounts, my grandmother was an exceptionally beautiful woman. But, to answer your first question, yes, those shae who come from the great southern Kingdoms are usually educated by their own kind. They have their own schools of magic, but there are small, isolated shayen communities all over the world. I come from the hidden valley of Haven, far to the north."
"Never heard of it," said Geremy.
"Far to the north?" asked Thomas. "It's not anywhere near Ilandia, is it?"
"I have no idea, but it's somewhere in the Copper Mountains so it might be," she said, her eyes lighting up with excitement. "Is that where you live?"
"Yes, in the town of Andor, near the eastern frontier. By the Gods, we're practically neighbours! So how come I've never heard of the valley of Haven?"
"Not many outsiders know of it. Up until a few years ago no outsider even knew it existed, but the fact of its existence gradually leaked out, so there's no point in denying it any more, which is why I'm allowed to talk about it. However, its location is still secret, except to a few trusted outsiders. I couldn't find it myself, without help. When I left to come here, they put me into a kind of hypnotic trance so that I wouldn't remember any details of the journey. When I want to go back, I'll have to report to the home of one of the trusted outsiders I mentioned, who will take me back in the same manner."
Thomas nodded, but Geremy looked puzzled. "But why is such secrecy necessary? There are tiny outposts all over the place. Tiny valleys, isolated islands, a few square miles of firm land in the middle of marshland home to a couple of dozen staunchly independent families. They don't all hide away like that. What are you so afraid of?"
"You've heard of the Shadowwars?" asked Thomas. Geremy gave him a look. Everyone had heard of the Shadowwars. The last one had been a mere thirty years before and had devastated half the continent. "Ilandia is very close to the Shadowlands. If Haven is where Lirenna says it is, it must be right on its borders."
"It's not that bad," she said. "But the towns and villages outside Haven are often attacked by raiding parties, and it's been getting worse in recent years. We only survived the last war because the enemy never found us."
"Then why don't you all move away?" asked Geremy. "Why not all just go somewhere safer?"
"There has been a lot of emigration lately. Our wizards, what there are of them, have been working non stop giving them amnesia spells, to make them forget the location of Haven, but there will always be some who will never move away, no matter how bad it gets outside."
"Why not?"
Lirenna sighed. "I would like to say that it's because it's one of the most beautiful places in the world, a place so peaceful, tranquil and serene that they just can't bear to leave, and in truth that is the reason for most of us, but there is a much more earthly reason why others stay. I can sum it up in one word. Iron."
"Iron!" breathed Geremy. "Yes, I understand now."
Iron was scarce on Tharia, but wanted everywhere. The trogs produced most of it, their mines reaching deep down to where a few veins of natural ore were still to be found. The ruins of abandoned cities and civilisations were routinely scavenged for whatever iron had been left behind and existing iron was carefully guarded, protected against rust and with every smallest nail recycled when it was no longer needed for what it was being used for. It was quite easy to see why anyone living near a vein of it would want to keep it secret, and why other people would go to a great deal of trouble and expense to find it. Lirenna only spoke freely about it because news of the vein had somehow escaped into the outer world some time before.
"Yes," said Lirenna. "Haven originally grew up around a group of mining villages. There's iron here and there all along the Copper Mountains, as any trog will tell you, but there's an especially rich vein in Haven. There's also gold, silver, copper of course, and jewels, but iron is the big one."
"I don't think I'd like to live too close to there," said Geremy. "Too dangerous."
"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen it. It really is a beautiful place. There are nomes there, you know."
"Really? Maybe I'll go there one day. If they let me in, of course."
"Where do you live, Geremy?" asked Thomas.
"Call me Jerry, please. Everybody else does. I was born in Nomehome, which isn't that far from here, only a few hundred miles. I shan't be going back there, though. There's nothing there for me. I want to see a bit of the world first. I might go to Ilandia with you. It sounds like a fascinating place."
"What do you mean, nothing there for you? Haven't you got a family?"
"No. They were all killed during the last Goblin war."
"Oh I'm sorry." said Lirenna, reaching out a comforting hand to touch him on the knee. "It must have been terrible for you."
"Not really. I was only a baby at the time. I was raised in an orphanage, to which I have absolutely no desire to return. It was there that I first decided that I wanted to be an illusionist. A human wizard was passing through on his way somewhere and agreed to pop in and show us a few tricks, to cheer us up. As I watched him, I knew, just knew, that I could do some of the things he was doing, and the direction of my life was set. What about you? What made you want to become a wizard?"
"It's a kind of family tradition," said Lirenna. "The eldest child always trains to be a wizard, even if they don't pass their apprenticeship. Both my father and grandfather failed, and now it’s my time to try. If I pass, I'll be the first family wizard for three generations. What about you, Thomas? What made you decide to be a wizard?"
"Well, I didn't, really. I just wanted to go to a university, any university. You see, ever since I was little, I've wanted to know all about the world. My curiosity drove my parents up the wall. I was always asking them questions they couldn't answer, and not knowing the answers almost drove me crazy, so they decided that I would have to have a proper education. The trouble was that you need money to go to those places, and we were a poor family.
"Then I heard about this place, which would teach you absolutely free of charge, provided you had at least some magical potential. I came here expecting to be tossed out again after a week or so, when they found out that I had about as much chance of becoming a wizard as a trog. However, even that would be worthwhile, since I intended to spend every spare moment in the library, soaking up as much knowledge as I could. Imagine my surprise when they told me that I actually stood a chance of actually becoming a wizard! You could've knocked me down with a feather!"
The others laughed, and that was it. As simply as that, a lifetime friendship was forged and their revision was forgotten as they talked and talked, simply delighting in each others' company. They ended up spending the whole day there, staving off hunger with snacks from the bar, moistening their mouths with sips of fruit juice, telling each other things they'd never shared with another soul as easily as if they'd always known each other, and by the time they were forced to return to their rooms by the fall of night everything that had happened to them before they'd met seemed only a distant memory.

☆☆☆

The next day, the entire fifth year assembled again in the grand assembly hall, from which they were directed to study cubicles for their first spellcasting test. There were three hundred of the small study cubicles, each one ten feet square, with plain stone walls, one table and one chair. They were designed to be places where an apprentice could go to be alone and study without fear of being interrupted. Now, however, over the course of the day, every fifth year student would be sharing one with a high level teaching wizard, so that he could demonstrate the casting of a spell without any distractions or outside influences interfering with it.
Thomas was in cubicle 116 with Master Elmias Pastin, the head of extra-planar studies and one of the most powerful wizards in the valley. He wasn't merely a teacher, although he took classes as often as he could. He was a research wizard who spent most of his time in other dimensions, other planes of existence, exploring and studying what he found there. The last time Thomas had seen him had been five months before, when he'd taken his class on a school outing to a plane of elemental air, a place so fascinating that he was determined to go back there one day, under his own power. University gossip had it that Elmias spent nearly half his life travelling in other planes, and that his rooms were full of souvenirs brought back from dozens of other universes.
He spent a few moments glancing up and down some notes, and then said "I believe you're going to cast a reveal spell for me. Is that right?"
"Y-yes sir," said Thomas. Elmias glanced up sternly at his stammer, and Thomas felt a cold hand grab his insides and twist them. He tried to calm down, but the butterflies in his stomach paid him no attention, and carried on trying to escape. This is ridiculous, he told himself. I've cast this spell dozens of times, perfectly each time! There's absolutely no reason why I shouldn't be able to do it now. Nevertheless, he knew that it was different now, for the simple reason that he was being tested.
Elmias reached a hand into a pocket of his robes and brought out seven gold rings, each with a different gemstone. A diamond, a ruby, an emerald, a sapphire, an opal, a jet and a polished bead of ivory. He said "None of these rings is magical. However, one of them has been given a magical charge that will make it react to your spell as though it was magical. I want you to tell me which one it is." He placed them on the table. "In your own good time."
Thomas looked at the rings. The words of the spell came easily to his mind. He had carefully memorised them that morning, and gone over them again and again to make sure they were correct, but he was terrified that he would stammer again as he said them, spoiling the spell and failing the test. Elmias looked at him impatiently. Thomas swallowed, rubbed his hands, and decided to go for it. After all, he told himself, even if I do fail, I've already accomplished much more than I thought possible when I first came. I've read my way virtually all through the library, or at least those parts we're allowed into, and I never really thought I could actually become a wizard.
Having resigned himself to failure, he felt much better. He was cool, calm and collected. He reached a hand out over the rings, spread his fingers, said the magic words and one of the rings, the sapphire one, began to glow with a soft blue light as the aura placed on it was made visible. He looked up, and saw Elmias smiling at him. "Well done," he said. "I'll see you again tomorrow."
He gathered up the rings, got up and left, heading for the next cubicle where there was another apprentice nervously waiting for him, leaving Thomas feeling stunned at how quickly he'd come out the other side. From hours of anxiety, creeping with glacial slowness so that it seemed as though years were passing in the outside world, to the relief of a successful pass. How was it possible to go from one to the other so quickly? But even as these thoughts were passing through his head he remembered that he'd have to go through the whole thing again the next day, and all of a sudden the anxiety was back, twisting his guts and making him shake as if in a fever. Will it ever be over? he wondered in near despair.
Meanwhile, a few doors further down the corridor in another cubicle, Jerry was holding a bit of fleece in his hand and concentrating intently on a spot on the wall where a swirling cloud of colours gradually condensed into the image of a door, identical to the real door next to it. The bit of fleece withered and evaporated and the two high level wizards also in the room went over to examine the illusion.
"It's a bit fuzzy ‘round the edges," said the first.
"What do you mean, a bit fuzzy?" the other retorted in surprise. "Most apprentices never get past being able to create simple shapes and colours! That's astonishing for someone at his stage of development! He's well earned his pass."
"Let's wait a bit, see how long he can maintain it," said the first. They waited for a few minutes, therefore, during which Jerry stared unblinkingly at the illusion, his eyes watering and tears running down his cheeks. The 'door' wavered a couple of times, like a reflection on water across which ripples are passing, but soon stabilised as Jerry clenched his fists and stared harder. He began to get a headache.
"Come on, Nesbin, that'll do. How long could you maintain it?"
"I'm not the one being tested here. His concentration's wavering."
"Of course it is! You know how many years it takes to gain a proper mastery of this game! Besides, It only needs one of us to pass it, and I already have. You know what that kind of intensive concentration costs you." He turned to the nome. "You can stop now. You've passed."
Jerry's pride had been pricked, though. He wanted to impress both of them. "I can hold it a bit longer," he told them, and his tiny hands clenched into fists as he fought to overcome the waves of dizziness that swept over him. The younger of his two judges turned to the other, now becoming visibly angry. "Nesbin! For the sake of the Gods!"
"All right," his companion reluctantly agreed, and he touched the illusion, making it vanish with a faint popping sound. Jerry staggered and nearly fell, but was caught by the second wizard. "Sorry about that," he said, "but Nesbin here’s a bit of a hardcase." He shot his companion an angry glance. "You did very well."
"I did, didn't I?" said Jerry, giving Nesbin a hard stare. The older wizard was unimpressed, though, and returned an impassive look of icy aloofness. "You nearly lost your concentration at one point," he said, "but I'm going to be lenient and pass you. You need a lot more practice, though. See that you get it." He left the room, with the second wizard following him, his angry words floating back to the exhausted nome. "Look, I know you were turned down as Brok's assistant, but that's no reason to take it out on the students!" Whatever Nesbin replied was lost to Jerry, however, as they turned a bend in the corridor, and the tiny nome sat down in the chair to recover from the exertion of the spell.
Lirenna, in contrast, was having a much easier time. The wizard testing her, an elderly grey haired woman in the golden robes of the school of enchantment, had dragged in another apprentice who had just successfully passed his day's testing and was now sitting nervously in the chair. "Is it going to hurt?" he asked, looking fearfully up at the demi shae, who smiled reassuringly at him.
"Not at all," replied the woman, whose name was Tarantha. "The spell is completely harmless." She turned to Lirenna and said "It is possible that he will successfully resist your enchantment, especially as he is so afraid. Don't worry about that, however, as I will be able to tell if it was cast correctly, and that is what you will be judged on."
"Enchantment?" said the young man, whose name was George. "You're going to spell bind me?" He stared at Tarantha, a look of near panic in his eyes. "It'll wear off, won't it?"
"It won't have a chance to," the wizardess reassured him. "I'll dispel it the moment I'm satisfied it's been cast correctly."
"And what if it isn't cast correctly? What if it does something to me, something permanent?"
Tarantha smiled at him. "Don't you have faith in your class mate?" she asked. "You've been working with her for three years now. You know how promising we consider her to be."
The young man nodded, but the fear remained. He was remembering the times, over the past few months, when he'd tried to date her, and how flatly he'd failed each time. When his friends had asked him how he was doing with her, though, he'd lied to them, made up a story of a steamy evening in his room, and when Lirenna had found out she'd been furious. She hadn't been able to take the revenge she'd wanted without damaging her record, but what if she'd been merely biding her time? What if the spell she was going to cast on him now 'went wrong' in a way that had some horrible effect on him? Lirenna would simply claim that the spell had escaped her control and no-one would ever be able to prove otherwise. Her revenge would be complete. Lirenna smiled at him, guessing his thoughts, and reflected that the anxiety he was suffering now was all the revenge she needed. Well, almost. The price of her sullied reputation was high, after all.
She turned to face the young man, looking him right in the eye. She winked at him, and his heart missed a beat as his fear reached new heights. The demi shae nodded to herself in satisfaction, but realised she was overdoing it. The more scared he was, the less likely the spell was to succeed, and she wanted to pass this test. She wasn't going to be held back for a year because of an odious little scum like him! She smiled reassuringly, therefore. "Don't worry," she told him. "Whatever differences we've had, they're all behind us now. Let's just get through the tests and go our separate ways."
George nodded in relief, but remembered that she had shae blood. All the shae folk were notoriously unpredictable, as unpredictable as they were beautiful. She might be telling the truth and still change her mind at the last moment. He could refuse to take part, he remembered. He could walk out of here and make her find someone else to cast her spell on, but it was too late. The demi shae was already beginning to speak.
Lirenna said the magic words in a lilting seductive voice, looking him right in the eyes, forcing him to maintain eye contact with her while she reached out to gently stroke his arm, her slender hand slipping under the sleeve of his robes to caress the skin. Her touch was like an electric tingle, and the look she was giving him was the one he'd always dreamed of, the one he'd always hoped for in the darkest hours of the night. Now that he was finally getting it, though, it only made him even more scared.
The art of enchantment required the subject (victim) to be raised to a state of sexual arousal, and he found himself responding despite his every effort to resist. Once he was under, she'd be able to do whatever she wanted to him. Anything at all! Suddenly, though, she fell silent, her casting concluded, and her hand withdrew to sit in her lap with its mate. George examined the state of his mind, searching for any kind of change that had come over him, but found nothing. The spell had failed! Fallen flat, and without any unpleasant side effects! He laughed inwardly, while striving to keep any sign of his delight out of his face. Teach the shae b***h to turn him down! Think they're so much better than us...
He looked at Lirenna and was struck yet again by just how beautiful she was. All the shae folk were beautiful, of course, the men as well as the women, but suddenly she was the most staggeringly beautiful woman he had ever seen, more beautiful even than a pureblooded shae. Her skin seemed to glow from inside, and her robes were such a brilliant white that they made his own robes seem dirty and grey in comparison. It must be the relief that the ordeal was over, he thought. It was a pity that her spell, whatever it had been, had failed and he felt sorry for her, but... No, it wasn't sorrow or sympathy he felt for her, it was something much deeper. Something much stronger. He would do anything for her, he realised. He would do whatever she asked of him, just so long as she'd let him be near her! He loved her!
"Have you got your spellbook with you?" she asked, with a voice like pure mountain water sparkling as it flowed down its rocky bed.
"Y-yes, I've got it right here," he said, pulling it out of his pocket so quickly that he tore a couple of stitches in the seam. He held it out to her.
"Open it at your favourite spell."
He did so, turning to the fiery grasp spell he'd cast only a few minutes before.
"Now tear it out."
The man hesitated, and Tarantha leaned forwards, looking at Lirenna with a frown on her face. The man seemed to be fighting an internal battle with himself, but after a minute or so he took hold of the page in his right hand and began to pull.
"Stop!" cried Lirenna and Tarantha together. The man let go and jerked his hand back, staring down at the still undamaged spellbook. Tarantha spoke a few words, breaking the spell, and leaving him looking bewildered. Then, as he realised what he'd almost done, what she'd almost made him do, his bewilderment turned to anger. "You..."
"Thank you for your help," said Tarantha firmly. "You may go now." George stared at her, then nodded and turned for the door, but he shot the demi shae a look of venomous anger before leaving.
"That was totally unnecessary, Lirenna."
"I stopped him in time. I had to make him do something he would never have dreamed of doing normally, to make sure the spell had worked."
"It was already perfectly obvious that it had worked. You saw how angry you made him. You've been taught the dangers of enchantment, how it always leaves a residue of anger and resentment when it wears off. Now you've seen it for yourself. I hope you've learned something from this."
"Yes mistress. I'm sorry."
"Good. You have the makings of a fine enchantress, if you can learn to discipline yourself. Now go and study for tomorrow's test."
The three of them met each other in the common room, the demi shae once again sitting in Thomas's chair, which, it turned out, was also her chair, the chair she always sat in. Neither of them had realised that the other also used it regularly, because they'd never been in the room at the same time before. They were all delighted to learn that the other two had survived the day's testing as well, and celebrated with a round of fruit drinks.
Afterwards they spent an hour wandering the University grounds, all three of them speaking at fever pitch as if trying to catch up on five years of experiences, five years during which they would surely have been good friends if they'd ever had the chance to meet properly. These are great people! thought Thomas as they sat on a bench in the Lydian garden, one on either side of him. He'd never had friends he felt he could really relax with before, people with whom he could just be himself. All his previous friends had always made him feel a little apprehensive, as if he'd always been afraid they might turn on him at any moment. Laugh at him or something. He'd always felt that they were better friends with each other than they were with him, as if he was on the edge of their group, separated by some intangible divide, but with these two, this shae girl and the nome, he finally felt that he was one of them, a full member, and without anything being said he somehow knew that it was the same for them as well.
The three of them luxuriated in the feeling, feeling something growing between them, none of them knowing what, and it was with real regret that they were forced to separate, each of them having to study for the next day's testing. The Gods damn my luck! thought Thomas as he headed back to his room. We could have had five years, if we'd met earlier. Now, though, we've only got days, perhaps a couple of weeks if we go the same way home. How likely is it that I'm going to meet friends like these again? People who are so like me? Cursing fate was a fool's game, though, as his father was fond of saying. You could only accept what life gave you. He knew it was true, but it was no consolation as he spread his notes out on the table and tried to focus his eyes on them.
They spent every free moment they could spare in each others' company over the next few days, begrudging every minute spent in study, and the result was that their preparations for the later stages of the test suffered. Thomas actually had to struggle to cast his remaining spells, and when the time came for him to cast his last one he found himself struggling to remember the correct intonation and hand movements, with the result that he came within a hairsbreadth of failure. The near miss scared him badly, and when he spoke to the others he found that they were in the same situation, and they all resolved to make up for their complacency. They stayed away from each other for a while, therefore, forcing themselves to concentrate on their work.
They spent hours in their own rooms, poring through their notes and leaflets and studying the words of the spell they would be casting that day. As they stared at the weird lettering and symbols that composed a written spell, their bodies absorbed magic from the air around them, raw, ambient magic that bathed the entire planet in its ethereal glow. As it was absorbed, it was shaped by their thoughts, transforming it from its amorphous, homogenous natural form into organised patterns of power that could be stored for several days in the wizard's body, ready to be unleashed at any time to accomplish some specific task. A spell.
Reading a spell took some time, though, and was most easily accomplished when the wizard had a clear head, which was usually in the early morning. This was because the casting of a spell would often leave him slightly dazed and fuggy, especially if he was new and unpracticed, spoiling the perfect concentration required for spell reading. Wizards had to anticipate which spells they thought they would be most likely to need that day, therefore, read them first thing in the morning, and then they had those spells, and those spells only, available to cast for the rest of the day, no matter what other spells they might have in their spellbooks.
The fifth year apprentices had each mastered between three and six spells, but at present they could only hold one in their bodies at a time, except Jerry who, like all nomes, had a greater capacity for stored spells and could sometimes hold two, if he concentrated. As they grew in age and experience they would gradually develop the ability to hold more spells in their bodies at once, maybe dozens in the case of the very most powerful, which was a prospect they all looked forward to with undisguised excitement.
Thomas eventually reached the point where any further study was pointless and would only tire him out, so he decided to go for a nice relaxing walk. Outside it was clear and bright, with the yellow sun halfway up the sky in the east and the red sun low on the western horizon, just above the mountains. The entire valley was ringed with mountains, in fact the valley was nothing more than a tiny habitable zone, a tiny island of warmth and comfort, in the midst of a mighty mountain range whose nearest edge was three hundred miles away.
This small and pleasant enclave, measuring only a couple of miles across, had been created a thousand years before, when the University had been moved from the heart of the Agglemonian Empire, the mightiest human civilisation that had ever existed. At that time, the Empire was being torn apart by savage civil war and wracked by long periods of anarchy between the reigns of one self proclaimed Emperor and another. The University, as the centre of one of the few bastions of power remaining in the world, had been a natural target for anarchists, terrorists, rebels, revolutionaries and mobs. On top of that, both those in power and those trying to take power had tried to recruit them into their ranks and the words "If you're not with us, you must be against us" had been heard with sickening regularity. Eventually, it had become simply too dangerous to remain any longer, and so the entire University, buildings and all, had been moved thousands of miles to a spot far from civilisation, where they could live and work in peace, untroubled by politics.
A wide steep sided valley had been found, and a dozen bordering mountains had been demolished to partly fill it in, forming a flat area on which a pleasant landscape had been created, with a circular area of grassland surrounded by forests. There were no passes through the surrounding mountains, the only ways in or out were by flying, teleporting, or by means of a tunnel, guarded at both ends, that ran three hundred miles west to the Great Flat, an area of vast open prairies and one of the largest areas of open grassland in the world.
There was no perceptible darkening as the red sun sank out of sight behind the mountains. In fact it grew brighter as the yellow sun emerged from behind a thin bank of cloud and Thomas began to feel its heat on his skin. The largest moon was a thin crescent almost directly overhead, slightly larger when full than the two suns, and was mostly dark grey with splotches of light grey all across its face. It looked rather like a circular blackboard that had been bombarded with snowballs, which was, in fact, a fairly accurate description of what had happened.
After wandering around for half an hour, Thomas saw Jerry sitting on one of the wooden benches in the herbal garden, the place where the University grew all its own vegetable spell components. He almost left, remembering how their socialising had caused their studies to suffer, but the tiny nome had seen him now and was beckoning him over. It would have been rude to leave now, and besides, it would be good to speak to him again. He'd studied enough for one day. He also needed to be relaxed for the test, and he knew that a chat with Jerry would relax him nicely. "Hi," said the tiny nome as he approached. "You look as if you're trying to solve the meaning of life."
"Just thinking and things," said Thomas. "I'm trying to stop thinking about this damned test."
"Don't worry about it," said Jerry. "Look, you've already passed all the parts that you had to pass first time. You get several chances at the last bit so you should be less worried, not more."
"I know that, but it doesn't help. I must be one of nature's worriers." He sat down next to Jerry, who was swinging his legs and was probably the only person in the whole University small enough to do so. He looked up at Thomas, who was still looking tense and nervous, and decided to take his mind off things by engaging him in conversation.
He looked around for something to talk about. The garden was about a hundred yards long and half that wide, filling the space between the alteration building, a three storey structure with four foot thick stone walls and a very few small barred windows, and the enchantment building, an imposing structure with impressively decorative architecture, covered all over by purely ornamental details that made it look more like an emperor's palace than a school of magic. The two buildings, every building in the valley in fact, had obviously been constructed in completely different countries and historical periods, and Jerry had spent a lot of time over the years wondering what their original purposes had been before they'd been taken over by the wizards and brought here.
The garden was bounded at its north and south ends by high stone walls up which vines and creepers were growing and in which high arched gateways led to neighbouring gardens. It was divided into about a hundred plots, each containing its own collection of rare and valuable herbs and each tended by a third year apprentice, a few of whom were present, busily weeding, digging or carefully taking cuttings. He nudged Thomas and pointed. "That was my one over there."
"What?" asked Thomas.
"That's the plot I had to look after, two years ago. The one with the Sopharannan dragontongue bush in the middle. I've still got a cutting in my room."
"Really?"
"Yes. Which plot did you have?"
"I didn't have one. There were too many of us for us all to have one, so I was given the job of looking after the pearl beetles. I've still got a shell in my room. Don't tell anyone."
Jerry laughed. "You've got the shell of the pearl beetle? You're rich!"
"Well, it's not perfect, but I reckon it's worth about a hundred silver crowns. More than that to a wizard, of course."
"I should say! Can I see it?"
"I'll show it to you after the test. I reckon I'll sell it when I get back to Ilandia. I'll need the money."
Jerry nodded. A wizard's needs were many and expensive. Most wizards cast spells for a living, charging high prices that very few could afford, but you could only find customers after you had built up a reputation, convinced the mundanes that you weren't just another outsider wizard out to rip them off or destroy half a building with a backfiring spell. It was a vicious circle, because you could only build up a reputation after you had a few satisfied customers behind you. It took either money or influence to break that circle, and many young wizards, having neither, had to give up wizardry and get a proper job.
"I keep trying to imagine myself as a professional wizard," said Thomas, staring out into empty space. "I mean, me, a wizard! Back home, wizards were, well..." He waved a hand about as he searched for the proper word. "Famous, important people. If there was a wizard living in your town, people came from a hundred miles away to commission artifacts or buy a scroll. Some people came just so they could go home again and say they'd been there! Whenever a wizard goes out in the street people stand and stare as if he's made of solid gold!" He shook his head in bafflement. "I've been surrounded by dozens of wizards for five years now and it still gives me a thrill whenever I see one! You know what I mean?" Jerry nodded solemnly. "A wizard!" said Thomas, almost whispering the word. "If I get through this day without screwing it up, I'll be a wizard! I've been telling myself over and over again and I just can't seem to make myself believe it! There's a part of me, a big part, that just doesn't think I'm wizard material. I mean, I can't be a wizard, not me! I'm nobody!"
"Remember Ellington's lecture..."
"Yes, yes, I know. All apprentices go through the same thing, and those that don't need to be carefully watched. It doesn't help. Is it really possible that Tragius Demonbinder once sat on this very bench, thinking these same thoughts? He's one of the very best, he must have sailed it, and he must have known he would! He wouldn't have sat here like me, shivering with worry!"
"I bet he did," said the tiny nome. "I bet even the immortal wizards sweated their way through their tests. Remember that half of all wizards die in their first year after graduation. Neither Tragius nor the immortal wizards knew in advance which half they'd be in. For all you and I know, we might be corpses rotting in a ditch within a few months, or we might be world class mages thirty years from now, terrifying a new crop of apprentices."
Thomas nodded, and tried to picture himself thirty years older. Grey bearded and bent, aged prematurely by the magic that had passed through his body. He tried to imagine people staring at him in wide eyed fear, people deferring to him in respect as if he were in some way more than human, half way to being a god. It was such a ridiculous impossibility that it made him want to laugh out loud. Thomas Gown? Wizard? And yet, before the day was over, that might be precisely what he was! "You don't seem to be having any trouble with the idea," he told the nome, almost accusingly.
"I just don't let it trouble me. If I'm meant to be a wizard I'll pass the test. If I'm not, I won't. If we pass, we'll have satisfied the greatest authorities in the world that we're worthy to represent the University in the outside world. Who are we to argue with them?"
Thomas stared at him in astonishment. "I never thought of it like that!" he said. "These mighty beings I'm so afraid of, they're the very people who'll grant me the title of wizard if I pass! I've been sort of thinking that I'm pushing my way in, trying to claim titles I'm not entitled to, but..."
"If they have the slightest doubt as to your worthiness to carry the title of wizard, they'll keep you over for a year," said the nome. "Keep an eye on you, for as long as it takes to make up their minds, one way or another, but they won't. You'll pass. We all will. I know it."
"Psychic as well, are you?"
"Absolutely," agreed the nome with a merry chuckle. "It runs in the family." At that moment the sound of a bell drifted over from the direction of the divination building, the building that contained both the grand assembly hall and the study cubicles, and Thomas gave a start, almost guiltily. Someone who'd seen him jumping like that might have thought he'd been plotting treason. "That's us," he said. "Oh Gods! Here it is!"
"We'll be okay," repeated Jerry. "Just remember that." Thomas gave a fragile, grateful smile and rose from the bench on trembling legs. "Come on." Jerry jumped down and ran off down the path, and Thomas followed him, trying to swallow with a dry mouth. His nervousness rose full force to the strength of terror and his limbs shook as he walked. It seemed to take forever to reach the building, by which time he was in a pretty bad way, pale and sweating, his eyes darting this way and that as if wondering from which direction the first scream of denouncement and abuse would come.
They found Lirenna already in the hall, looking cool and self assured near the front of the small crowd, and they went to stand next to her. She seemed amused at seeing Thomas's condition, but tried to calm him down with a few reassuring words. It helped a little, but he still thought that a flock of sparrows was having a fight in his stomach. He tried to do the same thing that had worked before and resign himself to failure. I'm going to fail, he told himself, but it's all right because I'll get another chance. There's no pressure on me. I'm going to be calm and accept my failure. I'll pass next time, but not this time. Not this time. It worked, and the panic subsided. The knots in his muscles untied themselves, the sparrows went to sleep, and his limbs stopped shaking. I'm going to fail, he carried on telling himself, but it's all right. It's not important. I'll get another go.
Tragius, Rogin and several other teaching wizards, all wearing their testing robes, came in and gave them instructions on which study cubicles to go to and what to do when they got there. As the apprentices filed out, Rogin directed Tragius's attention to Thomas, Jerry and Lirenna, who were leaving together. "You were right," he said. "It didn't take them long to get together."
Tragius smiled. "No," he said. "Soul mates if ever I saw them. They also happen to be the three brightest kids in the year, which will only bind them closer together when they find out. I'm surprised we were able to keep them apart this long."
"A miracle of timetabling." said Rogin. "Keeping them in separate classes, making sure that only one was out and about at a time while keeping the other two busy in the labs, or so tired out that they stayed in bed. I hope all the effort was worth it."
"It was." said Tragius. "I've seen it happen so many times in the past. Two or three students find that they're better than the rest and get together to form their own private little club. They spend so much time socialising together that their work suffers and they fall behind. I wasn't going to let that happen to them. The human, Gown. This time last week I was sure he'd graduate with honours, but his casting of the lesser cantrips was sloppy, as if he hadn't cast them for a year. He's slipped that far, just in the few days he's known them. Oh he'll still pass, and I'm sure he'll recover from this temporary lapse as soon as he's put the test behind him, but he'll never have his name engraved on the honours list. A pity."
Rogin nodded. "Do you think they'll stay together after they've passed?" he asked.
"Oh yes, no doubt about it. None whatsoever."

☆☆☆

Thomas sat alone in his cubicle for about five minutes before Elmias came in, carrying a wooden box by its worn leather handle. He put it on the table, opened it, and took out an old worn dusty spellbook. "Good morning," he said, cheerfully. "How do you feel?"
"Fine," answered Thomas, and was surprised to find that he was.
"Good." He handed him the spellbook. "This belonged to a chap called Aurellos, who graduated from here about twenty years ago. Promising chap, I thought, except that he came to a sticky end trying to teach civilised manners to a bunch of ogres. Luckily we were able to reclaim the book, which has been used ever since by students like you, which accounts for its being rather the worse for wear. It contains three spells that you haven't seen before. When you have one of them copied into your own spellbook, and have demonstrated your ability to cast it safely and correctly, you will be a fully fledged wizard. If you fail to learn any of these three spells, you will be given another spellbook with some different spells in it, and so on until you have tried every low level spell in existence. However, virtually no-one ever needs more than four tries."
He took some other objects from the box. A bottle of linseed oil, a tube of carbon black, some powdered blue clay, a few seeds from a manarill bush, a small phial of clear liquid supplied by one of the University alchemists, a mixing bowl made from polished black marble and a mortar and pestle. "You will mix up your own supply of magic ink using these ingredients, the way you have been taught. Then, assuming you are successful in learning the spell, you will write it in your spellbook using this." He removed one last object from the box, a ten inch long cockatrice feather. "Now, do you understand everything you have to do?"
"Yes master," said Thomas, staring at the ingredients and equipment. His hands itched to get started.
"Good. Then I'll leave you to get on with it." He went to the door and opened it. "Good luck," he said, and left.
Thomas found that, now that the test had actually started, his nervousness had totally left him, leaving him calm and relaxed. He refused to allow himself to become optimistic, however, and continued to tell himself that it didn't matter whether he passed or failed. This isn't a test, he told himself. This is just another of my class exercises, like the other four times I wrote spells into my book. He opened Aurellos's spellbook and scanned through it. Most of it was complete gibberish, as he knew his own spellbook would look to another wizard. Each spell, however, had a heading that he could read, written with ordinary ink and in a different handwriting. Probably added by Elmias for my benefit, Thomas thought.
There were eight spells in all. The first three, read magic, reveal and cantrip, were taught to all students in the University and Thomas already had them. The next three, fiery grasp, lock and invisible servant, were new to him, and it was one of these that he had to choose. The last two were higher level spells, the first he had ever seen, and he turned the pages to stare at them longingly.
They were longer than the others, covering four and five pages each, and included not only the words that had to be spoken during casting but also the material components required, if any, and complete descriptions of every movement that had to be made with every part of the body. Some spells could only be cast at certain times of the day or year, or when certain conditions were met, such as a thunderstorm being in progress overhead, and this information was also included, all in incredibly intricate, ornate lettering in a language so ancient that not even the greatest sages knew from what lost people or country it had come. Thomas gazed at them for a long time, looking forward to the day when he would be able to cast them and wondering if it would feel different to cast a more powerful spell.
He sighed, and turned back to the spell he had decided to go for, invisible servant. It was the shortest of the three spells and he had an intuitive feeling that it would be the easiest to learn. He reached into a pocket of his robes and took out a polished triangular prism of rock crystal, three inches long and an inch wide. Apart from his spellbook, it was his most precious possession as it was an essential component of the read magic spell. Every apprentice made his own in the fourth year from a rough block of rock crystal, when he began to learn spells for the first time, and if it was lost or damaged, he had to make his own replacement. It took weeks, or even months, of patient rubbing with ever finer sand to transform it into a perfect prism and no-one wanted to go through it all over again it they could possibly help it, so they took very good care of them, keeping them wrapped in several layers of soft cloth and tucked away in their safest innermost pockets.
Thomas was proud of his prism. Each face was as smooth as the surface of a mirror, and each edge was as straight and sharp as a knife blade. It had worked perfectly the first time he'd used it, whereas most of the other students had had to do some more work on theirs, carefully polishing with the very finest sand applied on a sheet of glass until they were as good as Thomas's had been to begin with.
He held it up to his eye and looked at the page of the spellbook through it. It looked the same, except that the ornate decorative lettering of the spell was haloed by a spectrum of colours, blurring them into each other. He touched the bottom of the page with the fingers of his other hand and spoke the words of the spell he'd spent the morning reading. He felt the prism grow warm as magic flowed through it, having its effect not on the spellbook but on his own mind, altering the way he perceived the world in a strange and subtle way. Nothing in the spellbook had changed, but he was now able to read what had previously been unreadable.
He laid the prism down on the table, and picked up the spellbook. The read magic spell would last for about two minutes, during which he had to read all through the three pages of the new spell. He didn't rush, though. He read slowly and carefully, making sure that he noted every word and every punctuation mark and the emphasis to be placed on every syllable. He reached the end just as the read magic spell lapsed, but that didn't matter. Having read the invisible servant spell once, he would now be able to read it again any time he wanted without needing to use the read magic spell again.
There was no point trying to learn the new spell until the next morning because the casting of the read magic spell had fugged his head a little. Not much, hardly noticeable as he went about the rest of his day, but enough to prevent the perfect concentration necessary to read a spell, a perfect concentration that would only be restored by a good night's sleep. He visited the canteen for a quick lunch, therefore, then spent the afternoon mixing up a small bottleful of magic ink from the ingredients Elmias had left him, a long, slow process with dozens of steps, each of which had to be carried out in a very precise way. That took all afternoon, and by the time he'd finished it was getting dark outside and he was exhausted from the prolonged concentration. Did wizards really go through all this every time they wanted a little ink? He fished around in a pocket until he found a black pearl, the third of a wizard's three essential possessions, and dropped it into the ink to soak overnight. He then went back to his room to wash and change into clean robes, leaving everything except his spellbook and prism in the cubicle, knowing they would be perfectly safe there.
He met Jerry and Lirenna in the dining hall and they exchanged progress reports over dinner, but none of them felt much like socialising. Making magic ink took a lot out of them and they were all feeling tired as the day's exertions caught up with them, so they split up and went back to their rooms for a quiet evening and a long nights sleep, ready for the next day.
He woke several times during the night, though, fretting with worry about the day ahead, and after one period of intractable wakefulness during which he tossed and turned for over an hour, he'd glanced at his bedside water clock to see that morning wasn't far away and decided to give up the unequal struggle and go have a walk. His roommates were snoring gently as he slipped into his clothes and sandals and Thomas felt a moment of insane jealousy towards them. How could they be taking the test so in their stride when it was tearing the living soul out of him? How could they take such an important examination with such total lack of effort or stress? Conrast in particular was as calm and relaxed as if he was on holiday! In that moment, Thomas would have sold his soul for his roommate's confidence and self assurance, but instead he slipped quietly out into the corridor. Perhaps the clear night air would clear his mind and give him some peace.
Outside, the brightest stars were still shining, but the red sun was high overhead and the eastern horizon was lit by a rosy pink glow where the yellow sun would soon rise. There was a large comet in the sky, having grown to its maximum size a few days before and now beginning to shrink again, and three smaller comets were grouped in a small cluster low in the west, the tail of the largest about as long as the largest moon was wide. The first few birds were calling to each other, a lonely sound but lovely to listen to, and Thomas paused where he was, trying to identify them and locate the tree or rooftop the cheery song was coming from. It took him nearly ten minutes, but eventually he spotted a tiny brown bird sitting in one of the brokenheart trees. It looked far too small and ordinary to be responsible for such a loud, beautiful tune, but as he watched he saw its tiny beak opening and closing in time to the song, its little chest puffing up as it gathered the breath ready for the next few notes. From somewhere came an answering song and Thomas spent another few minutes looking for its mate while the sky brightened and other birds added their own voices to the dawn chorus.
Thomas's worries were lost in his wonder at the glorious symphony of birdsong, it seemed impossible that anything bad could happen to someone who'd been treated to such a marvel, and he felt a moment of pity for Conrast who was missing all this. Then it occurred to him that he'd missed it himself every other morning of the five years he'd been here, and that made him wonder what else he'd been missing while he'd been studying hard, to the exclusion of all else. Never mind, there'd be time to take it easy when he'd graduated, and all of a sudden it didn't seem like such an impossible task after all. The fresh, cool air had cleared his mind wonderfully, and he must have gotten enough sleep after all because he felt great, better than he could ever remember feeling before in his life! He laughed to himself as he heard the bell ringing in the dormitories, telling the other students that it was time for the new day to begin, and hurried off to the dining hall, where he was first in line for breakfast.
Thomas normally spent a while after breakfast reading one of his spells, whichever one he thought he'd be most likely to need during the day but, since today he would be trying to memorise the one from Aurellos's spellbook and his young body was currently only able to hold one at a time, he had to leave his mind empty of spells ready for it. This meant that he had a little bit of spare time and he used it in the library, dipping in and out of some of his favourite books and glancing now and then at the connecting door leading into the next room, which apprentices weren't allowed to enter.
The sheer quantity of knowledge contained just in this one room staggered him, and even in five years he'd hardly managed to scratch the surface. The rigorous training schedule he'd been forced to follow had left him little free time. Most of the times he'd been here before had been on special assignment, checking out the books he'd been told to read, which always seemed to be the most boring. Being able to read whatever he'd wanted had been a rare luxury. He indulged in it now, though, and it occurred to him suddenly that this might be the last time he would ever be in here.
Despite the expressed wishes of the teaching wizards, few graduates ever did return for further education, and Thomas doubted that he ever would himself. Not because he didn't want to. Lexandria Valley was as close to paradise for a man like him as existed anywhere in the world. No evil was allowed in the valley, the climate was kept warm and comfortable and the place was full of knowledge, just waiting for him to soak it up. He could quite happily have spent the rest of his life there, if it had been allowed, but newly graduated wizards were required to gain some years of real world experience and once he was settled back in Ilandia, his homeland, he knew he would dig out a comfy little niche for himself and put down roots. That was the way he was. He hated change. He liked things, however they were, to go on being that way, the way he was used to. He knew that he would spend the rest of his life dreaming of returning to Lexandria, but that he would never do it. He enjoyed the library while he could, therefore, and lost himself in his books until the time came to return to his study cubicle. Then he took the books back to their shelves and stood there for a few moments, silently saying goodbye to them, before turning his back on them and walking out.
Having read the invisible servant spell once, he had no trouble reading it again, though all the other spells in the book were still purest gibberish to him. This was the critical part. Not every wizard could learn every spell, and there didn't seem to be any rule governing what kind of spell any particular wizard could learn, unless he chose to specialise in a particular school, which increased his chances of being able to learn spells of that school, although at the expense of being weaker in spells from other schools. When trying to learn a new spell, therefore, all wizards knew that if they failed to learn it in an hour or so, then the chances were that they would never be able to do so, and the only thing to do was try again with a different spell. If they succeeded the first time, however, then they would very probably have no trouble with it in the future.
After three quarters of an hour, Thomas knew that he had it. He could feel the coils of magical force in his body, ready to be cast any time he wanted provided that he had the necessary material components to guide the flowing energies, in this case a single piece of wood carefully carved to form two interlocking rings, a task that would have to be repeated every time he used the spell as the rings were consumed by the flowing magics. He wasn't going to cast it this time, though. He had to impress the magics into his own spellbook so that he could read it from there any time he wanted. He carefully fished the black pearl out of his bottle of ink, wiped it clean on a rag and put it away safely for the next time he needed to mix up some magic ink, which probably wouldn't be for a few months, if not years. Like the block of crystal from which he had made his prism, every apprentice had been given his own black pearl, grown in the famous Rumnarian oyster beds, to keep. It was worth a lot of money, but no wizard would dream of selling it, unless he intended to give up wizardry for good.
Next, he carefully cut the cockatrice feather with his two inch penknife, to make a quill, a task that also had to be done in just the right way if it was going to work. It wasn't just the laying down of ink on paper that mattered here, it was the materials that were used to do the job. Paper, ink and quill all had to be of the very highest quality. The very slightest imperfection could spoil the flow of magic and spoil the written spell, and if this happened it could only be corrected by carefully cutting out those pages and trying again. That wouldn't fail him, he could try as many times as he wanted, but it wouldn't look good on his record either. He cut with the very greatest care and precision, therefore, muttering under his breath as he did so, and then studied the result critically, turning it this way and that to see it from every angle. It looked perfect, but you could never know for sure until you actually tried it, and so, his heart pounding with trepidation, he opened his spellbook at the first blank page, dipped the quill in the ink and began to write.
No matter how perfect the materials, though, it was the writing itself that really mattered. In order for it to record the spell faithfully and accurately, the writing had to be perfect. The slightest slip, smudge or blob of ink would ruin it, and he would have to start all over again with a new quill and a new bottle of ink. Also, the lettering itself had to be perfect. Thomas and all the other apprentices had practised the art of calligraphy endlessly for years, filling reams of paper with their jottings and notes, until they had reached a state of perfection that would make a monastery monk green with envy. Each letter was a work of art in itself, requiring a full five minutes of brain numbing concentration to draw, with serifs, curlicues, and little wriggly bits so that it bore almost no relation to the letter as it would be written by a non-wizard. As he wrote, he felt the magics leaving his body bit by bit as their essence was transferred onto the page and preserved there in ink. As each letter was completed, it seemed to twist and change on the paper so that it took on a new form, still readable to him, but gibberish to anyone else, even another wizard, who read it, unless a read magic spell were cast on it first.
Finally, as evening drew near, he finished. The new spell covered four pages of his spellbook, one page more than in Aurellos's spellbook, due to the fact that his writing was larger. He broke the quill, which was now contaminated with magic and therefore useless, and looked at his work with satisfaction. It looked good, but he wouldn't know for certain whether he'd gotten it right until the next day, when he tried to read it and cast it. Comparing it with the spell in Aurellos's book was pointless, as most of the letters were shaped by the mind of the wizard who had written them, and this meant that the same spell, written by two wizards, could bear almost no resemblance to each other. Also, the spell had completely gone from his mind, leaving him with no idea of what it should have looked like.
So intensely had he been concentrating on writing the spell that he hadn't realised that the whole day had gone by. He'd missed the midday meal and was just in time to get a mouthful of supper before the canteen closed for the night. As he was eating he realised that he was totally exhausted and could barely keep his eyes open to finish the meal. There were other apprentice wizards wandering around in a similarly dazed state, however, which somehow made him feel rather proud, as if being so exhausted by a full day of intense hard work was a badge of honour. He just barely managed to stagger back to his room and climb into bed and was disappointed to find, when he awoke the next morning, that he'd missed the chance for another early morning stroll. He'd slept right through the bell, but wasn't desperately late so long as he picked his feet up. He hurried back to the canteen for some breakfast, then returned to the assembly hall where he opened his spellbook at the new spell and began to read.
It wasn't until he felt the patterns of magic sitting snugly inside his body that he realised that he'd had not the slightest doubt that he'd gotten it right. Some part of him, deep down inside, had already known that he'd written the spell correctly and he felt almost euphoric with joy at the realisation that he'd leapt one more hurdle, that he was one step closer to his goal. He was still rejoicing when Elmias entered the room, searching for him among the scattering of other apprentices and then threading his way between the seats in his direction. Thomas wasn't too surprised. Senior wizards had a way of keeping track of the progress being made by their apprentices, and it saved him the trouble of tracking him down.
"I understand you're ready to demonstrate your new spell. Is that right?" Thomas nodded. "Do you have the material component?"
"No, but I can make one in a couple of days."
"That won't be necessary," said the wizard, producing two linked wooden rings from a pocket of his robes. The finish was smooth, polished and perfect, the grain of the wood brought out by a light veneer of varnish. It didn't have to be that perfect, a much rougher version that could be whittled out of a chunk of pine in less than an hour would have done as well, but if a wizard had the time it was a matter of pride to achieve the highest possible quality and if several weeks or months went by between one casting of the spell and the next he might keep shaving and polishing it in his spare time until it became a work of art. In extreme cases, the wizard might grow so proud of his creation that he'd become reluctant to use it, not wanting to cause its destruction. "I expect you're anxious to get this over and done with as soon as possible, so just this once you can have one from the stores. In future, you'll have to carve your own, though. I notice from your end of year report that wood carving is the one area in your otherwise excellent record where your teachers have noticed some weakness. Nothing that'll fail you, but definitely an area that merits greater concentration and effort. Do you understand?"
"Yes master," said Thomas, suddenly feeling downcast.
Elmias chuckled. "Cheer up, lad. Your woodcarving's better than mine was at your age. You should have seen my first dormouse! Looked more like a guard dog!" Thomas grinned, cheering again. "Good. Well, let's see it then. Where do you want to cast it?"
"I thought in the common room, master."
"Okay. Let's go then."
About twenty other apprentices had passed their final test the day before, becoming fully fledged wizards, and they had thrown a party to celebrate. The remains of the occasion still lay all over the place. Empty glasses, plates of half eaten food and cushions scattered on the floor. Chairs and tables lay overturned and piled up on top of each other, and the floor was covered by ribbons, confetti and bits of food. The culprits had abandoned it, obviously having no intention of clearing up after themselves. "I thought I'd have a go at this, master," said Thomas.
"Very good," said Elmias. "Off you go then."
Thomas held the linked wooden rings in one hand, stretched the other out in front of him and spoke the magic words that were sitting at the front of his mind like hunting dogs, impatient to be let off the leash. "Exxastulon Tibar Restarantin Tu Dinak!" The wood dissolved and vanished, and a faintly shimmering, barely visible form took shape in front of him.
"Clear up this mess!" commanded Thomas, and the form conjured up by the spell obeyed. As he watched in delight and astonishment, the invisible servant picked up all the plates and glasses, cleaned all the food off into the rubbish bin, and piled them up in the adjoining kitchen. It then neatly rearranged all the tables and chairs and cleared all the rubbish up off the floor.
When it had finished, the spells duration had not expired and the servant became faintly visible again as a transparent shimmering mass, awaiting its next instructions, so Thomas commanded it to do the washing up. It had not quite finished when the spell duration finally expired and it faded away, dropping a cup onto the tiled floor, where it broke. The spell had lasted just over an hour, just slightly longer than it would have taken him to carve the crudest possible wooden rings for himself, so at this stage in his development it would almost have been quicker and easier for him to have done the work himself, but as he grew in ability he would learn to sustain the spell for longer and longer lengths of time, increasing the rewards of his initial effort.
Thomas glowed with exhilaration as he looked at the transformed common room. It looked as though an army of cleaners had been working all day, getting everything spick and span, ready for an inspection by royalty. Elmias laid a hand on his shoulder and gave it a congratulatory squeeze. "Well done, young wizard. See you on graduation day." Then he turned and left without more ado, as if nothing more important had happened here than that he'd cleaned the room with his own hands. Thomas hardly noticed, though. Young wizard, he thought in a daze. He called me a young wizard! I've passed! I've passed! He ran out of the common room, found the celebration party still going on in the gardens of meditation, and joined in.

☆☆☆

Jerry also passed that same day, but Lirenna had to wait another day until she could join them as fully qualified wizards, and then the three of them had their own private celebration in Thomas's room, each of them demonstrating their new spells to the others until the small room was so full of randomised, waste magic that it began to interfere with the spellcasting.
They stayed at the University for another two weeks while some of the other apprentices who had failed to learn their first spell tried a second, a third, and, in one case, a fourth, but finally the last apprentice passed and the preparations were made for the graduation ceremony. On the morning of the tenth day of summer, the word went out to all the one thousand, one hundred and twelve apprentices to gather in the playing field that separated the school buildings from the research buildings half a mile away, where some of the most powerful wizards in the world carried out original research into new and improved forms of magic. In the field, one thousand five hundred chairs had been arranged in front of a wide stage, on which duplicates of the twelve chairs in the grand assembly hall had been arranged.
It was a miserable day, with dark clouds covering the whole sky and a light but steady drizzle that didn't seem much but which soaked anyone who stepped outside with remarkable speed. No rain fell on the graduation field, however, as it was covered by a dome of force that evaporated any drops of water that fell on it, sending a cloud of vapour back up to the clouds from where they’d come. Circular openings in the dome allowed people to enter without suffering the mild discomfort they would otherwise have experienced if they'd stepped directly through the wall of force. This small demonstration of power served to remind the graduates of what they stood to gain if they continued their education, pursuing the study of magic into the higher levels.
As the students took their seats, arranged by class and year, some were surprised to see an apparently ancient wizard sitting in a wheelchair to the right of the stage. There were several retired wizards there, come down from their mansions and castles perched high on the slopes of the mountains surrounding the valley, but this one stood out from the others in being almost impossibly frail, little more than a skeleton wrapped up in skin as thin and fragile as tissue paper.
There was no look of malice on his face now, but the arrangement of lines and wrinkles around his thin, slitted mouth and rheumy yellow eyes gave clear testimony to its usual presence. He looked as though a child could break him over his knee, but there was an aura of power surrounding him that terrified the apprentices, and even most of the graduated wizards.
He wore the grey robes of an unspecialised wizard, ornately decorated with arcane symbols and sigils of power sewn in silver, gold and platinum thread. Plain gold rings gleamed on the second finger of each hand, he wore a diamond the size of a hen's egg on a chain around his neck, and he held a six foot long metal staff, decorated with gold and platinum in swirling spiral designs up and down its length. Some of the more senior students recognised him as Malefactos, a legend in his own lifetime, and considered by some to be the most powerful wizard now living in the world. Once, anyway. Frequent use of high level magic had aged him prematurely. Although he looked well over ninety, he was in fact only fifty eight, and so frail that the use of any magic above the intermediate levels would probably kill him outright. Nowadays, he relied primarily upon his unparalleled collection of magical items and weapons, many of which he had created himself, including the Staff of Lorenzium, and the Vestilon Gem.
He had graduated from Lexandria forty years previously, and had almost immediately taken the world by storm. The tales of his deeds, his battles, and his discoveries were told all over the continent, growing with each telling. He had created many new spells, most of which were now used by dozens of other University graduates, and only by University graduates, being taught in the advanced classes. The official story was that as he had grown old he had retired to the University, to set down all that he had learned on imperishable denarium paper, to go into the library for posterity so that all he had learned would not be lost, but there were whispers that he had another, much darker reason for returning to the world's greatest bastion of wizardry, that he was pursuing forbidden lines of research to restore his youth and buy himself a new lease of life. Whatever the reason for his return, he rarely emerged from his castle, perched high on the ridge that was now named after him, but he never missed a graduation ceremony.
The newly qualified wizards sat in the first two rows, in front of the stage. Thomas sat near the middle of the second row, behind a tall, dark haired man wearing large gold earrings. Probably a Fu-Nangian, Thomas thought, from the look of him. Lirenna sat to his left, and Jerry sat on her left. Technically they were supposed to be seated by class, which would have put them dozens of seats apart, but they'd decided to sit together and no-one seemed to mind.
They were all trembling with excitement. This was the culmination of five years of hard work, the goal they had only dreamed of attaining, and it still didn't seem real to them. It wouldn't really sink into them that they were wizards now, real actual wizards, until some days later. They were still wearing their white robes, though, the garb of apprentices, for one last time. They didn't really have any choice, as none of them owned any other clothes. There were a hundred and fifteen of them, more than in any year that any, except the oldest wizards, could remember. Last year, only ninety two students had qualified, and the year before there had been only eighty nine. Those who had failed were sitting in the audience, watching enviously and vowing to try harder next time.
Once all the apprentices were seated and the noise and hubbub had settled down, the graduation ceremony began. The twelve chairwizards, dressed in their splendid ceremonial robes, strode slowly and solemnly onto the stage, led by the Head Proctor, the leader of the University's wizardly police force, the most senior of the elite cadre of wizards whose job it was to see that the University's rules were obeyed. Beside him was the Master of Ceremonies, muttering silently under his breath and his eyes flitting to all the other participants in turn to make sure they were all playing their parts correctly.
The University, being five thousand years old, had a great many rituals and ceremonies, many of whose origins had been long forgotten and were carried on only by sheer force of tradition, and the graduation ceremony was the most important of all, being the culmination of the University's very purpose, the passing on of its values and ideals to the next generation. For that reason, the ceremony was also the longest, the opening of which alone took over an hour and in which the Master of Ceremonies asked each of the chairwizards in turn a series of ritual questions, each of which had to be followed by exactly the right answer.
Now and again the master, or one of the elaborately dressed proctors stationed around the stage, would raise a cry or strike the ground with his staff, re-enacting an event that had occurred at some point in the distant past and which had somehow incorporated itself into the proceedings. The Casting of the Deathspell, for instance, in which one of the proctors caused a lance of fire to soar into the sky, bursting into a blossom of orange fire, had originated as an assassination attempt against the Director by a disgruntled underling seven hundred years before, and the Shielding of the Hall harked back to the day when the ceremony had been carried out indoors and a meteorite storm had almost brought the event to a premature conclusion.
Finally, however, the opening ceremony came to a close and the time came for the main business of the occasion to begin. Justarian Westin, the Director of the University and absolute ruler of the valley, cleared his throat as he took his place before the large podium and shuffled a thick wad of creased, yellowing papers on which his speech was written, the same speech he gave every year, without fail. Some of the other chairwizards groaned, and a couple of them nodded quietly off to sleep. The Master of Ceremonies nodded in approval. This, too, was all part of the ritual.
"My fellow wizards and apprentices, once again we are gathered together to pay tribute to this year’s crop of fine young people who have attained that highest of all human conditions, Wizardry. When they go out into the world, they will take with them the knowledge that they are the elite, the most highly trained...." The speech drifted off into a long winded recitation of all the virtues and qualities that a wizard had to have, and that Lexandrian wizards especially had in abundance, and most of the other wizards present resigned themselves to a long boring repetition of what they already knew by heart, having heard it many times before.
The speech took almost an hour to complete, and by the end of it even the first year apprentices, who had never heard it before, were struggling to stay awake. The applause, when it finally reached its conclusion, was more due to everyone trying to rouse themselves to full wakefulness than to appreciation of its content.
The Director carefully returned the speech to an inside pocket, keeping it safe for next year, and pulled out another sheet of paper, this one containing the names and details of all the graduates. "And now, we come to the main reason for this gathering, the honouring of this year's graduates. The first, in alphabetical order, is Clara Antanovin, all the way from Callinia. Come on up please, Clara."
An attractive young woman sitting in the front row stood up, wobbling a little in her nervousness and excitement, and climbed the steps to the stage, where she stood in front of the Director. Justarian Westin was a small, mousy looking man with nothing about him to suggest the immense powers he was capable of commanding. He looked like a man born to have people pushing in front of him in the queue, but the girl was still terrified to be standing before him, because this insignificant looking man held one of the most important offices in the world, an office that added political power to his impressive magical abilities.
He held out his hand to the wizard seated next to him, who handed him a diploma bound with a thick scarlet ribbon, which he handed on to the woman. "It is with great pride that I give you this, the symbol of all you have achieved here. I wish you good luck in your future life, and hope that one day you will return here, to increase even further your already considerable store of knowledge and wisdom."
He touched her robes, and spoke a word in the language of magic. The ring he wore on his left hand flashed, and her robes changed from brilliant white to dull grey, the colour of a fully qualified, unspecialised wizard. That was the colour they would all be wearing within the hour, except for Jerry who, already being a specialist in the school of Illusionism, would wear robes of grey and gold.
There was a round of applause as the young wizard returned to her seat, walking as if in a strange and wonderful dream, and the Director called out the next name on the list.


© 2017 Ian Reeve



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Added on June 18, 2017
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Author

Ian Reeve
Ian Reeve

Leigh - on - Sea, United Kingdom



About
I'm a groundsman and greenkeeper for my local council, where I look after two bowling greens and three cricket squares. I also write a bit. more..

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