Authors: B.T. Narro
Cleve couldn’t decide. “Sanya would tell me not to, but it might be best for her sake if I do.”
Alex chuckled. “She’d duel every man on this field until both her arms were broken, so I don’t think she knows what’s best for her.”
“I wonder what she hopes to do with a sword and an ‘elite’ title if she makes it through three years.”
“The same thing every woman wants, Cleve. To marry a rich man and raise a litter of adorable children.”
Cleve grinned. “Something about her tells me that might not be right.”
Alex laughed. “Something? You mean everything.”
Cleve chuckled with him. “I’d better increase my pace, and I’d appreciate it if you slowed even more. Finishing two laps at the speed of one is going to be tough.”
Alex slowed to something between a walk and a jog. “You’re lucky it’s me and not Peter.”
“I am.” Cleve gave him a hearty pat and then doubled his speed.
By the time Basen arrived at his evaluation classroom, he was regretting having a second helping of breakfast. His stomach had shrunk during his time in the workhouse, and now he would be casting while feeling like a sausage one poke from bursting.
He sat among some thirty other mages facing a podium. A good two-thirds of them were women. The seat he’d chosen was next to a particularly cute one with black hair, a button nose, and deep, dark eyes. She was petite, but anyone who knew anything about mages knew size didn’t dictate their skill in manipulating energy.
He introduced himself with just his first name. After she gave her name, Effie Elegin, she fell silent and looked at him expectantly.
He wasn’t sure what she was waiting to hear. He wasn’t about to give his last name. If he was going to make his classmates hate or avoid him, it would be because of his abrasive personality and poor taste in jokes, dammit, not his name.
“What year are you?” he asked.
“Second, and you must be a first-year.” Again she looked at him with an eyebrow raised. At least this time it was obvious what she expected.
“All right, I’ll ask. How do you know?”
“Two reasons. You don’t look familiar, and my name means nothing to you.”
He wondered if it was a good reputation or a poor one associated with Effie Elegin. “Well don’t tell me if that’s a relief or an annoyance. I’d rather not presume anything about someone before getting to know them.”
She forced out a laugh. “Good luck keeping that up here at the Academy. For every person you get to know, you’ll hear about two others who you’ll probably never meet.”
What a lovely notion
. He held back a sigh. That gave him even more reason to keep his name from getting out.
Their instructor walked in and took her place behind the podium at the front. She set down a long and narrow cut of thin wood with a red ribbon nailed to the top of it, then pretended it wasn’t there as she addressed them.
“My name is Penny Caygar. You can call me Penny, or Mage Penny if that would make you more comfortable.”
She seemed young for an instructor, somewhere in her mid-twenties. Effie grumbled softly as she glanced sideways at Basen, indicating she’d been in Penny’s class before.
“I need to start by making sure everyone is here,” Penny announced as she unraveled a scroll.
Basen grumbled next as she began reading names in alphabetical order. When his was read, he raised his hand. Only a few people looked over, though, Effie not included. As Basen glanced around the room, he realized that, like himself, many people weren’t paying attention to the other names.
Thank the stars.
Penny was one of the people to look straight at him, though. He could do nothing but hope there was no prejudgment.
When all the names had been read, Penny described evaluation week in two parts. The first two days were more like preparation for the last three. Apparently the third day, endurance day, had a reputation of being the most difficult day of the entire year, which Penny confirmed right then. She advised them to be well-prepared by not engaging in social gatherings beforehand.
“You’re all adults,” Penny added, “but visitation and alcohol are privileges that will be taken away if they distract you, and
if you show up drunk. You are among the elite here, and you will act that way.”
Basen didn’t care whether he could drink. He was curious about the wood with the ribbon nailed to its top, but she didn’t acknowledge it as she went on to tell the class how they would be tested during evaluation week.
“I need to see that you can follow directions, gather bastial energy when told, cast fireballs when told, and meditate…” She gestured to the class.
“When told,” Basen and the others muttered. He’d never heard of meditating. If his instructor in Tenred had known about it, he hadn’t mentioned it. Basen figured it was some way of recouping energy.
The thought of learning new ways to manipulate energy reminded him how eager he was to recreate whatever spell he’d cast at the training center. There’d been no chance to try it again while speaking with the beautiful Alabell, who’d stayed in his thoughts with surprising tenacity. And there was certainly no chance to cast when he returned to the workhouse at the end of the day and confronted his father.
Basen had expected Henry to be angry that he’d traded his sword for a wand. But the man wasn’t just angry, he was livid.
Apparently Henry had valued the wooden sword more than it was actually worth. It took a while of them screaming at each other for Basen to realize that because it was their last possession from Tenred, Henry couldn’t stand the thought of parting with it. Basen didn’t mention that he’d gone through the same emotion when Henry had forced him to sell his wand. Instead, he told his father about Alabell Kerr and showed him the coins that Henry could use to feed and house himself as he looked for other work.
The money had instantly calmed Henry, though mostly because it gave him the chance to rebuy his wooden sword. Basen had to refrain from rolling his eyes in front of his father, a habit Henry hated.
“We owe the Kerr family more than we can ever give them,” Henry had said, “and I’m going to Kyrro City to once again apply to join their army. Now that you’re an honored member of their Academy, and the king’s great-niece has met you, they might actually judge me on my merit and not my name.”
They should, but “should” is never an excuse to mean “will
.” Instead of ruining the first good-spirited mood Henry had been in since their exile, Basen wished his father luck and left for the Academy the next morning.
Alabell had prepared him well for the day that followed as he finished unpacking his few belongings in mere minutes and took the opportunity to get to know his roommate. Nick was a second-year mage. After Basen had answered the obligatory questions about his relation to Tegry Hiller, he came to realize that Nick was an asset as much as a friend, for he opted to show Basen around the enormous campus and introduce him by first name only to too many people for Basen to remember.
Even better was that Nick didn’t seem like the type of man to mind Basen practicing spells in their house so long as he didn’t catch anything on fire. Now it was just a matter of finding the right opportunity to reproduce what he’d done in the training center.
Eventually, Penny finished lecturing and brought Basen’s thoughts back to the present as she took the cut of wood and held it up. “The Academy’s new mage master, Trela Jisa, has come up with an interesting challenge that all of the mage instructors have agreed to host during evaluation week. Follow me to the training area and I’ll explain and give you all a chance to try it before we focus on meditation.”
Basen followed the rest of the class to a sandy area outside that shared one wall of the classroom. He was more worried about meditation than any challenge involving the thin wood and ribbon.
There were three metal dummies like at the training center in Oakshen. Each was just a man-sized torso with a featureless head atop it. A tall brick wall stood behind the dummies, completely blackened around its base yet more red toward its top. There was no wall behind Basen and the other students, giving view to some of the other classrooms. Certain lines of sight led Basen’s gaze to training areas like his where other groups were gathered. It filled him with pride to be part of something larger than himself once again. He was just beginning to realize how lonely he’d been in the workhouse.
Penny put the wood into a slot behind the middle dummy’s head so that it stood upright, the red ribbon billowing at its peak in the soft breeze.
“At the end of each day,” Penny said, “all of you will get a chance to destroy the ribbon by using bastial or sartious energy, or some combination of both.” She pointed at a line of sticks in the sand just ten yards from the training dummy. “The first mage in the Academy to do so, from that distance, will be put into Group One without needing to participate in the rest of evaluation week. One mage can try at a time until there are no more takers, but it can only be during the end of class after I make the announcement. However, I will allow attempts right now as an exception. Who would like to go first?”
Everyone but Basen raised a hand. Ten yards was an easy shot. Basen would hit the ribbon nine times out of ten, and he assumed others would as well. But there was obviously some trick yet to be explained.
“Effie, why don’t you go first?”
She gladly stepped to the line and drew her wand.
“There is one more rule.” Penny spoke with a wide smile that made Effie frown. “If your spell makes the stick break before the ribbon burns completely, then you will fail and it will be your last attempt.”
“Last attempt for the day?” Effie asked.
“Last attempt ever.”
Basen hummed his realization of the true nature of the challenge with the rest of the mages. The wood was so thin that any fireball would break it.
“I can still go first, though, right?” Effie seemed unworried by the addendum to the rules.
“It’s easy. I’ll just shoot a fireball that glances by the ribbon.” Effie bit down on her lip and aimed her wand. A yellow flash burst from its tip as a fireball formed and shot forward in the span of a blink. Her aim was impeccable, the side of her fireball nicking the edge of the ribbon without touching the wood. Unfortunately for Effie, however, the ribbon didn’t catch fire.
The fireball splattered against the charred brick wall behind the training dummy, bursting into yellow and orange globs. Some rained down onto the training dummy, and soon the wood coming out of its back had caught fire. It didn’t take more than a couple breaths to tell that the flames licking the wood wouldn’t reach the ribbon. Instead, they ate through the wood until it broke in half and fell to the sand.
Effie stood frozen with her arm extended, a look of horror upon her face.
“So Effie has exhausted her attempts,” Penny announced.
“That wasn’t fair, it bounced!” Effie griped. “And the wood is so weak!”
“Would anyone else like to try?” Penny asked with a smile.
“But the wood is broken,” someone said.
Penny walked over to a metal bin and pulled out five more identical cuts of wood. “There’s one for each of you.”
If Basen had some idea how he might burn the ribbon without destroying the wood, he’d volunteer, but not a single thought came to mind.
Five others formed a line, however, and Basen watched each of them shoot fireballs that either barely missed or struck the wood and shattered it upon impact.
“The rest of you will have another chance at the end of the day,” Penny said, “and at the end of every day after until evaluation week is over. But keep in mind that once a student in any evaluation group destroys the ribbon without breaking the wood, the challenge is over for everyone. So it would behoove you to go earlier.”
A couple more students convinced Penny to let them go right then, but they just ended up breaking the wood.
“I don’t get the point of the challenge,” Effie told Penny. “Casting has never been about finesse but power and aim.”
“Casting has also been about ingenuity. I would’ve liked to see you try something with sartious energy. Have you been training?”
“I’ve been busy with everything
I’ve done for Kyrro.”
Penny wagged her finger. “Your recent successes are turning you arrogant. Don’t worry, I’ll help fix that over this next week.” She patted Effie’s shoulder playfully.
“Looking forward to that,” Effie quipped with a roll of her eyes.
But as the day went on, Basen found that Effie really did have reason to be arrogant. She was the most skilled at whatever task Penny asked of them, well above anyone else.
Basen secretly began competing against her. He could keep up with her as Penny had them draw in bastial energy and cast fireballs in quick succession, but there were some instances in which not only Effie made him feel like a novice, but everyone else in the class did as well.
He couldn’t figure out what the others were doing when they were told to meditate. Some closed their eyes while others didn’t, but everyone stood still as if simply relaxing. Penny walked around, putting her hand near their shoulders and backs. Basen guessed she was feeling for bastial energy, but how much was the right amount? Did it flow into their bodies or out? He was fortunate she didn’t come over to him. He was too fearful to ask what meditating was, given that they were being judged by their knowledge of magic as well as their skill.