Authors: Irina Syromyatnikova
Edited by Amanda Bosworth
Copyright © 2014 Irina Lobatcheva, Vladislav Lobatchev. All rights reserved.
I was lucky to have been born at the right time and in the right country, and nobody could convince me of the contrary.
What career prospects w
ould open to a pauper orphan under the monarchy? In the best case, I would have become the cab driver of a rented horse carriage. Nobody would have cared that, in me, a great combat mage would have been lost - every second resident of Krauhard was as talented as me, and I would have been nowhere near an expensive magic education at all. The ritual of Empowerment also costs money, and Uncle Gordon would not be able to pay for it alone. Magicians' services would have been hugely expensive, but the monarchy wouldn't have bothered to train more mages to increase competition with the patriarchs and force them to lower their rates.
But nowadays in our country
all that a young talent needs is a desire to develop his own abilities. Dark mages' rates have fallen, but the market for them has been stable; so a decent professional is always in demand.
I was driven by another passion: alchemy.
From all the countr
ies that I know of, alchemists are valued more than magicians only in our Ingernika. Alchemy is promoted by the government of Kashtadar, too; but in our state it's everywhere: in cities, overcrowded by cars and train stations; in the country side, where smart farmers know that a tractor with an oil engine is more efficient than stupid cattle. Yeah, it smokes and fumes, but who cares except white mages? If it were up to them, we would all ride oxen. Even my own run-down village has a machine yard that was my favorite place to play when I was a boy.
At eighteen years old I left the
twilight land of Krauhard to learn the art and craft of alchemy (at public expense, and the government did not offer free education to everyone!). At that moment, magic wasn't on my horizon at all. But, apparently, my forefathers thought differently: magic broke into my life on the spur of the moment.
NZAMIPS officers along with it. I hated them…Thanks to their fraudulent tricks, I was an employee of that very agency; an unpaid volunteer, more accurately. My acquaintances would have laughed at me, if they'd learned that a dark mage from Krauhard worked for free. On the other hand, five years of forced volunteerism was a perfectly acceptable price for the triple murder and forbidden spell casting I committed. Though, I deserved a medal, given the identities of those men I killed.
Upon return from my unfortunate business trip, I was surprised to realize that my life became uneventful. Nothing happened for almost two months; lectures and exams ceased to be noteworthy for some reason. Not that I believed my intuition as a practicing magician, but the quietness around me seemed somewhat artificial. Ms. Kevinahari thought that I suffered from nervous exhaustion, frequently offering me her favorite Siamese tea, and advising me to talk to people more often. In principle, I could have asked her to lay off me, but what for? The empaths are pleasant to deal with, if one does not ponder over who they really are.
it would have been easier to dispel my melancholy if I had had an opportunity to boast about my role in saving the "blessed" Mihandrov. Alas, I would have had no proof to confirm my words. In the Far South journalists raised hell, endlessly reviewing the work of Sigismund Salaris, but my name was never mentioned. To the general public I remained an anonymous "emissary from Redstone", a mage, or, as one crazy scribbler guessed, one of the re-recruited artisans. Lt. Clarence sent me a letter (how did he obtain my address?) saying that a request to keep my participation anonymous originated personally from Mr. Axel, and none dared to challenge his order. He was the most seasoned regional coordinator of all; by age he could be my great grandfather, and he had a tough character - a genuine dark magician of the old leaven. Besides, Kevinahari cheered me with the news that the Axel and the Tangor did not get along well. I pondered calling him out on a duel. But can you imagine the consequences of a duel between dark magicians? Five minutes of dubious fame as the Redstone emissary were not worth such trouble.
Well, the hell with the fame!
Mud and boredom dominated in Redstone. It snowed, then rained, then snowed again, exactly as in Krauhard. Wet townsfolk, indistinguishable from each other, scurried along the streets, and I walked among them to lectures, labs, work and then back home, faceless like everyone else. This winter did not differ from the previous three, but this time I felt depression's full weight: there was something wrong with me.
I did not fix my relationship
with Quarters, because he stayed away from our favorite pubs, and I felt it was beneath me to chase him through the city. I concentrated on my studies: Redstone University of Higher Magic had only two examinations - at admission and at graduation - and the second exam was relentlessly nearing. My fellow classmates became feverishly excited, not because of the exam per se - students incapable of learning were weeded out in the first year - but rather due to the proximity of their study goal. Why would a crowd of minors (dark and white) work hard for so many years, sparing no effort? For the sake of obtaining a degree, of course!
A degree. The crown
ing achievement of my four years of work, the final touch, turning a schoolboy into a reputable professional. The end of my reckless youth and the first step into my future career. A symbol of my status (a very useful thing for a dark mage!). A piece of paper with a university seal that I would carry throughout all my life. Surely, I wanted the grades in it to be consistent with my own ideas of myself - a man of genius. Negligence in that matter was completely unacceptable! I needed to choose a thesis theme, a place for my final student practice, and to find out what questions examiners would prefer to ask this year - the exams were to be taken after the successful acquisition of practical skills.
I did not worry about alchemy - I knew it inside out
and could wax philosophical on virtually any subject anytime, anywhere. Besides, the dean of the Faculty of Alchemy liked me and didn't mind giving me credit for my work at Biokin. As a thesis topic he wished to see a comparative analysis of different types of gas generators.
But I had a problem with my second
program - dark magic.
I didn't realize the
depth of my problem at first; after all, I had started studying dark magic solely due to my spontaneous Empowerment. Well, yes, at some point I was making good money as a practicing magician, but ever since they forced me to abide by the law, my cash flow dried up dramatically. Now I faced a question that had never bothered me before: what kind of a dark magician did I want to be?
I didn't seriously consider
the career of a "cleaner" - I had met enough of the "cleaners" to dislike their job.
I could specialize
in the search for non-living objects - treasures, underground water, gas leaks, wires buried in plaster. (White magicians are also capable of doing such things, though not as efficiently as dark mages. Their market niche is narrower - rarely can you find a client searching for a buried elephant. Anything smaller than that a white mage wouldn’t even be able to spot.) And for such a job a mage with a university degree is overkill - graduates of vocational schools, which have not yet passed Empowerment, are the best fit. So this specialization was out of the question for me.
controlling magic looked more promising. All of the potentially dangerous alchemical devices - from a lathe to a steam turbine - are equipped with a couple of safety spells that protect workers from…everything. You never know what somebody could come up with. My motorcycle's engine is controlled by magic, too. Moreover, the controlling spells are typically maintained by the same dark magician who imposed them, which would mean a steady cash flow for me.
ven more interesting job was the creation of various averting spells, though this business was highly competitive. In Redstone, almost every entrance door has a lock with a sturdy dark magic filling, because without it thieves can break open ordinary fixtures with their fingernails. Wealthy people act as sinecures, offering their houses to combat-incompetent mages who, for two weeks, engage in the tedious enchanting of seals, then spend thirty seconds activating them. The money goes straight in the sinecure’s pocket! Then refresh the spell once a year, but of course, not for free. What a heavenly life!
After meditating over a beer, I found a
thesis topic, ideally combining the two most promising fields for me: alchemy and controlling magic; that is, I decided to work on a protective amulet for my vehicle. I wasn't going to use mortise locks or stupid motion sensors in my project. My motorcycle engine simply would not start until a special amulet is inserted into the socket, and I would make this amulet universal - any mage would be able to recharge it. With this brilliant idea in mind, I went to Rakshat, my professor of combat magic. After hesitating a bit, he announced that the topic for my diploma was at the discretion of the senior coordinator, and it was not up to him or me to decide. Do I need to explain that this news made me a little agitated?
does NZAMIPS interfere with the university learning process?!
complained to the university's administration and discovered that Mr. Darkon, our die-hard dean, literally revered Satal - either he knew something about our senior coordinator or properly assessed his potential as a combat mage. The dean bellowed that to have a mentor like Satal was a high honor and a great responsibility, and he couldn't care less what I thought about it. I lost my temper and decided to give up my second specialization in magic, but Rakshat mentioned that my withdrawal would need to be approved by a re-certification commission, and none of the dark in Redstone would take my side against Satal. How the senior coordinator managed to terrify a crowd of fearless and freedom-loving dark magicians remains a mystery to me, but nobody wanted to mess with him over an unknown student from Krauhard.
was back where I started!
became furious and knocked over and broke a marble rostrum which had the misfortune of being in my way. I still do not have any idea how I shattered it despite its five layers of magic protection. I swore to myself and Rakshat that I would wipe out Satal and his clan to the seventh generation. Rakshat grimaced and promised to bring flowers to my grave. Then we had a couple of drinks together in his office, for the first time ever - he was my teacher, after all - and quickly agreed that our senior coordinator was a rowdy madman, severely paranoid and obsessed with conspiracy theories. The world would be safer without him! But we should leave Satal to the wrath of God. We did not come to a resolution on the god of which denomination we wanted to see as avenger - our noise attracted the dean, and he kicked us out of the building.
As a result,
my study of dark magic began to irritate me. What exams would I have to take, and who would be the examiners? Assault spells was a hackneyed topic, on which generations of magicians defended their theses; nothing new would be invented there for another thousand years. The department of combat magic always granted degrees to practitioners only, for their combat services.
prolonged absence, the senior coordinator returned from the capital. My "kind-hearted" mentor looked at my sour face, listened to my bitter reproaches, then dragged me to the gym and beat me in a civilized manner. I got mad and hit him in the balls, using one of my undefeated Krauhardian tricks. While Satal writhed in pain, I ran out in the snow no shirt on. It was an unforgettable experience - running home half-naked in the cold! Kevinahari managed to calm the coordinator by the following Wednesday. He did not actually threaten me, but he persistently offered me a few lessons in fist fighting. I politely declined, worrying about the safety of my balls. Finally, my "favorite" teacher concluded that I had enough of theories and sent me to practice at the training ground of the Division of Supernatural Phenomena Liquidation.
That was the end of my quiet life, damn it.
Next Sunday morning, at seven a.m. (!), in freezing rain, I was on a small bare island formed by the river bend in Redstone's suburbs. Of course, where else would a testing ground for combat mages be? There were five recruits - "cleaners" and a corporal-instructor with a face that sickened me.
am I a rookie?" I asked him.
nce when does anyone care about it?" he replied.
The training was
supposed to run every Sunday from seven to eleven a.m.
"Fighters!" the voice of
our instructor was heard without any amplifying magic throughout the whole island. "Young defenders of Ingernika! Today you are in for a bumpy ride! Ordeals await you along the way. Some will die, but you will not disgrace the honor of a combat mage!"
What an enchanting
I listened and tried to
figure out why the training was set for Sunday. Did the corporal like his job so much as to work seven days a week? Then I realized that weekdays were taken by refresher training for the "cleaners" on active duty, and the salaried combat mages would never come to work on their days off. The fact that newbies were forced to practice on Sunday mornings meant that Satal seriously intended to get his subordinates back in shape. And I was one of them...
"Tangor!" the corporal bellowed in
a voice that could make any white mage a stutterer. "What are you busy with?"
I'm listening, sir," I readily reported, feeling acute déjà vu.
"Then answer, Mr. Egghead,
" he pointed his finger, fat as a sausage, at me. By that time I disliked him so much that if he had grabbed me by the shoulder, I would have killed him. "What is the first thing to do in a fight with the otherworldly?"
"To determine what kind of
a being that is?" I suggested gently, trying not to pay attention to the proximity of his ugly face.
My brothers in arms giggled in unison.
ven my heart nearly jumped out of my chest from the corporal's roar. Why did he shout so loudly?
"His was the only correct answer
, you blockheads," the corporal continued.
Hairy caterpillars started crawling along my back from his voice.
In comparison with the corporal, my university professor of combat Mr. Rakshat looked like one of the most cultured and polite magicians! I shouldn't worry about the future of Ingernika until there are men who can make a dark mage from Krauhard tremble. Or was it just my nerves acting up? No, a neighbor to the left of me became too pale, zombie-like. Two recruits to the right looked at each other uneasily, perhaps conspiring to escape. Ha! The ferry was gone; the island was connected with the mainland through a drawbridge, whose bascules, of course, were already drawn. That scumbag thought of everything in advance - his recruits could not hide or escape!
start of our training resounded with screams of "Dangemaharus", crackles of lightning, and the instructor's swearing - the newbies demonstrated their abilities on zombie simulators. The corporal seemed not to know how to speak in compound sentences, but there were no university graduates among us (except me, of course). The other four recruits were typical dark mages by today's standards - impudent and undereducated. If not for Uncle Gordon, I would have been one of them. Obviously, they weren't interested in theoretical subtleties and went through the ritual of Empowerment in some provincial college or in the army lad camp. The cadets were taught, "The simpler the better." Of course, the principle of simplicity works well; I myself made a lot of money on the side with a single learnt spell. The corporal polished the recruits' reflexes and taught them how to avoid the most typical mistakes, not bothering himself with an explanation as to why the other way around wouldn't work. Too much knowledge makes the head bald, as they say.