Authors: Michelle Knudsen
Calen quickly closed his eyes, trying to refocus. He knew that closing his eyes made little sense, given the perfect darkness of the vast hall surrounding them, but it seemed to help. And he needed all the help he could get.
He pictured the hall in his mind as clearly as he could, imagining the long empty tables, the wooden benches, the huge windows like gaping open mouths filled with thick glass. He pictured the tattered banners hanging limply from the rafters and the cold stone floor and on every surface — tables, rafters, floor, windowsills, everything — hundreds and hundreds of candles. Maybe thousands of candles, certainly more than he was ever able to count. They sat in the ceiling fixtures hanging from heavy iron chains above him and blanketed the stones around him except for a narrow pathway leading to the hallway door.
He envisioned them all, tried to hold every last one firmly and completely in his mind. Then he took a breath, and on the exhale released a burst of magic energy, lighting every wick at once.
Or . . . almost at once.
No, curse you.
Calen opened his eyes just in time to catch the last few candles flickering into life at the far end of the hall. He’d felt them, at the last second, struggling to light. He tried to control his heartbeat, tried not to let his — concern — show as he looked at last to the older man sitting at the table beside him.
Mage Krelig smiled slightly in the glow of the candles around him, but that didn’t mean anything. The man smiled when he was angry as often as when he was pleased. His face rarely gave clues to what he was thinking or feeling, and Calen had learned to just be wary at all times. Wary, but not afraid. Krelig had no patience for fear.
“That wasn’t quite perfect, was it?” Krelig said.
Calen reminded himself.
You’re not afraid.
He willed his breathing to be even and steady, willed his heart to slow down.
“No,” Calen said. The mage’s back had been to the straggler candles, but he still would have been able to feel their lateness to light. Bluffing was not even a remote possibility. “The last few were slow.”
He waited to see what Krelig would do. He remembered how he used to be afraid of Serek. Afraid of being yelled at, or insulted, or given tedious tasks as punishment.
He could almost laugh.
The first time he’d failed one of Krelig’s tests, the mage had struck him, hard, across the face. That had been a shock, but now Calen missed those first few days, when the back of Krelig’s hand was all he had to worry about. The next time Krelig had been sufficiently disappointed in his new apprentice’s progress, he’d set Calen’s hand on fire. Just for a few seconds, and Krelig had healed him immediately afterward — but those few seconds had been agony. Since then, Krelig had demonstrated various ways he could inflict pain as a consequence for failure. Knowing that the mage would heal Calen afterward didn’t matter when the pain was happening. It wasn’t always fire; sometimes it was pinpricks, or knives, or cold. Cold was surprisingly painful. One time he’d sliced off the tip of Calen’s ear. He’d put it back; you couldn’t even see a scar. Since then, though, Calen had noticed that he’d developed a nervous habit of touching the top of his ear with his finger. Just to make sure it was still there.
It was an effective method of teaching. Calen had never worked this hard in his life.
“Once more,” Krelig said finally. He blinked, and all the candles went out.
Calen thought, closing his eyes once again in the new darkness.
I can do this. I can.
He set about envisioning the hall again, every feature, every candle. He had to do it this time; Krelig’s “once more” had suggested that one more attempt was all he would allow, and then there would have to be punishment. Calen really, really didn’t want to be punished. He wanted to go back to his room, to lie down on his bed, and think about his plans. And then he wanted to go to sleep.
When he slept, he dreamed. And sometimes he dreamed about Meg.
But that was for later; first, he had to do this. He cleared his mind, thinking only of the candles, of the countless wicks waiting to burst into flame at his command. He imagined them wanting to please him, wanting to help him please Mage Krelig.
he thought at them firmly.
All at once. Together.
He took three breaths this time, in and out, and as he released the third breath he released the magic with it, pushing it outward to reach those farthest candles a few seconds sooner than before, willing all of the wicks to ignite as one.
he started to think, and then crushed that impulse.
You don’t beg magic to work for you,
Krelig had told him that very first day.
You don’t ask. You don’t hope or plead or wish. You command. You direct the magic to do your will, and it obeys.
Calen shouted in his mind as his energy reached the candles.
They lit. All at once.
He felt it, felt the single great rush of his command received, his goal accomplished, and didn’t need Krelig’s satisfied grunt to know that he had done it perfectly this time. He opened his eyes again and took in the brilliant glow from the combined flames and smiled a little smile of his own. It felt good, being able to do it, to light so many at once. The candle-lighting spell was one of the first things every new apprentice was taught, but he’d never lit more than a handful of candles at a time before today. And he’d never even attempted lighting multiple candles at the exact same instant. He understood, of course, that it would probably never be necessary in a real-life situation to light a thousand candles exactly at once. It was impressive, sure, but not very practical.
But this wasn’t about the candles; it was about learning control, about learning precision. And he was able to do something tonight that he hadn’t been able to do this morning. Just like the night before, and the night before that. Whatever else Krelig was, and he was a lot of very,
terrible things, he was keeping his promise. He was teaching Calen more magic, more swiftly, than Serek had ever done. He had not yet told Calen that anything was beyond him, that there was anything he wasn’t ready to learn. Quite the opposite, in fact.
There was a price, of course. And it was more than just the pain and punishment, more than being alone with a madman in some distant fortress, preparing to wage war against the Magistratum and anyone else who stood in their — in Krelig’s — way. It was the memory of his friends’ faces as he’d turned away from them and gone off with the enemy. It was the knowledge that his true master thought he was a traitor. It was having to be away from Meg, knowing she needed him and that he’d left her alone to face the insanity of everything that was going on without him. Not that Meg wasn’t totally capable of doing anything she wanted with or without his help, of course. Meg was the most capable person he’d ever met. But he knew what it meant to have a true friend to count on when things were bad, and he knew he’d been that person for Meg just as she’d been that person for him. And now neither of them had the other to count on, and it was because of what he’d done. He’d done it for her, for all of them, to stop Mage Krelig from killing them all on the spot. But they didn’t know that. And so they probably all hated him now. He wanted to believe that Meg, at least, wouldn’t have given up on him, that she would know in her heart that he’d had a good reason for leaving. But she might still hate him for it. She might trust him and believe in him and hate him all at the same time. She wasn’t exactly the most even-tempered person.
But he still believed that he could make it right. He would pay for his new knowledge, do whatever it took, suffer whatever he had to. And once he had what he needed, he would escape. He’d get back to Meg and Jakl and Serek and the others, return to Trelian and help them win the war and defeat Mage Krelig once and for all. He’d show them all that he was not a traitor, and more — that they had been wrong not to trust him in the first place.
But not yet. Not tonight, and not tomorrow, and probably not for weeks and weeks to come. But . . . soon. Eventually. As soon as he’d learned everything he needed to know.
“Pleased with yourself, are you?” Krelig asked, jarring Calen out of his own thoughts. He looked up, startled, but the mage’s good humor seemed genuine.
“Yes, Master,” Calen answered truthfully. “I like how it feels when I get something right.”
The mage nodded. “As you should. There’s no shame in acknowledging your own accomplishments. Every mage should be proud of his talent. Proud and unafraid to use it. Our ability is what sets us apart, after all. It’s the most important piece of who we are.”
“Yes, Master,” Calen said again. Krelig often waxed poetic about mages and their abilities, and how much better they were than everyone else. It was one of the reasons he hated the Magistratum so much, and the rules that other mages lived by. The idea of being marked or having to hold back from doing whatever magic he wished was offensive to him. Calen had heard plenty of rants on the subject at this point. He barely listened anymore.
“That’s enough casting for tonight,” Krelig said finally.
Calen nodded and started to rise. But before he was halfway out of his chair, Krelig spoke again. “I didn’t say you could go.”
Calen froze, then sat slowly and carefully back down. Krelig’s face was expressionless.