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Mage's Blood

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Mage's Blood

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Author: David Hair
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books, 2012
Series: Moontide Quartet: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Historical Fantasy
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The Moontide is coming, and the world stands on the brink of war . . . Every twelve years the tides sink and the Leviathan Bridge rises above the waves, linking the Eastern and Western continents . . . and allowing the Rondian Emperor, overlord of the west, to march his crusading armies across Antiopia. But this time the East is ready. As two civilisations clash, three ordinary people – a failed mage, a jaded mercenary and a lowly market girl – are about to discover that their actions may determine the fate of nations.


Hidden Causes

The Ascent of Corineus

Without doubt, the most epoch-changing event in the history of Urte was the Ascent of Corineus. In a backwater village of the Rimoni Empire, a thousand disciples of a disaffected Sollan philosopher had gathered. A legion of Rimoni soldiers was sent to arrest them. What ensued is shrouded in legend. Did Kore himself create the ambrosia that gave Corineus's disciples the gnosis? Or did something more earthly occur? The known truth is that the survivors of that draught, the "Blessed Three Hundred," destroyed the legion with unearthly powers. Their descendants, the magi, still rule Yuros 500 years later.

Ordo Costruo Collegiate, Pontus

Turm Zauberin, Norostein, Noros,
on the continent of Yuros
Octen 927
9 Months Until the Moontide

The first day of the exams had finally come: the culmination of seven years of Alaron's life. He stared blankly at the wall before him, waiting for the bell to ring out from the old college bell-tower. The hour-long time slots were allocated by alphabetic order, starting with Andevarion; Alaron would be second-last, late in the afternoon.

The first subject was History, which he enjoyed, though his father regarded much the master taught him as dubious; Vann's skepticism and Ramon's acidic reinterpretations had left him somewhat confused, but at least it was interesting.

Finally the bell rang, the door opened and Seth Korion emerged and just stood there, glassy-eyed.

Hard, was it, Seth? Alaron thought. Perhaps you should have paid more attention, instead of just sitting in class like a zombie, safe in the knowledge no one would ever ask you anything tricky.

Seth turned around slowly, just becoming aware of Alaron. Alaron prepared himself for some insult or mockery, but to his surprise, Korion said faintly, "Good luck, Mercer." It was so unexpectedly polite that Alaron could only stare and mumble something at Korion's receding back.

He waited for several hour-like minutes until portly Magister Hout poked his head around the corner. "Mercer. Come inside." His voice was disdainful as always.

Alaron got unsteadily to his feet and walked across the unsteady floor and through the door. In front of him was an array of faces, familiar and unfamiliar; it felt like he was being stared at by row upon row of vultures and ravens, all waiting to pick out his eyeballs. In the front was Lucien Gavius, the headmaster, the masters arrayed around him. Fyrell's dark features looked savage in the dim lighting. He peered a little further back and stiffened. Governor Belonius Vult--what on earth? But then, why not? We're supposed to be the future, aren't we? There were others, uniforms he recognized rather than faces: a flat-faced Kirkegarde Grandmaster; a bearded legion centurion; a Crozier of the Kore. Alaron felt horribly exposed.

The headmaster rose. "The student is Alaron Mercer, son of Tesla Anborn, of Berial's line. The father is non-magi. The student is a quarter-blood, born in Norostein." Alaron noticed that Governor Vult leaned forward when his mother's name was read. Perhaps he knew her, or Auntie Elena.

"Are you ready, Mercer?" Gavius inquired.

Alaron's throat went dry, the banks of faces overwhelming. All those eyes... He swallowed. "Yes, Headmaster."

"Good. Then let us begin with a recitation of the Rimoni Conquests. In your own time..."

Alaron took a deep breath and began to speak. Initially he felt horribly uncomfortable, but after a while he began to relax and let his words flow. He answered questions about the Rimoni Empire, then about the spread of Kore into Sydia. He spoke confidently about the Bridge and First Crusade. He got his facts wrong a little on the Second Crusade, but nothing disastrous.

When it was over, he felt almost disappointed, but the small rattle of applause lifted him immeasurably. He'd survived. When he walked out, Ramon was in the waiting room, literally shaking in his boots. There was no time for anything but a quick thumbs-up and a: "Buono fortuna, Ramon!"

It felt like he was off to a good start.

Tydai was calculus, a nightmare. They had to create and solve formulae all day in a series of written tests. Malevorn was confident, but the others were as edgy, even Dorobon. Alaron felt he did passably, but no better than that. Seth Korion threw up outside afterward. Watching Korion being ill was becoming an exam-week ritual. At first it was off-putting, then amusing, and finally he found himself actually feeling sorry for the wretched general's son.

Wotendai brought Rondian, a welcome relief. At least it's my native tongue, he reflected. Poor Ramon! The exam itself was largely the recitation of old poems and sagas--a complete waste of time, in his view. Sadly, it probably came across that way to the markers, he reflected as he shuffled out of the theater.

Torsdai was Theology. He squirmed before the half-seen faces and came out of it absolutely hating Fyrell, who seemed determined to prove him a heretic and burn him on the spot. This was the worst day so far. But he banished it from thought quickly. Tomorrow was Freyadai--thesis day; make-or-break day, or so they were all told.

The auditorium was full. Faces loomed out at him: Governor Belonius Vult, come to run his eye over the students again; Jeris Muhren, a hero of the Noros Revolt and now Watch Captain of Norostein; representatives of all the military arms, the regular army, windship commanders, even Volsai and Kirkegarde recruiters. There were many Churchmen hovering around a jaded-looking Crozier, and clouds of gray-robed Arcanum scholars. They all looked bored-- Alaron was the sixth presenter, of course. He swallowed nervously. Don't think about the audience. It's no worse than the other days. You can do this...

Gavius looked up, frowned and then addressed the auditorium. "This candidate is Alaron Mercer," he announced and went on to introduce Alaron's lineage for the benefit of those who had not attended previously. He turned to Alaron. "In your own time, Master Mercer. You have one hour, half of which is reserved for questions. You may begin."

Alaron bowed, spread out his sheaf of notes and began to speak. Gradually concentration erased his self-consciousness and he forgot the audience. "Exalted magi, my thesis presentation is entitled 'The Hidden Cause of the Noros Revolt.'" The title of the thesis caused some interest, he noted. Good! He raised his hands and caused a cloud of light-charged dust that he had prepared to billow before him, so that it spread out like a mat of light at waist height. It was a familiar gnostic technique. "The histories talk about the Noros Revolt resulting from a combination of excessive imperial taxes, poor harvests, and a dissident military. But what I aim to demonstrate is that there was a fourth reason for the Revolt, which has earth-shattering--I repeat: earth-shattering--implications."

He allowed himself to look around and gave a small blink. The faces of the magi audience were intent. He had their undivided attention. Even the governor and the bishop were listening with intensity that surprised him. Any traces of boredom were gone.

"Before I reveal the hidden cause of the Revolt, I want to make a few points about the reasons that are normally cited as the causes. Yes, taxes went up, but, as this shows"--he displayed tax records in a visual calculus technique called "graphing"--"the tax rises were really not that unaffordable, and they were offset by trading revenue and plunder from the First Crusade. In fact, Noros was better off than pre-Crusade. This has been borne out anecdotally from interviews with townsfolk and officials."

He risked a look and was struck by the frowning, thoughtful look on the faces. The governor was stroking his beard, while Watch Captain Muhren was chewing his lip. At least they're listening...

"Secondly, the harvests: the silos were never emptied, and were used to alleviate suffering amongst smallholders." He cited more sources visually, elaborating on the theme. "Thirdly, people claim the Noros legions returned from the Crusade in a state of mutiny-- however, many of the officers came back rich men. All of them spoke publicly against the poll tax, but they wanted a peaceful resolution. In memoirs published after the Revolt, both General Robler and Governor Vult quoted anti-Revolt speeches they made in 907 and 908 and early 909." He glanced up at the governor, ready to display the exact texts if he needed to, but Vult nodded abstractly. "In fact, the military leadership was still anti-revolt in Febreux, but it became dogmatically pro-Revolt before the poll-tax was announced in Martrois. Governor Vult's memoir speaks of 'an inexplicable yet irresistible swing toward rebellion' in Febreux 909."

He spread his hands out. "It could have been that there was a hidden agenda and discreet troop buildups, but to me, this might well indicate that there was a secret change in opinion among many generals in Febreux 909. It is this change in opinion that I wish to explore."

He really did have their undivided attention now. Captain Muhren looked like he wanted to interrupt. Vult had a small smile on his lips and he was leaning forward. Alaron felt a flush of pleasure. "I now wish to highlight four unregarded facts that I believe no one has ever linked before." He called up an image of three marble busts, fully three-dimensional, and rotated them. He'd spent a long time practicing that and he was pleased with how well it came out. "These three men used to be familiar to every Noros child. There were statues everywhere, and their faces were in every catechism; we used to pray for their blessing. The three canons--saints in waiting--are the only canons in history born in Noros: Fulchius, Keplann, and Reiter. All three were Ascendants, given ambrosia by the emperor for their service and virtue. Before the Revolt, they all dwelt in Pallas, all three heroes of the empire. Yet at the end of the Noros Revolt, every statue of them was destroyed and all the catechisms containing their deeds were collected and have not been seen again. They died of age during the Revolt years, we were told. The Church proclaimed the Noros catechisms out of date and withdrew them, and they also proclaimed that in punishment for the Revolt, the images of these three canons would not be displayed any more. It sounds half credible, but strange. How did three Noros Ascendants all die within a year of each other, when Ascendants can live for centuries? And why are they being erased from public memory?"

Alaron was almost transfixed by the intensity of Vult and by the lip-biting tension on Muhren's face. For a second he faltered, but then he blanked out the audience and went on, "The second thing I wish you to consider is the continued military occupation of Noros. Schlessen and Argundy have revolted several times; Noros has only once, and far less bloodily. Yet the occupation force here in Noros is eight legions. Eight! That is larger than the entire Noros armies of the Revolt! Why? Most Noromen have accepted defeat and now regard the Revolt as misjudged and foolish. No one is fermenting rebellion--yet we suffer a closer and more costly occupation than even Argundy, who have revolted five times in the past hundred years!

"And what do all these soldiers do? Eight legions--that's 40,000 men--and the answer is: they dig! They have entirely dug up the manors of every general of the war. The royal palace was taken apart stone by stone; then rebuilt. And still they dig. It is almost as if the Rondians are looking for something."

Alaron became conscious of the utter silence in the auditorium. Captain Muhren caught his eye and gave a small shake of the head. A warning? What did he mean? Alaron blinked and stiffened his resolve. Not far to go now. "Thirdly, I want to bring up the fate of General Jarius Langstrit and disclose a fact which I believe is almost unknown. General Langstrit was our most decorated general after Robler himself and remains an iconic figure after the Revolt--but where is he now, dead or alive? I had imagined him in retirement on his country estate, but visiting there to try and interview him, I found the manor deserted. One of our most famous generals has vanished." He brought up an image of a famous painting of a disheveled but resolute general surrendering his sword to a conquering Rondian commander. "I'm sure you all know this painting: General Robler surrendering to Kaltus Korion on the slopes of Mount Tybold. However, any soldier will tell you that Robler was too proud and bitter to surrender, so 'Big Jari' did it. Yet ask the people of the Lower Market and they will tell you that Langstrit was found wandering alone and dazed in their market-square the very next day, one hundred miles away. How did General Langstrit end up in Lower Market, Norostein, when he had given his word of honor to remain in camp in the Alps?

"My fourth point: how is it that Robler and his armies defeated the Rondians so often and so frequently, when none of them were more than half-bloods, no match for Rondian Ascendant-Magi? Yet by the time the Revolt was over, eight Rondian Ascendants had fought in Noros, more than joined the Crusade, and somehow our half-blood magi killed four of those Ascendants!"

Alaron raised four fingers. "Let me reiterate: One, three Noromen canons disappear at the time of the Revolt and are now being erased from history. Two, Rondian forces continue to occupy Noros and are actively searching for something. Three, a general breaks parole, only to wind up dazed and confused in Norostein, and then vanish. Four, Noromen half-blood magi defeat Rondian Ascendants." He raised a hand. "I believe these facts are linked and explainable." Here goes...

"This is my hypothesis: the three Noros canons, Fulchius, Keplann, and Reiter, did not in fact die in Pallas as we were told. They joined the Revolt--more than that, they caused the Revolt. I surmise that they took something very important from Pallas-- for why else would eight Ascendants who had not even been interested in the Holy Crusade suddenly want to join the suppression of Noros? And why, after the surrender, did an honorable general break parole--and where is he now? The Rondians are taking our kingdom apart piece by piece, seeking something--What do they seek?"

He let the question hang in the air, feeling a sense of exultation at the stir his words were causing. I'm going to pass with top marks!

He displayed a large image of a piece of scrollwork. "This is what a proclamation of canonization looks like. Note the words Raised to the Ascendancy. Every living saint was raised to the Ascendancy--until the Noros Revolt. Every candidate was taken into the inner chamber at Pallas Cathedral, where the Scytale of Corineus is housed, and they emerged either as an Ascendant--or as a corpse. But since the Revolt, one canon and one living saint have been anointed, and in neither proclamation appear the words 'Raised to the Ascendancy,' not ever for our beloved Imperia-Mater Lucia!"

There was a mutter around the auditorium. "Was it just overlooked? Did they forget to make Mater-Imperia an Ascendant?"

He had to pause then, to let the buzz swell, then die down. It was exhilarating to have the audience so enthralled. He raised a hand, feeling tremendously powerful, and the auditorium fell silent.

"What if there is another explanation? What if the thing that Fulchius and the others stole, the thing that made our Noros MagiGenerals so powerful, is the thing that the Rondians are still searching for. What if it were the means by which Ascendancy is bestowed? What if Fulchius stole the Scytale of Corineus?"

There was a wall of noise, and two faces stood out: Captain Muhren, looking ashen faced and furious, his face almost enough to make Alaron raise a hand to protect himself. If eyes were daggers, Alaron would be pierced through. And Governor Vult had gone utterly still, with the tiniest hint of a smile on his face.

Alaron belatedly remembered Ramon's words: It is a dangerous story to tell, amici. But surely everyone here must be impressed? Most people didn't even know about Langstrit's arrest taking place in Norostein--it wasn't shown in the legion's historical records. He had talked to dozens of veterans to pull this all together. And his mother's library had books most students or even scholars did not have.

"My conclusion fits the facts," he said, by way of rounding things off. "The Noros canons stole the Scytale and fermented the revolt. Weak-blooded Noros magi suddenly became powerful. The revolt ended in mysterious circumstances, and the Rondians have been seeking something here ever since. My conclusion fits the facts and explains much that conventional wisdom does not."

The auditorium buzzed. Headmaster Gavius raised a hand. "Quiet please, gentlemen. Is your presentation complete, Master Mercer?"

Alaron nodded. His mind was whirling and he suddenly felt exhilarated. He had got their attention and held it. He hadn't screwed up the visuals or the words. He felt drained.

Magister Fyrell raised a hand. "What evidence have you that the Pallas officials did not simply decide to change the wording on the Ascendancy notices? Or is your whole argument based upon a clerical error, Mercer?"

Alaron suppressed his temper. "These proclamations are prepared by the Holy Father in Pallas, Magister. They are regarded as the words of Kore and cannot lie. Therefore the omission must be deliberate."

Governor Vult raised a hand and Alaron felt a nervous flicker. "If the Noros generals suddenly became so powerful, young sir, how is it that I too am not an Ascendant?" His sycophants laughed dutifully.

Alaron tried to measure the nuances of the question, feeling on uncertain ground. "My lord, it is possible that none of the Generals ascended and that the miraculous powers displayed by them were in fact secretly the work of Fulchius, Keplann, and Reiter, without assistance. But that doesn't explain the continued searching. Possibly--and with total respect, sir--the secret was not extended beyond General Robler's inner circle." And we all know what Robler thought of you, your Excellency.

Vult's eyebrows came together in a coolly appraising look. He'll remember me, Alaron thought nervously.

Captain Muhren stood. "Gentlemen," he said to the room, "I want to make something very clear. This thesis, while no doubt diligently and honestly attempted, is of as much use historically as a pile of horse turds." Alaron felt something inside himself crumble. The captain went on, his voice strident, "I fought in the Revolt, and there were no Ascendant canons slinking around the margins--I was a Primus battle-mage; I would have seen them! We won our victories through planning and courage. War is not a board game! Mighty magi can die from a single arrow or sword-stroke. I have no doubt that the Scytale of Corineus is right where it should be, where it must be, to preserve our empire: in Pallas Cathedral's vaults." He looked at Alaron coldly. "General Robler's victories were based on the courage of our fighting men." He glared around him, then sat. The auditorium murmured indignantly, swayed by what he said.

Alaron realized he was opening and closing his mouth like a beached fish. He felt his eyes sting, his skin go hot and cold in waves. It was all he could do to remain upright.

The captain's tirade had silenced the questions. Alaron risked a peek at the governor, who was whispering to a man beside him. His silvery eyes seemed to pierce Alaron through, and he had a sudden vision of an iron fist behind that velvet visage.

Headmaster Gavius leaned forward. "Thank you, Master Mercer," he said. "The panel will consider your thesis, as it does all examination work. You may go."

Alaron staggered out, past the waiting Ramon, lurched into a privy and vomited. When he emerged from the fetid chamber all he could manage was to totter to a quiet corner of the courtyard and bury his face in his hands.

It took him a long time to get home, where he found that someone had stolen all of his research notes.

"How's it going, lads?" asked Vann as they dined on Sabbadai, the eve of the second week.

"It's a nightmare, sir," groaned Ramon. "The panel hates us. They murder us with questions like knives."

Vann looked questioningly at Alaron. "Yeah, what he said, Da." Alaron pointed at Ramon, nodding. He hadn't told Da all about the thesis, not in detail, nor about the theft--it all hurt too much. Vann had taken pains to tell him to keep his things secure. He'd told Ramon, of course, who was full of theories, but what could they do? The best he could hope for was that maybe if someone had taken it that seriously, perhaps he might scrape a pass-mark. In the meantime, the exams went on.

The second week was for martial tests. On Minasdai Alaron arrived to find Seth Korion slumped in a seat outside the arena, when he should have been inside being tested. It took Alaron a few seconds to realize Korion was actually crying. He had a blackened eye, and a trail of blood and snot was running from his nose. He stared at Alaron like he wasn't sure he was real. The front of his breeches were sodden: Seth had pissed himself during the test.

"Rukka mio! What did they do to you?" Alaron gasped. What the Hel will they do to me?

Seth looked up at him miserably. It was clear that all the cushy masters' treatment had left Korion utterly unprepared for the exams. He was failing--unthinkable for anyone, but especially for a Korion.

"I can't do it," Seth moaned. "They keep hitting me. I can't take any more."

"What happened?" Alaron asked hesitantly. He could no more kick Korion when he was down at the moment than he could drown a kitten.

Tears streamed down Korion's face. "They make you fight one, then two, then three at the same time--just ordinary soldiers, but it's so hard to keep track of them, and then they start hitting you and it just gets worse. They were talking to me, under their breath, so the judges couldn't hear, about what they were going to do to me--how much it would hurt--what a cock-sucking pansy I was... I couldn't take it. I can't go on--"

"You've got to go back in there," Alaron said quietly, "and if they hit you, you get back up again." He scowled. "You liked it plenty watching Malevorn thrashing me all the time." He grabbed Korion's collar and hauled him up. "Toughen up, Korion--get back in there!"

"I can't," Korion whispered. "I can't..."

"Get up, coward."

The word shocked through Korion as if he'd been struck by lightning and he went utterly white, then his eyes glazed over. For a second, Alaron thought he would collapse, but instead he tottered stiffly back into the arena. Through the gates he dimly heard the clatter of wooden blades, and repeated grunts and cries.

Two men carried Korion out on a stretcher ten minutes later. He was unconscious.

Alaron stared after him, then back at the arena doors.

Holy Kore...

He limped out an hour later, exhausted. Seth had spoken truly: he'd had to fight trained watchmen, in ever-increasing numbers. They may have had blunted swords, but they could still do serious damage if they connected solidly. He was allowed to use the gnosis, but only defensively, not offensively. Parry, shield, leap, lunge if you could--hard work, but he'd managed, with only two touches on him, and those had come right near the end, when he was nearly worn out. He'd scored twenty-two. That was pretty good, surely! And as for the verbal abuse, he'd had worse from Malevorn. He'd blanked it out effortlessly.

However Seth hadn't got to the last part of the test, which was facing a battle-mage. Alaron had exhausted himself with the watchman and had little left when the battle-mage emerged for the last bout. That had been humiliating; he'd been given a serious kicking. At least there was a decent, sympathetic healer in the infirmary.

Tydai was archery, difficult and exacting, but it wasn't overly tiring. No gnosis was permitted. He'd hit a few, missed a few; it felt like a pass. Wotendai was horsemanship in the stable-yard; that went fine: he was a good rider and knew all the horses well. There was no way they could fail him on that.

Torsdai was equipment: timed dismantling and reassembly of a suit of plate mail; putting barding on a horse--basic tedious stuff. Freyadai was the worst, because that was back to the theater for battlefield strategy. Alaron had a nightmare beforehand that he would be asked what Vult should have done at Lukhazan, while the governor himself marked him. It didn't come to that, but he did have trouble explaining Robler's tactics at Geisen. "He was the best," he muttered lamely. "Of course he won." At least he had the sense not to drag his thesis into it.

"All in all, I think it was a good week," he ventured cautiously over the Sabbadai dinner table when Vann asked.

"Better than the first week," agreed Ramon, nodding fiercely.

"But next week we're onto the real stuff: the gnosis. All the other things are just trivia," said Alaron. "These next two weeks are the real test."

"Do you think so?" asked Vann, in his thoughtful questioning manner. "I would have thought it the other way around."

"How do you mean, Da?" asked Alaron.

"Well, your gnosis is important, obviously, but I am sure that the real key is what your attitudes are. Are you prepared to follow orders? To kill on command? Have you the courage to face death? That's what I would want to know if I were a recruiter."

The two students looked at each other uneasily. Neither was exactly the unquestioning type.

The format changed in week three. Now it was two tests, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, so they had to hang around college all day. On the first morning the Pure took over the common room, so Alaron and Ramon went to the garden. Neither said much. The morning was basic magic skills--combat-gnosis: shielding, warding, blasting targets with mage-fire. They were loaned an amber periapt for the exercises, and both agreed it felt good to be allowed to blast something. Soothing, in a way.

They took lunch in the garden to avoid any contact with the Pure, though their confident laughter echoed through the open windows. In the afternoon, the tests were more exacting. They had to work through the runes, little configurations of energy that performed a variety of effects. The panel of tutors and scholars made Alaron demonstrate every one he had been taught, from runes of enchantment to negation of other magic, runes of hiding and finding, locking and unlocking, making protective circles: all the tiny gnosis-workings the students would be called upon to perform on a daily basis once they graduated. By the time it was over Alaron felt a little dizzy, his skin flushed, the air crackling with energy.

"A bit rough. Clearly only a rote-mage," he heard Fyrell remark. Alaron felt himself flinch. Rote-mage was the derogatory term for someone who performed the gnosis in a very rudimentary and inefficient manner--he knew he was better than that.

The remainder of that week was spent on Hermetic and Theurgic magic. They were made to perform all the skills they'd been taught of each study, from the least cantrip to the most intricate enchantment. Each of the students had an affinity with one Class of gnosis; Alaron favored Sorcery while Ramon preferred Hermetic. As Hermetic-gnosis was the diametric opposite of Sorcery, Alaron struggled with it, but he was reasonably competent in Theurgy. Though it was scary to be performing with so much at stake, it felt like it was bringing out the best in them both. They managed in the exams feats they had struggled with in class. Alaron tamed a wolf set loose in the arena before it attacked him, something he'd never managed before. The exams were feeling like a vindication of seven years of punishing lessons from sneering teachers who felt that a quarter-blood merchant's son was beneath them.

They slept late on Sabbadai and after persuading Vann that they needed rest more than divine blessing, and were allowed to skip church. They toasted the last lap of the race, as Ramon put it, at dinner that night.

The final week of exams coincided with cold sleet lashing the city, the fingers of winter stretching its grip from the snow-capped Alps to the south. At least Fire-thaumaturgy could warm their fingers! The magic of the elements was relatively straightforward, though a struggle for a Sorcerer like Alaron. He was a decent Fire-mage and could do a little with earth, but he was weak in air and couldn't manipulate water at all.

His main problem was Sorcery itself. According to his entrance tests, it should have been his strong point, but all four aspects of Sorcery--Necromancy, Wizardry, Divination, and Clairvoyance-- gave him problems because he was scared rigid of spirits. He could recite the theory, but when he tried to use wizardry-gnosis he failed to summon anything. The same thing happened in Necromancy, when he couldn't manage to summon the spirit of a recently dead young man because he was so unnerved at the corpse before him. All of the teachers were muttering to each other as he exited the arena, head bowed. His efforts at Clairvoyance were just poor; he couldn't identify or find the hidden objects, much to his chagrin. And Divination, the last test, was a bit of a mess too. He'd had to divine his own future, which turned out not to look so good: he'd ended up interpreting a complex vision of stolen notes and hidden snakes as someone conspiring against him. He'd opened his eyes to find them all staring at him with raised eyebrows and skeptical faces.

The headmaster dismissed his half-baked waffling condescendingly. "Are you saying that the staff of Turm Zauberin have some agenda against you, boy? We are paid by recruiters to produce magi--every failure hurts us as it hurts the community, and I would thank you to remember the years of training we have devoted to you." He shook his head. "Really boy, we wish you nothing but success."

"I think you're failing perfectly well without our help," remarked Fyrell acidly. "Now, unless you wish to add any further conspiracy theories to the afternoon's entertainment, you may leave."

Alaron closed his eyes and wished the ground would swallow him whole.

"So, how was Divination?" Ramon asked him outside. He didn't take Divination at all, so they were both, finally, done.

Alaron groaned. "I don't want to talk about it. Let's go home."

Ramon waved a purse. "No, my friend, tonight, we are going to get drunk, on me."

"You have money?" Alaron stared.

Ramon grinned. "I am Rimoni."

"You stole it?"

"Now I'm wounded. You hurt my feelings. Maybe I don't want to drink with you anymore." Ramon eyed Alaron expectantly, eyes sparkling.

Alaron took a deep breath. From somewhere, he heard a fiddle wail. The sun was lowering toward the western hills, casting a reddish glow over the Alpine snow. The air was crisp and bitingly cold. Pass or fail, the exams were over.

"Alaron, relax." Ramon poked him in the ribs. "What's done is done; they'll pass you and whether you get a gold, silver, or bronze is irrelevant. What will be will be, amici. Let's go and find some beer!"

Alaron let out his breath slowly. "Okay, you're right--it's just--No, you're right!"

"Of course I'm right." Ramon looked around, cupping his ear theatrically. "I think that music is coming from the Millpond tavern, amici. Let's go!"

Copyright © 2012 by David Hair


Mage's Blood

- pling


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