“No, no, no, no, NO!” Gerant roared in frustration. He walked away in a huff, red-faced and wringing his hands. “You have to learn everything you can before you get there. The competition is stiff, and you need to think beyond the skills of a typical apprentice. These are elite seats – elite seats! How are you supposed to win one if you can’t get a simple shielding spell right?”
The younger man kneeling on the floor before him, and smoking slightly as a result of the flame spell that had gotten past his defences, stared at his mentor sheepishly. The slight points to the student’s ears were barely visible through his lush dark hair, but his facial hair betrayed his mixed bloodlines.
“I haven’t even been offered a place in the Trials yet,” he protested.
As if summoned by his words, there was a knock at the great oaken door, one loud enough to suggest someone of great mass and strength. Abandoning his apprentice, Gerant stomped over to answer it, wrenching it open with annoyance. There was no hulking figure on the other side. Instead, a bubble floated there, containing something that looked like an iridescent butterfly. It drifted past Gerant into the room and began to grow until it was almost the same size as the man holding open the door. Instead of a butterfly, it now appeared to be a shimmery wisp of a woman.
“I am here with a message for Reid Blake,” the wispy woman declared. Her voice was soft and pretty, but there was a tinny quality to it.
“I’m Reid Blake,” the younger man on the floor replied. “What’s my message?”
“Congratulations, Mr. Blake. Your application for the Magic University Elite Seat Admission Trials was successful. You have exactly three months to prepare yourself and journey to the university trial grounds. Do what you need to, to make yourself ready, and good luck.” Her task complete, the magical messenger faded into non-existence.
Gerant sighed and stroked his bearded chin. He eyed Reid.
“Well that sucks all the wind out of your argument, doesn’t it? Now you are on their roster. This settles it. We are going to keep practicing that spell until you can do it in your sleep – you need at least a minimum level of effectiveness with each of the spells on that list I gave you. I don’t know if it’s laziness or you’re just easily distractible, but you obviously haven’t been putting the effort in required to perfect them. I don’t want to play drill sergeant, but if I have to, I will. You just don’t seem to understand – placing anywhere but in the top three isn’t acceptable. You don’t want to end up like me.”
Reid blinked vacantly at that remark and glanced around the well-furnished room with lavish decor. He had actually hoped to end up just like Gerant, only not so cranky and alone. A lucrative trade as a magic instructor like his mentor, a pretty little wife, perhaps, and maybe even children, was what Reid was hoping for in his pursuit of happiness. It didn’t matter to him if he were a Master mage or a Renegade, despite the stigma. But it mattered to Gerant. He felt they both had something to prove.
“Don’t be an imbecile!” Gerant snapped. “If you stay a Renegade like me all of your life, you’ll be a nobody. You’ll face ridicule and disgust. People will always mistrust you, expecting you to fumble a spell and blow them up along with yourself. And worse, you’ll stoop to lows you wouldn’t have to if you were a Master. If you become a magic instructor like me, you’ll have to resort to scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to looking for the students you need to earn your bread and butter.”
That was an intentional insult – a slap in the face directed at Reid. Gerant’s expectations for Reid were low, even if he was, supposedly, the best student that the man had ever had. Reid had never understood how he was expected to have confidence in his own abilities if his mentor did not have any faith in him. Gerant was considering him a failure before ever really giving him a chance. Reid had months to improve on his spells, and he was still making progress, but Gerant was an impatient man and he wanted to see success now.
Reid hung his head. He was inclined to fight Gerant on this, to argue in his defence, but he had doubts about his own worth as a spell-caster. He had been shunned by his family for choosing to study magic in the first place, since they suffered from the bias common to the parts of Turmetti that bordered on Seaforest, where Renegade magic was illegal. Without their support, Reid had not been able to afford a Master mage instructor, so their reluctance to accept his choice had forced him to go Renegade, the greater of two evils in their opinion.
Reid had been careful in selecting his trainer. Aside from the Renegade stigma, Gerant had a reputation that surpassed that of some of the Masters in the area. Reid was certain he could not have done better for his money. Gerant was a skilled and diligent taskmaster, with a hefty repertoire. He had never been sloppy with his lessons, and he had never let Reid get by with just “good enough”. The mature Renegade even expected a certain standard of quality with one spell before allowing Reid to proceed to one he deemed more difficult, just like a Master would.
But Gerant was not without his faults.
He had been in Reid’s shoes almost thirty years ago, with an invitation to the Trials and the desire to learn everything that he could about Master magic. After spending much more than Reid had playing novice to a faculty member at the University, and running himself deep into debt in the process, Gerant had come exceptionally close to securing the third elite seat, missing out by a matter of two points – but he may as well have missed out by a hundred. There was no special accommodation for fourth place and having spent so much preparing himself, Gerant had no means of paying the outrageous cost of a regular seat or even further training as a novice. He had left, thoroughly disheartened.
Reid was not sure how Gerant had managed to clear his debt with the University, but he had, and then he had severed all ties with them. Bearing an unhealthy chip on his shoulder, he had fallen for the first Renegade grifter who preyed off of the losing candidates leaving the University after the Trials. Gerant’s loss had made him a bitter man, his failure for the sake of those two points eating its way into his soul. Reid thought it was awful the way that Gerant had allowed that one experience to sour his perspective of life for its entirety. He had reasonable wealth, and a better reputation than most Renegades. He could have been enjoying his success. He could have been happy.
“Come on,” Gerant said gruffly, “Back into position. I want to see a shield big enough for three people – and no holes this time!”
“I still don’t understand. I won’t have to shield anyone other than me at the Trials. It’s an individual event. Why would I have to perfect this?” Reid sighed, returning to his earlier pose.
“I told you, unless you get this right, we aren’t moving on to the next thing I need to teach you. It’s a fundamental prerequisite to the spell. I wish for once you would stop questioning me and just do as I ask.”
Gerant was using his frustrated tone of voice again. That didn’t stop Reid from pushing back once more.
“Well, I’d probably manage to do this if I actually had two more people here to surround, to use as a reference. Creating a big empty bubble around myself seems so pointless.”
Gerant placed a hand firmly atop Reid’s head, lowering his voice.
“There will be a lot of things you might consider pointless challenges at the Trials as well, and you won’t be able to beg special privilege because it might be easier under different circumstances. You’re more than half my age, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to you. Stop whining and grow up. Now I suggest you do as you’ve been instructed, because I’m going to launch flame at you at the moment you should have that spell up, if you started casting immediately – whether you’re ready or not.”
Reid knew better than to resist when Gerant started making threats. He never made idle ones. The student hastily started into his shielding spell, hoping that he would get it right this time.
# # #
Reid awoke to the sound of blood-curdling screams. At first, they had seemed to blend into his dreams, a part of the nightmares generated by the amount of stress he had been under lately. Then, he gradually shuddered into consciousness in the dark and recognized that the horrible sounds he was sure were coming from Gerant were real. Still groggy, Reid scrambled to his feet and stumbled towards the door. The sounds, he realized as his head cleared, were coming from Gerant’s laboratory.
Reid sprinted down the hall. Had he not been in a panic and had he been acting proactively, he would have grabbed a weapon or a wand before surging out of his room. Instead, frazzled, he left empty-handed, barefoot and wearing only light cotton pants tied at the waist. When he finally screeched to a halt in front of the laboratory door, the screams were deafening and growing more desperate. Reid tried to quiet his breathing and calm his heart, which thrummed frantically in his chest. If he were a brave man he would have flung the door open and rushed in, hoping to rescue his mentor from whatever was causing his torment. But Reid’s initial burst of action was now tempered by his fear and he had to steel himself in order to merely turn the doorknob.
Reid opened the door a crack and peered in. At first, it appeared that Gerant was locked in a hostile embrace with something monstrous and shadowy at the centre of the room. There was also a small blur of movement in the dimly lit far end of that space, something that dipped and bobbed as Gerant and his aggressor danced their brutal waltz. The pair turned, and with this new angle, Reid could see that the grotesque creature wrestling with his mentor did not have the man enveloped, but rather had plunged its scythe-like claws into his torso – hence the screams. Gerant was not trying to overpower the demonic beast, but merely extricate himself from the hideous talons that had speared his intestines and pierced other vital organs. The monster, on the other hand was attempting to better its grip, twisting its fingers into the wounds and embedding them as deeply as flesh would allow.
Fear clutched at Reid’s heart upon viewing Gerant’s predicament. He wished he knew how to banish the demon, or at least fight him off of his instructor, but duelling such creatures was the work of veteran mages, not an apprentice, even a highly skilled one. If Gerant had failed to hold it off, then Reid had no hope in doing so. He would have expected himself to flee knowing this, but some previously unknown inner strength kept him there, not allowing him to run while there was the faintest possibility he could help Gerant. He opened the door a little wider and quietly crept into the room, crouching behind the table that stood near the entrance.
And then Reid saw opportunity. Gerant finally managed to loose himself from the fiend’s claws, forcing it back with a minor blast of magical energy. The demon had been the only thing holding the wizard upright and he slid to the floor in agony. Reid had been practicing day and night with his shield spell, at Gerant’s command, and had not yet perfected it to his mentor’s satisfaction, but he realized he had to seize his one and only chance. Shielding someone else from a distance was one of the most difficult variations of the spell, yet Reid had to try. Pushing back his fear, he concentrated and dug in deep before casting the spell.
Reid thought it was interesting. When he had time to think before acting, he often botched the spell. Under pressure the way he was, however, he managed to remain centred and the magic flowed true. Seconds later Gerant was encased in a magical force field more solid than any Reid had ever succeeded in creating. It held firm against a flurry of strikes from the monster and protected the wizard it was targeting from its blows.
The frustrated demon did not stop its attempts to break through the shield, but it didn’t have much longer to try. Free from its constant molestation, and despite the great pain that he was in, Gerant evoked the magic he needed to banish the beast. It disappeared in a puff of hazy, foul-smelling smoke.
Reid didn’t hesitate. He dropped the shielding spell and ran over to his fallen teacher as fast as he was capable of moving. Reid knew that the banishing magic had probably used up any of Gerant’s remaining internal resources of power; the man had likely sealed his fate in the process. Reid fell to his knees and gathered his mentor in his arms.
“Healing potions!” Reid gasped. “Where are your healing potions?!”
Gerant shook his head. There wasn’t time. Moaning in pain, he pressed something small, made of warm polished red stone, into his apprentice’s hand. The dying man whispered one last incantation and Reid felt the transference of some unidentified magical energy from Gerant to himself.
“Take him,” Gerant murmured weakly. “Make good use of him. Don’t let me down.”
Before he could say anything else, he was seized by a terrible coughing fit and began to spew blood. He choked and gurgled, his eyes rolled back, and then, with one shudder, he lay still.
Reid called his mentor’s name and shook him gently by the shoulders, but he could tell by the man’s limp form and blanched, cooling skin that he was dead. There would be no one there to give Reid anymore training. The last couple of months he had left to prepare for the Trials, Reid would be on his own.
Still stooped over Gerant’s body and cradling the unusual bauble Gerant had given him in his hand, Reid caught movement out of the corner of his eye. A faint flitting noise also grabbed his attention. He raised his head in time to see something the size of a large bird whip past his face, close enough that Reid felt a breeze and something ruffle his hair. It was no doubt the same thing that he had seen moving at the far end of the room when he had first entered – but what was it?
Reid straightened up and took a good look at the item that Gerant had passed him. It was an amulet of sorts, carved with a grinning demonic face and tiny wings. What had Gerant meant by “take him?” What was so special about this ugly little trinket? He felt the same energy that had been transferred to him along with the amulet stir inside him as he examined it. Suddenly, the thing that was fluttering about the room dropped out of the air, settling solidly at Reid’s feet. He turned to get a better look at it.
Reid stared and blinked. The creature before him was even more offensive-looking that the stylized version of the beast carved into the stone. Its hide was a shiny brownish-green, like the skin of a frog and its tiny semi-humanoid body had an emaciated appearance, its ribs clearly visible and its waist wasp-like. Its thin, elongated fingers and toes were tipped with needle-like claws and its squat horned head looked almost human, except for its slitted golden eyes and pointy little teeth that it exposed when it grinned like its miniature rock effigy. It flapped its bat wings, and screeched at Reid, while waving its wiry tail. Startled, Reid jumped back, almost tripping over Gerant’s corpse in the process.
“What the hell?” Reid mumbled, not sure what to make of this creature or Gerant’s death-bed gift. He eased away from the small monster, hoping that Gerant’s work bench might reveal some answers. The fiend hopped after him, gnashing its tiny teeth.
Being careful not to take his eyes off the little intruder for very long, Reid scooped the loose papers that Gerant had obviously spread out for observation off of the countertop. It was a pair of summoning and binding spells – the type of things that Gerant had warned Reid to always avoid. One was a simpler spell, but not basic enough for someone as untrained as Reid to attempt. The document spoke of invoking a stiggle imp, apparently something intended to enhance the user’s magical abilities. Reid wasn’t sure if it had actually been intended for him, to help him in the Trials, or if Gerant had purposefully summoned the little demon to assist him with the second spell Reid now clutched in his hands.
“A watchdog fiend,” Reid sighed.
The spell was intricate and dangerous; something that would be a stretch for Gerant even on a good day. That demon had definitely been something Gerant had in mind for Reid and the Trials. Summoned properly, it would have proved to be a very powerful tool, an infernal servant to do Reid’s bidding – but the spell had been too much for Gerant, and he had lost control somewhere along the way. He had paid for it with his life, all because he did not have confidence in his apprentice.
Reid knew there were rules against summoning allies for the sake of the Trials, but that was only once you had arrived on site. Bringing a magical creature along that could enhance your abilities was not against the rules at all or any familiar would be banned from the Trials, and they weren’t. Reid turned his gaze to the disgusting stiggle imp. If he could figure out what it could do, and how to get it to follow his commands, it would be a useful thing to have during the Trials.
“Hey! Stiggle imp! Get up on the counter here so I can get a better look at you,” Reid ordered, taking a step back to watch how the imp would respond. Reluctantly, it took a few short hops forward and then took a flying leap up onto the flat surface in question. Perched there, it craned its bony little neck forward and glared at Reid, making quiet, unhappy, growly noises.
Reid was stunned. It had obeyed his command, even though it had seemed unwilling. Gerant actually had passed over the binding spell to Reid before dying, and now he had some semblance of mastery over the beast.
“Damn!” Reid exclaimed in wonder. He would have to search the premises for any reference materials that would offer tips on how to make the imp more readily compliant. But first things were first. Reid decided all of that would wait until tomorrow, after finishing his night’s rest and then heading into town to report Gerant’s death to the authorities, and to make arrangements for his burial. Reid had no idea who the man’s next of kin was, but he would leave that mess to Gerant’s executor.
“Stay here, Stiggle Imp, and I’ll be back for you sometime tomorrow,” Reid directed. Exhausted, he returned to his bed, not noticing the gleam of mischief in the imp’s eye as he departed.
# # #
Reid had all but forgotten about the imp after a long drawn out day explaining the situation to the authorities and being subject to intensive scrutiny by a local Master mage with truth spells. Once they were satisfied that he was telling the truth, Reid was given leave to go home – Gerant’s home anyway. He was informed that someone would be by to fetch Gerant’s body the following morning. There would be no burial, as the veteran Renegade had made other arrangements upon his death. They also told Reid that Gerant’s solicitor would arrive then as well, to take inventory of the dead man’s belongings and to discuss his will. Reid hoped he would at least get a small tuition refund, considering he was still owed two months training. It would help with the trip to Anthis for the Trials.
When he arrived at the house after dark, Reid fell into bed without thinking of checking in on the stiggle imp in the laboratory. He was practically asleep before his head hit the pillow. He had nightmares that night, as he would for many nights after Gerant’s death, reliving the fear and the pain of watching his mentor suffer at the hands of the watchdog fiend. He awoke with a start, heart pounding and bathed in sweat. He noticed then that the pounding was not only it his chest, but also at the front door. It was morning, and people had come to do their business.
Reid hurriedly dressed and rushed to answer the door. He was surprised to find the Master mage who had questioned him the day before standing there, accompanied by two burly-looking men.
“We’re here for the body,” he stated without expression. His men pushed their way past Reid into the house.
Annoyed but not in the right mind-set to fight with them, Reid gestured down the hall.
“Third door to your right, and I warn you, it’s a mess. I haven’t touched a thing in there since the demon attack, thanks to the lengthy interrogation yesterday.”
The Master mage marched past him dismissively, followed closely by his hired hands. After they were gone, Reid realized that Gerant’s solicitor had been standing behind them. The small man had advanced into the doorway once they were out of the way.
“I’ll need to do the rounds of the house, for tax purposes, you understand,” he insisted in a nasally voice, stepping past the threshold. He glanced around the room, and drew in a deep breath. “He has quite a bit more here than the last time I visited.”
“For tax purposes? Who will be inheriting? I know he had no wife or children, so what will it be – nieces or nephews? Brothers or sisters? Cousins perhaps? Do you think they’ll let me stay here until I have to leave for Anthis in a couple of months?”
The nervous little man froze, eying Reid curiously. “No, none of that. Gerant was an only child, and his parents are long dead. He had no close relations. You mean you don’t know?”
“Don’t know what?”
The solicitor smiled in a patronizing way.
“Gerant had a stipulation in his will. Whoever was his apprentice at the time of his death would inherit everything. All of this is yours, Mr. Blake, minus estate taxes, of course.”
Reid was floored by this revelation, and quickly took a seat so he would not fall over. All of this was his? While it seemed outrageous, in some way it did make sense. Gerant’s obsessive goal in life was to win one of those elite seats, even if it had to be done vicariously through one of his apprentices. If he died while preparing a student for the Trials, he would want to leave them in the best position possible to succeed. While their training might be incomplete, they would have plenty of resources to aid them in that quest. But there was one problem.
“I expect we’ll be able to settle the estate in about three to six months, after we make sure there are no outstanding liens on the property and the like. Until then the title for all of this will be suspended until transfer, you don’t have claim to sell any of this property, but you can make use of it as you please. You may want to maintain it as best you can, to preserve its value for future sale.”
Reid’s heart sank. He had been lifted to believe that he would be able to supply himself with the best of the best for equipment. Instead, he had been dropped again. He would have to resort to picking through all of Gerant’s clutter to see if he could find anything worthwhile, including enough loose change to get him to Anthis. Sagging and distracted at the notion, Reid almost failed to notice the gruesome sight of Gerant’s bloodied and battered cadaver being carried back from the laboratory by the two large and now badly scratched up men.
“You could have warned us about the stiggle. And you weren’t kidding about the mess in there. It’s a complete disaster zone,” the Master mage muttered with disdain. “If you like, I can dispose of the nuisance for you, before we go.”
“No!” Reid snapped. The imp was the one thing he was sure he would have to help him. The last thing he wanted was for someone to take that from him, too. The wizard shrugged.
“Suit yourself. I won’t offer again. He’s your problem now, Renegade.”
With that, the threesome departed, corpse in tow.
Reid swivelled to speak to the solicitor, but the little man had already wandered off, working on recording the inventory. On his own again, Reid decided that it was time to begin the clean-up required in the laboratory.
When the door swung open, Reid’s stomach lurched. The place had been a little untidy when he had left, and the idea of having to wipe up the remnants of Gerant’s carcass made the bile rose in his throat, but he wasn’t anticipating the chaos that he found there. He had told the imp to stay in the room, but he hadn’t told it to not touch anything.
As a matter of fact, it looked like not a thing in the entire laboratory had been left untouched. Everything had either been either overturned, tossed to the floor, smashed to smithereens, torn up, chewed on or even peed on. If Reid had hoped to find anything useful in this room, it was much less likely to happen now. He caught sight of the imp clinging to a bookshelf, shredding one of the books there. That was the last straw.
“Stiggle, come here!” Reid bellowed.
The imp hissed before dropping the book and flapping over to his master. He obeyed, settling on Reid’s bare forearm. The creature’s sharp little claws pierced skin, gouged flesh, and drew blood. Reid yelped, shaking the imp free.
“On the floor! Sit on the floor!” Reid barked. He could make the forearm thing work, but first he would have to construct some sort of armoured bracer as defence against the little demon’s claws. The imp obeyed, nattering with irritation at the discomfort of his assigned place.
Reid exhaled heavily. He would now have to work twice as hard before the Trials than he had been, including practicing what he had already learned so far until he had it close to perfection. The imp had proven as much curse as blessing, his search for useful things would be like finding needles in a haystack, and he now bore the burden of trying to fulfil Gerant’s final wish.
That would take an awful lot more preparation.
With that in mind, Reid stepped around the imp, straightened his shoulders, and braced himself for the toil to come. It would be a long hard road to Magic University.