My new series Deeper Darker is now up! Chapters post five days a week. Seven up so far.Preface from Mooderino
Nic asked for more information. He asked Winnum to elaborate, to explain, to give him some idea of when and where he would meet the Librarian, and what this ‘education’ she promised would consist of, but he received no further response.
It was frustrating that he had no way to prise an answer out of her. He suspected she was being difficult just to make a point, that he wasn’t the one running things. Everyone seemed so eager to control the people around them. Nic would have settled for control over himself.
Still, the idea of magic without Arcanum was a fascinating one. He had never seen mention of it in any book, but why couldn’t it be possible? Magic’s existence already proved the possibility of impossible events.
He carried on into the building and made his way to the classroom. He was late for the Arts Course and Mr Periwinkle wouldn’t be pleased, but at least the two girls would also be late and he wouldn’t be the sole target of Mr Periwinkle’s ire. Between the three of them, half the class would be absent.
Questions would be asked, of course, but Nic felt confident he could use the Archmage as an excuse. Mr Periwinkle would know better than anyone the kind of man his boss was.
As he entered the classroom, Nic realised his assumptions were not as accurate as might be hoped. Brillard, Carol and Rumi were all there, but so were Dizzy and Simole. How had they managed that so quickly, and got here before him? Not only that, they had changed clothes and looked like they had even showered. Nic, by contrast, was a bit of a scruffy mess and probably didn’t smell that great.
“Sorry I’m late, sir.”
Mr Periwinkle glared at him through narrowed eyes from his seat at his desk. His appearance had undergone a minor but noticeable transformation. He had shaved and his blond hair had been cut into a neater, sharper style. His smooth cheeks were red and shiny, making him look surprisingly youthful; even his aberrant nostril hairs had received a trim.
Despite his fresh new look, the intensity in the blue eyes had not lessened. If anything, they were more intense than ever, and aimed at Nic.
“You understand this is not an optional class, do you not?”
“Yes, sir. I apologise, but the Archm—”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure you have a very good reason for your tardiness. It won’t be tolerated again. You are to be on time, every time, or you will be ejected from the course. Do you have anything else to say?”
Periwinkle had already accepted his apology and dismissed his attempt at making an excuse. Nic wasn’t sure what else he expected from him.
“Ah… I like your new haircut.” He hadn’t really meant to say that, but it was the only thing that popped into his head. He would have liked to have blamed Winnum Roke for putting such a silly comment into his mouth, despite the unsettling connotation that would bring with it, but he knew it was purely his own clumsiness. He was usually good around teachers but this one unnerved him.
Mr Periwinkle’s intense scrutiny continued, but one eye-slit slowly grew larger and his mouth spread into his newly shorn cheeks forming a deep frown. “A compliment, Mr Tutt? Have you perhaps mistaken me for your girlfriend.”
Nic squirmed uncomfortably. There were sniggers from behind him. “No, sir. Sorry, sir. I don’t have a girlfriend.” There was no need to add that last tidbit, but his mouth had turned full-traitor now.
“I see. How unfortunate. Is this your way of asking me out on a date?”
Nic relaxed a little. Mr Periwinkle was teasing him, which was fine. Once he’d had his fill of mocking Nic, he would carry on with the class. Nic had no problem playing the patsy, he’d had plenty of practice. All he had to do was keep his mouth shut and endure it.
“No, sir. Unless you would like to. I mean, I’m afraid I don’t have much money, maybe we could get a cup of coffee at the cafeteria.” What was his mouth doing to him?
“I see,” said Mr Periwinkle, not seeming perturbed by the direction the conversation had taken. “Do you think we’d have much to talk about.”
“Oh, yes, sir. Definitely. I’d really like to speak to you in a less formal setting. I have a lot of questions I think you would be ideally suited to answer. Most people just give me vague answers that don’t really mean anything, but I think—”
A small but insistent cough cut Nic off.
“Could we carry on with the lesson, sir?” said Dizzy. It wasn’t really a question.
“Sorry,” said Nic. He quickly sat down in the nearest chair. He could feel her eyes boring into the back of his head. He could also sense Simole’s amusement. She would probably mercilessly taunt him about his confession to the teacher. Although, it wasn’t like his proposal had been rejected.
“Yes, let us continue. Mr Tutt, since you have only just arrived, perhaps this exercise will serve as a way for you to catch up. Here, on this board, what do you see?”
Nic looked past the teacher at the blackboard. A diagram in white chalk had been meticulously drawn, a six-pointed star with another, identical star drawn over it at a slight offset as though it had been rotated forty-five degrees. It looked like a very symmetrical flower.
“Double hexagrams, overlayed,” said Nic.
“This isn’t a geometry class, Mr Tutt.”
“Uh… a star?”
“Yes. And if you stare at it?”
Nic stared at the diagram. It looked the same. “Um… oh, it looks a bit like it’s moving.”
“Good,” said Mr Periwinkle. “Now, concentrate. Make the star move. First, let it, then direct it. Allow your mind to gently take control of what you see.”
After the stressful physical demands of the last twenty-four hours, it came as a relief to be able to sit back and let his mind wrestle with a simple exercise like this. Nic let the lines on the board shift — an optical illusion that seemed real for a moment, then would snap back into a fixed, unmoving shape, then being to move in the other direction.
Nic took hold of the spokes in his mind and moved them with deliberate effort. The star turned, spinning like a wheel. It turned faster, giving Nic a satisfying feeling of being in control. The star was his to control, at least in his imagination. It was actually quite soothing.
“What are you doing?” said Mr Periwinkle, both eyes now wide as saucers.
Nic moved his gaze from the board to the teacher whose face was aghast.
“How are you doing that?” demanded Periwinkle.
Nic looked back at the blackboard where the star was still spinning. Not in his imagination, for real. The chalk outline was revolving with nothing to explain it, other than magic.
Could it be what Winnum Roke had mentioned, magic without Arcanum? Or was she using him as a conduit to work through, finally able to take over his body as Dizzy claimed was inevitable?
He still had control of his limbs, as far as he could tell, and he sensed no power flowing through him. And even if Winnum had found a way to use him as her proxy, why demonstrate it now?
“Did you do this?” he muttered to himself.
“I cannot,” said Winnum’s distant voice. “I am not the one who can perform magic here.”
Nic turned around and faced his classmates, all of whom wore expressions even more astounded than Mr Periwinkle’s. All except for Simole, who was grinning.
“Really?” said Nic.
Everyone turned to look at Simole, all realising the true source of the magic at the same time.
Simole burst into laughter. “You should see your faces. The thought he could do magic, you all nearly lost your minds.” She slapped Dizzy on the shoulder. Dizzy did not look amused.
Nic turned back to face Mr Periwinkle. “Is it possible to do magic without Arcanum?”
Mr Periwinkle, his astonishment subsided now that the source of the trick had been revealed and the world made sense once more, snorted air through his nose and returned his attention to Nic.
“Is it possible? More than likely. Has anyone managed it? Not as far as I am aware. Are you planning on revolutionising the magical realm?”
The truth was that he didn’t know, but that would sound ridiculous, like it was under consideration. “No, sir. I just thought it was an interesting idea. Since there is a way to circumvent the laws of nature, perhaps it can be done via more than one route.”
“Yes,” said Mr Periwinkle, “it is indeed an interesting thought, and one the theoretical Arcanists have been considering since the advent of the Royal College. Perhaps that will be your field of research — you are somewhat of a studious young fellow, after all. Perhaps I will mention you to one of the masters at the College. My own interests lie in the applied field, but that is neither here nor there. I am quite exhausted by this class’s antics for the day, so let’s try something different. Please take out a pen and some paper.”
The shift to having to actually do something broke the air of bewilderment Nic had managed to create and the six students prepared for their assignment.
“I want you to look into the star on the board and dislocate your mind in the manner I have shown you — Miss van Dastan, if you could play by the rules for now I would greatly appreciate it — and then I want you to write down whatever comes to you, no matter how nonsensical. Let’s see what we can come up with.” He put his hands together with the fingers laced together, the image of a man expecting big things from them while doubting they would deliver.
Nic was relieved to not have the focus on him for at least a little while. It was only half an hour or so until the end of the lesson — he was confident he could make it to then without causing further upset or consternation. And if somehow he did, he could always point the blame in Simole’s direction. It would be a very plausible explanation.
Nic faced the blackboard and let the many-pointed star enter his consciousness. It began to rotate, but not in the realistic (because it had been real) manner from before. It seemed to pulse more than turn, the points switching places and going in and out of focus.
He began writing.
It was a pleasant sensation, like he was floating. Nothing in particular came to mind but he could feel the pen scratching across the paper. Would doodles count? It wasn’t like there was a right answer.
His mind blanked and he could sense the star on the blackboard without really seeing it...
When his focus returned, Mr Periwinkle was standing over him, peering down at the notebook Nic had been writing in. Nic looked down and saw the page was filled with small, neat text. It was his handwriting, but he had no recollection of what he had just written.
“That was quick,” said Nic. “Hardly felt I got started.”
“The bell went twenty minutes ago,” said Brill. “Are you alright?”
“Hmm? Yes, fine. Why? Is something wrong?”
“You were doing a lot of writing,” said Brill. “A lot.”
Nic looked at the page. It was crammed full of words from top to bottom. He turned the pages to find more and more. “I did all this? It must be gibberish.”
“No,” said Carol Rev, holding up his notebook, “this is gibberish.” The page showed scribbles and poorly formed words that ran into each other.
“Why don’t you read us what you wrote,” said Mr Periwinkle, a strange smile on his lips.
Nic looked at the first line. It was clear and coherent.
Jeera-Jayne Barden was a low-level mage, the lowest level possible.
He hadn’t written this, he was sure. Who had? Winnum Roke? There was the book of fairytales, but the Librarian had told him Winnum wasn’t the author of those.
“I don’t think I should. I’m not sure what it says.”
“That’s the whole idea,” said Periwinkle. “It’s not often someone manages to breach their conscious wall to the thoughts beyond on their first attempt.”
Not often for other people, perhaps. Nic’s conscious wall had been breached far too many times, and rarely by him. Whoever’s thoughts these were, they could have a detrimental effect if read out aloud.
“Don’t worry,” said Mr Periwinkle, “they’re just words.”
“Go on, Nic,” said Dizzy from behind him. “Show us what you keep behind the wall.”
All eyes were on him, again. It would probably be best to at least read through what he had written before sharing it, but that wasn’t going to happen. He read it.
Jeera-Jayne Barden was a low-level mage, the lowest level possible.
There was no doubting her lack of skill. She was as untalented a magician as it was possible to be while still being a card-carrying member of the guild.
She had a grand total of three spells she had learned. A basic light spell that was no better than a cheap torch and lasted half as long.
The ability to detect traps, which was of limited use in most places, and which was only fifty percent effective (although she had got it bumped up to sixty-five by flirting with the man in the guild's records office).
And a magic arrow that could hit any target, guaranteed, for absolutely no damage. Targeting was the first thing you learned. Damage output was something you were meant to build up through practice and experience.
When the other adventurers gathered to form parties, she was always overlooked or rejected outright. She would only hold the others back, or even cause injury by not being able to carry her weight. Jeera-Jayne Burden, she was called.
If she couldn’t go out and use her paltry skills out in the real world, how could she improve to the point people considered her worth taking with them?
It was a stupid position to be in — not good enough to be useful, but not able to get better because no one was willing to help her.
She was trash. But she did have one thing of value. Jeera-Jayne was a beautiful girl. She had a lovely face with flawless skin, and a voluptuous body that would turn men’s heads. It was her only asset, and it was very much in demand.
She would have liked to have been accepted as a mage, as an adventurer, someone willing to learn, but when it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen, her only recourse was to use what she had.
It became a bit of a game. She would flirt and tease a party leader, suggestively implying she might be open to some romantic dalliance if he took her with him on his next adventure, while the party leader would try to seduce her with the promise that if she was willing to put out, in the morning she might win a place on the roster.
She knew what she was doing and she wasn’t proud of herself, but what other choice did she have?
Sometimes it worked and a smitten adventurer would invite her on a quest, thinking she couldn’t be as bad as everyone made out. Even a civilian had their uses, so a trained mage would be a step up from that at the very least.
The other members of the party would give her the cold shoulder, knowing how she had procured her place. The women, in particular, would make it clear they didn’t think much of her. That was okay, she didn’t think much of herself. But she couldn’t afford the luxury of self-respect or pride.
Once she had improved just a little, once she could offer something beyond a pretty face and enticing curves, she fully intended to be a woman of good morals and high standing. Until then, she would try her best to be less of a burden.
The men who allowed their libido to rule their heads would regret their decision as soon as battle commenced. Jeera-Jayne was so inexperienced, at the first sign of trouble she would panic and forget everything.
Not only would she be unable to cast any spells or defend herself with her staff, she would get in everybody’s way and cause unnecessary injuries. Often, she would be sent home. Occasionally, she would be abandoned in the middle of nowhere with no idea where she was.
Sometimes, her seduction routine would work too well and not in her favour. She would wake in an empty bed with the dashing adventurer who had promised to show her the world gone.
Off on his travels with his competent fellows, not foolish enough to allow a green girl with no experience to get under everyone’s feet. There had even been times when she’d been left stuck with the bill for the tavern room.
It wasn’t like Jeera-Jayne had been taken advantage of. These were dashing, heroic men she was drawn to and who she found attractive. She didn’t feel used or betrayed — she was no less guilty than them of being duplicitous — but she did feel sad and desperate. It was not the way she would choose to live her life.
And then, one day, Marnus Rolph visited her town.
Famed adventurer, master magician, hero of a hundred battles, shockingly handsome and violently superior in every way. His exploits were the stuff of myth and legend, and all true. Book signings were part of his itinerary.
If Jeera-Jayne could convince him to take her on as a student, surely he would be able to train even a worthless acolyte like her.
He was known to be a womaniser, a connoisseur of pulchritude. From royal princesses to tavern wenches, if they were of a high enough physical standard, Marnus Rolph wouldn’t turn them away. And Jeera-Jayne was certainly a looker. In fact, it was all she was.
She went to the fine inn where Marnus was staying. The place was full of admirers and sycophants, many looking for his favour, just as she was.
She didn’t try too hard. She wore clothes that showed off her figure, but kept some mystery. She caught his eye a number of times, but didn’t force herself into his close circle. She used all the feminine wiles she had accrued, that she hated, that made her feel like she was in altogether different occupation. And she waited patiently.
At the end of the evening, when she thought she had failed and was considering some reckless last-ditch attempt, he appeared before her. Tall, sandy-haired, a precisely trimmed goatee beard circling his mouth.
“Would you like to come to my room?” He was direct, at least.
“Yes,” said Jeera-Jayne.
She knew it was most likely going to lead to nothing. He had no interest in her beyond her body, and she had encouraged him to think in no other way.
In his room, he said, “Take off your clothes and lie on the bed.”
What was she going to do? Act offended? Insist on being treated with dignity? She had made this bed. She lay on it.
He was at least a skilful lover. She fought back her tears, her sense of loss. Her only chance was to impress him so greatly that he didn’t just abandon her in the morning, like all the others had. She did her best to reciprocate his passion, to act like she wanted to be there. It wasn’t going to be enough, she knew that, but she would give this her all.
He fell asleep as soon as he was finished and Jeera-Jayne lay in the dark, naked and cold. He had taken the blanket for himself.
She was woken in the middle of the night by his searching hands. He wasn’t satisfied and she gave herself to him again. She was angry now. Angry at herself for being so stupid, for being so helpless. She fought him — not to stop him but to make him try harder. If this was lust and nothing more, let the great Marnus Rolph show her what a legend was capable of. She drew it out of him, refusing to let his lust overshadow hers. They challenged each other to greater heights of ecstasy.
She fell asleep as soon as she was finished.
In the morning, as the first light slipped into the room through slatted blinds, she reached for him and initiated a farewell coupling. Gentle and slow, her kisses were light and his were warm. There was something more in them now. Gratitude, perhaps, fondness if it wasn’t just her imagination, and something she hadn’t felt in a long time — affection.
An affectionate kiss was a precious thing, she realised.
She didn’t expect anything of him. She hadn’t even asked him for his help; there was hardly any point to it. An awkward refusal would only sour the taste that was already bitter. At least she had spent the night with a hero — how many worthless women could say that?
As he rose to get dressed, he looked older. His body was muscular and in good fettle, but covered in scars, both old and recent. She sat on the bed, naked, watching him go, wanting him to have this memory of her, looking glorious. Maybe he would remember her some day and regret leaving her behind, even if it was only for the most base and coarse reasons. Those were the reasons that best suited her, after all.
“I’m also a mage.” The words came out of her mouth unbidden.
“Yes,” he said, turning as he buttoned his shirt. “Not very powerful.” His bluntness wasn’t unkind, just unwavering.
“I’ve tried to improve, but I can’t seem to do it on my own, and no one’s willing to help me. They’re either only interested in me for other reasons or, once they realise what a slow learner I am, they aren’t willing to waste the time and effort. Do you think you could….” —What? What was she going to ask him for? Payment?— “...offer me some advice?”
That was reasonable, wasn’t it? Just a hint, a tip. Guidance from a friend. He was a master magician, after all. He might know a thing or two.
“Hmm.” He assessed her with a penetrating look. She felt even more naked. “You aren’t trying hard enough. You’re lazy and easily distracted. I don’t think you really want to improve.”
Insults? Was that what she deserved? She bit her tongue. His nature was to be brutally honest. He was telling her what he saw.
“Maybe you’re right, but no one’s ever tried to push me, except into bed.” She didn’t want to accuse him of anything. She didn’t want to try to make him feel guilt or shame — it wouldn’t work, in any case.
“I see. Possibly, that is the cause of your slow development. Let me suggest this for you.”
He taught her a spell. It was basic and fairly useless, but she was able to learn it. When cast, it used a mixture of the light spell and the harmless magic arrow to create three shapes in the air: a ball, a cube and a pyramid.
They hung there, floating, barely visible.
“Maintain them just like that. I have some business to take care of but I will be back before lunch. Then we’ll see.”
Then we’ll see what? Was he saying she could be his apprentice if she passed this test? No, he hadn’t said anything of the kind.
Would he even come back? Leave the silly girl naked on his bed and off to the next adventure, the next kingdom?
But no, the rest of his gear and equipment were still here.
So be it. She would at least show him she was no slouch. Even if this was some joke at her expense, she would do her part to the best of her ability.
When he returned a few hours later, she was just as he’d left her. Naked, sweating, with three glowing objects floating over her. They were more solid and more stable. Her jaw ached from how hard she had been clenching it. She couldn’t feel her limbs. Her throat was terribly dry and painful. She refused to let the illusion pass.
“Good, good,” he said, undressing. “You seem to be getting the hang of it. Let’s see how committed you are.” He crawled over the bed and gently pushed her down. “Don’t be distracted, now.”
A joke, a stupid prank, it had to be. But why? She had already given him full use of her body for his pleasure. What did he have to gain from ridiculing her?
She focused harder as he caressed her body. She could feel it slipping away as her mind went blank, but she held on. The shapes turned and spun in the air, flickering. She forced them back into existence and cried out as he mercilessly worked on her weak points. She thought she would lose her mind but she clung on, even as her body broke down and her tears flowed, she refused to be a failure. Worthless, untalented, undeserving, hopeless.
He took her and she lost her grip — on her task, on herself, on reality. But the shapes didn’t wither and die, they grew brighter, filling the room with colour. The pleasure and pain flowing into her, flowed out into the magical objects and held them without any effort. They were part of her. She wept with joy and terror as she convulsed and was finally still. What was happening to her?
“It seems you have some talent,” he said, “just buried a little deeper than normal. You’ll have to dig it out.”
“Th-th-thank you,” she managed to say.
“No, thank you. I’ve never had quite that much pleasure from working with a student.”
“I know a hundred and one spells, Miss Jeera-Jayne. I’m willing to teach you one hundred of them, if you agree to my terms. Complete obedience, unwavering loyalty, and making yourself available for my use whenever I ask, denying me nothing. It is not a fair trade by any means.”
“I accept,” said Jeera-Jayne. It was the best offer anyone had ever made her.
And so she became the great Marnus Rolph’s apprentice, among other things. People would see them together and say, “There’s Marnus Rolph with his slut.”
And later they would say, “There’s Marnus Rolph with his woman.”
And even later they would say, “There’s Marnus Rolph with his wife.”
She was none of those things. She was his student and she did as he instructed. And she grew to be powerful and masterful in the ways of magic. And she kept her half of the bargain.
Sometimes he would ravish her at night like he owned her. And sometimes she would desperately cling to him in the small hours and refuse to let him go. And sometimes they would gently embrace in the mornings like old friends.
The years passed and after he had taught her one hundred spells she found him lying deathly pale in their bed, his eyes unseeing.
“I am dying,” he said.
“How do I save you?” she asked. He was the greatest mage in the world and he would have an answer, she knew.
“There is one last spell. It is the spell of transference. It enables a great and powerful mage to transfer their life force into the body of another so they may continue to live with vitality.”
And she knew then that he had prepared her for this task over these many years they had been together. She was to be the elixir that saved his life. Feeding her, nurturing her, making her a potent mage so that he could reclaim that power when he needed it.
And she didn’t care. She didn’t mind at all.
He has shown her the world, taken her on adventures, raised her up to his level. Without him, her life would have been a drab affair. If he wanted to take it back now, she was happy to oblige. She would deny him nothing.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you agree to the transfer.”
“Yes,” she said. She held his hand and her tears were not of regret or fear. She closed her eyes and he cast his last spell.
The last of his life force travelled from his body into hers and he died with a satisfied sigh.
Nic turned over the page but it was blank.
“Oh. I think that’s the end.” No one spoke. “I think that wasn’t too bad. Sort of sad but sweet.” Still no one spoke. He looked up at Mr Periwinkle who was nodding pensively, and then behind him.
The three girls didn’t look very happy. Rumi Kettle looked like she was crying. He didn’t know her very well, so that could be for any number of reasons. Simole’s bottom lip was trembling, which was odd.
Dizzy, on the other hand, looked angry. Her fists were balled up and she was ready to hit someone. Nic recognised the signs only too well.
“Didn’t you like it?” asked Nic. Brill and Carol looked like they were about to say something, but hadn’t quite figured out what.
“Who wrote it?” said Dizzy.
“What do you mean?” said Nic. “You saw me—”
“Who was it?” said Dizzy. “Was it her? Is she really that vicious?”
“You don’t think… I mean, it’s kind of romantic, isn’t it?” Nic was getting the feeling he was missing something.
“Romantic?” said Dizzy. “You think it was romantic? It was a warning, Nic.”
“A warning? About what?”
“This is how they’ll come for us,” said Dizzy, spitting out the words. “It’s not enough to make us give up everything, we have to do it willingly, and be grateful. Grateful! Throwing ourselves into the flames with smiles. Don’t you understand anything?”
Nic considered himself quite perceptive, but Dizzy seemed to be seeing things he hadn’t. “But he sacrificed himself at the end, for her.”
“That was a lie,” said Simole, her voice very quiet. “That was the lie to make you think the risk is worth taking, even if you fail. You might win, but even if you don’t, be grateful.”
“We’re being led to the abattoir, Nic, and told we’re going to a house in the country. Be grateful for what might have been. Be grateful!”
“I don’t think—”
“You don’t understand anything.” Dizzy got up and stormed out. Simole followed with Rumi sniffling as she joined the caravan.
“I thought it was a bit over the top,” said Carol.
“I know,” said Brill, holding up a page full of doodles. “I mean, magic doesn’t even work like that. Just a made up story, right, Nic? People read too much into things.” They walked out together, leaving Nic alone with Mr Periwinkle.
Was it a warning? A very odd one, if it was. What Nic really wanted to know was who had written it. Not Winnum Roke, he felt. But then that left only one person who could put the words in his mind like that.
Mr Periwinkle sat down behind his desk. “Good, good. I think we all learnt something today. I really am an excellent teacher.”
Nic approached him. “About that date.”
“I think we should meet. Tonight. The room at the top of the library, I think you know the one I mean.”
“Oh?” said Periwinkle. “Alright, then. See you there, Nic.”
Nic walked out of the classroom. Winnum had said she had contacted the Librarian. It seemed she had never been that far away.