“Oh boy, not this again.” Was the first thing that went through my mind, when I was woken up by the small glowing orb. A blue-white colour, and a touch larger than a grapefruit, it was the same orb from yesterday’s orientation. It hovered in the corner of the room near my plant. First brightening, then dimming.
It must have noticed me looking at it, because a voice came from it.
“Mage, you are summoned to headquarters for assignment.” The voice was deep and gruff, not at all what you would imagine coming out of such a creature.
Groaning, I looked out the window and saw the sun peeking over the horizon.
The Orb continued in its normal childlike voice, “Do you need any help getting there?”
I grunted again; I had hopes that just once I would be able to sleep in, just a little bit. I moved myself out of bed. Not bothering to hide my nakedness from the Orb, it was a construct, they didn’t care about clothes. I did do my best to cover over my rejection of the day, forcing a bit of brightness into my voice.
“Sure, why don’t you ride on my shoulder. You can give me directions from there. Sound good?” I responded. “Give me two minutes to get dressed.”
The Orb just blinked.
I looked around my room, my sleep-fogged mind confused for a moment. The room wasn’t familiar yet, it was large, a huge window took up most of one wall,and there was even carpet. An admittedly short pile, but any carpet was an improvement over stone floors. My mind slowly caught up as I started moving around. I walked over to the wardrobe in the corner, I opened it and pulled out my uniform; simple black trousers and shirt, tough leather boots and a full length leather overcoat with colour coded bands at the wrists. For me it was green on one wrist, blue on the other.
I stood for a moment stretching this way and that. The new clothes fit but they weren’t comfortable yet.
“Right, I’m ready,” I said, more cheerfully than I felt.
The Orb floated over to my left shoulder and off we went.
I walked down the short road to the headquarters with the Orb on my shoulder. The early morning sun glinted from the tops of the buildings but didn’t touch the street, and the shadowed path was cold and brisk to walk through. My pace quickened, but whether it was from the early morning chill or the rising excitement I couldn’t tell.
Orb was silent on my shoulder, and the only sounds I could hear were the few people up this early and the birds that lived in the chimneys and rooftops singing their welcome of the dawn.
Orb was dimming.
I could see the headquarters not far up ahead, the large pale stone building with the huge oak double doors just within reach, and I sent my magic ahead of me, to request access. The authentication charm chimed and the doors swung open with a thud that was surprisingly loud , in the still morning. I stepped across the threshold just as Orb’s light faded to a dim glow, less than a candle’s worth.
The reception was bright and open, predominantly white stone broken up by the windows set high in the walls, small wooden benches along the walls, and the large solid-looking desk in the center. A couple of mages wandered by, disappearing into a different part of the building that wasn’t open to the public.
My boss sat at the desk; a large stocky man, extremely red in the face. I’d met him briefly yesterday, but never caught his name.
“Junior Mage Tristan! What time do you call this?” He shouted at me. His voice was the same deep, gruff one that Orb had imitated earlier.
I looked away and mumbled out an incoherent mess of syllables that was supposed to be an excuse.
“No, don’t answer.” He raised his hand and pointed at his feet. “Orb, you get over here, you took too long.”
Orb floated over to the boss, flickering slightly.
“Sorry Dad.” It said in its childlike tones.
It brightened as it got closer to its “father”.
“No! How many times have I told you we are at work, you call me ‘Senior Mage,’ or ‘Sir’ at work.” My boss said to Orb. The harsh tones made me wince in sympathy.
Orb shifted colour from a pale blue to light pink.
“Sorry Sir,” Orb said.
The boss turned back to me looking mollified by the submission of his “child”.
“Junior Mage Tristan, as this is your induction week you are to attempt as many different tasks as we can find for you. I have your testing shard here. It says your mentor Jase has many nice things to say about you, but I’m going to ignore that. He was always a bit soft. It also says you were top of your curve in earth. Is this correct?” he asked.
I drifted off slightly remembering my earth classes, and I’d missed that he’d asked a question.
“Is this correct?” He shouted at me.
Wow, where is my head today? I’m not normally this much of a pixie, I thought.
“Yes, sir, it is. Golem creation and skill implantation are my best earth skills. I’m okay with plants and infused enchantment.” My voice vibrated with pride.
“I didn’t ask for your life story, Junior Mage. A simple “yes Sir,” or “no Sir,” will suffice. Am I understood?” I nodded in reply. “Good. Now it says here you have water skills as well?”
“That would be correct, Sir.”
“Well, Mud Boy, have I got a job for you. Let’s send you out to help the farmers today.” he said with a smirk.
I bit my tongue and clenched my fists as I felt my body tighten up in response to the insult.
“The farmers west of the town are having an irrigation problem. Do you think you can handle it?” He asked.
I blinked at the order. I hadn’t expected to get a task like this. A multitude of retorts welled up in me, but I choked them down, with an almost physical effort.
“Yes sir.” I said.
“We’ll see. Remember, this is induction; if you can’t handle it report back to me or send a message, and we shall find you something so simple that even you couldn’t screw it up.” My boss said, doubt in every line of his face.
He handed me a small rock.
I left, carrying my rock.
Out on the street, I pounded out my frustration on the neat pavement. I accessed the information stored on the innocuous, black rock. It fit in my hand easily, smooth edges that didn’t bite as I gripped it with a clenched fist. My knuckles went white when the flood of information hit my mind, and I staggered next to the fountain. I knelt down to the water and used my empty hand to take a mouthful.
The cool, fresh fluid washed away a great deal of the bubbling anger and frustration. I looked down into the placid edge of the water away from the spray. I could see my reflection.
The glow of my eyes illuminated the rest of my fine-boned, narrow face. My youth shone almost as brightly as my eyes. My dark hair, long but bound, contrasted against my pale skin. I’d been called “handsome” by a girl when I was younger. Before I became a mage. Before the glowing eyes.
I stood up, a tingle of magic welling from the stone I was crushing in my grip. I tensed and was braced for the rush this time. Tiny waves of energy flowed up my arm, transmitting simple instructions directly into my mind in someone else’s voice.
I looked around the square at the wide white streets that were slowly filling with people as the sun climbed higher. I spent a moment receiving instruction before heading off, away from the rising sun. The easy layout of the town helped, set out like a compass in cardinal directions.
I could see the farms cast in bright light from the early morning sun, deep greens from the maturing crops, solid earthy browns from the muddy paths scattered in a disorderly fashion, and animals in profusion.
I took a deep breath of the fresh air. The scent of growing things and the faint but unmistakable taint of animal dung brought a sense of calm, like being back at home. I could feel my chest relaxing as I took in the scenery.
I caught a glimmer of movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head to focus on the moving shapes in the fields. Field golems, man shaped rocks animated with magic. They were watering the fields, I assumed it was a stopgap measure until I finished the task I’d been assigned. I tore my eyes away from the golems and scanned the horizon. I could see a solid stone plinth, near the farm buildings, a cluster of human men standing around it. I angled my path to intersect with them.
They saw me coming. The oldest just looked at me, a wrinkled man with darkened skin like leather and laughter lines deep around his eyes and mouth.
I shifted my feet, but raised my head to look him in the eye.
“Hello, I’m Tristan Sodden. I’m your assigned mage for this incident. Can you please tell me what the problem is?” I forced out, as the intensity of his stare almost stole my words.
The farmer’s mouth tightened as he looked me up and down.
“You’re a full mage?” he asked.
“Yes I am, just qualified.” I said.
“We were expecting someone older, you sure you’re in the right place?”
I opened my mouth to reply but he cut me off.
“Your boss Senior Rysan mirrored us to let us know who you were. He didn’t mention you were so young though.”
I didn’t know what to say. It must have shown.
“Anyway, get to work, we can’t keep the golems in the fields forever, we need them for other things. This here,” he pointed his chin towards the square plinth, “is the irrigation system, new fangled device. Had to set it in the well, it needs whatever it is you mages do.”
I nodded, more to myself than to the farmer, as my eyes fell on the solid grey stone.
The farmers stepped away then, almost an assumption that I knew what I was doing. They didn’t take their eyes off me.
I shifted my shoulders and rubbed my hands together.
I then knelt down next to the dark grey stone, its edges sharp against the crumbling well. I placed my hands against it. I took a deep breath then I closed my eyes.
My othersight opened up, and I could see the ghostly threads imbued in the control device. It just needed animating and limiting. The rush of pale colours was confusing as I figured out the central elements. Water and earth, bringing life and growth from the land with the addition of water. The concepts were clear, but the limits needed adjusting. That was the problem with these ready-made devices; they always needed configuring for the various situations. I send a whisper of my magic inside to arrange the concepts, define the boundaries, the shifting shapes, that only existed in othersight travelled at my direction. Containment, earth based, went around the edge, marking a barrier within the stone and without. I traced the edge of the farm, marking it. I found the final sequence, threading the connective strands through the concepts to create the fully functional system. I snapped out of othersight and blinked, my hand wet and cold. Beads of moisture were accumulating on the surface of the stone. Waves of chilled air poured from it, before settling.
I sent my magic out again, this time in a torrent to bathe the system. The stone shifted and sunk, settling into its location, and I bound it to the well much like a cap stone. I manipulated the old loose stones into a better alignment, then smoothed and joined all the edges. Glyphs lit up on the surface of the control stone to say it was fully functional and to grant control to the farmers.
I stood up, brushing the dead dry grass and dirt from my knee and watching. The water collecting on the sides started to be absorbed into the stone. In just a moment, the land all around me flushed with health. The grass beneath my feet lost some of its limpness. There was an almost visible ripple as the effect hit the boundary of the farm and stopped dead. The smell of rain on dry earth rose under me and I inhaled, then smiled.
I stood there as the farmers watched me, and nodded to them. They nodded back.
The oldest farmer tipped his hat to me, a faint smile on his face.
I turned and walked back the way I had come, my steps light. I held my head up. the feeling of triumph that filled me made the walk back to town feel very short.
The shift from dirt paths to smooth paving startled me out of my self-congratulatory mood, and I looked around at the wall. The high grey-stone structure was much older than most of the town, one of the few constructions made without magic. It had barely been touched by the waves that had struck back when I was a child.
I had passed the gate in the wall around the town when the rumble from my stomach reminded me that it was around lunch time. I’d never been able to eat much before noon.
I walked through the outer market, and the bright cloth roofs of the wooden stalls wavered in the gentle wind. Mainly produce was for sale, but I could see a few rare items: alchemical ingredients, even some magic focus. Mages don’t really use focuses much, but some were beautiful; my hands itched to touch them but I was distracted by something savory on the breeze. I found myself standing at a small intersection just off the main square, turning my head this way and that and sniffing. My eyes caught on what was clearly a tavern; the wooden sign hanging above the door was a give away. The door was open, the scents were coming from inside.
When I stepped inside the change from the brightly light outside to the slightly darker interior took a moment to adjust to. The first thing that struck me was how clean the place was, the floor was smooth flagstones, the booths were along the walls, each one facing the center of the room. A long wooden bar was at the back. A few booths had customers in them, most didn’t even look up at me. I headed right for the bar at the back, where a waitress leaned, eyeing the customers, the attentive hovering air about her giving her away. She was smartly dressed in sensible durable clothes; a simple white cotton blouse and grey skirt, complemented her sturdy shoes.
“Excuse me, could I order some food please?” I asked.
She looked me over, before responding. “Of course, Sir mage. Find a seat. I will be over in a moment.”
I nodded my thanks then walked to the nearest empty booth.
My foot caught on the edge of one of the flag stones. My heart leapt, but I recovered. I could feel my face flushing, and I looked around. No one was looking, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
I watched my steps slightly better, and made it to the booth without further incident.
Just as I was sliding in, the waitress came over.
“Master Mage. What would you like?” She asked.
“Um. Could I have steak and vegetables and a glass of silver juice please?” I asked.
“No problem. Anything else?” She asked, her smile both dutiful and bored.
“No, that will be all.”
She didn’t say anything else, just hurried off.
I sat in the surprisingly comfortable booth, enjoying the curve of it, the soft padding. I placed my hands on the wooden table. I noticed a smudge of dirt on my palm. I licked my thumb and attempted to rub it away.
The waitress returned with my drink. Silver juice is an alchemical drink that most don’t like. I’d grown used to it at the academy, where they served nothing else. It was infused with magic.
“Your meal will be a few moments, how will you be paying?”
I reached into the small pouch at my waist and pulled out a yellow octagonal crystal, about the length and thickness of my thumb.
The waitress nodded, a look of relief on her pretty face. “We had one of the older mages in here the other day, he tried paying with gold nobles.”
I winced, I’d not seen a noble since I was a child, never a gold one.
“Thank the wizards for the shards.” She said. “That will be three knacks, please.”
I passed the shard over her hand, which had a small metal ring on her middle finger, and sent a sliver of my magic to the shard authorising the payment. I felt a tiny jolt as it went through.
The waitress smile brightly, then went off through the door next to the bar.
I waited patiently, I sipped my silver juice, the thick metallic liquid cold and sharp, similar to citrus juices. It was refreshing; I could feel the cold racing through my veins, like taking a plunge in a pool in the winter, the surface ice breaking on impact. My heart raced and my mind cleared, and I smiled grimly. It takes some getting used to.
My meal arrived not long after, along with nice silver cutlery.
I raised my eyebrows at that, and the waitress went off chuckling to herself.
I tucked into my lunch, medium rare steak done to perfection. The light salad was fresh and crisp, the potato light and fluffy. All in all it was a good meal for a starving young mage. I took my time with my juice afterwards though, I felt pleasantly full and didn’t want to rush.
I felt my pendant warm. It had never done that before. I slid a finger along my neck, found the chain and pulled out the plain green gem. An oval uncut emerald, it looked like green glass set in a very simplistic silver setting. I smiled as I stroked the inexplicably warm gem. A tingle of magic informed me that I was being summoned back to headquarters. I probably wouldn’t have noticed the pendant being warm while asleep, no wonder Orb was sent. With a sigh I rose, nodded my thanks to the waitress and walked out the door.
“Why did I have to summon you?” Rysan thundered at me. He stood up and started pacing.
“I was having some lunch before returning.” I explained.
“A very responsible use of your time.” He said sarcastically as he turned away. “You should have come here as soon as you were able, I don’t have time to be babysitting you.”
I remained standing in the reception hall of headquarters, and I looked around, to make sure no one else was about. It was just Rysan, Orb, and I.
I pressed my lips together and looked at my feet.
“Junior Mage, am I boring you? Do you have something better to be doing?”
“No, Sir.” I said, raising my head and standing to attention. I focused my eyes on a point on the wall.
“In fact, you do have better things to be doing, and so do I. You need to do your report of the events of this morning. I need it filled by the end of the day. Your master should have informed you, prepared you for this job. It is not my task, but it seems to fall to me. Go to one of the private rooms and do your job, Junior Mage. You may think you’re better than us, considering you completed training early, but I find you lacking, lazy and arrogant. Prove me wrong or serve somewhere else.”
“Yes, Sir.” I remained standing, waiting to be dismissed, my face locked in the most neural expression I could manage. Inside I was seething. My hands had started to shake. I could feel my tendons creaking as I fought them to a standstill.
Rysan walked over to stand in front of me, mere feet away.
I continued to stare at the spot on the wall.
“Dismissed.” I saw him move away, back to the desk.
I eased myself from my attentive paralysis and turned to one of the doors at the back of the hall. I avoided looking at Rysan as I walked.
I chose the door closest to me, placed my hand on the handle and pushed. It didn’t budge. I stared at it.
The door was solid oak, stained dark. There were faint carvings on its surface, but as I ran my hand over them it felt smooth as glass. Glimmers of light followed in the wake of my hand, running through the carvings. I cocked my head to one side as I considered it.
“Activate it, Boy. I want that report today.” Rysan said from the desk.
I clenched my fists again, my nails digging into my palms, I counted silently in my head. Then I opened my othersight and looked at the door, my head throbbed at the additional sensory input.
The door shimmered with pale colours, greens and blues, a touch of red, in waves over the wood. The carvings stood out as active concepts, threads wove in thick tangled lines to the handle and the desk and the main doors.
I placed my left hand on the central glyph carving, then placed my right on the handle, channelling a small flow of raw power, barely enough to do anything with. I felt an answering echo from the door as it recognised me. The door swung open.
I stepped over the threshold muttering to myself about my own stupidity. It was just a different authorisation system, much like the main doors except this one would only let in a mage that had the approval of the desk and the main doors.
I felt my curiosity growing at what would be in this room, almost an excitement.
I lifted my eyes and had a look, and felt them go wide in surprise as my face fell. There was nothing there. Well, nothing exciting or interesting or worth locking up so tightly. The tiny room contained a glyph screen embedded in the desk, and a chair. That was it. The white walls were stark and clean, a glowing beam of sunlight slanting from the small window lit the room brightly.
I took myself over to the chair and sat. The desk was new, a darkly shining wood with a large screen that looked like a window set into the desk. I placed a palm flat on the screen, and it slowly came alive with lights, flickering in depths that weren’t there. I rested my head in the other hand which I’d propped up, closing my eyes to ease my headache. A dull pounding had formed behind my eyes where I had overused my sight; hours at a time just isn’t a good idea. I breathed deeply and the pounding settled a touch. I really had to get more used to othersight. It always felt like staring at the sun afterwards, painful and not very clever.
I opened my eyes, which took a moment to focus, and saw little glyphs forming on the screen. The sharp angular lines signified whole words. A few taps of the right ones and I was given a blank. I took my palm off the screen and it flickered, and the blank solidified into an image of paper. I ran my hand along the underside of the desk, and a small glass stylus slid into my grasp. I held the stylus over the screen. I shifted my grip, the sweat on my hand making it slide.
I started writing the elaborate glyphs of the mages. Sharp and angular, they similar to the regular glyphs, but these were whole words, thoughts, and ideas, condensed. The connectives always confused me, the marks which linked one to another. I made a few mistakes and had find them, but my eyes refused to focus, they just glazed over. I found myself watching the sunbeam moving across the wall. The sun was sinking and my first real day as a mage was almost done. Yesterday didn’t count, I’d been shown around and that was it. I forced myself to concentrate. The once-blank page crawled with glyphs, connectives linked the necessary parts, I had to translate it into common in my head to check that it was adequate. It was, if barely. The sun was setting as I made my final changes. The circle of light shifted to an amorphous flare of reddish gold. I tapped the glyph to store my report, and stood. My back ached from hunching over and my legs were stiff. I had a cramp in my hand as I tried to slide the stylus back into its resting slot. I only just managed. I then spent a moment stretching, creaks and pops coming from various parts of my body as I did so. I walked to the door, opening it this time without any difficulties.
Rysan was still seated at the reception desk, his own screen lighting up his face and casting deep shadows under his jaw and eyes. He looked far older than I’d first guessed, fifty at least. Orb hovered around him, its light making the other shadows dance.
I walked directly for the door as fast as my stiff legs would carry me.
I pretended not to hear and carried on, even though my belly did a little flip.
I could hear nothing behind me as I left.
The dusk cast the town in blood-red light. I blinked to help my eyes adjust; too long spent in a tiny room, looking at words ruins my far sight
I walked the path home, taking slow gentle steps. The shifting air was cool and moist with the smell of rain on the wind. I looked up at the clouds covering the sky, barring the edges of the horizon.
I moved stiffly down the street, my legs refusing to be bend or straighten quite right.
I reached the door of my building, and it recognised me without any fuss. Once inside, I looked between the stairs and the round dais in the center of the floor. I turned my head towards the stairs and persuaded my legs to take me up despite their protests. The walk had helped, but sitting at a desk wasn’t my thing. It took longer than I had planned to get up to my apartment, but I got to my door in one piece. A touch on my door swung it inwards without a sound. It was dark inside, but the window showed the very last touch of the sun disappearing below the horizon.
“Lights.” I called to the empty room.
The small glow globe set in the ceiling created a gentle glow, enough to see by.
I limped over to my bed, pulling off my overcoat before I sat and took off my boots. I rubbed my feet with strong circular motions, sighing.
I looked around the room, trying to familiarise with my new home. The mages had given it to me on passing my test. I felt something bubbling up inside, looking down at my hands to find that they had stopped massaging and were now clenched into white knuckled fists. I stood and padded over to window. The darkness made the window act like a mirror. I was tense and shaking, a sense of frustration and anger coming over me as I looked at myself, standing in my mages uniform. It had been all I’d wanted for so long, and I was stuck dealing with reports and farmers, and a prick of a boss. I was only a junior mage, but I thought we did more than solved tiny problems. I passed my exams five years before anyone else. I was the youngest living mage. That had to count for something. As my blood heated, I swung my fist at the window.
The pain replaced all the anger in an instant.
The window didn’t break; reinforced with magic and metals it was strong. I flexed my hand, the blood rushing through it making it throb.
I walked to the basin in the corner and touched the faucet, filling the basin, then touched it again, turning it off. I carried the basin over to the armchair a few steps away. I sat down and balanced the basin on my knee. I placed my aching hand into the cold water. It took the sting away, but I would be feeling it in the morning. The cold water helped. With my hand cool and my body still, I was struck by a realisation.
I had thought the hard work would be over now, that I had earned my mage licence. Why would real life be easier than that? People respect ability, and I hadn’t proved myself yet. My first real task, my second day, but my first as a working mage.
I looked down into the water at the little tendrils of blood floating in swirls from my skinned knuckles. I channeled magic through my hand, and filmy, unclear images formed; places and people, but none I recognised. I moved my hand through the water and let out a sigh.
I held the basin and stood, walking over to drain the basins and pour the pink-tinted water away. I shook my hand to get the last of the water off.
I looked at my bed longingly.
My body was tired, a bone-deep weariness, as if it was saying “no more today”.
I stripped myself with an almost agonising slowness, my tired body refusing to move quickly.
I crawled into bed, body aching, mind numb.
“Lights out.” I called.
The lights dimmed to sparks then winked out.
I lay in the dark drifting into sleep, wondering what the next day would bring. I could never have foretold what was in store for me.