Aug 26th 2022
Master Bryce rested his left hand—gloved, as ever—on the door handle, a masterpiece of braided metal that managed to evoke all four elements in its interweaving tendrils. “It’s not as simple a matter as you think.”
Kaela snorted. “But how can it be complicated? The theory of magic is all well and good, but I’m ready to practice it. More than ready. I bet I’m further along than your Seventh Years.”
“In terms of talent, yes. Undoubtedly. I’ve never had a faster student.”
Master Bryce held up his right hand, waggling its bare index finger. “In terms of comprehension, though? The Seventh Years have seen what lies beyond this door. Many of them opted not to stay; their class used to be twice as large.”
“So this is one of those compliment-me-and-then-try-to-scare-me lessons?”
“This is a choice. One I’ve never given to a Fourth Year before. But you deserve to know sooner rather than later.” He pushed the door open and stepped through it.
Kaela snorted again and followed into what looked to be a courtyard. Her eyes widened when they took in the details, however.
Menhirs of various hues studded the ground in a circle formation, each oblong stone a study in geologic splendor. Between them burned braziers of every shape and size, all as unique as the menhirs and all sprouting flames that consumed no fuel but air. The breeze stoked the fires playfully, swooping and swirling from an unnatural number of directions; there must have been twenty different drafts. Thirty, maybe.
Most striking of all were the mini-waterfalls that spilled over the menhirs, tiny rivers that sprang from no source—the water just appeared at the top of the stones and vanished at the bottom.
“Magic,” Kaela breathed. “Real spells. And so many of them!”
“Not spells,” Master Bryce said. “Consequences.” He gestured to the center of the courtyard.
At first, Kaela wasn’t sure what he was pointing at. Then she discerned the glimmers of something, the shimmering, translucent outlines of … a former teacher. “Master Nadine?”
The ghostly figure turned to her, glanced at Master Bryce, and grimaced. “Too early,” a voice murmured, a whisper on one of the many winds.
Master Bryce nodded. “As it was for you, old friend.”
Kaela stared at Master Nadine, at the gentle Air instructor who was supposed to be out scouting for promising new acolytes. “What happened to her?”
“What happens to us all—if we choose to wield magic and not just study it.” Master Bryce spread his arms wide, a motion that seemed designed to encompass the entire courtyard.
He often did that when he wanted her to infer his meaning. So what was he getting at? Unless … “Are these all masters?”
He smiled—sadly. “Fast as usual.” He walked to one of the menhirs and gazed at its alabaster surface. “Prolonged use of your chosen element will give you great power … for a time. And then you start giving the element power.”
“By manifesting as it?”
“Slowly. But inexorably.” Master Bryce tapped the menhir. “This was Master Lyles. You’ve heard of him?”
“Your mentor’s mentor?”
“And one of the strongest Earth wielders in memory. He solidified when he was fifty-six—which is late for this sort of thing. Most are encased by their early forties.”
Kaela tried not to gawk. She’d been tempted to let one of the waterfalls splash over her hands; now it seemed sacrilegious. Like playing with someone’s bones. Or worse. “Are they still in there?”
“Faintly, I think. Sometimes the current masters come here for advice. The eldest voices are hardest to make out, but … I listen as best I can.” Master Bryce looked back at Master Nadine. Or rather, where Master Nadine had just been. Now she wasn’t even visible as a filmy silhouette.
“So,” Master Bryce said after a moment, once it became clear that Master Nadine had fully faded. “You’ve seen the price. Are you willing to pay it?”
Kaela reappraised the courtyard—the asylum, more like. The zoo for rundown, elemental husks.
But this was their twilight. In their glory, they’d worked miracles, beaten back armies, lived lives that mattered. They’d known where that path led, and they’d walked it anyway.
“Consider carefully,” Master Bryce said, drawing her attention back to him … and the left hand he’d ungloved. Its fingernails were inky and gleaming: the color of hematite.
His menhir would be beautiful.
And he was what, thirty-seven? Master Nadine couldn’t have been less than thirty-nine.
“I’m only sixteen,” Kaela said, firming her jaw. “Teach me a spell.”
Author Bio: Nick Wisseman lives in the woods of Michigan with his wife, kids, ten dogs, sixty cats, and forty horses. (The true number of pets is an order of magnitude smaller, but most days it feels like more.) He’s not quite sure why he loves writing twisted fiction, but there’s no stopping the weirdness once he’s in front of a computer. You can find the complete list of oddities on his website: www.nickwisseman.com
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