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Author's note: Please feel free to leave your feedback and comments. This is the same work as "Malus (Excerpt)" for those of you that read it.
Night was now old. The moon was a sliver of light at its zenith, ready to make its descent. The stars surrounding the gleaming crescent were bright, though unusually dull for a winter night. A cold breeze flew in from the heavens, but the old man didn’t mind. His friendship with the chill had grown with night after night and year after year spent in the study.
And after decades spent calculating, hypothesizing, pondering, and practicing, he still had much to learn. He had yet to fully master even the basics—make it understandable for those without the level of skill and gift of time that he had.
Mapping it all out—setting the art to paper for the sake of education, so a prosperity might be formed—was difficult. Finding promising pupils who could look at the books of scrawling instruction and intricate drawings and make any sense out of them was much more so. He had only found a few, over all the long, long years, and their hope was dwindling as the number of his wrinkles increased, his hair whitened, and his teachings became more nonsense than lesson.
There was Kiernan, a friend who had shown traces of the skill. He had come first, bringing knowledge of what students thirsted for. He knew how to caress and direct learning to a steady blossoming. Without his contribution, the books might still be a collection of scribbles of gibberish and his lessons little more than a crazy man’s prattle. After him came Osred, an older cousin with hardly a lick of skill, but a strange understanding of the art itself, and of the old man’s wishes.
Mondragon arrived next. He was a strapping man with the face of a child and the gold of a king. They had no need of a written pedigree; the man reeked of wealth and royalty.
He understood well enough, and the funds helped immeasurably, but his youth and confidence was an insult to the pride of the veterans. They were only just learning to tolerate him, and solely for the sake of their even younger charge: their first real apprentice.
Sophia had come to the castle not two years earlier, a bright-eyed orphan from the city. She wasn’t quite sure of her surname, so they had taken to calling her Arvalis when one was needed. She was very young indeed, not quite at the turn of adulthood, and yet she was drawn toward the books like bees to a bouquet. Perhaps it was the innocence of her youth or some chance inheritance of skill, but the girl had such a way with the spirits, and thus the art came to her with ease. Even her elders envied the way she could play with them, entice the secrets of the world from their grasp as if they were strips of gossip from the mouth of a friend.
Her understanding of the texts was spectacular for one so young. She traced the drawings lovingly and drank in the words like they were sweet nectar. She stroked the leather spines and spoke of the art with an excited, dulcet passion.
She called it magic.
Considering the elements of both sorcery and magus, she wasn’t far from the truth. Like magic, the art dealt with power above the mundane, but it was far from the mystical whimsy of fairytales. Still, no one had the heart to correct her.
Sophia Arvalis had breathed life into the tall, stone walls of Castle Rourke, in more ways than one. Many spirits had come since her arrival. Some only wandered the vacant halls and rooms, or took a short tour through the grounds before moving on.
Others were not so peaceful.
The old man finally let the quill rest in its ink well and stood from the desk with a tired sigh. He didn’t get as far as he had hoped, but no one could say it wasn’t a job well done. He was prepared to retreat to his room, lavishing the thought of warm blankets and the gentle lull of sleep, when the candlelight flickered dangerously. All flames but one were bested by the sudden draft. The room was hurled into sudden darkness.
The man plucked the candle in its wax-covered holder up from the desk, cupping a protective hand around the light. It might have been a harmless gust of wind, nothing more, but the chill that ran its finger up his spine told him otherwise.
“Who goes there?” he called, filling the room with the thrum of his deep voice. There was no answer. Even the distant nocturnal animals ceased their calls to save themselves from being mistaken for the culprit. The man squinted at the dark corners, wondering what hid there. He let out a wordless warning before taking his leave, letting the rest of the lightless atmosphere take the room.
His trip down the stairs was uncomfortably quiet. Even the candle flame seemed hushed; its timidity hardly illuminated the steep, winding staircase.
When he reached the ground floor, his hand gripped the archway. He searched the hall for signs of life, but the only movement came from the wall sconces that shed a dancing light on the walls. Another draft came without
warning, lifting his cloak back and vanquishing his candle. He turned and looked down the final level of stairs. It was a long descent, unlit and foreboding. Not taking his eyes off the gloomy entryway, the old man retreated to a sconce to light his candle. He went around every bend expecting his stalker to be there, and with every turn, he was gladly disappointed.
At last he reached the very bottom of the castle: a long, dimly lit corridor, marked with the occasional immobile door or open room.
He called out again. “Is anyone there?”
Still no answer. Many of the sconces were unlit, leaving the hall in peculiar lighting. Halfway down the passage, a low light undulated from an open doorway. It wasn’t the flickering of candlelight, but the lonesome, steady pulse of spirits.
Relieved, the old man smiled. The late nights were beginning to get to him, herding the irrational fears of youth into his mind. He was ready to turn around and head back toward his chamber when the breeze returned. Each flame was doused, one by one, until his candle was the only light in the corridor. Even the radiance he’d thought had been a confused spirit had disappeared.
Then there were whispers.
He thrust his candle at the dark, daring the blackness to make a move. The voices stayed back in the cover of the shadows, judging him sotto voce for lack of courage. The man glared before turning on his heels and taking a large bound toward the stairs.
He dropped the candle before his foot reached its destination. He frowned, reaching down slowly to find the beacon before whatever was whispering could find him.
His fingers touched soft grass. It was damp from the morning’s dew and long from generous rain. The old man sighed. They did this sometimes.
“All right, what is it that you’re wanting?” he called, straightening his back. Despite himself, he clapped his hand over his mouth. The voice that had escaped his mouth was that of a much younger man. When he stood, his back did not ache, nor did he feel the weariness of a long night’s studying.
“How old you have grown,” said a voice, cruelly familiar. He heard this voice in his nightmares, heard it joke and plead, laugh and scream.
“Brother?” he called. He searched the darkness, no longer blinded by the gloom. His sight came rushing back and he opened his eyes to a scene from his oldest memories.
It was his childhood home, complete with the tree on the hill and the smoke rising from the chimney. He could see him now, a clean, dully glowing figure. “You haven’t aged a day! How can this be…” He trailed off, cherishing every detail of the young man before he tore his gaze away. “No, this is wrong. You must leave. I’m sorry, but it isn’t right for you to be here, brother.”
“Where do I belong, then?” the figure asked. His face contorted so suddenly it felt like a slap. The spirit scowled at him, full of hate and anger. The scene disappeared to show the dark passage once more, lit only by the growing fury of the spirit. “In your hell, is that it? Do I belong with the rest of your demons, Rourke?”
The old man gritted his teeth. He hated this part, and the familiar face only made it worse. He didn’t need much light for this; he dropped to his knees and pulled a chalk fragment from his sleeve. The symbols flowed from his hand like water from a fall, memorized through pure repetition. The muscles of his hand knew what to do, so he let them take over as his mind became more and more clouded with the rage of the ghost screaming before him.
Finally, it was finished. He couldn’t see the script, but he knew by heart every curve and line of the marks. The old man clapped his hands down on the ground next to it, feeling the warmth spread from the ground to his fingers, up his arms, and to his shoulders.
A sharp, freezing shock sliced through him, stopping the power in its tracks. He looked up, quivering.
What might have once been his friend and kin held his gaze fiercely, eyes as piercing as ice.
“Not that easily, brother,” the voice said, creeping into his veins. “You belong with me.”
Sophia Arvalis came twirling down the stairs once the sun had risen on the fields of the island. She danced over the steps and spun, once, twice, again…
She stopped in a moment, and upon seeing the body, screamed.
“It just doesn’t happen, Jon. Do you know how dangerous this is? How could you be so irresponsible?”
Jonathan had his head in his hands, fingers laced through his blonde hair. “Warren, please. I’m still focused on the fact that I’m having kids. The fact that I wasn’t supposed to can come later. Now…” He trailed off. Looking up, he observed the lobby with squinted eyes. He was more accustomed to the light of an ancient lamp and a collection of a great variety of candles than the harsh fluorescents that lit almost every square inch of the hospital. “What did she say again?”
Warren narrowed his eyes, disbelief still in the glare he gave the young man.
“Not much that made sense. This is what happens, Jon. These people, they can’t handle…” He stopped and checked to measure the vacancy of the room. “They can’t handle what we do. And children attract the most hostile of the bunch. That poor woman is half way to a nuthouse, and—”
“I asked for what she said, not your opinion on it.” Jonathan was near resorting to speaking through gritted teeth. The situation was difficult enough, and the older man’s criticism wasn’t helping.
“You don’t understand how bad this is.” Without being asked, Warren elaborated, “She’s terrified, Jon. She may not grasp what’s going on, but she knows it’s not natural. When I went in there, she said,” he took a deep breath in an attempt to calm his jolted nerves, “that something was wrong with the boy, to get the boy…out. I don’t know what is it that she knows, but…Lord, Jon it’s something.”
The young man nodded. He still had trouble comprehending the whole ugly situation. “There is a reason it takes nine months,” he said under his breath, “and it is not to tell the father last minute.” He sucked in as much air as he could through his mouth. He’d stopped trying to inhale through his nose long after the acrid chemical stench of floor cleaner first breached his senses.
“When can I see her?” he asked. He rested his gaze on his fingernails, chewed to the quick.
“I don’t know, Jon. She didn’t exactly seem excited when I mentioned you were here.” Warren laughed nervously, running a hand over his balding head. “You didn’t exactly make a great impression with your departure.”
“Damn it, Lechar, I told you I didn’t know!” Jonathan snapped, flinging his hand in the air, wishing it would connect with something soft and smug. “And don’t tell me it’s all my fault for not leaving a contact. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to, that what I did was wrong—”
“Obviously, you didn’t figure it out quick enough!” Warren stopped to breathe, finally turning to face him. The man still sat on the floor, two empty chairs beside him. His skin was pale and gleamed with sweat, his countenance a mixture of emotions: anticipation, anger, apprehension.
Warren took a step toward the man, and when he didn’t burst, took another. He fished for his gaze as he lowered his voice. “Look, Jon,” Warren strained to find a level of calm under layers of shock and worry, “I’m sorry. What’s done is done, and I suppose there’s no real use in lecturing you anymore. You’re a grown man… Lord, I’m getting old. Kiernan’s last apprentice, finishing his studies, starting a family, and here I am, hardly touching sorc—”
“Easy,” Jonathan warned, his eyes darting up to his friend’s ever-growing mouth. “Technology is a dangerous weapon.”
“Technology? Technology is a bloody demon, conjured up by some fool from…” Jonathan winced. Once the man got his head wrapped around the “ludicrousness of modern society,” it was like stopping a freight train with a length of thread. But apparently, the man didn’t have it in him to rant. He sighed instead, then retreated to the comfort of an armchair. “Never mind. Do you think it’s about time?”
“How the hell should I know?” Jonathan released an unstable breath. “The full dilation was ten something-meters, right? That was this morning. That nurse, what did she say? ‘Most likely over ten hours.’ Lord.”
“They’re close,” Warren said, his voice waning to a whisper. “What are you going to do?”
Jonathan shook his head, feeling the devastation flood back into the front of his mind. “I wish I knew, Warren. I wish I had been given something of a heads up.”
“Well, you got forty-eight hours,” the older man said with a grin. Despite himself, Jonathan smiled.
“You know what I mean. I’m not prepared for anything that’s going to happen. The house isn’t exactly child-proofed, let alone for two, and that’s only if she intends to come back with me. I guess I’m at her mercy here. If not… What does that even mean? There’s child support, isn’t there?” Suddenly doubly anxious, he bit his lip. “Lord, will she even let me see them? Can she handle…our world?” He closed his eyes, hoping to hide from the numerous possibilities that weren’t in his favor.
“Is that what you want, Jon?” Warren asked after a while. He could hardly imagine his friend bringing a young woman into their society, a world of the impossible, and all the while raising a family. He waited a little longer before finishing his thought. “Do you want this for yourself?”
“I can’t just leave them to fend for themselves.”
“Never mind them, just yet. They don’t exist at the moment. Think, Jonathan,” Warren interrupted. “Can you handle this? Bringing up children that may be extraordinary in the eyes of the ungifted, but who will remain disabled to the company of our world? That’s not going to be easy.”
Jonathan nodded. Warren watched as his friend turned the future over in his head. When he spoke, the fear was gone from his face. His voice was unwavering, his expression grave.
“I’ll do what I have to.”
Minutes later, the nurse reentered the room. She brought the whiff of an acrid scent with her, trailed from the maternity ward. “Sir,” she said, addressing whichever man in the room happened to be the father, “the first baby has been delivered. Seven pounds, six ounces, and everything is looking great. Congratulations on your daughter. Number two isn’t far behind, probably—”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Warren said quietly, dismissing her with a cheap smile. When she left, he kneeled next to his friend. The man was shaking, a faint tremor in his grip. “Get a hold of yourself, Arval. Did you hear the woman? Everything is fine. We’ve got Delling and his missus protecting the barriers, so we’ll know if
“I’m fine, Warren,” he insisted. Jonathan got to his feet, gripping an armrest with white knuckles. His other hand he clamped over his mouth. “A girl. You said she was afraid of a boy. No, that’s right, the ruling was fraternal! One of each.”
“Calm yourself, Jonathan. The world hasn’t ended just yet. You’ve still another babe to go, and then we have to speak to Melissa. Can’t have you falling to pieces until a decision is reached.” The young man let out a short, humorous laugh as Warren returned to his feet. Jonathan collapsed into the chair, his eyes fixed on some horrifying scene.
They could do nothing but wait for the second child, and the span of restless anticipation was the longest and most nerve-wracking Jonathan Arval had experienced in his life. The forty-five minutes between births stretched on, and as night fell on New York, seconds seem to bulge into hours: time spent indulging nerves in pacing, tearing, and tapping.
Jonathan was near the end of his fuse when the nurse finally showed up. Tension fell off of the man in tons as he raced to the door, as eager for the news as a hound waiting for its master’s return.
“Finally!” He came at her, nearly shouting. “What is it? Everything is fine, isn’t it?”
The woman smiled, though the expression didn’t show in her tired eyes. “Yes, Mr.…”
“Arval,” Jonathan supplied, irritably waving off the formality. “Now, come on, I’ve been waiting all day. Both of the babies are fine?”
“Yes sir. The boy—and it is a boy, sorry. Five pounds and eight ounces. He’s a tiny guy, so he needs to be monitored for a while. Ms. Marland is staying overnight anyway, so everyone will be ready to go by morning.” She gestured at the open doorway. “You can visit her now, Mr. Arval.”
Jonathan bit his lip, looking back at Warren. “He can come, too, can’t he?”
The nurse frowned slightly. “Of course. Come on back.” The men followed quickly, happy to leave the lobby behind. They were led to the maternity ward, guarded by automatically locked doors. He heard Warren give off a low harrumph when the nurse opened them. He ignored him, only hoping he wasn’t in the mood to do something about it.
“Here we are,” she said with a small gesture to the room. Warren passed Jonathan, entering first and opening the curtain to accommodate for them.
She was lying on the hospital bed, an air of exhaustion about her. In fact, she looked to be sleeping now. Her eyelids were closed over the deep blue irises that Jonathan remembered so well. He sucked in a breath, surprised at how different she looked since the short months since he’d seen her last. Her brown hair was made darker by the sweat of labor, long and piled sloppily on top of her head. Her face was skinnier, bony and weary, as well as wiped clean of the mask of makeup she had worn when they first met. There was something else about her that was off, underneath the fatigue.
Melissa opened her eyes then, and he was met once more with the beauty and depth he had once thought only the ocean could hold. When her blue eyes reached his, he thought for a moment that she saw the fields of golden grass she had spoken of when they had locked eyes and seen love.
She didn’t look confused, or angry, or even happy—none of the possibilities he’d considered.
She looked horrified. Melissa Marland took a single, knowing look at his face and screamed.
Jonathan didn’t move. He could hardly blink. Warren grabbed his shoulders and pulled him out of the way as their guide rushed in. The nurses went to the cot, trying to calm her down.
“Jon,” Warren said hastily, “Go, please. I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
The man bolted before he could finish. He flattened his back against the wall in the hallway, breathless. With the door open, he could still hear them speaking.
“Ms. Marland, please.” Warren advanced toward the cot and lightly shoved a nurse who tried to pull him away. “This is no way for a young woman to behave. Pull yourself together.”
Melissa breathed rapidly, heaving in one lungful after another. Her voice was a weak whisper after the man’s deep reprimand. “Mr. Lechar… Is he gone?” she asked.
There was a pause, then a sigh. “Yes, he’s left. Now, Melissa, I’ve known Jonathan all my life. He’s a perfect gentlemen. You did know him, from what he told me, before he went back—”
“He’s a monster.” Passion rose through her vehemence and her voice grew louder. Jonathan pushed himself off the wall and walked farther down the corridor, now eager to get away. The voices became inaudible, and he looked back at the doorway. Two of the nurses stood, having what seemed to be a hushed argument in the hallway. One, their attendant from earlier, must have won, for she turned away and walked moodily down the hall toward him.
“Mr. Arval,” she said, stopping in front of him. “Would you like to see them?”
He blundered for a moment, still dazed by his encounter with the siren. “See who?”
“The twins. They’re in the nursery. Would you like to see them?” she repeated.
“I…” He thought. Not the rapid contemplating he’d been going through all day, but a calm rationing. Out of it came fear: would his own children scream at the sight of his face as their mother did? Would it be worth it?
“Yes,” he said softly. Jonathan followed the nurse around the corner to a window on the opposite wall. As he approached it, he saw a number of cradles, only a few of which were occupied. There laid four of the smallest beings he’d ever seen, topped with wisps of hair and ending in toes tinier than he could have previously imagined.
“Come on,” the nurse said. She gestured to the open door with a nod of her head. Completely wonderstruck, Jonathan obeyed. The nurse stood at the end of the row of occupied cribs, unable to contain a broad smile.
Jonathan hardly had to glance at each child before he spotted who couldn’t have possibly been anyone else’s baby. He stood before the crib, hands itching to cradle the newborn. The baby was wrapped in a white blanket adorned with small, exotic animals, its eyes flickering open and closed.
“Go ahead,” the nurse said, jolting him out of his fascination. “So long as you support the head.”
He didn’t need any more of an invitation. He reached into the crib and carefully slipped one hand under the infant’s head and the other gently underneath its warm back. Hardly daring to breathe, he lifted the baby up to his chest. The newborn made a small, confused sound and screwed up its face to wail, but then a calm passed over its face.
“All that fuss from the mom, and look how the kid warms up to you.” The woman gave a small shake of her head from where she stood fiddling with supplies.
“Lord,” he breathed. The newborn’s eyes were now open halfway, and he couldn’t stop staring at them. “She already looks like her mother.”
The nurse laughed suddenly, and when he turned to her in question, she smiled. “That’s your son, Mr. Arval.”
Jonathan echoed the laugh, finding it impossible to contain his delight. “And he is so…little. It’s unbelievable. Amazing, that they start out so small, and in a few years…”
“They grow up fast,” she summarized.
“Incredibly fast. In ten short years, he’ll be—”
“Jonathan.” Warren was at the door, frowning at the man. “We need to talk.”
“I’m right here, Lechar,” he said impatiently. This was the last place he could think to bring to the squabbles of adults. “What is it?”
Warren frowned. “She won’t take him, Jon.” He crossed his arms. “She’s refusing to accept that the boy is her mortal offspring. Or something to that effect. The point is, Jon—”
“I’ll take him,” he said hurriedly. He looked back at the child, at the blue eyes, just like his mother’s. “I don’t care, Warren. I’ll take him. I’ll raise him, I’ll teach him, I’ll…” He paused, grinning at the boy. “I will keep you safe.”
Warren stepped in, already imagining the imminent disaster. “You don’t understand the weight of this responsibility. Surely, you’ll take more time to think before you take on such a task. Please, Jonathan, at least wait.”
“I don’t need to. The answer will be no different in a day, or a week. This is my son, Warren. I have to look after him.”
“He’s going to need a name,” the nurse interjected, already poised with a pencil in hand.
“He’s Perevull,” the man said instantly. He held the newborn’s gaze as he spelled it out for the nurse. “And he’s perfect.”
“Perfect?” his friend echoed. “He’s not going to need perfection, Jon, he’s going to need a damn big heap of luck.”
“That’s perfect, too,” he said quietly. He let the words roll of his tongue, cherishing the first declaration of the name. “Perevull Luck Arval.”
“Beautiful,” the nurse said, marking the existence of the boy with a flourish of her hand.
“He is,” Jonathan agreed to himself. “Have you ever seen something so tiny?”
Warren wasn’t impressed. “Please, think about this! You’re making a mistake,” the man insisted.
“You’re not going to change my mind. It’s done.” He turned his attention back to the child. “Isn’t it?”
Warren moaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. When he realized he wouldn’t be able to sway the decision, he dropped his arms and sighed. “Fine,” he said slowly, drawing his arms across his chest. “How does it feel to be a father, old friend?”
Jonathan didn’t hear the tone of the words, meant to send his enchantment spiraling down. “It feels…” He took a moment to gather his dumb-struck wonder into the right word. “Wow.”
Perevull Arval lifted a small hand up toward his father’s face, moving it in a joggled wave.
“It’ll be all right. Won’t it, Perry?”
It may have just been a twitch of unused muscles, but Jonathan could have sworn he smiled.
Magic doesn’t always come easily. For some, it is second nature: an inborn instinct that blossoms on its own. For others who are not so lucky, the gift is forced to grow, taught emphatically, and stretched so thin over the skill sets that it tears apart.
Jonathan Arval had no such problem. All of it, from the concocting of powders and enunciation of spells in magus to the precise circles of summoning in sorcery, only needed to be retaught. It was as if he was born with everything he needed to know.
Of course, Dahlia Kiernan was considered to be the most capable instructor since the man who started it all. The fact that he was one of the six apprentices she took on definitely helped his reputation.
Graduating from both schools, magus and sorcery, was fairly common nowadays, but accomplishing it so early on in life was rare indeed.
And here he was, hardly twenty-six, on his way to Castle Rourke to celebrate his mastery of the two schools. He was no longer an apprentice, mage, or sorcerer.
He was a wizard.
“Perry, are you about ready?” Jonathan called. He threw his things into his bag, mentally going over his checklist once, twice, and again for good measure.
“Yes, Papa.” The boy sat on the dining room table, swinging his legs over the side. “I’ve been ready,” he answered impatiently.
“You don’t have quite as much to pack, do you?” Jonathan muttered. On his next run of the checklist, he remembered something and hurried away to fetch it. As he rushed back into the sitting room, he turned toward his son. “Where’s your cloak, Perry? I left it on the sofa…”
“And moved it to my room, so ‘the cat didn’t dirty it,’” he explained again. He shook his head at the ceiling, as if it might share his sentiment.
“Right,” Jonathan continued, stroking his chin. “Where’s the cat, then?”
“You locked him in your room—”
“So he wouldn’t dirty your cloak,” he finished with a frown. “We’re all out of sorts, aren’t we?”
Perry giggled. “You are,” he said, kicking at the air. Jonathan smiled wryly and shifted his hands to his hips.
“I’ve got a lot on my mind, dear.” The man crossed his arms and walked over to the table, planting his feet before the boy. His expression was stern and his voice was clear. “What do you need to do at the party, Perry?”
The boy dropped the grin and bit his cheek, slowing his legs until they came to a complete stop. “I’ve got to behave,” he said, thinking hard. “I should only speak when spoken to, and clearly. No yelling, or running, or being silly. I call you Master Arval, not Papa, or Father. But why is that? You never said.”
“The grown-ups there are very strict, and serious, Perry. They don’t like to be silly.” Jonathan reached out with his fingers as he said this, but the boy was adept in skirting tickles and he flinched away. The man smiled, though it didn’t quite show in his worried eyes. “They want to get down to business, Perry. They don’t know how to be fun, like you.”
The boy thought for a moment. “You’re fun, too,” he said. Jonathan sighed and leaned forward to hug him.
“Thank you, Perry. But it’s other grown-ups, who aren’t just like me. They’re grumpy, and old, and sour—”
“Like Wizard Lechar?” he cut in, angling his head to look up at the man.
Jonathan laughed loudly. “Yes, Perry, just like nasty Uncle Warren.”
Perry smiled and leaned back. A frown appeared suddenly and he creased his brow, his grasp on the situation lost again.
“But why can’t I call you Papa? Don’t they know you’re Papa?”
“Perry, please. They won’t like it, and I can’t explain. Look, it’s one night, a few hours of being serious, and that’s it. We’ll leave as soon as we can, just as long as…” Jonathan broke off with a sigh. “Behave, dear, so you don’t get into trouble. So they’re not mad at me.”
Perry still had his frown. “Why would they be mad?” he asked quietly.
Jonathan shook his head. “Later.”
The boy dropped his shoulders and echoed his father’s sigh. “Later” wasn’t tomorrow, or next week. It meant forever into the future, long past the point his imagination could reach.
“All right, Papa.” He caught his mistake and corrected himself quickly, “Master Arval. A night of grown-up-ness, so no one will be mad.”
“Oh, thank you, Perry. I’ll make it up to you, I promise,” he said, relieved. “You’re wonderful, you know that? Now, hop down and get your cloak.”
Perry smiled and jumped down, springing past him and down the hall.
Jonathan dropped his grin and steadied his nerves. He hoped no one would be mad.
By far, it was the most dreary stretch of evening committed to terrible grown-up-ness either of them had ever experienced. Jonathan was getting sick of it himself, and he could hardly expect Perry to take much more. The boy was standing by a corner, his face wrinkled in annoyance and his blue eyes focused up on someone he couldn’t see. No one had asked about his mother, or even if he was truly his own flesh and blood. If he was lucky, it would stay that way.
Warren approached from behind, bearing a glittering wineglass. He forced it into the man’s hand and took a drink from his own. “What’s the matter, Jon? You’re not enjoying your own party? It would seem you’ve spent a little too much time outside the world of adults, old friend.”
“I’m fine, and I’m not drinking. Maybe if you had some kids yourself…” Jonathan let the thought hang in the air and dropped the hand holding the glass to his waist.
“’Fraid not, Jon. Forever a bachelor,” the man said with a wry smile. “What about yourself? When’s the last time you saw that dame…Ciara Murphy, wasn’t it? From Raheny.”
The man scoffed. “We’ve talked in the past few months, and she still forces me to take an armful of that jam she makes every time I bump into her. But that’s it. That first date was our last.”
“Warren,” he countered on a sigh. “I have a child. I have children, to be precise.”
“Don’t tell me,” he interrupted, shaking his head, “you’re still sending letters. Having children does not mean you’re obliged to ignore every woman who looks your way. Let dead dogs lie. Besides, Perry seems to be doing just fine without…you know.” He cleared his throat before going on, “How is the little tyke? Hardly seen him since…”
“’53,” Jonathan offered, grimacing.
“That long? How old is he now, then? Seven?”
“Nine this March. Really, Warren, you were there.”
“Perhaps, but my entire life doesn’t revolve around that day. It wasn’t so memorable for the rest of us.” He took a moment to remember. “It was…March, in 1249. Am I right?”
“The sixth. And according to his birth certificate, 1992,” he corrected. “You were at three birthday parties. They all happened on the same day, Warren.”
“Oh, take it easy, would you? At least I came to those.” He sipped from his wineglass and switched topics again. “What about his studies? I trust he’s progressing well.”
Jonathan shrugged. “He’s only just starting on the second degree. He’s a little old, I know, but you understand. I have to be careful anytime sorcery is involved. The whole summoning section in the first degree took months. He needs to know how to make proper protection circles and charms.” He paused, staring at his glass before taking a tentative sip. The drop of wine was more alcohol than he’d had in years and the taste alone quickly coerced a layer of defensive secrecy away. “I had to teach him the complicated ones to give him the best chance—eight-piece circles that I don’t even understand well enough. But the thing is, Warren, he gets them better than I do. I’ve been working at sorcery for ten years, and he’s stumped me. If he wasn’t the way he was, I’d send him to a decent sorcerer in a heartbeat, but…”
“That’s tough, Jon.” Warren spoke in a low voice, swelled with pity. “But it happens sometimes. It’s almost as if the most fragile ones excel at summoning, like it’s a bloody rule of the cosmos. It’s ironic, in a way.”
“It makes perfect sense,” Jonathan disagreed, furrowing his brow. “They’re closer to spirits, without all the natural walls full-blooded magicians have. But don’t they usually avoid sorcery like the plague? Or they should. Maybe the older ones just know they can’t.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“You know…” The man gestured widely, filling the space with a word he couldn’t bear to voice. “There are others like him, probably plenty, and they aren’t the ones to master sorcery. I don’t think it’s right.”
“Of course not,” Warren said, tone full of disdain. “I’m sorry, Jon, but children like that aren’t natural. If you ask me—”
“I didn’t,” Jonathan said sharply, fully aware of what the man wanted to say. He’d been saying it for eight years. He shook his head angrily, stepping away from the man. “I’ll go mingle, now, Lechar. And you might as well stay away from Perry for the rest of the night.”
Jonathan hurried off, asserting himself into the crowd before Warren could call him back. He took the congratulations with a polite nod of the head, even half-paid attention to what some of the partygoers had to say. He recognized most of the magicians, and he could guess the rest were related to those he was familiar with. There was Wizard Errol Osred, current head of the society and caretaker of the castle, and her liaison, Latimer. Leroy Jenkins was there, and Cormick, both good friends of his family. Madam Kiernan’s former apprentices were all there: Paterin, Delling, Sumner, and her son, Byron Kiernan. And, of course, Arterius.
Rarek Arterius had been Madam Kiernan’s pupil for the short side of a month before she turned him away. The man, now in his sixties, was still a fifth degree sorcerer, and was now stalking towards him.
“Jonathan. Well, Wizard Arval now, isn’t it? Congratulations.” His words held no trace of sincerity; they were laced instead with spite and mockery. Jonathan grimaced. Not at the offense, but at the smell. The man’s breath may have been invisible, but it packed a punch. Jonathan held his breath for a moment before daring to breathe through his mouth.
“Thank you, Sorcerer Arterius. I trust you’re doing well?” He had to bite his tongue to avoid commenting on his lack of progression in two decades.
“Yes, very well as of late. I see you’ve already got an apprentice. As have I, Arval. A rather gifted sorcerer, from the Moreen family. I’m sure you heard what happened to his parents. A shame, indeed,” he said, unleashing what might have been an attempt at a smile. “What’s the young lad’s name?”
Jonathan felt the color drain from his face. So much for his wish for secrecy. “He’s Perry.”
“That’s not short for Perevull, is it? The brave pioneer hero of 748, first magician to touch American soil. How…lovely.” Jonathan scowled, but the man continued, either oblivious or indifferent. “What is his family name, pray tell?”
The man turned his head to curse under his breath before responding. There was no good in lying, so he told him the truth, as quietly as he could. “He’s my son.”
“Interesting.” He cracked a genuine grin, toothy and disquieting. “I never heard you were married.”
“I’m not,” Jonathan murmured, embarrassed. Unfortunately for him, the old man picked up on everything he was too frightened to say audibly.
“I see. Well, congratulations again, Wizard Arval. You give your boy my best.” Arterius spat out the title like it was something foul, and Jonathan got the feeling his best wasn’t very much at all. He set his jaw and pushed back through the crowd, looking for a short mop of mouse-brown hair.
“It’s not,” Perry insisted, crossing his arms. His lips moved to form the familiar “p” of his father’s nickname, but he stopped himself just in time. “Master Arval says both schools are equal. They’re only different cater…categories.”
“He’s jealous,” the older boy said matter-of-factly. Ezekiel Moreen had introduced himself moments after they arrived at the castle. He was a tall, dark-haired boy with a leering face and menacing eyes. Ever since he walked up, he’d been teasing Perry. “Sorcery is far more powerful than magus. Rourke Witton didn’t get killed by tossing some powder. He was too weak to handle a demon he summoned. You know the story, don’t you? People say it was his brother’s spirit who killed him, and his ghost wanders around the castle, in the levels they can’t reach.”
“I don’t care about the story,” Perry said. “I know it’s probably…a bit of horse’s hoof, is all. Anyway, that doesn’t mean anything. You could do just as well with a third degree spell as with a third degree demon. It was made that way. That’s what Master Arval says.”
“Shut up about your teacher! He doesn’t know anything; his focus was magus. And you’re jealous like him because you can’t summon.”
“I could to!” Perry shouted. He noticed that a few people were beginning to stare and he lowered his voice. “I could, if I knew how. I haven’t been taught all about it yet. Only circles, and the classes and things. You’re a fourth degree apprentice, so of course you know more.”
“Circles are all you have to know,” Ezekiel said. “The only thing you need is a little protection ring—I bet even you could do a half-decent job with that—and you could summon a first degree spirit, easy. But an invalid like you couldn’t draw a straight line!”
Invalid. Perry didn’t know the exact meaning of that word, but he’d heard it from Wizard Lechar. He clenched his jaw like he’d seen his father do when the word was used against him.
“I could summon,” he assured the boy.
“Really?” he asked. “Then prove it.”
The corridor was freezing. The cold was so intense, it ate up through the soles of his shoes and bit at his feet. His cloak was just warm enough to protect his torso, but his face took the full force of the chill.
The only light came from candle sconces on the wall, and some were out. Most of the doors looked ancient and worn, even though much of the castle had been remodeled decades ago.
As if he was thinking the same thing, Ezekiel spoke, keeping his voice low for fear of eavesdroppers. “This floor is right above the one they say is haunted by Wizard Witton’s soul. They didn’t change anything so—” The boy whirled at a sudden moan from the ceiling, then they continued slowly. “So the old man would rest in peace. As not to disturb the dead. You know.”
Perry only shrugged. Following the older boy seemed to be worse of an idea with every step he took down the deserted hallway, but it was too late to second guess.
They stopped in front of an old door. The door screamed when they opened it, annoyed at being disturbed.
“Here. I’ve been in here before, to summon. They used to use a lot of rooms on this floor for summoning, I think.” Ezekiel walked into the room and surveyed everything. There was a desk, covered in dust and wooden bowls with powder and chalk stains, and a bucket in the corner full of rainwater. Above it was a large water stain on the ceiling. He nodded and snapped back to his smirking self as he turned toward Perry.
“Still think you can do it?” he challenged. He pulled a piece of chalk from his sleeve and held it out.
In answer, Perry set his jaw, stepped forward, and yanked the chalk from the boy’s hand. He knelt down and put it to stone, marking one curving line before he froze.
Ezekiel let out a triumphant guffaw. “Giving up already?”
Perry scowled. He slipped his cloak off and threw it at the other boy before getting back to work. He crouched on the balls of his feet and circled slowly, drawing out a ring of white against the dark stone. He drew another around it, about a palm’s width bigger in diameter.
Perry didn’t have to focus like he did putting together a spell or a powder. The symbols flowed from his fingers and the chalk did his bidding, spelling out ancient words of defense and protection. When he was finished, Perry sat back on his haunches and thought for a moment before starting a second set of circles, connected to the first ring by a long, skinny symbol of fluidity. After this one was finished, he made to do a third.
“What are you doing, drawing so many rings?” Ezekiel scoffed. “You’re only summoning a little first degree demon.”
“You said spirit, not demon,” Perry objected. “And anyway, Master Arval said to always use two more rings above the degree you want to summon.”
“You’re master sounds like a ninny,” Ezekiel teased. “Using that many rings is cheating. Just use what you have, since you probably messed up on one of them.”
“Fine,” he said. “What am I supposed to summon?”
Ezekiel thought. “It’s cold,” he remarked, blank-faced. He blinked and scowled. “A fire demon. The pipsqueak should warm the place up a bit.”
Perry looked at the rings. His father’s warnings blocked out his derisive words.
Why not? He had two rings of protection, and it was only a weak fire demon, the size of a candle flame.
And what? Make a fool of himself? He could prove he was a good sorcerer, or prove he was pathetic, incapable of a first degree summoning.
Never summon, Perry! You’ll hurt yourself!
Perry grimaced. He could protect himself. He could do this. The voice disappeared as he bent down to draw the final symbols.
“Jonathan!” called a deep voice. When he turned, he recognized the speaker immediately. The man was the tallest in the room, and his dark skin stood out among the crowd. “I’ve been looking for you all night! Congratulations,” said Wizard Paterin, Madam Kiernan’s first apprentice.
“Thank you, Julius. It’s been a while, how have you been?” he asked politely, taking another sip of wine.
“Just fine. Word is you have an apprentice. How’s teaching working for you?”
“It’s great. Glad I can…make use of myself. Leave a mark on prosperity, and all that,” Jonathan said, absentmindedly searching for Perry with his gaze.
Paterin laughed, a clash of shattered glass in a quiet room. “You sound like old Kiernan. Did you know Byron reached mastery? He’s a sixth degree mage now, but he’s not going into sorcery. His girl—she’s about eight now, little Violet. Cutest thing you ever saw. Anyway, I suspect she’ll start her apprenticeship soon. Not with her grandmother, unfortunately, but…” He trailed off, pausing to take a drink of red wine. “Does yours know his focus?” he asked.
Jonathan blinked. “Magus,” he said automatically. His eyes continued to sweep the room, not finding anything to rest on.
“Hmm. The Arvals used to be so well-known as sorcerers—and damn good ones, too. My boy, Darrell, is just finishing his sixth degree. He went with sorcery, like his mom. He should take his exam soon, if I can get him to choose to study over going to the beach. You’ve visited the states, haven’t you? The west coast has been great for us.”
“I’ve been to New York,” he said distractedly. He couldn’t think of what he was looking for.
“That’s right, Madam Kiernan had all her apprentices spend time in a big city of ungifted for a few months. Except for…you know.” Paterin chuckled. “That’s where the Mondragons live, in Manhattan. Well, they have two houses in every country, I suspect—”
“I don’t see him,” Jonathan interrupted, finally realizing what his eyes had been searching for. He couldn’t see Perry.
Jonathan shoved his wineglass at Paterin and sped toward the hall.
Ezekiel had stopped teasing.
Perry stood in the center of the circle, holding the fire in his cupped hands. He was in awe, too afraid to move, scared that the demon would go out as easily as a candle.
His father had gone over every aspect of sorcery extensively, careful to cover everything in its entirety and then some. Every rule and expectation was ingrained in his mind. But he never could have described the feeling.
He was hot, but not in any way unpleasantly. He felt free, and powerful. Like nothing could ever hurt him, like he would never grow weak or die. Every inch of his body was warm, invincible to the cold. The demon tickled his fingers and he giggled. It spoke, in a whispering crackle. Although he only heard the words of a candlelit night, understanding overtook the boy and he nodded.
Ezekiel cried out, pressed against the wall. Perry looked at him through narrowed eyes.
“See? I can summon just as well—”
“You’re on fire!” he screamed, gaping in horror. Perry stopped mid-syllable, shocked by the words. He looked down and saw the flames, layered over his body like a second set of clothes. He felt no pain, but he gasped and stumbled back. His heel smudged the chalk of the first ring and the fire spread, exploring the ground.
The older boy backed up into the corner, kicking the bucket of rainwater with his boot. He dropped Perry’s cloak to grab the bucket, then threw the contents at the burning boy.
He knew now what the fire demon had asked. It was in his soul, he could feel it, and it was growing like a weed, passing from first degree to second, second to third.
Now that one protection ring was broken, only one degree of the demon’s power was contained and two were free to lash out at its attacker. Before he could warn the boy, the fire had reached him.
Ezekiel shrieked, dropping the flaming bucket. The sleeve of his cloak had already caught fire, and it spread quickly. Perry could feel it as if he was using his own hands, climbing over the fabric, eating at it, touching flesh…
“Stop!” he screamed. The sound of Ezekiel’s terror and pain drowned out his voice, but the demon understood. The fire dispersed, crawling back to the circle, and the other boy collapsed.
Perry shook. His knees gave out and folded, bringing him down to the hot stone. The fire demon cowered with him, quivering over his skin before retreating, gradually lessening until it disappeared. But he could still feel the demon, inside.
Jonathan hadn’t reached the door before he felt it. A demon, in the castle, uncontained. He broke into a run, headed for the source. Some of the others must have felt it too, for he heard them following. He raced to the stairs in such a hurry that his feet couldn’t keep up. At the last level, he tripped, but he launched himself forward and up before he fell, not pausing to take a breath.
There was a door open, light pouring out. Heat drifted through it and down the hall, unnatural and sickening.
“Perry!” he screamed as he flew through the doorway. A haze of flame distorted the room and blurred the figures inside, but no one else could be so small. He cried out again and rushed toward the center of the room, but before he reached it, the fire diminished and disappeared.
Jonathan hardly noticed the huddled figure in the corner. He only saw his boy, sitting in the center of a summoning circle.
“Perry,” he breathed. He dropped to his knees beside the shaking child. “What…did you do?”
Perry didn’t answer. He only sat, gaping at nothing. He flinched when Jonathan laid his hands on his shoulders. His gaze flitted from the corner to his father’s face. “Papa.”
The man moved to kneel in front of the boy, taking his face in his hands and searching him for signs of injury. “Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
He shook his head slowly. His stare reached past him to the corner of the room. “No. But—”
“I told you…” Anger replaced his concern when he realized nothing was wrong. “I told you never to summon! Ever. And now… Lord, I shouldn’t have even taught you! I thought I was protecting you, giving you a chance to be safe. Why, Perry? What could have possibly possessed you—” Jonathan froze, mouth agape. What could be possessing him?
“Send it back, Perry. Now!” he said, gripping the boy’s shoulders. “You need to get rid of it, quickly!” The sound of footsteps caught his attention. He watched the door for a moment, imagining the reactions—what they would do if they knew what had happened. His eyes snapped back to his son and he shook him lightly. “Now, Perevull! Please—”
The first person skidded in and the chorus began.
“What in the…”
“Unbelievable! The louts of today…”
“Look at this!” cried Arterius, pushing past the others. He directed everyone’s attention to the figure in the corner, the heap no one had noticed. He grabbed the boy’s shoulders and forced him up, showing his charred skin. “An attack, on my apprentice! Conspiracy!”
Jonathan shook his head as he got to his feet, pulling Perry up with him and holding the boy close. “Sorcerer Arterius, this was only an accident. He had no intention of harming anyone, I assure you.”
The man grimaced. “An accident, then, caused by an invalid. A halfling: a danger to us all!”
A hush settled as the claim hung in the air. Wizard Osred stepped forward. “That isn’t true, is it, Arval?” she asked. Her smirk showed her reluctance to accept Arterius’s accusation, but there was doubt in her eyes.
“I…” Jonathan faltered. Lying to these people would be suicide, and telling the truth would be damnation. He clenched his jaw and stretched his arm over Perry’s chest, holding his son tightly. The poor boy was trembling.
Wizard Osred drew her brow together. “Is it, Jonathan?”
He couldn’t bring himself to voice the truth. He gave a quick nod.
“Well,” she said, surprised. She blinked it off and addressed the man. “I will see you in my office, then. Latimer, you get to helping Sorcerer Arterius with his apprentice. And it smells like a bloody bonfire in here. Someone fix that, please.”
Everyone shuffled around, either to get out of the way or to do their appointed task. Jonathan and Perry remained in the circle, too shocked to move. Osred waited by the door, a hand resting on the doorjamb.
“Come on, you two,” she said softly, gesturing out the door. “We’ll get things figured out upstairs. Follow me.” She stepped into the hall and Jonathan made to follow her. He grabbed Perry’s hand and led him out of the circle.
Arterius suddenly reached out, clamping an iron grip around the boy’s arm. He stood from where he knelt by Ezekiel and yanked him away from his father.
“Mark my words, Perevull Arval, you will pay for this!” he hissed under his breath as he held the boy’s gaze with dark eyes. “Malice will prevail!”
Jonathan hurriedly snatched him back, all but carrying him out of the room. Warren stopped him in the hallway.
“Jon, please, let me take him up to Jenkins. If you don’t force the demon out now, it’ll only get worse.”
Osred cut in from where she stood impatiently down the hall. “No, Lechar. I’ll work everything out. Jon, come with me.”
The man frowned, but he obeyed. Perry trailed behind him.
Arterius was still standing, a wild grin fixed to his face. He slowly clenched his fist around the object in his hand before he turned back to Ezekiel. The boy opened his eyes, narrowing them at the man.
“Why him? He’s loony,” he whispered, his voice hoarse.
“Have some vision.” Arterius stared at the talisman before he placed it back in his cloak. “If he could do that with a first degree fire demon, just imagine what he could do for us.”