Training

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

A special shout out to my new patrons, Christina, Vickie, John, Jessica, Amanda, Karen, Allen, Amanda, Cassie, Chad, Suzie, Janis, Thom and Sandra! If you want to read early drafts of every novel, novella and short story I write, as well as receive free copies of all my books in the digital format of your choice, become a patron by clicking here.

John hears a sound. Turns.

Click, click.

It’s coming. He wheels around and takes off through the tunnel. He can still hear it as it closes in. He doesn’t dare look back again. Looking back means slowing down, and slowing down means dying.

Click, click.

He hardly registers the fowl miasma that hangs over the dungeon, a putrid sulfuric rot, though it took him aback when he first entered the place.

When was that?

He tries to remember, but whenever he reaches back in time it’s like slamming into an iron curtain. All he knows is that he’s being pursued and he has to get away.

There are brief flashes in the dim surroundings like a strobe, flickers of a life before the dungeon. Colors and lights. Flowers and trees. A family. Kids. But none of these ever resolve into the fully-clothed specters of memory.

CLICK, CLICK.

It’s almost on top of him now. Perhaps thirty yards, maybe twenty. John’s heart jackhammers. He can feel a power blossoming inside, strangely familiar, a latent ability to do…something, an ability that only expresses itself when he’s in danger. That power is important. He knows it as a matter of instinct. There’s something he has to remember, something crucial. He has to—

Claws clamp down into his back, an impossible weight that sends him tumbling to the ground. The foul water that was at his feet splashes into his nostrils, so that he feels for a moment like he’s drowning.

Meanwhile, he can feel the creature on top of him, pushing, tearing, lacerating his upper back, shredding it to blood-soaked ribbons. John screams, the sound bouncing off the walls in an endless cascade of agony.

Every nerve has come alive, high tension wires that send thousands of volts coursing through his body. He can feel the power within, pulsing, waiting for him to take hold. Yet he does not know how, and with each feeble reach it fumbles away from his grasp, bounding off into the dark. And then the creature’s humid maw has opened wide above him, breathing its stink over the back of his neck. John screams again.

More pain. Then darkness.

* * *

John surges into consciousness, crying out as the final drops of world-shattering torment drain out of him.

When it’s over he stops. Rises. Looks around.

He now finds himself in a tiny stone chamber, surrounded by brightly burning candles. Beside him, eyes closed, kneels an old woman, her face obscured by harsh lines and shadows.

“Where am I?”

The woman answers without opening her eyes. “Give it a moment to come back.”

And as if her words were a command, the iron curtain in his head parts.

“Oh no,” he says, and he drops his head into his hands. “I failed again.”

“Stuff and nonsense,” says the old woman. “You still have a ways to go, it’s true, but you’re not a failure.”

“I still couldn’t do it. The power, I felt it inside of me, but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it.”

“Perhaps not,” she agrees, “But you sensed it, and that’s a start. We’ve been through this exercise a thousand times before. Until today, you’d never even realized it was there. Something changed this iteration. You sensed it, waiting, and you knew you had to reach for it.  You’ve improved very much.”

“What use is it if I can only sense it?”

“You have to sense it before you can use it.”

John looks up, stares at the old woman beside him. She’s now opened her eyes. “I’m scared.”

“We all are,” she says. “These are dark times. But you’re learning. Sooner or later, you’ll master it. Sooner or later, you’ll reach for it without thinking, and that’s very important, because when the peril is real, when the Chancellor steals your memory in earnest and throws you into his pit to play his game, the power will be your only advantage.”

“I want to go again. Please,” he says, “Let me go again.”

“You need rest.”

“Just one more time.”

She stares into his eyes, and she must see something burning in their gaze, for when she speaks again she gives her reluctant assent.

“Just once more. Then off to bed.”

John nods, relieved. His contest is a month away. If he can survive, if he can beat the Chancellor’s game, perhaps the man will grant him an audience. It would be the first time the Chancellor has allowed it in fifteen hundred years. And then, well, anything is possible.

“Close your eyes,” says the old woman, not unkindly, and he does as he’s told.

Once more, a fog settles over his mind, and the neurons in his head realign. The iron curtain closes. And then he’s in the dungeon, running, trying to get away.

Click, click.

The Foolish Apprentice

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

“I told you how to do this already.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jess, stumbling over the title, tiny pearlescent beads of sweat popping from his forehead. “Sorry. I forgot.”

Amos sighed. Hovering over his apprentice, he watched with consternation as he made all the wrong weaves, a misstep he’d tried to correct over a dozen times during the past week.

Suddenly there was a bright electric flash like a strobe, and Jess staggered back.

“Jess!” cried Amos, though he was too late to stop it. He was equal parts relieved and enraged to find he’d come away from his mistake uninjured. “Goddamnit, Jess! You could’ve killed us both.”

Jess looked back at him blankly.

“Here,” said Amos, collecting himself. He raised his hands into the air. “I’ll show you again.”

He proceeded to step through basic fingerings he’d learned when he was ten. He penetrated empty space, took hold of two threads. He tucked one behind the other and twisted until the pair was taut. Then he relaxed his grip and let the weave unravel slowly between his fingers. It emitted a soft, golden glow.

“The weave for light,” said Amos flatly. “The tighter the twist, the more energy that’s released, the brighter the light.”

“I mostly had it,” said Jess, rising to his own defense. His cheeks had turned pink. “I just gave it too much tension.”

“And almost blinded us both,” snarled Amos. “You can’t just let go of a weave like that. You have to let it unwind slowly, keep it under control. Magicians have burned themselves to cinders for making mistakes like that.”

Jess balled his hands into fists.

This wasn’t working. Simon had said the boy was headstrong, and that was true enough, but what he’d left out was that the boy was also a fool. Take either attribute apart from the other and you’d have something Amos could work with. If the boy were headstrong but talented, he could find some way to channel his pride toward a healthy confidence. If the boy were foolish but humble, he could be patient, step through the basics over and over again, confident that he would pay attention and eventually learn. But a headstrong fool? There was nothing to be done for that.

“Listen,” said Amos, and he had to swallow a vile insult that had risen up into his throat. “I know you’re anxious to get through the basics, that you want to be a great magician like your father, but you’re young, you know nothing and it takes time. Your father was a great man because he knew when to listen as well as when to lead, because he spent hours in his workshop after you kids had gone to bed and drilled himself in the essentials.”

“My father?” shouted Jess, leaping to his feet. “What do you know about my father?”

“Quite a bit more than you, apparently,” said Amos, trying to keep his voice level. “He never would have put up with your refusal to listen, your stubbornness in the face of correction. I would’ve thought you’d know better.”

“My father said I was destined for greatness,” argued Jess.

“Maybe. If you’d spent more time under his tutelage before he died, perhaps you would’ve learned what it takes to be great. But now? I’m beginning to think you’ll never learn.”

Jess looked like he was going to say something. Tight cords bulged from his neck. But after a moment the rage drained out of him and his head fell into his hands.

“He always made it look so easy,” said Jess in a vulnerable tone Amos had not heard before. “Before he died, he made it look so easy, and then Simon tried to teach me, and I couldn’t get it, and I felt so stupid. I got frustrated, and I thought, ‘if only Dad were still here to teach me himself.'”

A tear fell from one of the boy’s eyes, and Amos’s appraisal of him changed. Perhaps Jess could be reached after all. Maybe his pride was a facade, a front he’d erected to protect a battered ego further embittered by the premature loss of his father. With some patience and kindness (God knew this was not his forté), perhaps the boy would turn out all right.

“Jess,” said Amos, “Your father spoke very highly of you. I believe you can do this, but you have to be open to correction. You can’t take it as a personal affront every time I point out that you’re doing something wrong. Part of your father’s greatness was in his willingness to own up to mistakes and fix them. If you do the same, you can be like him, I’m sure of it.”

“You think so?” Jess looked up then, and Amos’s heart softened.

“I know so.” He placed an affectionate hand on the boy’s shoulder. He would take him under his wing, he decided, not just as a mentor but as a guardian and a friend.

Jess nodded, sniffled, reached toward his nose to wipe away more tears. “Show me again?”

Amos reached into empty space once again, and this time Jess paid attention.