Hail sat with his fellow fifth years between the winter-chilled stone walls of Beshquey Hall, all of them around fifteen years of age. He adjusted his position and accidentally jostled his friend’s elbow with his own.
“Watch it!” Colt protested.
“Please fool, I barely grazed you through all these layers.” Hail jested.
The first of the Magiceres had arrived to take their seats on the stage and the hall’s rumble started to dull.
“Ha! The nerve you have to call me a fool when you are the one who chose Windleby as your mentor!”
“Not this again.” Hail covered his eyes with his right hand. “I’ve told you, he gave me great advice at the last exam, and we both specialize in the Fire domain. A last minute survival made me question the rumors surrounding his reputation.”
“And you’ve hated life ever since!” Colt laughed. He’d been enjoying Magicere Kindread’s mentorship this past year. Hail wished he had spent less time trying to make others laugh in his classes; Kindread was a quiet man, but very wise.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word hate…He’s certainly taught me a few things, but nothing is ever easy or satisfactory with that man.”
“It is also clear he hates you! There’s never been a reason you’ve provided that’s ever helped me understand why you chose the single biggest bully to ever teach at the Academy.” Colt had been like this all year. “The fact that he’s a genius doesn’t count, so don’t use it!”
“It doesn’t matter! We only have one day left with the Magiceres anyway. And we graduate in five.” Hail adjusted his position again, his back aching.
“How do you expect to graduate when you’ve never learned how to sit on a bench?”
“That has nothing to do with education.” The noise in the room had died down to mumbles, but Hail hadn’t noticed. “It’s that the design…” Windleby had taken the final seat; the room stilled to whispers, but it was too late, Hail had committed to his delivery. “… Is utter Horseshit!”
The final syllable of his statement bounced off the walls with a feathery grace that didn’t suit the word. His friends and most of the other students giggled as the Magiceres tried to restore order.
“Mister Tanri’Sal!” Magicari Glaciénne’s voice cut through the din, which brought the cacophony he’d caused to an abrupt end. “Why is it always you? Meet me in my office after assembly.”
Hail nodded that he understood. He peered towards his mentor, none other than Windleby himself, and shuddered at what met his gaze.
Windleby’s face, usually fixed in a penetrating glare of disapproval, now stared at Hail with a look he’d only seen a few times before. His cheeks were flushed a bright red, only barely visible over the cupped palm over his mouth.
I am getting shit for this later.
“Welcome students.” Magicari Glaciénne began. “Five days remain before your final exams.” Her words were met by rapt silence.
“If you pass, you officially graduate, marking the end of your seven year journey with us, and the start of your Apprenticeships.” Over three hundred hopeful children had enrolled as novices at the Magical Academy of Desni’Cro, only 31 remained. The vast majority had washed out over the years, sent home to their families for lack of growth; however, many also perished, pushed beyond their limits during brutal exams that claimed a handful of lives each year.
I think you mean, ‘If you survive’ Magicari Glaciénne.
“As ever, you will be tested to the extreme. However, for your final exam you will not just be facing a magical challenge, but we will be testing your physical and domain limitations as well.”
It is like you want us to die.
“Your Magiceres know what awaits each of you, but are under strict orders not to tell you. As is tradition, they will all depart tomorrow. Consider the element of surprise an additional obstacle in this exam.”
You definitely want us to die.
The assembly ran for another fifteen minutes to communicate last minute arrangements, after which they all returned to their quarters. Glaciénne lectured him on his manners afterwards, but issued no punishments. He reached the room he shared with Colt on the top floor to find a note waiting for him.
Impressive work in assembly earlier; I must commend you on your ability to turn a phrase.
Meet me on the topmost observation platform after dinner.
Come barefooted and dress in a single layer only.
Hail groaned to himself; he hated the cold.
After dinner; when there was no sense in procrastinating any further, he returned to his room and removed the majority of his clothing.
He stood barefoot before the mirror, with a single layer of linen, brown trousers and a white shirt, failing to shield him from the cold night air. Content his appearance was in order; he left his quarters to join his mentor, shivering as he closed the door behind him.
Sitting atop seven flights of stairs, the West Wing’s observation deck was the tallest in the Academy. From it you could see the best views that the districts of Desni and Cro had to offer; it provided very little shelter from the elements though, and experienced the most violent crosswinds.
Magicere Windleby was already there, waiting for him. He too was dressed in nothing more than a single layer, his breath puffed out of him in a thick dense cloud. Hail suspected that he had not long completed the climb himself, and was grateful he didn’t have to suffer alone.
“Pleasant evening Magicere Windleby.” Hail’s words puffed out before him, thinner than Windleby’s. A crosswind whisked it away and his whole body tingled with gooseflesh.
“Evening.” Windleby mumbled in reply, staring off into the distant gloom hanging over the dark horizon, not looking at his student at all.
Hail joined his mentor at the railing, the cold leaching into his bones as he rested his hands on the frozen metal railing. “Magicere, why are we dressed like this?”
“Take my hand Mister Tanri’Sal.” Windleby stated, holding it out to his student. In the years that he had known Magicere Windleby, he had never seen him so much as shake a student’s hand.
Hail felt a bit strange about it, but reached out and took his mentor’s hand; its warmth surprised him. He instantly suspected the stairs, but his own hands felt like ice in comparison.
Still holding Hail’s hand, Windleby turned to face his student. “You will be tested. They will use the very things that will hurt you the most, and you have five days to figure out how to make that easier for yourself.”
“Wait… what does that mean?” Hail was confused, but that was not an uncommon sensation when speaking with Windleby.
“I can’t really tell you Mister Tanri’Sal, and I am not all that confident you’ll figure it out either.” He let Hail’s hand drop.
You want to bet?!
“Then what’s the point of being here at all?” Hail snapped.
“You’ve always been a bit lacklustre, barely passing your exams. You are certainly clever enough, but lazy, complacent and ungrateful. I think we should spar for your final lesson, so I can put you in your place one last time before you die.” Windleby shrugged as he spoke; he appeared to be mocking Hail and he felt his anger soar.
You are wrong. I will prove you wrong!
Hail’s magic was proficient, but slow and lethargic in the cold. Magicere Windleby won every round effortlessly; each loss chipping away at Hail’s resolve and energy. Just after sunrise, exhausted and his lungs burning in the cold, he sent a powerful spell at his mentor; it was far too powerful and the cost brought him to his knees. His heart leapt to his throat, terrified that he’d killed the man.
He’d worried needlessly, his final attack was swatted away like no more than a minor nuisance.
His body shook violently, and knew he had no more left to give; he felt empty and dangerously close to over-extension.
Windleby knelt beside him. “Did you know that no Fire-Wizard has ever died from the cold?”
“What?” Hail asked, exhausted and confused, his vision blurring around the edges. He turned to Windleby; his glabellar lines extended high into his forehead, like arms raised in surrender; the only gesture of capitulation in an otherwise unyielding figure.
Hail coughed, the cold sinking into his very state of existence.
I’ve never pushed my magic so far.
It was as he tried to stand that it happened; he thought he was about to die when something inside just…let go. His body was flushed with warmth, blissful and beautiful warmth, his breath escaping his mouth in a thick, dense cloud.
“There you go.” Windleby sounded pleased, he had Hail’s arm wrapped around his shoulder as he half-carried him back to his quarters.
As he dropped his student on his bed, not even bothering to cover him, he said. “That is a survival response, which you can learn to access on command.”
Those were his final words to Hail as his Mentor and Magicere.
Hail woke in the late afternoon, absolutely starving; he spent all the nights preceding his exam repeating his mentor’s last lesson; by the final night he had mastered the ability to warm himself at any time he wished.
On the day of his exam he was called at midnight and told to dress in a single thin layer. He was grateful to be allowed his shoes.
The exam itself was challenging, and they definitely used magic to make it colder, but he felt content with his efforts by the end.
He didn’t know how well he did and barely cared, he’d passed; passing meant he had survived. Eight other students hadn’t been so fortunate.
All the graduates were to stay in the dinner hall after dinner to celebrate; their atmosphere bittersweet with the loss of their friends mingling with the relief of their own survival. Once all the younger students had returned to their quarters, the Magiceres instructed the staff to bring ale and more food from the kitchens; then departed to the faculty room on the third floor.
Hail sat with Colt, they didn’t speak much, their moods restless. They drank till they giggled, finally feeling like the children they still were.
Midnight first waxed then waned; the barrel of ale was half empty and almost everyone had passed out, including Colt.
I’ve always wanted to see the Academy at night…
He never meant to go looking for the faculty room, but his winding about the place unattended led him to a door he’d always been curious about. It was unlocked, and within lay the hidden passages that ran between the walls of the Academy itself. The opportunity was too good to pass up and he ventured in; it wasn’t long before a beam of light led him to a hole in the wall.
The Magiceres all sat around a long table facing each other. A couple were nursing drinks whilst others picked at the leftovers on the table before them. The room itself was well appointed with all their comforts catered for; stone walls glowed with warm orange hues as torchlight softened the corners of the room.
Glaciénne raised her glass. “You should all be proud of your graduates; they all performed exceptionally well today.” She sounded unnatural to Hail.
“To those that did not die.” Kindread toasted the room with a raised horn.
“To those that did not die.” The rest of the faculty chorused in unison.
“Have any of you ever considered if we are wrong to accept how some of them die?” Windleby asked. He too sounded odd to Hail, and it dawned on them that this must be what they all really sounded like, when they didn’t have to adopt the air of a Magicere.
“Is that why you cheated?” It was Zikaia that asked. “Mister Tanri’Sal’s come a long way this year, but he used magic restricted for Apprenticeships today.”
Windleby stuffed his pipe with tobacco. “You are correct, but I didn’t cheat as I never taught him how, the rules are quite clear after all.”
“Don’t lie Windleby!” Zikaia was relentless. “Hail Tanri’Sal was predicted to wash out last year. He barely survived, now he’s arguably the academy’s best student. If that is not as a result of cheating, then I would love to know how you both pulled it off.”
“I wouldn’t mind knowing too Ardin.” Glaciénne said softly. “If the boy cheated, I should consider his expulsion.”
Windleby’s first name is Ardin?
Hail wanted to chuckle, but clapped his hand over his mouth.
Wait? I didn’t cheat!
He leaned in to get a better look.
“I am willing to swear on the entirety of my life that the lad didn’t cheat. And that’s quite a thing, isn’t it?” Windleby asked, one eyebrow arced at his colleagues.
“Let’s not do this again.” Kaydin’Sol spoke, her back was to Hail.
“We’re not. I am though.” He smiled; Hail had to cover his mouth again.
The man looked twenty years younger!
“I aim to answer the question though.” He continued. “What you do with it all after I’m done is up to you.”
He lit his pipe as the room waited, the flame of the match dimming as he drew it in. “Who does that lad remind you of Arderine?” He turned to her.
“Fiende.” She replied without hesitation. The whole room gasped.
“They are nothing alike!” Kaydin’Sol protested. “Hail is a much kinder soul.”
“I only mean they have things in common.” Arderine continued. “What they’ve been through, as well as his attitude towards authority and his views on restricted practices.” The room nodded and shuffled; Hail felt his confusion grow.
“Exactly.” Windleby confirmed. “They were both dumped here by their respective parents and then forgotten about, orphans via neglect as opposed to bereavement.” The truth stung Hail. He hadn’t seen his family or home in over seven years, and rarely heard from them.
“Arderine’s mentioned some things, but just like Harriette Fiende, Hail is both talented and proud… and what’s most damning of all is that just like her… he has to be provoked into progression.” It was clear he had their attention.
Hail had no clue how to feel about this conversation; anxiety mixed with anger as it sifted through his drink-addled brain.
“Is that how you did it? You provoked him into cheating today?” Zikaia asked, her eyes bright and penetrating, smoking a small cheroot she’d rolled for herself.
“Right, it’s probably for the best if I get to the point.” He sighed at his colleague, smiling fondly at her.
“We dropped the ball with Fiende, and she brought Vampires into our world. Both she and Hastine are still out there, and we have been cursed with long lives till we manage to remove them. One hundred and fifty years and we ache for death, and this has jaded us. We recruit them far younger than ever then throw them to the wolves…"
The room was quiet. Hail was shocked, his mouth now hung agape behind the wall.
“Children have died within the machinations of our designs, and I am tired of it.”
“None of us need you to state the obvious Windleby.” Zikaia interrupted.
“Sorry, but I am sort of setting the stage here.” He winked at her and Hail wondered if there wasn’t something more to their banter. “I provoked him. Mocked him and challenged his ideas to draw out his need to spite me. Knowing how he felt about hidden knowledge, I purposefully threatened him with the withholding thereof. And along the way he picked up a few things earlier than expected.”
“Horseshit Windleby!” Zikaia bit back and he burst out laughing.
“Sorry.” He apologized. “But Hail’s funny! You reminded me of the incident he caused earlier. I had a terrible time trying to hide my laughter.”
That’s why his face was red!
He felt his chest tighten slightly at hearing how warmly Windleby spoke of him.
“He’s a Fire-Wizard, right?” Windleby continued, his tone suggesting he was at last coming to an end. “Getting him up to scratch with his magic was simple, and now I have to be careful whenever we spar for fear he’ll beat me.”
That’s very high praise!
“The examination focused on water, cold and physical fitness.” He paused briefly. “Water repulsion spells are in the curriculum and his genes provided the dexterity he needed… but the cold management, that he taught himself.”
Hail tried to lean in even further, his forehead pressing firmly against the wooden beams.
“We do a lot of drills on the observation decks, and I pushed him really hard on a cold day… it just happened.”
The lie via omission, veiled by layers of the truth, shone a light of renewed perspective over his mentor.
Zikaia was still looking at him. “Fine.” She started. “But did you have to be so harsh with him this year? You’re reputation for brutality really exceeded itself. You speak of how we watch children die with our hearts closed off, but you outright tortured Hail the entire year.”
“For six years he’s shrugged off every last Magicere’s instruction with the oafish complacency of youth.” He lit his pipe again and took a quick draw. “That annoyed me.”
Hail stayed and listened a while longer, but the conversation gradually turned to the grading process and he didn’t care about that. His head was spinning and he had a lot to digest… even more to investigate when the library opened the next morning.
He decided to walk the Academy grounds instead, dressed in nothing more than single layer of clothing, his body warm, steam billowing from his lips in dense white puffs as the Fires within him smoldered.