Samuel returns to Gythia for the tenth mage trial…
Bright-plumed Titanbeaks pulled the mages’ litters through the Gythian streets: the Archmage in her own, Lyra and Magister Reim in the next. Lance insisted on riding in the third with Samuel; he craned his head out of the curtained window to gape at the complex of short military towers and training yards sprawled against the great obsidian wall, then the closed-up and somber Ministers’ Tower, the Cartographers’ Tower with its landings and patios housing all sizes of telescopes and finally the Mage Tower, taller by a hundred feet than any other and wide as a city block. It was adorned around each level with golden sculptures of past Archmages, each holding the ancient wand named Verdict.
Samuel entered the tower under the hard golden gaze of his sculpted mother and followed his escort into the grand center theater. The acrid taste of unfamiliar magic stung his tongue. Lyra and Reim stopped Lance from following; the three stood by the door.
A walkway edged with sculpted obsidian pillars led to two stone platforms, one higher than the other. Samuel stood on the shorter; atop the high platform stood the guild’s top-ranking mages, the Archmage at the fore, her robes removed to reveal the somber black lace vestments of judgment. “Samuel the Mage Born,” she said, her sugared tone echoing in the immense room, “your tenth trial begins now. If you pass, you shall receive your rank in our guild.” She stretched Verdict forth. “I hope you are prepared.”
Samuel pulled from his belt the wand named Malice. “So I am not to answer for disobeying you, Mother? For burning down Gythia’s hopes? Does it trouble you overmuch to acknowledge the failure of your bloodline?” He spun the wand between his fingers before clenching it in his fist.
A shadow fled from Verdict and landed in Samuel’s periphery a split moment before pain flooded his belly. He whirled to face his aggressor and stared into his own face, at Malice pointed at his own torso. There was no time to register this ultimate betrayal before his shadow double flanked and shot again.
Lance lunged forward only to slam full-force into a shimmering green wall.
“For every action, there is a consequence,” said Lyra.
Reim watched the fight, expressionless, white-knuckling his staff.
A rushing water sound filled Samuel’s ears. He circled to the right and his shadow self mirrored him; there was a flash, and a sting bloomed on Samuel’s leg, a pain that sank to his bones. He curled his tongue around the words of power and a burst of magic fled from his wand, missing the shadow by a breath. He dove and spat out another word: “Uruz!” Another shot just missed the shadow’s neck. The shadow returned the blasts and Samuel dodged. They traded dark magic fire until the platform was a blinding shower of light. He could not outwit himself.
But the shadow could not learn.
He feinted right and leaped away from his double, springing to the nearest pillar, cracking his ribs, two fingers curled around the canine teeth of a carved lion’s head. With the half-second he’d bought, he pulled himself up to crouch atop it.
“Kenaz,” he cried, and the air wavered, and around him were the souls of ancient mages, thousands of them with hollow eyes watching, and the darkness of the Netherworld enveloped him as he leaped. Light flashed from Malice and the shadow crouched, spun wrong and caught the full force of the spell in its back.
When the dark had dissipated, Samuel stood alone on the platform. The Netherworld, having been opened, lurked close, the phantasms murmuring hate and promising justice. Above, the Archmage extended Verdict again.
“So you present a test no one can survive to save yourself the embarrassment of convicting me.” Samuel’s bitter laugh seized as he held his broken ribs. “That is how Magister Reim’s son died, isn’t it? He asked too many questions.”
“If it is so,” said the Archmage, “then you should concentrate on succeeding.”
A second shadow fled from Verdict, forming beside Samuel. He slid back, Malice held in his fist like a blade, his eyes narrowed at his new opponent –
– and his arm dropped as he flinched away from the little boy who looked up at him with wide, terrified eyes: Samuel, as he’d been fourteen years past when he entered Trostan for the first time, Malice far too big for his little hands.
“Such poetry,” mocked Samuel. “I suppose I shall face my wise old future self next?”
“You shall have no such future if you fail,” called the Archmage.
Samuel sidestepped the shadow boy’s fumbling shots with ease. Tears welled in the boy’s eyes.
“I would rather fail,” said Samuel, and released the phantasm that twisted and curled into the skull-shape of nightmares, sailing around the shadow child and then the mages high above, lulling them all to sleep. The shadow disappeared and the Archmage fell.
The shimmering wall dropped. A spinning, churning hole appeared in the walkway by Lance’s feet.
“Go,” choked Lyra behind him. “Go!”
The Archmage landed in Samuel’s outstretched arms, slamming him to the floor. His shoulder dislocated from its socket, sending shocks of pain through his arm and spine. He snatched Verdict away from her, rolled away, yanked his shoulder back into place with an agonized gasp, then stumbled to his feet. “Where is she?” he screamed.
“Who?” gasped the Archmage, blinking, disoriented.
“Gythia’s little creature.” He bent over her, spitting the words into her face. “Trostan wasn’t the only iron you had in the fire. Where is the Storm Queen’s niece?”
The Archmage flinched away. “Gathering allies,” she whimpered. “The Halcyon -”
Samuel sneered and aimed both wands at the Archmage’s face. “Well done, Mother.”
Armor clattered as the knight rolled into position between them, weapon at the ready, shield high. Samuel stepped back, wands crossed in front of him.
“Reconsider, my friend,” growled Lance.
Samuel’s grim mouth cracked into a smile. “You are better than Gythia ever was,” he said, and fell back into the churning portal.
Reim stood at the portal’s source, palm out as Lyra’s face turned blue. Icicles hung from her ears and hair. Her book, encased in ice, laid useless on the floor. Samuel tumbled from the portal’s source at his feet, struggling for breath as he looked up at his teacher’s distressed eyes.
“Magister,” he whispered.
“Run, you fool.”
- Everything Is Gone
- The Consequence and The Inception
- Cold Reception
- Gythian Lance
- The First Mistake
- The Nightmare