Travis sat up and dug the sleep from his eyes. Today was his last test before he could be declared a full mage. He stumbled to the basin to splash his face. I’ve been here since I was seven. He was graduating a full year before most did. Some never graduated and remained apprentices for the rest of their lives. He didn’t want that for himself.
After breakfast he stood in front of Master Kanno’s desk. “Good morning.”
“Travis.” He put down his quill and looked at the young man through bushy eyebrows. “Are you ready?”
Travis felt anything but ready but nodded. “I am, Master.”
Kanno snorted. “That’s what they all say, every year. Very well, let’s go to the grove.”
The sacred grove was a mile from the castle where the mages trained their apprentices. “Tell me, Travis,” Kanno said as they walked through the gates, “what is the meaning of wicked?”
“It’s evil, Master, morally bad in principle or practice, iniquitous, even. Some people use wicked to describe the weather or even a spiteful, malevolent gossip. But for us, we mean evil.”
“A fair assessment, lad. How are you approaching today’s exam?”
Travis wanted to wipe his hands on his robe. “I’ve thought about several approaches, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“It depends upon what you summon. Evil comes in many forms. I’ve studied the binding spells for many creatures, demons to imps, dragons to dark elves.”
Kanno nodded. “Good. But what if what appears seems harmless?”
Panic washed through Travis. What if the creature that appeared was a pixie or a unicorn? “We’ve learned that not all is as it appears, Master. In that case, it would be my task to divine the true nature of the creature and take the appropriate measures.”
“What if what appears seems evil, yet is not?”
Travis was ready for that question. “Better to be safe than sorry you taught us. I would secure the creature and then determine its character.”
“Have you wondered why some apprentices never graduate?”
Travis thought about Willem, Master Kanno’s apprentice. He was a smart man, indispensible to Master Kanno. “I’ve made assumptions, but I don’t know.”
“Hmm.” Kanno studied his apprentice. “For some, you may have guessed, it was because they couldn’t master the knowledge and magic. We don’t hold those men and women though if they leave, we put a binding on them so they cannot use what little magic they do have. Some do not want the responsibility. The power is overwhelming and they choose to work with us but not to be responsible for the decisions that come with being a full mage. They decline to take the test you are about to take.
Travis wondered how they could study all those years and refuse. It’d never occurred to him.
“Then there are the very few. Like Willem. He took the test but it blasted him and he failed.”
Travis nodded his stomach clenching. His whole life was at stake.
At the clearing and after cleansing themselves in the holy pool, Travis took his place at the edge of a ring of blasted earth. Behind him Kanno began chanting. There was no knowing what would arrive in the center of the ring but he’d have only a few seconds to control whatever it was.
Travis cleared his mind and made himself fully receptive to the creature’s arrival. His fingers tingled with the power he drew from the sacred pool and the holy grove. The air buzzed with anticipation and power. A loud crack and the smell of ozone filled the circle. In front of him stood a young woman, long blonde hair spilling over her shoulders to mid-thigh, hiding her nakedness.
A girl? Was this a shape-shifter and she’d turn to a dragon or a were-wolf? He pulled power from the grove around him and cast a binding net over the girl. It splintered into shards of crystal as she dashed straight for him. He didn’t know what to do. Was it a nymph? Should he bind with fire? He danced to his right, half a step away from the girl’s grasp, her hair flying like a banner behind her. Sparks flew from her fingertips.
Was she a harpy? He tossed a net of hair, conjured from the blessings of the goddess. The girl shouted a word of power, he couldn’t tell which one, and the net burst into flame. Travis panicked. What if he couldn’t bind her? She’d escape into the world and cause all manner of harm.
He shouted his personal word of power. None knew it, not even Master Kanno. The girl slowed, as though she was caught in quicksand, her movements graceful but her eyes flashed red and her face formed a mask of hatred and evil. A snarl revealed pointed teeth.
Travis spun to his left and cast a chain of iron. The girl’s scream ripped along his nerve ends until he thought it would pierce his brain. He held the chain, snapping it around her until she stood immobile in the char of the circle. Panting with the effort, relief flooded through him that he hadn’t let this creature loose upon the kingdom. Travis’ every muscle trembled.
A hand clapped him on the back. “Well done, Travis.” Kanno took the chain from the young man and flicked it. It unraveled and with a wave of his hand and a word, made the girl disappear.
Master Kanno held out a water bladder and Travis drank half of it.
“What did you learn?”
“That I wasn’t as ready as I thought.”
Kanno smiled. “Good. You’ve passed your test. There is much, still, to study. But that will be a life-long pursuit. The ceremony will be in a month, with the others who pass. Congratulations.”
Travis thought about how close he’d come to losing. Something to keep always in mind, he thought as he shook the mage’s hand.
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