Authors: Mark Tuson
Time had a habit of flying by almost unnoticed in Peter’s mind when he was thinking thoughts like these, so it came as something as a shock when, after having walked around the wood, he happened to notice that the sky had changed colour from a gentle shade of blue to a vivid salmon pink. He wanted to walk more, but he didn’t want anyone at the Guild to think he had gone missing. He began to wend his way back to the door.
Once inside, he was suddenly taken by how the gently-lit earthy-coloured corridors looked the same all the time: if it hadn’t been for clocks he wouldn’t ever know what time it was, or even what day it was.
He continued walking, and before long found himself down at deeper levels underground than he had seen before. The vast ring-shaped corridors became tighter down here. The doors looked older, and most of them had severe-looking brass, iron, or copper on them. One door looked like it was just made from compressed earth, and had no handle. And then, down one more flight of stone stairs which was far longer than the others, he found himself in a large, round, empty chamber.
There wasn’t any light down here, but Peter had his matches with him, and he struck one. There was a lamp hanging on a wooden peg a few feet along one of the walls, which he picked up and lit from the match.
The room was lit by the faint, flickering flame, which made it somehow more eerie than it had been in the dark. Sounds didn’t echo, which they should have done in a room this large, and the colour of the light coming from Peter’s lamp was slightly less yellow than it should have been; more grey. It was as though there was a lack of reality in this room.
At the centre of the room was what looked like a massive boulder, the shape of an egg on its side, lying half-buried in the bare earth floor. Even from where he was, he could see deep carvings and etchings on the stone, which looked alive and menacing in the flickering lamp-light.
He stepped gingerly closer to it, wondering if it was somehow special or important. The closer he got, the more he saw it as though through a fish-eye lens. There was magic here, the air was so viscous with it that he could barely breathe. He took out his wand and tried a detection spell, like the one he had used on that book, the very first time he was instructed to detect magic. But there was nothing. His wand gained no traction. He tried again with his two-stick. Still nothing. It was like the power that was surrounding the boulder was just... different. Fundamentally incompatible.
The ambient power in here was interacting with his senses, and he felt like his head was spinning and he might vomit, and stumbled into the side of the boulder. Whatever this was, it didn’t want to be disturbed.
Closing his eyes for a few minutes, he gradually regained his senses and stood up. As he slowly walked around the stone he noticed a recess in one side of it: round, about head height and almost as broad, like the mouth of a cave but filled in with more stone, perfectly fitted.
He stood staring, mesmerised. Was it a door? What might be hidden in here?
There wasn’t much time to remain mesmerised for long, however; the room suddenly became deathly cold, and the viscous magical force subtly shifted such that there seemed to be an alien presence in the room. There was suddenly a disturbing lack or air, as well. He couldn’t stay, so he hurriedly left, hanging the lamp back on its peg and snuffing the flame out on his way.
Back in his own room, ten minutes later, Peter’s heart was still pounding. There was something strange and old in that room, and for all his lack of knowledge compared with the other magicians, even he knew enough to sense that there was something
there, like the boulder – or whatever it was – was a corruption of something which should have been fundamentally
He spent the rest of the evening running through some of the other spells he hadn’t attempted to perform with his wand yet; doing so needed a high level of concentration, and Peter felt he needed a distraction from the unsettling thought that something at the foundation of the Guild wasn’t right. As he practiced them, he started to notice subtle differences between the effects of certain types of spell when performed with a wand, as opposed to when performed with the two-stick.
Most noticeable was that some spells – such as ones to open locks – were slightly more difficult to perform with the wand, while others – such as ones to snuff flames out – were far easier with the wand. This, he thought, was likely down to the higher degree of fine control one had with the two-stick; conversely the wand allowed a measure of brute force to be employed.
The distraction was working: suspended above the door to his room was a clock which consisted of a simple globe with a translucent hemisphere on it which slid around it in time with the pattern of day and night, with his own position in the centre of the bulge on the outside. On the outside was a brass ring which spun at the same rate indicating the current time in a similar fashion to an analogue twenty-four-hour clock.
It was nearly one o’clock in the morning. On the globe, he could see the shadow graduating to daylight at the edge of the globe: it would be dawn in four hours. With a resigned sigh, Peter put what he was doing away and went to bed.
His dreams were troubled and garbled, with unexplainable visions of deep red flames and young Neanderthal-like men waving flinten knives in the air and screaming in a language that sounded a little inhuman. None of it made any sense, until the discomfort in the dream reached a crescendo and then there was a scene unfolding beneath him.
It was night, but there was a lot of light. The village was on fire. The young man holding the knife was standing over the bleeding, broken body of an older man, speaking in a calm, collected voice:
Ehkeir toum rechsa duea. Ehkeir deeia duea. Ehkeir Rechsdhoubnom.’
The people all genuflected, and after several moments the young man then kicked the body aside and seized an older woman from nearby, dragging her away harshly by the wrist...
He awoke with a start, wondering for a moment if he had wet the bed: he was soaked and had that curious stinging feeling that suggested that he might. He checked. No, he wasn’t any wetter there.
Once he was washed and dressed, he returned to the library: practising spells with his wand could wait. He unapologetically went straight to the earliest histories again, and read all morning, but found out nothing he didn’t already know. After lunch he returned and this time he went straight for the area where Guild maps were kept to see if he could find anything concerning the rock at the foundation of the Guild. Again, nothing.
From then on, he took to spending most of his time absorbed in the library, leaving only for his seminars with Caroline, and meals, and occasionally to practice spellwork or sleep. The dream he had had seemed too real to have simply been a random vision; he had a strong feeling that what he had seen had been real, especially given the name he had heard, and the strange language the young man had been talking in.
Where had the dream come from? The rock was clearly a large factor in it, but however hard Peter looked into it and whoever he asked yielded nothing at all. It would have been more convincing that nobody knew if everyone hadn’t fallen so uniformly silent: they were obviously hiding something. With that, and how little information there was in the library, Peter was growing ever-more intent on finding out.
It took nearly two weeks for his patience to evaporate completely: his searching had been deep and focused, with an almost autistic level of obsessiveness, but one day he finally broke.
The book in his hand was a large nineteenth-century handwritten study into tombs, and the different forms of tombs through the ages, which he had developed a feeling may be related to the rock under the Guild, especially given the doorway-shaped seam and the symbols inscribed all over it. There was nothing in it, however, and suddenly he broke, throwing the book at the wall.
It struck with a deafening, reverberating
, like a whip, and the binding broke apart, leaving the shattered book in three pieces on the floor.
Suddenly Peter became aware that, while there weren’t a lot of people in the library with him, they were all looking at him, breath held.
‘Fuck’s sake!’ His voice was almost as loud as the impact between the book and the wall.
He stood and bent down to pick it up when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He froze, and slowly turned his head. It was the Steward.
As the Steward picked the book up himself and placed it on the desk, Peter went cold inside. The Steward went on to massage the spine a single time with his palm and clicked his fingers, striking the red leather cover with his thumbnail. Just like that, the binding was repaired.
‘With me. Now.’ Without waiting for a response, the walked away. Peter followed silently, reminded again what it felt like to be sent to the headmaster’s office at school; a freezing weight in the pit of his stomach and a band around his throat.
They marched all the way to the Steward’s office, the Steward himself walking quickly enough that Peter, who was well over half a foot shorter, wasn’t sure whether to walk as quickly as he could or simply jog. On arriving at the Steward’s office, they went in, the Steward closed the door and looked straight at Peter, who was catching his breath.
Peter thought the Steward suddenly looked extremely intimidating: a man who must have been six feet five-or-six, barrel-chested, with a shaven head, stood all of eighteen inches away. He looked more like a tough-guy than a respectable magician.
‘Kindly explain yourself.’ Suddenly he seemed like both: he spoke with the strength of a tough-guy and the inexorable wisdom of a venerable mage. He sat down and placed his hands on his knees, waiting for Peter to speak.
What was he going to say? He stood for several minutes, his mind completely blank as he tried ever-harder to think of the right thing.
He knew his outburst had been inexcusable. He didn’t, however, know where exactly it had come from. He tried to explain.
‘I’ve been trying to find out about the rock at the bottom, under the Guild,’ Peter said eventually. ‘And I’ve been trying to find out about the name, Rechsdhoubnom. But there isn’t anything in any of the books in the library, and nobody will tell me. I’m sure some people know, but nobody will tell me and what’s more nobody will tell me
‘Why?’ The Steward looked tentative and careful. ‘You’re asking questions, the answers for which you simply aren’t yet ready. You’re asking and seeking but you haven’t developed the strength in yourself to fully understand. So…’ he paused ‘… me explaining would be… well, it would be like trying to explain death to a baby.’
Whoa, shit, Peter thought. That was patronizing.
But, it turned out, the Steward was right about Peter not being ready to know. As he learned more, he grew more emotionally, learning not only magic but discipline. The Steward had gone on, that day, to say that, while magic is more about changing the truth of reality than manipulating it, certain truths were things with which to be exceedingly careful.
Peter understood that, and it seemed to make it all the more profound to him. What truth could be so dangerous as to warrant being compared to explaining death to a baby? He tortured himself for several months, trying to work it out, but eventually gave it up as he accepted that he had more growing and maturing to do. Thus, he applied himself to his studies, relegating his personal reading of Guild history to an occasional hobby.
Time moved by with both a lightning rapidity and a grinding slowness; each day was short and he barely noticed as they slipped by, and as each progressing month went from being in the future to being in the past, he began to realize just how much he was growing. Before long he could perform complex spells with as little thought as turning on an electrical appliance.
One morning, he was abruptly awoken by three loud knocks on the door. It sounded like wood on wood.
He answered the door in his pyjamas. The Steward was standing in the corridor holding a long wand of dark wood. There were four other people with him as well, all dressed in what looked like brown, hoodless academic robes.
‘Peter Iain Rutherford,’ said the Steward in a clipped voice, ignoring the blatant tiredness being exuded by Peter, ‘you have been living within our protection for three years. It is time for you to face trial. Come with us now.’
Peter turned back into his room and started to dress, but two of the men accompanying the Steward seized him under the arms and forcibly carried him out of the room. He protested and fought, but they were too strong for him.
He was terrified; what the hell was happening? Had he done something? He attempted to cast a spell on the floor to reduce its friction against the shoes of the men who were carrying him, but without his hands being able to move freely he found it impossible to gain any traction in his hand movements: what was more, he hadn’t ever succeeded in performing magic without a tool. He tried turning and slipping out of their grip, but they were still too strong for him.
They carried him to what looked like a courtroom, and chained him into a stand. He looked around and saw a few faces he recognized. The Steward went to a great desk at the top of the room and sat behind it, apparently in the seat of judgment. There was what may have been a witness stand, at which Caroline was stood, calmly waiting.
Everyone settled into their apparent places, and the room fell silent.
The Steward banged the butt of his wand on the desk before him, producing a sound like a gunshot with no echo whatsoever.
‘Hereby do I call these proceedings to their open. I, Edwin Harrison, preside as Steward of the Guild of Magicians, to judge the matter at hand with the wisdom with which I have been trusted.’
How very formal.
‘Who stands to accuse?’
Caroline spoke. ‘I, Caroline Sharples, stand to try the accused for taking the knowledge of magic from the Guild of Magicians, without payment.’
Peter was confused and angry and scared. ‘I did no such…’ he started to shout but suddenly found his vocal cords weren’t catching.
The Steward looked impassively at Peter. ‘You will speak only to answer direct questions, Mr Rutherford,’ he said.
Peter closed his mouth. He supposed that if he had been given these opportunities to learn, he may be expected to pay in some way, at some point. Unless this was some sort of demented tradition in the Guild.
Caroline continued. ‘The accused has attended lectures given by myself and a small number of other members of the Guild of Magicians, and has had unrestricted access to our main library for three years. He has taken our knowledge, both offered and not offered, without earning it in any way other than finding ways to absorb it into his own mind.’
The Steward nodded, and slowly turned to Peter. ‘Mr Rutherford. What have you to say on the matter?’
Peter found his voice was there again, as though it hadn’t been removed at any point. ‘Caroline, Steward.’ He nodded at each of them in turn, in acknowledgement, and then spoke, taking great care not to allow any more anger into his voice: if this was a trial of whatever nature, he must accept that formality and at least attempt to play along with it.
‘I have accepted what had appeared to be a gift; the hospitality of the Guild and the knowledge imparted to me. I had no idea that I was expected to pay, or what nature of payment I might be expected to render.’ There were murmurs among the people there, though Peter couldn’t quite be sure whether they were in agreement or not.
When the murmurs ceased, the Steward spoke again. ‘Do you, therefore, accept the charge of taking our knowledge, both when bidden to and not?’
What kind of question was that? ‘I do.’
‘Do you accept that you will be called upon to pay your debt to us?’
The Steward stood up and raised his wand. ‘In that case, I offer you, on behalf of the Guild of Magicians, a choice between two options. You will either leave the Guild of Magicians forever, and be reintroduced to your former life, whereupon you will find that magic no longer works for you, or you will allow yourself to be subject to a trial of survival, whereby you will need to use magic in order to not die.
‘If you choose the latter, you will find yourself in a place where you need to create all the things you need to keep yourself alive yourself, using your learned magical skills. You will be alone, with no members of the Guild of Magicians to defend or assist you. You will be given no tools other than a knife. And if you survive, you will be subject to active service in whatever field in which you show the most aptitude.
‘Is this all perfectly clear?’
Peter considered for a moment, dumbstruck. Leave the Guild forever and be safe, but lose everything he had gained so far, or leave the Guild for a year and possibly die: was that a reasonable price to pay for the knowledge he had gained so far – and had yet to gain, or was he mad for even thinking about it? And what kind of active service might he be called upon to take part in after his trial was over?
‘Yes, Steward. That is clear.’
‘What is your decision?’
He knew that was going to be his next question, but still he hadn’t been prepared for it. He wanted to prove himself, but other than not being sure whether or not he was prepared to stake his life on whether or not he had enough magic to create or secure everything he needed to survive. Though perhaps that was part of the point; was he supposed to jump in the deep end, having only faith and not knowledge?
There was only think left to say. Suddenly terrified and lightheaded with the surreality of the situation, he shakily spoke. ‘I want to be a magician. I want to earn my right to be one.’
‘You submit yourself to be sent into a wilderness to test your skills?’
The Steward nodded once, sharply and formally, and brought the butt of the wand in his hand down on the table once more: the trial was over.
Slowly, everyone began to file out except the Steward and the two men who had escorted Peter into the stand. They took his arms again, as before, and the Steward stood in front of him.
‘You will understand,’ he said, without any of the pomp or formality of a few moments ago. ‘You can get dressed and have something to eat. But you’ll be under guard all the time –‘
He didn’t have a chance to finish, because Peter punched him in the face which made his hand go numb. ‘You twat,’ he said. ‘What the fuck kind of trial is this? Or is it some perverted tradition?’ He went to punch the Steward in the face again, but one of the guards caught his fist, giving him a sensation of extreme heat as though he had immersed his hand in molten lead.
The Steward ignored the spot of blood forming at the corner of his mouth and continued, in a more clipped tone. ‘You will be under guard all the time. You will be sent through a portal to an island which the Guild owns and manages. This does not mean you will be safe. It only means that you will have chances to find ways to survive.’ He then walked away.
Peter had a sudden sense that he had nearly cost himself this chance, and was struck by a wholesale shipment of remorse and guilt. But it was the Guild’s fault: they had woken him up abruptly and brought him here to stand trial, and frankly he didn’t give two tin shits whether it was a genuine trial
a tradition. It was a pain in the arse and it was humiliating. He hadn’t even been given a chance to get dressed, and they had done this to him.
He was escorted back to his room, where he went to dress in what seemed most practical, though he knew that whatever he wore would probably not survive, even if he did. He settled on the same jeans and shirt he had been wearing when Eric had first found him, that evening three years before. He was then escorted to the refectory where he ate the same breakfast he usually ate, and was then taken to the entrance of the Guild.
The same people were waiting there as had been at his trial, standing in a horseshoe with the Steward at the head. The two guards stood next to him, one on either side, and the open end of the horseshoe closed around them to form a circle, with Peter and the Steward standing opposite one another.
‘Peter Iain Rutherford, you have accepted the judgment against you. What have you to say before it is executed?’
Peter was still angry, and he wanted to make a point. He stepped forward and smirked around at everyone.
‘Fuck you.’ He gambolled through the portal, determined not to let anyone see how thoroughly terrified he was.
Almost as soon as he had stepped forward, he was somewhere else, surrounded by young trees.
‘Well,’ he said loudly. ‘That’s that.’
The gentle breeze floating through the trees dropped a sycamore leaf on his shoulder in reply. The effect of the sudden and total solitude was immediate and immersive. There was nobody here, let alone anyone who might give a dam whether he lived or died.
He stood around for a good ten minutes, partly getting used to the feeling, and partly not knowing what else to do. Eventually, he set about thinking about what he needed to do to survive. With a terrifying start, he realized that nobody had given him the knife he had been promised; he would need that for making some other basic tools, but then he felt a lump in his pocket which must have been it: one of the guards must have slipped it into his jeans pocket while they were so roughly moving him between one place and the next. He took it out of his pocket. Nothing fancy: an Opinel No. 8, with its distinctive red beech handle and blade marked ‘INOX.’
He walked off in no particular direction, with a view to finding water. Once he had found a brook or a river, he would have water. Even if he found the edge of the island he might be able to purify the water, somehow. Once he had water, he would set about building a dwelling there.
As he walked, the Sun was growing hotter, and he was growing ever-more grateful for the canopy of leaves overhead. The only sounds he heard were his own footsteps in the earth as he walked, and the breeze, and the birds. He watched the trees as he walked, hoping to find a straight and knotless branch to use to make a wand, but while all of these trees were young, they were old enough to have very few young shoot-like branches that might be suitable.
A branch with knots might be useable, he supposed, but that wasn’t the point: for a wand to work properly he would need to be able to get to know the grain of the wood intimately very quickly, and knots made for a lot of grain that his magical sense would have to spend a lot of time following and learning how to make connections through. All-in-all, it would be prohibitively difficult.
It took him a little over an hour to find the edge of the island, with a narrow beach at the edge of the wood, down a small cliff, where the trees and their roots abruptly ended, and the earth had been washed away. Standing on the precipice, he could see that the island was large, and apparently out at sea: nothing was visible over the horizon except endless water. The beach here was very slightly concave, and he could see a few bamboo-like reeds on the other side of the curve. He wondered idly for a moment if a piece taken from between the knots of a reed would be suitable for making a wand.
He supposed not; it was hollow. It might, however, be suitable for making a two-stick, which would be a good start. He might possibly even be able to enchant a piece of it to use as a straw to magically purify water to drink.
The cliff was maybe twenty feet straight down, and under it were a few large flat rocks and a patch of wet sand. He looked left and right to see if there was a way to climb down. There wasn’t. His only option would be to jump. His heart began to hammer at the thought, and he was scared sick of hurting himself if he landed wrong. But there would be no other way to get down, unless he wanted to fart around trying to find vines to make a rope.
He stepped closer and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath in a vain attempt to calm and steel himself. He jumped.
As he landed his left foot gave way and he collapsed sideways, hitting his head on one of the flat rocks. His head spun sickeningly and he swallowed back a strong urge to vomit. After giving himself a few minutes to recover himself a little, he carefully sat up and then stood up, focusing on the bamboo a hundred or so yards away.
There was no canopy of leaves here, and Peter rapidly grew very hot. By the position of the Sun in the sky, it must have been coming to around midday. He groaned: he had been here less than two hours and already he had fallen and hurt himself, was hot, sweaty, and thirsty. This was not going to be a very good year, and for the first time he actually took seriously the notion that he might die during this exile.
He reached the reeds and cut one down with his knife. It was around seven feet long, and he cut it into sections, using the knots as dividing marks: each piece was between a third and a half of an inch thick, and between nine and fifteen inches long. Except for one, he then slipped all the sections into one of his pockets.
The piece he still had in his hand, he split into four flattish lengths, and evened them a little with his knife. Then, holding them tight together, attempted to cast a small spell with them, using them as a two-stick: a spell to make one of the other pieces levitate slightly for a few seconds.