Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
He led me around the northeast corner of the Halls of Learning, and onto the north edge of the Arena. The stark, dusty courtyard stretched half a mile before me, and as soon as we entered it I was overwhelmed by the bustle of motion. It had probably been this full when I had come to challenge Archus, but I hadn't had the attention to spare then. Now I had no control over my body, I could not even turn my head, so I stared out over the milling crowd as I trod inexorably ahead.
The whole of the student body seemed to be gathered in the Arena. All in a throng the students of the Academy were rushing out from among the buildings and into the courtyard. They didn't mill about, either. They organized into tight square formations and then moved smoothly to the south.
Among the rushing bodies I caught sight of someone familiar. Themmichus stood at the edge of the courtyard, standing on one of the rough stone outcrops to see over the crowd, eyes scanning desperately left and right. He was looking for me. I tried again to resist, to catch his attention. If Themmichus saw me with Archus he would know something was wrong. Muzzled or not, I'd find assistance from him. I threw my gaze hard against him, hoping to draw his attention with the weight of it, but he was mostly watching students flowing out from between the buildings. Archus and I were the only ones coming from the Masters' yard.
I had a thought, a spark of desperate hope, and I closed my eyes. I flashed through the exercises I'd learned from Antinus, and then for good measure worked through them again, settling into a distant, removed kind of calm. I could still feel my heart battering, feel the pinching pain every time one of Archus's cuffs bent me to his will, but it was a flutter on the edge of my mind. I focused my attention and imagined the world as I needed it to be.
I didn't try to touch Archus's working. One wizard can undo another's magic, but it is a challenge of skill and strength, and I could not yet challenge Archus at either. I only hoped to catch Themm's attention. I marched on forward, without spending a thought on the motion, and instead poured all my attention into a gust of wind, a puff of force to bump Themmichus around so he would see me and my captor.
I poured every ounce of will into it. I built the belief in my head as they had taught me. I felt it settling slowly together, jagged edges falling into place. It congealed until it was almost real, almost believable. I expected him to stumble, to turn. Any moment now—
And then I felt a horrible pain on the back of my head and light flashed behind my eyes. My head didn't move, pinned in place by Archus's bonds, so I took the full force of the invisible blow. It shattered my concentration, my focus, even my careful calm. I scrambled to put it back together, but beside me Archus growled, "Don't. I can see what you are doing."
I felt a cold fear claw at my stomach, but I fought to force it away. I tried to regain the necessary self-control, but panic pushed it off. We were ten paces away from one of the fast-forming knots of students, and I saw Archus was guiding me behind them. In a matter of moments we'd be lost among the crowd. And then I heard someone bark Themmichus's name, loud and impatient, and as I watched helpless he frowned, jumped down from his vantage, and scurried to join another of the formations.
Archus didn't. Instead he marched me along beside the rearmost of them, and we moved slowly, steadily south toward a high platform that had been raised over the floor of the Arena. Two Masters stood upon it, dramatic in their long black robes. My eyes fixed on Seriphenes and I trembled within my shackles.
He turned his gaze on me, and I saw a single satisfied nod from him. There was no smile in his eyes, no cruel delight, nor was there any hint of mercy. He seemed grim and entirely committed.
The Master beside him was Leotus. I tried again to scream as we stepped up to the foot of the platform. I opened my eyes wide. I struggled against my bonds, but Archus stretched them with a thought and stole any slack I might have used.
The Master's eyes fell on me, and he gave a little chuckle. "Well, well," he said, amused. "Our little shepherd boy has come to join in our hunt. I'm sorry, Daven, but the call was for wizards. I've seen first-hand how little you can do. You'd be better served to pursue a career in the King's Guard. Or return to your fields—"
"No," Seriphenes said, cutting him off. "I sent for him, Leotus. I have hopes that when he sees the power at work in a real-world environment, he might find the breakthrough he needs."
Leotus swept his gaze to Seriphenes, and he frowned. "That seems a risky scheme."
Seriphenes shook his head. "I've tasked Archus with keeping him safe. My apprentice shouldn't have any trouble."
"A cruel task, that," Leotus said. He turned to Archus and gave him a wink. "I suspect your boy would prefer to be the one that bags the beast."
Seriphenes ducked his head in a slow nod. "I've no doubt he would. But he yet serves his punishment for reckless indiscretion."
"Oh ho!" Leotus laughed. He shrugged. "That was months ago! You are a cruel master." But he turned, gesturing with his whole body toward the foot of the platform. A portal stood there, like the one Claighan had opened to send me from Gath-upon-Brennes, but this one was twelve paces wide from end to end, a long rent in reality that showed a window on a forest glade that must have been dozens of miles away. As I watched, the last of the students' block formations filed through it. I could see the rest gathered there, waiting, and scanned desperately for Themmichus among them.
"Well, go on then," Leotus said. "Join up with your classes. Archus, take the boy with you, I guess."
"No," Seriphenes said. He placed a hand on Leotus's shoulder and shook his head, then he made a gesture with his other hand and a smaller portal opened directly before me. This one was just wide enough for Archus and me to pass through together, and it showed a darker bit of land, trees pressed thick, and rocky ground sloping steeply up away.
"I'd prefer them to keep their distance," Seriphenes said. "They are merely to observe, after all."
Leotus opened his mouth to argue, but after a moment he shrugged. He threw a compassionate glance to Archus then hopped down from the platform. "Watch close," he called back over his shoulder and headed toward the wider gateway. "And keep safe."
My eyes snapped back to Seriphenes, and I saw the same grim nod once more. He fixed his eyes on Archus and said, "You understand what you must do?"
I felt Archus nod beside me, and Seriphenes gave a little sigh. "Very well. Pay attention, be sharp, and do not make a single foolish mistake. You understand?" Archus nodded again, and Seriphenes weighed me, his eyes fixed on mine for the space of three heartbeats. Then he turned away, and stepped gracefully down to the earth. He headed for the other portal, too.
"When this is done," he said, "come find me in my study. I must know the precise details."
"Yes, Master," Archus said. "You will not be disappointed." Then I felt the same sharp pressure against my arms, my legs, against the base of my spine, and the dark-eyed apprentice pushed me through the Master's portal and into the woods of the Sorcerer's Stand.
I tensed trapped muscles against the twisting sensations of the portal, but felt...nothing. My last experience with a portal had tossed my mind about like a toy, but this time it was as though I had stepped through an ordinary door. I opened tight-squeezed eyes and found myself upon the forested foothills of a lone, ancient mountain. I looked around as much as my bonds would allow me, eyes straining, but there was no sign of the clearing that held the other students. I was alone with Archus.
And then I saw the dragon, and for a moment I forgot the fear and hatred I held for my captor. Instead I felt only a bone-deep, primal terror at the serpent shape dancing on the wind.
It must have been over a mile away, sweeping high through the air and then diving, a streamer of flame flickering on the breeze before it. It darted from view, diving in a deadly sweep toward the woods below, but in my mind's eye I saw it falling toward fifty half-trained students entirely unprepared. It swooped beneath my sight, but moments later it was wheeling back up, pursued across the horizon by little flashes of fire and light and a beam of searing energy that I could see clearly despite the distance.
I heard distant shouts, barely more than a whisper from here, and I longed to know how much damage was done. I thought of Themmichus, so full of principle and promise, and I hoped desperately that he was safe.
And then Archus reminded me that I was not. He grunted once, then stepped up the hill past me and turned his head slowly, scanning the hillside. He settled on a spot above us and to the left, dropped a hand on my shoulder, and spoke a word.
This time there was violence and pain, invisible strands biting sharply into my flesh as they had done when Lareth moved me to Seriphenes's study, and a heartbeat later I stood on rocky ground clear of any trees. The armor bonds that had clad me were gone, too, forgotten or destroyed by the violent traveling, but my legs gave out and spilled me to the earth.
"What are you doing?" I cried. I panted short, sharp breaths until the world steadied around me, and then I scrambled to my feet and faced him. He paid me no mind, brows knit in concentration while he scanned the hillside above us again. My hand fell to the hilt of my sword and for a heartbeat I considered attacking him. With his attention so focused on the dragon, I thought perhaps I could cut him down before he responded.
But I was not here to kill Archus. I was not here to kill a dragon. I had a far more important purpose to serve. I had to save the king. I was free of Lareth and away from the Academy. I could join the garrison at Pollix, take up the amnesty, and send warning to the king. All I had to do was survive. I watched the back of Archus's head for a heartbeat, but he paid me no mind. Then I turned in place and sprinted down the hill.
I made it three paces before I hit a solid wall of air. My forehead cracked hard against it and I rebounded off, and before I could recover he stepped calmly up behind me, his boots crunching on the gravel. He said, "No, that is the wrong way."
His hand fell on my shoulder and he worked another traveling. Higher up the mountain now, and I heard him make a satisfied sound. He didn't release my shoulder this time, and his grip was all that kept me on my feet. I spun at the waist and threw a jab at his jaw, but he stepped back and summoned air again to bind me.
It was not the elegant plates he'd used before, or the smothering blanket Lareth had called. It was more a belt that snapped around my arms near the elbows and gradually contracted until my upper arms pressed tight to my ribs. He didn't watch, didn't even look at me.
His behavior was odd. He didn't sneer at me. Didn't mock or punish. I seemed an afterthought, and he spent as little effort on me as necessary. Instead, his attention was sharp and focused, bent entirely toward a purpose I did not know as he scanned the mountainside above us one more time.
A shadow passed over me, and Archus's head turned slowly to watch its source pass above. He traced its trajectory, and a slow grin crept across his face. He turned to me.
"Once more," he said, "and then this will be done."
He reached for my shoulder and I tried to flinch away. The belt of air restrained me, though, and he made a second grab, pinched his eyes shut, and sent us up the mountain again.
The spell released the bonds around me, but before my vision had returned he had it in place again. I felt its tug against my stomach as it began pulling back and up, driving my elbows even harder against my ribs before it lifted me off my feet and up into the air.
I remembered him doing that in the courtyard at the Academy, putting me on display for all the students to see my shame. This time there were no laughing, mocking eyes. This time there was only Archus. And me.
And the dragon.
We were just above the treeline now, high up the mountainside and several miles from the site where the dragon had attacked before. I could just see the black scar of its fire marring a bit of woods, the tiny flicker of distant flames among the ancient trees.
There were few trees here. Instead it was all rock and dirt. Archus stood below me on a little ledge, a rare flat bit of land among the steep slope of the mountain's peak. Several paces beyond him the earth stabbed sharply up in a sheer cliff. The weathered stone face showed sharp gouges, the sort buck deer sometimes left in the trunks of trees with their antlers, and here and there it showed spots of coal-black soot.
And on the ledge around Archus there were corpses—of deer and bears and timber wolves, of sheep and cows and farmers' hogs. Some were rotten, some were charred, but none of them were picked clean. Carrion animals had not touched them, but something had feasted here, again and again.
The shadow swept over me again, and Archus lifted me higher into the air with a force of will. I strained against my bonds, trying to look up to see the dragon above me, but I could barely move. I collapsed against the belt and screamed at Archus.
"What are you doing?"
His eyes were not on me. They looked past me, high into the sky, attention wholly focused on the circling dragon. His voice was distant, too, as he answered me. "I am showing you what a real wizard is capable of," Archus said. "I am to convince you that you do not belong among us. And that you do not dare betray my master." He watched the dragon for a moment, eyes growing wide, and then he smiled to himself. "I believe you will find my case convincing."