Final Exam at the Academy

Jhest waited for the toadstools to stop singing before emerging from his cocoon.

He peeled aside the gossamer threads of small magic that had cocooned him safely during the process of incarnation. The delicate web melted away to nothing, leaving him blinking in the bright starlight.

He was crouching on a beach of white pebbles, a lazy sea hissing up to brush his feet; further to landward, Jhest could make out the silhouettes of the toadstools he had heard, their strange booms almost completely closed now that their song was done.

To wait for the singing to stop, that had been the first rule the Warlocks had impressed on their young apprentices, five years and a whole lifetime ago. A diligent student would know better than to emerge from his cocoon before the singing was complete, lest they find themselves in a world not yet fully-formed, with dangerous currents of unearthed potential roaming the landscape, just the sort of thing that was liable to take an unwary apprentice before the exam had properly begun, and turn them from a promising candidate into a warning in tomorrow’s lessons.

Jhest stood, his lithe, efficient frame unfolding warily into an unconscious half-hunch, and tested the scent on the air. He could smell salt and sulfur and ozone, the bitter-blue tang of a freshly minted reality. Beside his feet, the last lambent strands of his decaying cocoon melted silently into the pebbles. He scanned the horizon, but saw no sign of any other nearby apprentices, no other flicker of magic draining back into the core of this little world.

For a moment he wavered, caught up by the unbearable solidity of the pebbles under his feet, of the sea as it rose to touch his bare toes, and of the impossibly bright stars that flamed in the sky above. The lessons had always made a point of emphasizing the solidity of this unreal exam world, the final hurdle after years of study, of how it would look and feel and taste, even, as real – no, more real – than the everyday world of lectures and libraries and endless hours of study. But even though Jhest had thought himself prepared for it, he and his little coterie of fellow apprentices, he realized now that understanding something on an abstract, intellectual level was no real preparation.

Then his months of training took over. First things first! He thought, and forced himself to concentrate on scanning the ground nearby. He made one pass, then a second, then a third. A feeling of panic began to rise within him. We’re meant to be sent with one, he thought desperately. They promised us! One amulet with every cocoon, so look carefully for it before running off into danger unarmed!

He stopped. Something faint glittered under the waves, a few feet out from the line of foam where the sea met the shore. Almost not daring to hope, he splashed out into the surf and bent down. The small amulet he pulled from the waves was silver and seemed to hold more weight than it had any right to. He turned it over, and smiled when he saw the blue lightning emblem that was engraved on the other side.

A lightning totem.

It could have been worse. A lot worse.