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.
Lightning was not one of the four Primes, because it could be broken down to yield Fire and Air, and was thus subservient to those poles of magic, or at least, that was the way the Archmages were keen to represent it. But neither was it one of the joke totems, the five or six least powerful channeling stones that every apprentice learnt about almost from their first day at the academy, and which became the subject of much amusement, mainly because deep down, every apprentice dreaded more than anything emerging on the proving grounds and finding a Mud totem, say, or an Acorn, glowing mockingly up at them.
Jhest lifted the ankh and carefully hung it around his neck. At once, an awareness of the magical heart of this little world flared into focus in his mind. He had sensed it from the moment he had first arrived here, but the totem sharpened that sensation. More, it gave him a conduit through which he might draw on that power.
At that moment there was a flash of lurid red light from far out to sea. For an instant, a whole quarter of the world seemed illuminated, and Jhest had the impression of some vast, towering structure or vessel looming amongst the waves in the distance. A second later, and the light had faded again, but left instead a rising roar of wind that carried with it a huge tearing sound, as of some tortured fastness of metal rending back on itself; and mixed in with that, something small and human and desperate.
I am not the only one to have found a totem, Jhest thought.
The exam had started in earnest, then.
He quested through his Lightening totem towards the center of the world, and found there the fluttering, unstable heartbeat.
He weighed the feel of it in his mind, and estimated the amount of time that remained before the collapse began. The students were always given some time to find their way home after the start of the dissolution. After that, this unstable little world would fold back in on itself. And any apprentice unlucky or unskilled enough not to have found a way out and escaped back into the wider reality would collapse with it, siphoned back into the raw stuff of power from which this little world was made.
Jhest gritted his teeth and splashed back to the shore.
He looked to the left, then the right, then straight ahead, to where the land rose gently from the sea, and away towards a low series of hills just visible in the vivid starlight.
He hesitated for a moment. The shore might hold more totems or other resources that could be useful, but he felt exposed here, somehow, hemmed in.
An unseen bird cawed in the sky above. As if prompted by the creature, Jhest set off, away from the sea, towards the distant hills.
Not far from the beach there was a rattling from the road behind, and fast on Jhest’s heels rolled a cat riding on a pig riding on an ebony-dark wagon. The pig was trotting along on a kind of treadmill attached by an intricate system of cogs and belts to the wheels below. The cat had flashing green eyes and held the pig’s reigns in one manicured paw. Unsure of the protocol when meeting such travelers, Jhest stood to one side to let the vehicle pass by. As they overtook him, however, the pig came to a lumbering halt, and the wagon rumbled to a stop beside him. The cat looked haughtily down, but offered not a word.
“Hello to you,” Jhest said, trying to sound confident, though he could not stop himself from fingering his Lightning totem. They had been told that both help and danger might come not only from their fellow students, but also from many other strange figments of this miniature reality, and one ought prudently to be both polite and wary.
The cat licked his sharp teeth and yawned. Behind the dark glass of the wagon, Jhest fancied he saw the movements of a shadowed shape.
“Where are you headed on such a dark night?” he asked, when the cat’s silence had grown uncomfortably long.
“We’re goin’ to the market, sunshine,” grunted the pig, evidently still out of breath from his exertions.
“Silence, Bartleby!” Chided the cat, giving the reigns a vicious tug. “One must know one’s station!”
The cat raised an arrogant eyebrow, and pointedly looked away.
“Um,” said Jhest, trying and failing to catch the cat’s eye. “What market is this?”
“I don’t know, some people,” muttered the cat under his breath, before turning to look down his nose at Jhest and saying distinctly, “We are going to the Midnight Market, for our mistress has business there. Now, if you’ll excuse us, thank you so very much.”
And with that he gave the reigns another tug, and the pig started up his trotting again, and away the wagon began to roll.
But before the wagon had gone very far at all, there was a sharp cracking noise that sounded for all the world like the heart of a mountain breaking, and the door of the wagon swung open. A slender green-clad leg emerged and crunched down on the pebbled path, gently but very firmly.
The wheels spun and spun and the pig on the top trotted on for all he was worth, but the wagon moved not an inch.
The cat gave a sigh and let the reigns fall, slumping his shoulders sadly. The pig came to a halt.
Jhest peered towards the wagon, trying to make out the figure now sitting half in the darkness of the carriage and half in the silver starlight outside. He could see the slender leg and the curve it made as it rolled upwards to something firm and shapely and smothered in shadows. Two delicate hands entwined in the light, and a pair of large luminous eyes shone out at him.
“Now, I hardly think that was well met, Torquimada, do you?” the voice was silky soft, but with a dangerous undercurrent Jhest disliked.
“No, mistress,” purred the cat, so soft that the words were barely a breath of wind in the long grass by the path.
“No indeed. So tell me, young traveler, where are you travelling to on this bright night of beginnings? Perhaps we might offer you a lift there?” The mistress of the wagon leant towards him earnestly, but even though this should have brought her face out of the gloom of the cabin, still the shadows clung to her, and only her eyes and her hands were clear.
For a heart-stopping moment, Jhest recognized the formal words and yet could not order his mind enough to clasp the appropriate answer, lodged as it was amongst months and months of poring and searching in old, dusty books in the Academy libraries, one memorized item of lore amongst a million such.
“I am travelling,” Jhest paused, desperately trying to recall the phrase that would save him. The mistress opened her white eyes wide, and Jhest had the impression of teeth glinting somewhere in the darkness beneath.
Then in a flash, the words were back in his head.
“I am travelling to the black morning at the end of this world, and my own two feet will take me there,” he intoned, putting as much confidence into the words as he could–which was not very much–and laying a hand firmly on his Lightning totem as he did so.
There was a flash of purest lightning light, white as snow, and for just one moment the mistress of the wagon was illuminated, and Jhest was very glad he had gone no closer, nor thought of entering to join her.
The light he had cast faded at once. The two eyes in the carriage narrowed, and the hands moved back into the shadows.
“Very well,” she said softly, “I see you do not want my help. I suppose you would not let me have a little look at that pretty toy around your neck, would you?” There was something wistful in her voice.
Jhest shook his head.
“Not this time, good mistress,” replied Jhest, just as softly, for he knew now the danger was passed.
“Then we know where we are and who we are and what it is we both must do,” she clicked her tongue. “On, Torquimada!” she commanded, in quite a different voice. “It seems we must find some other meat to bring to market.”
And with that the leg was pulled back inside the darkness, the door was slammed, and wagon, cat, pig and all rumbled away into the night.
Jhest moved on towards the hills, the totem round his neck slowly losing the warmth the channeled illumination had awoken within it. There was still plenty of time before this world became so unstable that leaving the exam would be permitted. Still, how exactly he was to accomplish that feat was something he would have to turn his attention to at some point.
As he walked up the gently sloping hill, he twirled his totem in his fingers and wondered if he would be content to walk away from this world set on a path towards Lightning wizardry. It had not been his intent to follow that particular discipline, though of course there were many notable Lightning wizards, and one could certainly accrue a measure of respect in such a field. Many of his friends had very definite ideas as to what path they wanted their wizarding career to take–far too many of them envisioned themselves as Earth mages or one of the other frightfully competitive Primes, and most were bound to be disappointed–but Jhest had no such rigid ambitions.
He had covered Lighting magic in his revision, naturally, because it would have been foolish to have overlooked even one of the totems, but he had never paid it more attention than any of the others.
If he decided not to focus on finding a replacement totem with which to complete the examination, then in many ways the next few hours would be much simpler than if he made it his goal to hunt down a specific totem, a Salt or Feather, for example. These were branches of wizardry that were well–respected, and he had toyed with the idea of favoring both at one time or another.
He began to run over in his mind all the uses of Lightning magic, and imagined what it would be like to wield such powers.
The list was only just taking shape in his mind when there was a snapping and a commotion off to one side. Warily, he stepped off the path, and peered over the edge of a little clump of earth, to look down into a bowl-shaped hollow below.
In the darkness and the silver starlight, it was at first difficult for Jhest to understand what he was seeing. There was someone on the grass, he was fairly sure of that, a small figure running and diving here and there, occasionally shouting words he could not make out in a high, feminine voice. Above the figure, wheeling and diving and harrying them, a host of small creatures were swooping to the attack.
Jhest clambered over the little rise of earth, and slid some way down into the hollow, trying to move as quietly as he could. As he watched, the figure shouted something in a voice he recognized, and a pulse of dirty yellow light burst forth. The air shook with a low, powerful hum, and the creatures that flew about in the air were all knocked backwards and fluttered to the ground.
A rain of something soft slapped against Jhest’s face, and he blinked as some of it got in his eyes and made them sting. He tasted grit on his mouth.
Sand, he thought, and spat.
“Dirty bloody owls!” the figure shouted triumphantly, “How do you like that? Think you’re some kind of tough bird, just ‘cos you’ve got big bloody eyes and a stupid twisty neck?”
But the owls had hardly been floored for a moment before a fluttering noise revealed their persistence. They would be up again before too long.
“Alaine!” Jhest called out, “Are these birds giving you trouble?”
“Blimey, Jhest, is that you?” Alaine shouted back, sounding relieved, “You coming to save me, then?”
Jhest smiled in the darkness. The exam was a competitive business; in fact there were several other apprentices Jhest mistrusted, and whom he would have been loath to expose himself for. Alaine, however, as not one of them.
She was different. They had always been friendly during their time at the Academy, and had even taken to working together a little over the last few weeks.
The owls were beginning to pick themselves up. A few were fluttering dazedly into the air; and now that Jhest had made himself known, more than one was thinking of investigating this potential new target.
“Well, I don’t want to promise anything, but I’ll see what I can do,” Jhest called back.
He gripped his Lightning totem in one hand and followed the tendril of magic that crept back through the metal into the furious, pulsing heart of the world. He pulled off some of the power that writhed there, gently separating out the silver-white thread of Lightning arcana that would flow easily through his totem. This was such a small fraction of the whole tumult that it seemed almost pitiful, and the temptation was–as always–to make a grab for a whole handful of the raw stuff, Fire and Earth and Salt and all the rest–to pull it all like a vibrant rainbow storm out from the core and into the ether around him. But he knew the limitations of the totem he held, and resisted that deadly urge.
The arcana flooded into his hands, and as it pulsed through him, Jhest swept the power out into a cast that he had held ready in one corner of his mind, shot it outwards in one of the simplest, most brutal expressions of Lightning magic that he knew.
A bolt of white light shot from his fingers and slammed into the feathered chest of one of the birds. For a moment it was lit up impossibly bright, the little hollow around illuminated into a frozen tableau. Then the light was gone, and the unlucky bird with it.
There was no noise. The unfortunate smell of scorched owl filled the clearing.
“Well done!” Alaine shouted, but she sounded uncertain, and Jhest knew why.
In that one moment when the clearing had been illuminated, they had both seen how many, how very many owls there were: perched in trees, crawling on the ground, circling in the air above. It had been easy to blast one of them; but even that one bolt had made the totem hot against Jhest’s chest. It had taken much more magic than simply making a flash of light. And even the worst apprentice knew what happened to a totem that was used as a conduit for too much power–Jhest did not want that to happen.
So simply blasting every owl was not an option.
Jhest began to run towards Alaine. In the darkness, he saw the totem around her neck begin to glow. He hoped she had come to the same conclusion as him.
“Shield?” he panted as he reached her side, and she nodded, concentration hardening her usually friendly face.
A rough whispering noise began to rise up around them. The ground scratched and seethed; and singing up in five fine tendrils from the grassy earth, twists of sand began to form. Alaine gritted her teeth and nudged the pillars with her eyes. They spread out into thin sheets, swelling and joining until they formed an undulating dome around the two apprentices. That was the moment Jhest had been waiting for. Once again he reached through his totem into the seething mass of arcana, and once more he fished out a strand of power. He muttered a word and spelt it with arcana, and cast that spell into a second dome, smaller than that of sand, this one of lightning-white. The second dome expanded until the two shells were touching, and at that moment they fused and became something else, a glass shield, not as pretty nor perfect as the ones the apprentices had studied in dusty books, but serviceable all the same, and they were both immensely proud of it.
The owls swooped and battered at the glass shield, but they could not get in.
Smack went their talons as they glanced off the dome, and harsh were their frustrated cries: the glass was very strong.
But if the owls could not get in, Jhest and Alaine could not get out, either.
“Now what?” asked Alaine at length, “We can’t very well wait here until the contest is over!”
“I know, I know,” agreed Jhest, who was all too well aware of what would happen to them if this little self-contained reality collapsed whilst they were still inside, “I’d thought, well, I’d assumed they might have lost interest in us if they weren’t able to smell us.”
Time passed, and they were on the verge of dissolving their magic shield out of frustration and making a run for it when, all at once, the owls stopped their assault.
Jhest and Alaine peered through the glass, trying to make out what was happening. All around the little clearing, the birds were fluttering out of the sky and digging their claws into the earth.
“What’s going on?” Jhest wondered aloud.
But even as he said it, he saw that the shrubs and little trees all around were being lashed back and forth in a rising wind. Even the grass was being caught up in it, flickering in rapid vibrations too quick to follow.
“Someone’s coming,” said Alaine softly. “Can’t you feel it? Can’t you feel the magic being used?”
Jhest nodded. He could sense the power thrumming through the ether, like a thick tendril of knotted rope shooting very fast just behind his head.
“Whoever it is, they’ve got a powerful totem,” he muttered.
The wind faltered, settling for a moment. All around the clearing, the owls cocked their heads suspiciously this way and that.
The world seemed still.
With a roar that shook the earth even within the thick glass shield, the wind returned. It seemed to come from every direction; and dancing in the wind, many small blue figures came too, ephemeral, half-formed with slender limbs and shimmering faces. They rushed in from every side and fell on the owls with a great clamor.
Up the birds were swept, squeaking and squawking, turned head over tail and quite powerless to do a thing about it. One was smashed into the glass shield right where Jhest was peering out, and for an instant he saw quite clearly how the wind had been subdued and fashioned by tendrils of arcana into these wicked little sprites of blue. The owl desperately flapped its wings, but the wind sprite gave it no quarter, and soon the creature lay dead in the grass below.
All around them, the same fate was befalling all the hapless birds. Down they fell, from out the sky and amongst the branches, clattering to the earth enraptured and cocooned in little diaphanous bodies of blue, bent of wing and broken of beak.
The wind fell to a whisper, and the blue sprites faded away.
“Quick!” said Jhest, and began unmaking his part of the shield-magic.
He whipped the lighting away, and the sand fell back to earth, and there they were again, beneath the brightening stars.
But they were not alone.
“Ah, my dear fellow pupils!” said Topknot, stroking his thin beard with one hand, and caressing a delicately carved crystal feather with the other, “How happy we are to find more members to add to our company. When we saw the owls from the road, we knew they must have found some poor unfortunates to prey upon.”
Topknot was tall and thin, with a dark beard, and dark hair that was tied up on his head to give him his name. He was one of those excellent pupils who every other student was both impressed and intimidated by. Jhest had a more intimate relationship with Topknot than Alaine, who knew him only slightly: years ago, when they had entered the Academy together, the older student had taken Jhest under his wing, and under his spell. Topknot was the sort of person who did not have friends; instead, he had followers. As time at the Academy had worn on, Topknot had pushed these followers to ever deeper and darker acts–until Jhest had broken the illusion of friendship that had bound him, and in so doing, had broken the sway Topknot had over his other disciples.
Topknot had hated Jhest from that day to this. It had taken him many months to groom and whisper a new coterie out of the apprentices. Now, four of those followers had evidently been rounded up by Topknot, here in the proving grounds. They stood behind him in a ragged half-circle, three serious-looking boys and one tall girl. Jhest knew them all by sight, but only the girl, Raven, by name.
“Thanks,” mumbled Alaine. “Thanks for getting rid of the owls. Was that you, Topknot?”
“Naturally,” Topknot flashed a smile full of sharp teeth, and ran his hands over the feather Ankh in his hands. “I could hardly let them keep you prisoner, could I?”
“You found one of the Primes,” said Jhest flatly, unable to take his eyes off the precious crystal object.
“Well, there you are mistaken,” Topknot brushed an imaginary speck of dust from his shoulder. “Raven here found the Air totem. But we are a team, you see, and we do what is best for all of us. I am the strongest, therefore it is only natural that I should wield the most powerful Ankh.”
He said it with such an assurance that Jhest almost found himself agreeing with the older student automatically. Raven bowed her dark head for a moment. What did Jhest see in those green eyes? Resentment? Jealousy? Or was it something softer. Idolization?
“But that does not mean the others have to go without,” Topknot glanced from one of his followers to the next. “We have a fair number between us. What is the tally now, Bresh?”
Bresh, shorter than the others but broad and with a grim look, stared at Jhest, unsmiling.
“We have six, including your Air Prime,” he said curtly. “A mud, a mist, two shells, and Raven over there has a bloodstone, too, not that it’s awoken yet.”
“And, in that spirit,” Topknot went on, “if you are to join us, then you must tell us now what Totems you have found–though I fancy I could guess.”
Jhest shared a glance with Alaine. Her frustration was obvious. But there was no choice, not really; either they put their Ankhs into Topknot’s power willingly, or else…
“I’ve a lightning,” said Jhest, holding the small silver amulet up so the starlight caught it. “And it’s served me well so far.”
Topknot smiled, and his eyes glinted in the darkness.
“Very pretty,” he muttered. “Why don’t you hold on to it, for now? No doubt you have already formed some bond with it that would make swapping around–awkward.”
Jhest let his breath out, relieved; but as he tucked the amulet back under his shirt, he fancied he caught the others watching him greedily.
Topknot swiveled to regard Alaine.
“And you, my dear?” he prompted.
“It’s a sand,” she stammered.
“Oh dear, so it is,” chuckled Topknot. “Never mind, I’m sure you will have a chance to wield something better before the night is out.”
“Actually, I quite like sand!” Asserted Alaine, going red in the face.
“Why, of course you do, girl,” Raven countered, and when she spoke her voice was very cracked and raw. “For someone like you, a sand is just about right, I would say.”
Alaine set her hands on her hips, and rounded on the taller girl.
“And just what do you mean by that?” She demanded, ignoring the restraining hand Jhest placed on her shoulder.
Raven opened her mouth to say something, but before she could speak, “Enough!” commanded Topknot, and everyone went still. “There is no time to be bickering about such little things. At least, not now.”
Raven did not protest. Jhest knew she would not gainsay Topknot. Raven and Topknot were closer than friends, though no one at the Academy knew the details. If Jhest had to guess, he would have said that any true love there only ran one way. He knew from experience that the only person Topknot might really love was himself.
Now, Jhest saw an ugly glance pass between Topknot and Raven. He did not like it, not one bit.
“This exam is well under way,” Topknot went on. “I make it that we have just under two hours before the collapse begins.”
He looked around the little group, and everyone was nodding. They could all feel it, the fluttering, tender heart of the world, beating out its remaining moments one by one.
“I propose that this is quite enough time to find some more of what is yet to be found. Some of us may have obtained the totems they wish to graduate with, but others may still feel they can do better. And then, of course, there is the little matter of finding the way home before the collapse.”
They all looked uncomfortable at that. To be trapped here when the exam was over, that was something that haunted the thoughts of every apprentice.
With that, Topknot led the group out of the hollow, back to the path, and along it under the stars towards the shadowed hills.
They made good speed along the road, and almost it seemed that the land was in fear of them, for as they walked, a silence went with them, as if the figments of this little reality could feel the strength of Topknot and his Air totem, as if it magnified all of their powers. Twice, Jhest tried to position himself near to Alaine, to talk with her, but both times the other apprentices worked to break them apart, to keep them separate and silenced and alone.
Before long they were in the beginnings of the hills, and soon sweat was pouring down Jhest’s brow and his breathing was coming hard.
They topped a rise, and there it stood before them: a white stone door, pressed hard into the dark, damp earth of the hillside. A heavy chain of silver metal was looped around the handles, and the door was closed very tight.
“Ah, a tomb!” exclaimed Topknot, coming to an abrupt halt, excitement glinting in his dark eyes. “I have read of these! We are lucky to find one, very lucky. All sorts of treasures are said to lay within.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Alaine.
No one replied to her, but Raven gave a short nasty laugh, and Jhest felt the others exchange glances that included neither Alaine nor himself.
Topknot crept over to examine the door.
“This will not be easy,” he announced at length. “But I think we can do it, if we work together.”
Then he turned to Alaine, and placed a thin hand on her shoulder.
“Perhaps your sand can be of use, after all, my dear,” he said.
Jhest felt a shiver of cold run through him. He could see the indentations Topknot’s fingers were making in Alaine’s flesh, could almost feel the sharpness of his long nails.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she repeated.
Jhest could see his teeth glinting in the starlight as Topknot smiled his hungry smile.
“Well then, little one, simply hand your totem over and step away,” purred Topknot, reaching out for the amulet Alaine wore.
“Very well,” she grumbled, taking a pace back from Topknot and lifting the sand totem aloft, “I’ll do it if I must! Clearly, my choices are limited.”
She concentrated on the amulet, and a yellow glow began to suffuse the stone.
“Good,” muttered Topknot. “Now all you need do is make a little hard sand to form. Make it as rough, as hard, as unpleasant as you can.”
His voice trailed off, and Jhest saw that Topknot was concentrating very hard, too. He held the crystal feather in his hand, and made little passes back and forth. With each pass, the wind rose a fraction higher, blew a little wilder, until before long a great storm was blowing, blowing, blowing, whistling out from the totem, and beating down upon the door.
Sand began to rise from Alaine’s amulet, great ugly grains of sand, just as Topknot had directed. And every grain was whisked up by that unnatural wind, and borne aloft, and swept into those thick silver chains.
A rattling, roaring hiss filled the air, thin and terrible to hear; Jhest felt as if his very bones were being worn thin in that awful sandstorm.
The chains could not last long.
Away they were swept, falling apart as if they were being eaten away by an invisible creature with teeth as sharp and hard as shards of diamond.
The silver metal failed.
With a heavy clunk, the two halves slithered from the door and fell to the earth. The apprentices lowered their amulets.
“That was well done,” commented Topknot. Alaine said nothing. She did not meet Jhest’s gaze.
Topknot stepped forward, and kicked the remnants of metal aside with his foot. He touched the door, and open it creaked, and darkness there was within.
The blackness was not complete. A faint, silvery light emanated from the walls, and even when they had gone far enough inside the tomb that the outline of the door was far behind them, still there was light enough by which to see. The air felt still and cold, and had a certain thickness to it, as if some unseen force lingered there, waiting.
Topknot led the way, with the others bunched in tight behind, and Raven brought up the rear.
Jhest licked his lips, and tried to stay close to Alaine.
He had studied the tombs; of course he had, along with every other aspect of the exam that he could find information on. But try as he might, he could only remember fragments. As far as he knew, the tombs were not places where Ankhs or other treasures might be found. Why was Topknot bringing them down here? Something niggled at the back of his mind, some lost piece of knowledge, hankering for his attention…
They came at last to a ramshackle staircase carved into the rock itself, with twisted uneven steps that descended in a steep spiral down into the earth.
Their breathing sounded loud in the silence.
Down Topknot led them, turn and turn about, and the staircase seemed to go on forever, until Jhest began to wonder if it ever indeed had a bottom, or if it was not some cruel conjuring of this little world, impossible and without end. But if he thought about stopping, he never so much as hesitated. He knew they were committed now, for better or worse, and no turning back would be permitted.
At last, however, the final spiral was done, and they stood all at once in a great cavern, very large and empty, and not a wall was to be seen to any side. They walked a little way into the darkness, and Jhest could just make out the faintly luminescent walls of the staircase, a towering spire of rock within which the steps had been hewn, and which now shot up to vanish into the empty darkness above.
“Ah, feel the stillness,” whispered Topknot, and he was right: the air was so quiet that Jhest felt the words drift out into the vast cavern like an awakening; and maybe they were the first words ever known, down here beneath the earth.
A faint form shimmered in the distance, pale and hollow. It drew near, halted, came on again.
“Be ready,” said Topknot mildly, and Jhest was suddenly aware that everyone was holding an Ankh. He could feel them, feel them reaching through their amulets into the hidden mass of arcana that roiled and burnt the breadth of a shadow away. He glanced around. Bresh was gripping a mud amulet, brown, damp light sliding across its surface in little ripples. The other two tall apprentices held Shells, gripping them so tight their hands were white. Raven held the Mist totem gently in one hand; but in her other, she held something else, dark red and silent as stone, and Jhest eyed that one most carefully. Quiescent or not, he disliked it.
The figure drifted closer. Jhest felt himself tense. He could not make it out. Then something shifted in the light, and…
“Ah!” he exclaimed.
The figure wore familiar robes, pulled tight at the waist by a green apprentice’s belt. The hands looked young and supple, but where there should have been a face, only shadows and mist could be seen.
“It is just a shade,” pronounced Topknot, and his voice sounded very loud in the darkness, “We must follow it to the tomb. That is why we are here, after all!”
Forward he strode, brisk and fearless, and the ghost faltered before him. It started to melt backwards into the darkness, but Topknot held up his Ankh, and a cold wind blew out of the cave.
The wraith remained. It could hardly do otherwise.
“To your tomb, shade,” Topknot said, quiet and grim, and the ghost writhed and wrung its hands together very tight.
It began to float away, arms shuddering desperately. It drifted on, and Topknot led them after. Soon, the tall spire of stairs had vanished into the darkness behind them.
Jhest had the most uncomfortable feeling that it was looking particularly at him, trying to tell him something.
Why is Topknot so keen to find a tomb? He wondered. But there was no reason he could think of.
All at once, the shade halted, as sudden as if it had struck straight into a wall no one else could see. Topknot took a final step forward, and the ground crunched beneath his feet. Quick as a snake, back he jumped, and he was only just in time.
The crust of earth where he had been standing cracked and failed, and suddenly they were all standing at the very edge of a molten shimmering of light, sullen and spectral and strange.
“The tomb!” exclaimed Topknot, a nasty twist to his lips that could have been a smile.
Jhest exchanged a glance with Alaine. She looked pallid in the withered light, and her hair was palest gold.
“What now?” she said, half smiling at him, and that was when Raven pulled a dark knife out of her robe and struck her in the neck.
After that, everything happened at once.
Jhest was too slow. He reached through his Ankh for the arcana, but he had hardly made contact when Topknot was on him, bony fingers wrenching the stone from his grasp and severing the connection before it could be made.
Alaine was struggling silently, one hand gripped tight around her yellow sandstone, the other clasped to her throat. A bright light sprang up in the Ankh, and a tumult of sand sprayed violently into the cavern.
Jhest twisted and tried to break free, but Topknot, he was very strong.
Raven stepped forward, and forced the maroon stone into the spreading darkness around Alaine’s neck. She thrashed about, tried to push the older girl away, but Raven hissed in the darkness and held on tight.
Alaine’s movements began to fail. Her arm shuddered, wavered desperately, fell by her side and twitched. The last yellow light drained away.
Raven got to her feet, hard of breath and wild of eye. A dark fire was in the stone she held.
“It is awakening,” commented Topknot, glancing approvingly at the bloodstone, “Give the tomb its due, and the matter will be complete.”
They forced Jhest in front of them, powerless and weeping, while Topknot weighed the Lightning Ankh in one long hand.
Raven pushed Alaine into the shimmering tombwater, and the bloodstone flickered and flared brighter. Her body vanished beneath the cold light without a sound, and the faceless ghost looked sadly on.
Topknot shoved him out of the stone doors, and Jhest lay panting on the ground beneath the starlight. His face was cold from the tears, and the world seemed shadowed and strange.
He lay there for a while, half listening to the other apprentices as they examined Raven’s new Ankh, the red light pulsing and jagged in the windless hollow outside the tomb.
“What a pretty thing it is,” admired Topknot, “And almost as powerful as a Prime, I would say.”
“There hasn’t been a blood witch graduated from the exam in a hundred years,” said one of the tall apprentices, “You’ll make quite a stir when we leave, I’m sure.”
“I thought you were going to choose the boy,” commented Bresh, “He seemed the stronger, the better way to wake it.”
But Raven just smiled a nasty smile and looked at Jhest with scorn.
“We could have consigned him to the tomb, and maybe that would have worked,” Raven scratched in her broken voice, “But her blood was the stronger, oh and look how pretty my stone shines.”
“He still has a use, though, do not doubt it,” declared Topknot, “There isn’t much time left, to be sure, but we might yet have the opportunity for some barter, if we can just find a place to trade.”
Rough hands were forced under Jhest’s arms, pulled him to his feet, and set him staggering to a trot at the front of the party.
“On we go,” croaked Raven, “Along the midnight road.”
Jhest walked on weary feet, and every footfall was like a further dying heartbeat of the doomed world. Time was running out: he could feel it in his marrow.
Since his Ankh had been taken from him, his awareness of the arcana core of this world had been blunted; but he could still sense it, the heave and thrill of increasing instability as the end of the exam drew near.
They topped the rise of the last hill, and there in the sparkling starlight, waters shimmered cold. Jhest had journeyed the breath of this little reality: across the miniature ocean, he was sure, lay the beach upon which he had incarnated.
His weary feet started down a sandy path towards the water, but Raven cried out, and a rough hand pulled him back.
“Not that way, not yet,” said Topknot, “We still have time to walk another path.”
And another path there was.
It led off to one side, and steep down a treacherous expanse of scree, into the deep darkness of an ancient forest. It looked unsafe and threatening; yet Jhest was almost past caring. His friend was dead, his power stolen, his hopes were all but done. The end would come quick, one way or another, so why not the second path, beneath the darkening trees?
Half running, half sliding, the party descended the scree and entered the lee of the forest. Now the stars drew in, and only the awful red light of the bloodstone shone them their way.
Branches scratched at his face and unseen things in the trees above cried out and passed on. Yet nothing challenged them, and suddenly Jhest made out a string of fires, just visible between the encroaching trees.
With a burst of noise as if they were emerging out of deep water, the little party broke from the forest and into a clearing.
The fires were arranged in a ragged ring around the edge of the clearing with one in the middle one much larger bonfire, piled high with fresh-hewn wood damp with mildew that burst in astonishing flares of enchanted flame, green and blue and maroon, sending sparks dancing far into the night. And around this central fire, the market had been set up. Thousands of stalls there were, and what manner of creatures were they that hawked their wares there? Jhest could not name them all. He saw goblins and imps and pixies; sea squirrels and unfamiliar familiars, and who knew what other strange figments of this reality.
They passed into the hustle of the crowd, and all the while the various denizens pressed in close, yet Jhest could feel at his shoulders the weight of Topknot and Raven, pressing closer still. He could feel the burning red of the bloodstone, as if its light was just out of sight, constantly at the back of his eyes; the burden of Raven’s will on him was very heavy.
All sorts of wondrous and unpleasant things there were to buy, though Jhest was fearful to know the price, and for this reason alone: he knew quite well that the only coin the other apprentices had to pay with was himself.
Finally, Topknot pulled them up short to examine the wares of a certain doe-eyed goblin queen, all arrayed in netted silks, bejeweled, bedeviled and bewitching.
“Ah, my handsome young enchanters, the game is nearly done, yet time there is to make a purchase, would a pretty penny you have to spend?”
The goblin queen fluttered and charmed, and spreading a discrete hand over her stall, she revealed to the group her wares.
Topknot went from one fancy trinket to the next, glancing with the eye of a connoisseur, and clearly disregarding immediately six items of every seven.
But on this he stopped and sighed: a golden caged hare inside a silver carving, the cracked husk of an ancient oak, withered and weathered and old as bone.
“Now I have read of these,” said Topknot, and his voice was husky-worn, “Three there were once, maybe, though no one knows for sure. And now but one remains, in this world or any other. What a prize! You’ll want a high price, I’ll be guessing, so name it and we can begin the barter, for time is very short.”
The goblin queen leered at Topknot, and Jhest caught a waft of her spicy perfume, which set his head to spinning.
“The price for this item has already been set, and no bartering is allowed,” she pronounced, and ticking the costs off on her fingers, she continued, “One heart, young. One leg, firm. One eye, sharp. One lip, soft. That is the price, with all it entails, and not one morsel less.”
“Done!” shouted Topknot, clapping his hands together, then clasping the goblin’s very tight, “Here is your price.”
The bloodstone flared bright, and Jhest suddenly realized its awful power, for in that burning scarlet light his own blood leapt to the boil, pounding through his veins like molten lead, and his limbs were not his own. Puppet-like he staggered forward, and his knee sunk, and there he crouched, in oblation before his goblin mistress.
“Ah, it is well done!” crooned the queen, examining carefully with her sharp green eye, “Look how tender he is! He will make a sweet companion, once the offering is complete.”
And with that, she snatched up a black horn knife and began whetting it razor-sharp against her ghastly teeth.
Topknot lifted his prize, the golden hare in the silver oak, and tucked it away in the folds of his cloak. Then he turned without a backwards glance. They were all walking away, Raven and Bresh and the others, when a terrible crack sounded, so loud and deep that the earth itself seemed to shake, and everyone froze very still.
Topknot turned his eyes to the sky, and stared. Above them all, the stars themselves were bursting and gone, for the allotted measure of time had been spent, and this world was coming to an end.
The stars sang and flared and fell and failed. Topknot looked on, and Raven looked on, and the goblin queen stopped her whetting and looked on, and everyone else looked on, too.
All except one. Jhest did not look on.
Instead, he rocked forward as much as he was able, for the bloodstone held his blood still, and he could hardly move. Back and forth, he rocked, back and forth.
He rocked, and he rocked, and he rocked.
And then he fell.
Forward he rolled, and his aim was true and his luck was with him, for he rolled exactly as he intended, and he nicked his hand on the goblin queen’s bitter-sharp knife.
Out flowed his blood, and with the blood flowed the curse of the bloodstone, and suddenly he was free to move.
And move he did. Off he ran into the huddled masses as they gazed skywards at the breaking of the world, and not a moment too soon.
“Hey!” came the shout of the goblin queen, as she realized her prize was escaping, and she looked back and forth between Jhest’s vanishing back and Topknot’s hardening eyes, as if uncertain where to appeal.
But she hesitated too long, and in a moment Jhest had been lost to the crowd, and in a moment more, Topknot and the others had spirited themselves away too, and that just left one poor goblin trader, crying frustrated tears with the world folding up around her, as she desperately rushed to fold up her wares too, with no time now to think of revenge.
All around the midnight marked, the fires flickered and flared. They burst one final time to a spectacular brilliance, then all spluttered to nothing and died.
With the extinguishing of the stars, the world was frightful dark.
Jhest stumbled through the forest, lost and alone. Gradually, the hustle and commotion of the midnight market was lost behind him, and the only sound to hear was a bone-deep shaking and grinding within the earth, low and sour and awful.
He felt numb, mind and body and soul.
I have failed, he thought, I have lost my friend, and I have lost my ankh, and soon the exam will end, and I will have lost it all.
He wondered to himself what it would be like, when this artificial world finally collapsed into itself, taking him with it, smothering the strands of his fabric into the roiling arcana core. What would it be like, to be trapped in the raw chaos stuff of this miniature orb, allowed out only once a year on exam day to walk this little earth, one more figment amongst countless lost souls?
It hardly bore thinking on. Soon enough he would find out.
All at once, the trees ended, and Jhest staggered into the clear air beneath the starless sky. A hillock was before him, though whether it was the one he had descended earlier, who could possibly say?
Listlessly, he began to climb. Halfway up, the earth buckled so violently that he fell to his knees and rolled some way back down, and was nearly swallowed up by a crooked fissure that had opened up in the shaking earth.
He shivered and regained his feet, and recommenced his climb.
He came to a river, and it was flowing the wrong way.
He gazed at the silver eddies and currents, as they dashed from side to side, and the water rolled up the hill and away. Something shifted in his mind. A strand of hope formed.
Follow the impossible river, he sang to himself, and heard the words in the voice of his old lecturer. The real world can be found at the mouth where all the impossible rivers flow. That is the way home.
He began to run.
Faster, faster, faster his feet pounded up the slippery hillside. His heart hammered in his chest, and his breath came thick and fast.
The earth shook once more, but on he ran.
The river was broader now, so broad he could barely see the other side in the darkness. A roaring of water filled his ears. The top of the hill was very close.
With a final desperate cry, he flung himself up the last few feet, and in a single moment all his hopes blossomed, then died.
There indeed the river ran, roaring away from him and joining many others from every direction, rushing and shouting and coming together at last in a great pillar of water that shot upwards into the starless night. That was the way out. That was his hope of salvation.
But he was not alone.
Standing only a little way in front of him, ready and waiting and bathed in that awful red bloodlight, Raven and Topknot stood tall. The other apprentices were nearby. The path out of this world was blocked.
“I told you he would come,” croaked Raven, “I was sure he got away.”
Topknot nodded and smiled a crooked smile.
“And right you were, and I was wrong, and you may then take his life,” he said.
She held out the bloodstone, and a terrible scarlet lit up the hillside.
Jhest felt his will shrink to nothing and die.
The bloodstone took him, and he fell to his knees.
His heart hammered: faster, faster, faster. A crushing pain pressed his chest. He could not still the beating. His life was nearly done.
Distantly, he heard a noise.
A rattling came, quiet at first, but growing louder and louder until a familiar shape cleared the hilltop, and stood there in silhouette against the last light at the end of the world, and suddenly the bloodstone failed, and Jhest found he could breath.
He looked up, and it was just as he remembered.
The cat rode on the pig, which rode on the ebony-dark wagon.
The scarlet light from the bloodstone washed against the dark wood of the wagon, and vanished there without a trace, sucked into the darkness and lost.
Topknot narrowed his eyes, and exchanged a glance with Raven.
The cat yawned cavernously.
“Good morning to you, my lord, my lady,” he purred, and the honor sounded poisoned on his tongue.
“Good morning,” said Topknot stiffly. “And what business do you have with us?”
“Why, my mistress would have words with you,” the cat continued, and with that, there was a nasty little snap, and the door of the wagon creaked open. The darkness within was narrow and full.
Two luminous eyes shone out.
The voice, when it spoke, was as silky smooth and dripping with danger as Jhest remembered.
“And where are you going, my beautiful pilgrims, on the dark morning at the end of this world?”
Silence rushed in from all sides.
Now Topknot had studied long, and he was a most talented student. He knew a lot about tombs and markets and how to awaken bloodstones. Yet he did not know everything.
“I,” stammered Topknot. “I am going.” But he did not know the words, and his voice faltered to nothing and there was silence.
“I have travelled from the bright night of beginnings to the dark morning at the end, and I have been lonely for companions,” moaned the mistress of the wagon.
And the wagon was suddenly filled with light, and out of that searing light reached her long hand from there to here and scooped up Raven and Topknot and the others, and squeezed them very tight, and back they were pulled into the blinding brightness.
And for the second time in one day, Jhest had seen the true form of the mistress of the wagon, and he hoped very dearly never to see it again.
Topknot screamed and Raven screeched and the others made other sounds, and the air totem burst in a burst of wind, and the bloodstone shattered in a grim spreading of bloody light, and then the world was still.
Jhest buried his face in his shaking hands, and heard the wagon door click shut.
“Farewell, traveler,” came the voice of the mistress of the wagon, as it rolled and rattled away. “Perhaps you will join me, another time.”
“Yeah, see ya,” snorted the pig, and then the wagon was gone.
Jhest stood on his shaking legs, and surveyed the world as it came to an end.
The raging pillar of wrongwards water rushed past him and into the sky; and his way was unblocked.
But what good did that do him?
He had no totem.
Without a totem, he had no passage. He was still trapped.
He turned his back to the water and sat down and laughed.
Well, he had tried, hadn’t he?
He had won a totem and lost a totem, and fought and failed. But he had tried.
He glanced over in the direction of the forest, and just as he did so a wave of lightning sparked from the ground to the sky and the whole world was illuminated in a terrible chaos of broken elements and torque, and he saw that entire chunks of this reality were being lifted whole from the earth, and cast shattered and torn to a patchwork ruin of raw magic and bitter motion, and soon he would be taken too; and still he laughed and laughed.
The ground shook at his feet. The end was upon him.
A hand slipped into his own.
He glanced to his left.
Alaine stood by his side.
She was as white and shining as the ghost in the tomb; but she wore her own face, and on her face, a smile.
She kissed him once on the cheek, a single tear in her eye, and whispered something in his ear. Her words were quiet, but they were louder than the roar at the end of the world.
Jhest closed his eyes, and breathed in her smell, one last time.
Then he looked where she had told him, and it was there just as she had said.
The cold weight of the Lightning ankh felt wonderful in his hand.
The bloodstone had burst, along with the other ankhs as soon as they had entered the mistress’s wagon.
But the Lightning ankh had not, of course. It had been used correctly, with the correct words and gestures, and no mistress, wagoned or otherwise, had the Lightning ankh in thrall.
Alaine smiled the ghost of a smile and drifted away to her tomb.
Jhest called through the Ankh, and lightning took him, and he left this little reality a single moment before it collapsed back into the chaos stuff of which it was made.
What comes after is a story of wizards, not students.
Jamie Brindle has had short stories published online (e.g., by East of the Web and Less Than Three) and in anthologies (e.g., Dark Distortions, Uncanny Allegories); his dark fantasy novel, “The Fall of the Angel Nathalie” was published in 2013 by Necro Press. Jamie is currently crowdfunding his latest novel, based on this short story, here.