Arlia knelt down on a silk cushion in the middle of the room. She took a deep breath and centred herself. Gramps always told her to do this, sometimes he jabbed her in the sides with his walking stick if he thought she rushed meditation.
In front of her the Fire Tome lay open on “Level Eight Incantation”. Her Level Seven attempt had been impressive. The fireball in her hand nearly reached two inches in diameter.
Another deep breath to focus all her thoughts on the incantation and nothing else. Concentration is key. The mantra repeated in her brain, distracting yet encouraging.
She recited the words from the tome; an ancient, difficult language that provoked a response from the natural elements of the world. Her outstretched arms grew heavy with empowered blood. Her fingertips tingled. Then her palms grew hot.
Arlia opened her eyes slowly. Two large fireballs, about four inches in diameter, hovered just above her upturned palms.
Success. She was as good, if not better, than the low-life final year apprentices that thought they were so much better than everybody else.
The tome said to release the magic after no more than thirty seconds. Fireballs were made to be thrown, after all.
Arlia’s knees began to ache, even though the padding of the cushion protected them. How long had it been? Arlia shook her hands to dissipate the magic but the fireballs remained hovering just above her palms. Their presence mocked her. Yes, she was capable of great magic like Gramps but she could not remove it afterwards.
Panic set in and Arlia started to wave her arms frantically trying to dislodge the fire magic. Flames flickered and danced around her hands and caught the edge of the heavy curtain over the single window.
A high pitched scream drew in the attention of several final year apprentices and two full wizards. Arlia realised later it had been herself who screamed.
Someone pinned her down to the floor. Presumably to stop the spread of the inferno. Lots of spells were uttered and the roar of the curtain fire died down and the weight in Arlia’s arms seemed to lessen.
The pressure on her chest lifted and Arlia sat up. She forced her eyes open wide but the room was too dark to see anything in.
Arlia heard the accusatory tone of Izen, one of the oldest and most stern wizards. He did most of the teaching and took care of any disciplinary action that was required. Arlia had been on the wrong end of his beating stick many times before today. She cringed as she prepared herself for the first sting.
“What is this?” Something scraped against the wooden altar Arlia had set out earlier. “Level Eight. What are you, second year, third year?”
“Um, first year. Sir.”
Izen dropped or slammed the book. It rang out loudly against the stone cobbles on the floor. Arlia wondered how he had been able to read the title in the darkness. Wizard trick, no doubt. Perhaps, like their cats, all wizards could see in the dark.
“How does a first year manage to get a hold of something like this?”
Someone stammered from behind Arlia but she couldn’t tell his voice or what he actually said.
Something else rang out against the stone cobbles. It sang as it shattered. Porcelain maybe.
“Get up,” Izen barked.
Arlia felt hands under her, lifting her to her feet.
“Come with me.”
Arlia stood, lost in the darkness.
“Where are you?”
She felt a breeze against a face and a rough hand under her chin tilting her face upwards.
“She’s consumed. Fetch Milent.”
A pair of feet scuttled away.
“On second thought, we need Oden.”
Arlia shuddered. Hearing Gramps’ real name never boded well. She had heard the word consumed before but had no idea what it meant. Other than it was what she did to the biscuits.
“What’s happening?” asked Arlia. Nobody answered.
At long last the heavy oak door was disturbed indicating someone had either come in or just left. The only discernable action near Arlia in the last ten minutes other than a mouse scuttling in the eaves.
More hands touched Arlia’s face, tilting her head from side to side. Arlia smelt cinnamon, the flavour of Gramps’ favourite cake.
“What have you done, child?”
His voice was soft but lined with grief. Arlia felt relaxed and chided in quick succession.
“I’m sorry Gramps.”
“Her eyes are completely white. Send Milent away. There’s no saving her. In fact, you can all go now.”
More shuffling and the oak door clunked as it latched shut.
“What now, Oden?” Izen still remained in the room.
“What can I do? I can’t ignore the rules for my own granddaughter.”
“You would have her sent to the darkness?”
There was a long pause. Arlia held her breath as she realised her fate was being decided. She knew what the Darkness meant.
Under the academy in the dungeons, the passageways were completely dark. No students ever went down there. In the middle of the dungeon, protected by a large labyrinth squatted a creature so hideous that the school only sent blind people to tend to it. The creature’s power provided enough raw energy to feed the constant spells practised by the students.
“Please don’t send me down there,” Arlia begged. She only knew tears had filled her eyes when they overflowed and hot drips ran down her cheeks.
“Arlia, you leave me no choice. I cannot have a consumed student wandering the hallways. Who knows what other beings will be drawn to you now. I can’t put my school in danger.”
“You know, Oden,” said Izen, interrupting. “There is no proof that anyone who is consumed draws other beings into our plane. There’s certainly no evidence it has happened in the dungeons.”
“Have you been in the dungeons recently?”
“Then how can you be certain? It is what is told and the books never lie.”
“Of course they don’t,” said Izen, resigned to lose the argument.
“The darkness it is,” said Gramps. The anger had evaporated from his voice leaving only sadness. He sounded ten years older in Arlia’s mind.
“There is just one more alternative.”
Arlia’s heart quickened.
“And what is that?”
“Turn her out. Dress her in rags.”
“Why not? The city beggars make a tidy sum these days. Some are perfectly healthy but prefer to spend their days on the dusty floor rather than being at the Mill.”
Gramps exhaled loudly and clicked his teeth. A habit he usually displayed when he and Arlia played chess. Their games went on for hours, mostly because Gramps took so long to make a move. Before each play he touched every single piece, a ritual of superstition, and then thought for a long time. Arlia invariably lost.
“I can’t make my granddaughter a beggar.”
“You would prefer she spent an eternity feeding and washing that thing we keep locked up down there. You know how many servants we lose, don’t you?”
“I suppose. But it would be so shameful to see her on the streets asking the city lowlifes for charity. She’s a Minxskin. She should be a Great like her parents.”
“And how did that turn out for them?”
Gramps never spoke about her parents. She had no idea what happened except they had gotten lost on an expedition in the New World when she was three.
“We’re still waiting.” Gramps sighed again. A soft thump indicated he had sat down in one of the chairs.
“Look at her, Oden. She’ll never be a Great. You know our kind can never forgive the Consumed. Even if, by some miracle, her eyes do heal, we can never accept her back.”
“You’re right, I know.”
“So, shall I find some rags?”
“Izen, please. Leave me, us, a moment.”
Arlia waited in the darkness. Her very future lay at the discretion of Gramps. Gramps who had brought her up as best as he could whilst he tried to manage the school. Gramps who never forgave the breaking of rules. Once he had made her scrub every stone in the castle with a tiny rag because she had spilled very expensive ink all over his office and then proceeded to walk through it. She had been four and a half, at the most.
Arlia stretched out her hands in the direction Gramps voice came from moments ago. After a few difficult steps of thinking she was about to plummet to her death every time, her fingers brushed something material.
He made a loud wet sound that sounded distinctly like someone who sniffed in the midst of silent tears.
“Poor child, what have you done?”
“I was just practising. The older students are so full of themselves because their fireballs are bigger than mine. I just wanted to prove I was worthy of my name.”
“But child, you committed the ultimate sin. You fell under the spell of the Icarus demon. You let him into you and so into the school.”
“Nothing’s happened though,” said Arlia.
“Every student is now at high risk of falling under his spell. We have to get you out or into the dungeons before the school is destroyed.”
“So much for making you proud of me.”
“You never had to try and impress me. I could see in you what was in your mother that made her a Great. Compassion. Being able to understand others and the world around you is the key to unlocking the power of the elements. But you tried to do too much. You overreached yourself. There’s a reason we don’t allow apprentices their own tomes. Where did you get this one, by the way?”
Arlia considered her answer. The older students had been giving her an especially hard time out in the grounds. Arlia had only wanted a few herbs for her next lesson and the older kids would not let her out of the herb garden. They had kicked and pushed her down and rubbed her face in the dirt. All the while laughing and saying “you’re not so great, are you”. No doubt a dig at who her grandfather was.
She ran through the castle to her dorm and threw herself face down on the hard mattress. She lay there for nearly two hours, too ashamed to go to her lesson without any herbs and too afraid to go back to the herb garden in case the bullies were still there.
Eventually when she had tired of her musty pillow she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. Her toes brushed something hard. She looked down and saw one of the restricted books peeking out from under the bed. First year students were not allowed to read any tomes at all until they had covered all the basics of non-elemental magic. Namely potions, ointments and proper care of familiars.
“I found it.”
“Ah. A story so cliché I actually believe you. Perhaps you were feeling a little powerless at the time, hmm?”
Arlia nodded. Hot tears splashed her cheeks again.
“Temptation is the downfall of many a person older and wiser than yourself. I can’t condemn you to the darkness. Perhaps the city will be more forgiving to you than it was to me.”
“You were in the city?” Arlia her head up even though she could not see.
She heard Gramps’ smile in his voice. “I am older and wiser than you. If you practise people might not even know you are blind. The pigment will come back to your eyes eventually, even if your sight doesn’t.”
Arlia thought about the chess games with Gramps, and laughed. All this time she had been losing to a blind man.
Later, in the dead of night she set off towards the city in rags.
L Harrison is a fantasy writer in a small part of England called the Black Country. She has been writing ever since she was big enough to hold a pen. She graduated from Bath Spa University with a degree in English Literature but her true passion lies in creating new stories.