“The First Spell”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
The Inductee Barracks—which the upperclassmen referred to dismissively as “the IB” or the “Moss Pile”—was in distant corner of the academy cavern. It was a tall, square, unassuming building made from brown brick. Long lines of tall, narrow windows ran the length of its otherwise featureless walls. It looked like a prison blockhouse.
The cavern was huge. They marched along paved pathways that mimicked city streets, complete with sidewalks, road signs, and lamps. They glowed with soft, misty-orange luminescence.
Something told Kazen they weren’t powered by electricity or gas.
Here and there they passed small groups of other cadets, but not many. It was getting late. Everyone was back in their rooms.
The upperclassmen—who Kazen was beginning to think begrudged the extra duty of shepherding the new recruits through induction—marched them into the IB and up the stairwells to the long hallways that made up the dormitory floors. The rooms each accommodated two cadets and were segregated by gender. Apparently the co-ed philosophy of the academy only extended so far. Kazen was grateful for that. A few minutes spent sprinting through a shower was one thing; a whole night spent in a room the size of a linen closet was something else.
He and Mallory shared a nervous glance. Tantalus was a lot to take in, and induction had been like being rolled down a hill in an empty oil drum. As they stood outside their rooms Kazen clung to the hope that they were nearly done and would finally be given a chance to catch their breath.
He’d been paired with Eddie. Thank goodness. Taylor and Mallory appeared to be rooming together as well, at least for now. The upperclassmen explained that the IB was only a temporary arrangement. They would stay only a few weeks while they were evaluated and trained in the basic procedures of the academy. After that they would be moved to the main dormitory, which the upperclassmen referred to as “the stack.” Room assignments would be reshuffled at that point according to a variety of factors.
Kazen snapped to. A tall upperclassman stalked down the corridor.
“You may now enter your rooms, hang up your uniforms, and prepare to sleep. Lights out in ten minutes.”
A few cadets started moving immediately. Kazen and Eddie weren’t among them, having paused to shrug at each other. It was lucky they did. The upperclassmen pounced on the others for moving before they were officially dismissed. He and Eddie froze, waiting for the call before moving into their room. It was sparsely furnished: only a pair of beds, two small desks with pencils and paper, and two narrow closets with shallow drawers at the bottom.
Kazen got out of his uniform and hung it up, sitting on his bed. Eddie went to the desk.
“Hey, Kaz. Look at this.”
He held up a book. It was thick and bound in dark green leather. The lettering on the cover was embossed in gold leaf like a church hymnal. The title read: Manual for Tantalus Cadets.
“Figure we have to know all this stuff?”
Kazen rubbed his eyes.
“Bet you twenty credits Taylor already has it memorized.”
Eddie set the book aside and flopped into his chair. They sat in silence.
Kazen stared at his feet.
“Pretty incredible, isn’t it?”
“I wonder how Mal’s doing.”
Eddie stood up and started taking off his uniform, struggling with the top button of his jacket.
“She’ll be fine. She’s tough, and she’s rooming with Taylor. We’re the ones who are screwed.”
Kazen lay down.
“I suppose so.”
Eddie hung up his jacket.
He looked up.
“Did you think you would pass?”
Kazen took a long breath and examined the ceiling.
Eddie turned back to the closet.
A bugle sounded a call in the distance. It echoed through the cave briskly. Not much of a lullaby. A shout bolted down the hallway.
Eddie cursed and rushed out of his pants. He threw them in a drawer and dove into bed.
“Get the light!”
Kazen rolled over and reached up toward the door, searching for the switch.
There was no switch.
“There’s no switch!”
The wall by the door was featureless.
Eddie sprang out of bed and grabbed his chair, scrambling up to examine the light. It didn’t have a gas mantle or a bulb to unscrew. It was like the lamps outside, emanating diffuse light from hollow glass.
Shouts were beginning to echo down the corridor as the upperclassmen came through to check the rooms. Kazen jumped out of bed and grabbed his own chair. The two of them stared dumbly at the self-sustaining light.
Eddie put his hand on it.
“It’s not warm. It can’t be burning anything.”
Kazen nodded agreement.
“I don’t see any wires either.”
“Could it be magic? It has to be, right?”
“But what good does that do us?”
“Maybe we have to magic it off?”
“How are we supposed to do that?”
Eddie looked at him. Kazen looked back.
They both jumped down and grabbed their manuals, madly flipping through the pages. The shouts in the corridor were getting closer.
Kazen’s heart raced. This was not how he imagined learning his first spell at the Academy. Eddie yelped.
He pointed at the page. Kazen rushed over. They looked at the text, bewildered.
“Can you understand this?”
Kazen shook his head. The spell didn’t look long. It seemed like a procedure for making some kind of tool, but there were notations in some kind of shorthand he couldn’t read. When you were done you were supposed to end up with some kind of stick with a rod in the middle, and he only knew that from a picture at the bottom.
Kazen shook his head. The shouts in the hall kept getting louder. He ran a hand through his hair.
“I don’t understand how we’re supposed to do this. Look, there’s an ingredient list at the top. We don’t have any of this stuff.”
Eddie surveyed the room.
“Maybe they provided them?”
The drawers in the closets were empty. The only things in the room were their uniforms, the manuals, and the pencils and paper on the desks.
Kazen ran to the desk. Eddie spun around.
Kazen grabbed a pencil and held the lead against the light.
Eddie stared at him.
“Hurry, what! I don’t know what to do!”
“I don’t know. Give it a little juice.”
“Juice!? What are you talking about?”
A door slammed open one room down from theirs. Eddie looked at the door and back at him.
“I don’t know. You’re the one who blew up their equipment. Zap it or something!”
Kazen growled in frustration and turned back to the light. Zap it. Right.
Still, there was nothing else. He took a breath and stared, focusing on one word in his head: off. He gritted his teeth, pushing and straining with his mind against…whatever. He had no idea.
The light went out.
“Yes! What did you do?”
“I don’t know! Just get in bed!”
The door swung open. An upperclassman stood framed in it.
“Cadets! Why are you not in bed after lights out!”
They scrambled down from the chairs and stood at attention. Kazen answered.
“Sir! We were turning out the light!”
The older cadet looked up at the extinguished lamp.
“Your light is out, cadets! Get in bed. Now!”
He left. They scrambled under the covers as the door slammed firmly shut. They lay down in silence, listening to the upperclassmen counting out push-ups in the hall.
Kazen whispered back.
“That was a test, right?”
Kazen nodded in the dark.
“I think so.”
“You think we passed?”
He turned over and put his chin on the pillow.
Eddie rolled over and yawned.
“Good enough for me.”
Mallory lay in bed, staring at the ceiling as she listened to the commotion in the hall.
“I wonder if Kaz and Eddie made it.”
Taylor lay across from her. It had taken her less than a minute to put out the light. She’d read the manual at home, before even going to the evaluation.
She could already do magic.
She also didn’t answer.
Mallory rolled onto her side and looked across the dark room at her bunkmate.
“You knew you were going to come here, didn’t you?”
Taylor answered quietly.
“I always have.”
Mallory nodded. It had to be nice to be so sure about your life. She could have ended up a bookkeeper, handling the accounts of the family deli.
Now she was this.
“What happens next?”
Taylor rolled over.
“Training, study, classes, evaluations. They’ll split the regiment into companies and eventually jumps.”
“What are those?”
Taylor propped herself up onto her side.
“We really should try to get some sleep.”
Mallory lay back down.
“I wasn’t much help tonight, was I?”
Taylor lay back down.
Mallory lay quietly. A few minutes passed before she broke the silence again.
“Is it possible to fail?”
Taylor didn’t answer. She was already asleep.
Had to be nice.
How could she go back to the deli after this?
She couldn’t fail.
Ten percent of cadets wouldn’t survive their training. That’s what the sergeant-major said. Would she be one of those?
It was frightening.
She wasn’t ready. All those years of study, the accelerated courses and extra credits; they were all useless here.
That was an exaggeration.
She lay in silence, chasing her thoughts around and around. Her mind kept drifting back to the deli. She pictured the people, coming through the wide glass doors every Friday, ration cards in hand, lining up to buy what was really just their share of the public dole. She’d watched them come and go her entire life, a comforting constant like the tide. She knew their names; they knew hers. She made friends with their children, some of which she still had today.
Kazen and Eddie.
It was only as she got older that she realized that ration cards and work details weren’t the way the world was supposed to be. Tired workers. Tired farmers. Tired people.
And every year, fewer.
How could she allow herself to be afraid?
Mallory frowned. She would have to start over. She would have to work harder.
The room was dark. The colonel preferred it. Elijah Agincourt. He had his ways, and it didn’t seem to matter that in the midst of his casting he was functionally blind and couldn’t tell if the lights were on or not.
Executor Nightingale entered quietly and waited. Minutes passed. The executor watched the colonel, seated on a cushion in the void. You could never tell if he noticed you. It made it difficult to know if you were interrupting.
He would have to forgive her.
He turned his head.
She approached. He never called her by her rank. He was tenured.
“Did you see him?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Aren’t you a little old to play coy?”
He smiled back.
“Yes, I saw.”
“Why didn’t you notify us?”
He faced forward again, looking away from her.
“So many paths lead by winding roads, so certainly to our destruction. If you could see them, would you risk disturbing one that led to life?”
She paused. It was a fair point.
“Can you tell me anything?”
The old professor slowly shook his head.
“The way ahead is narrow; the trail…easily lost. You will have to wait and see.”
“Will you still teach him?”
“All that I can.”
A peculiar, playful glint flitted about the corners of his pale, clouded eyes. It was a look that the executor knew well. It mocked in a sing-song tone.
I know something you don’t know.
She left, exiting with more questions than when she’d entered. Not an uncommon result when dealing with the venerable colonel.
The door shut.
Elijah sat in the dark. He shut his aging eyes and began slowly re-tracing his path back down the thread.
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