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Cold and dank: those words always flitted through Otto Shenk’s mind when he reached the bottom of the basement stairs. A thin sheen of condensation covered the stone walls and shallow puddles dotted the packed dirt floor. A pair of Lux crystals rested in niches built into the wall, their feeble enchantments barely adequate for the task of illuminating the narrow hall that led to Master Enoch’s workshop. The musty scent of mold lay over everything.
A wall had been built specifically to seal his master’s chambers off from the dungeons and cold storage. One lonesome passage allowed entrance and exit and the door to the stairs was located as far from Otto’s father’s audience chamber as the castle architecture allowed. It seemed Father feared wizardry was a disease that might be catching. Certainly the looks of disdain he favored Otto with suggested he found his youngest son to be a diseased thing.
Otto shook his head, sending his mop of unruly dirty-blond hair waving about. As if to mock his, his servant’s and his mother’s best efforts, Otto’s hair never stayed in place for more than fifteen minutes. It had been that way since he was five, and at seventeen it seemed unlikely anything would change, at least until it started to fall out. All the Shenk men lost their hair, it was only a question of when.
He stepped off the bottom step, careful to keep his new boots dry lest he draw his mother’s wrath. Otto hated the cavalry boots and didn’t especially care if the stiff, knee-high monstrosities got soaked. The nobles of Garenland currently favored the stupid things and even country barons had to keep pace. Or their sons did anyway. Father wore what he liked and woe to anyone that complained. Otto preferred his fawn slippers. They fit far more comfortably, not that he dared leave his room with them on.
A shadow danced on the wall beside him, prompting Otto to look up at the spider stalking a moth caught in its web. “Morning, Claud. I hope I haven’t interrupted your breakfast.”
The arachnid ignored him, the same way it did every morning. It was the story of his life. If he wasn’t being ignored, he was getting shouted at for some infraction, real or imagined.
He left Claud to his meal and strode down the short passage that ended at an ill-fitting door sporting an iron knocker with the face of a gargoyle. Rust covered the knocker, giving it a grungy, orange patina. Since he had no desire to touch the disgusting thing, Otto rapped with his knuckle.
The door opened a moment later, revealing the gaunt form of Master Enoch. A many-times-patched brown robe draped the wizard who peered at him with watery blue eyes. Master Enoch had seen better days when Father hired him a decade ago and the poor pay, worse food, and miserable living conditions had done little to improve his state. Long gray hair and a beard jutted out in every direction, making Otto’s wild mane look positively tame by comparison.
Otto bowed. “Good morning, Master.”
The wizard darted a look down the hall and licked his lips. “Please, Lord Shenk. How many times have I said you mustn’t call me master? If your father should overhear…”
Otto straightened and sighed. It seemed wrong not to treat his teacher with the respect he deserved. He should be used to it by now, but every once in a while he slipped into student behavior instead of noble behavior “Don’t worry. Father’s busy meeting with some merchant’s representative. He’s all excited about finding a new buyer for our cider. At least I assume that’s what he was excited about. I pay as little attention to Father’s ranting as possible.”
“Yes, of course.” Master Enoch darted one last look behind Otto and moved aside to allow him in.
“Speaking of apples…” Otto stepped into the room and dug a shiny red fruit out of his satchel. “I brought you a snack. I’ve seen the gruel Cook fixes. It’s a shame the way they treat a genius like you.”
Master Enoch bit into the apple and sighed as a trickle of juice ran down his beard. A minute later the apple was gone, core and all. His teacher spit four black seeds into the bucket at the foot of his simple cot.
If Master Enoch’s treatment was a shame, his living conditions were a crime. The workshop slash living quarters held little beyond the cot, bucket, a rickety stool and a crude, rough-hewn bench covered with alchemy equipment. Three leather-bound books sat on one corner of the bench, as far from the caustic chemicals as possible.
Otto often wished for a window during his master’s experiments, but Enoch’s skill with wind magic proved sufficient to keep them both from suffocating. He hoped to eventually learn a bit about alchemy, but his master didn’t yet deem him skilled enough in the basics of magic to move on.
“Have you been practicing?” Master Enoch asked when his apple joy had faded.
“Yes, Mas… uh, Enoch. Two hours every evening, just as you said. I know I can do more.”
“You mustn’t push yourself. Remember, training to use magic is no different than exercising your muscles. Do too much too fast and you might hurt yourself. You have the gift, Otto. As strong as anyone I’ve ever met. Be patient, build up your strength. Now, show me what you’ve learned.”
Otto grinned and pulled his dagger. It still took him a moment to make the mental shift necessary to view the etheric currents. When the swirling, multicolored energy resolved around him he flipped the blade into the air and flicked his thumb against the iron ring on his middle finger, sending a thin streamer of energy into the dagger. The magic activated as the metal of his ring resonated with the steel dagger creating a connection between them. The Bliss when his will and the ether became one filled him for a moment.
When he’d fully linked his will to the weapon, he sent it flying around the small room. It rose and fell, spun and twisted to Otto’s whim. When he’d performed every trick he knew, Otto held out his hand and the dagger settled into it.
“How was that?” Otto sheathed the blade and ended the spell.
“Excellent. You’ve mastered basic resonance magic in only ten years. I needed twenty to get where you are now. What about the sparks?”
Otto grimaced. When he was five, Otto had discovered when he snapped his fingers sparks would shoot out if he wished them to. He couldn’t peer into the ether yet and so only called on his magic instinctively.
Since he was five and generally bored, he often wished the sparks to appear. If he really concentrated, different colors and sometimes even shapes formed. When he caught the drapes of his bedroom on fire, Father had decided he needed to learn how to control his magic properly.
When Otto recovered from the beating his father gave him, the wall in the basement had been built and Master Enoch hired.
“I can still feel the fire right there, just outside my grasp, but as you commanded”—Otto barely noticed Master Enoch’s wince —“I haven’t reached for it except in your presence.”
“That’s very good, but please, it’s my suggestion. I would never dream of commanding a nobleman.”
“No, of course not. Can you control fire, Master?” They’d had this discussion a number of times over the years, but Otto still didn’t fully understand his master’s limitations.
Master Enoch sighed and settled down on his stool. “Not well. Fire has always been nearly beyond my reach. Oh, I can light a torch or summon a cooking fire and I understand the spells just fine, but the ether refuses to obey when I ask it for anything more. I don’t know why. Every wizard has different limitations. That’s the reason I had so much difficulty finding work. In Garenland, wizards are valued in direct proportion to their ability to produce value. Since I can’t help in the foundry or the forges my options were always limited. It was a great stroke of luck when the baron hired me as your tutor.”
“That seems rather narrow-minded, considering all the things you can do.”
Master Enoch shrugged. “At least in Garenland I have basic rights as a citizen. I’m free to live as an ordinary man if I choose not to use my magic. Not that I ever would. But in Straken they hang then burn anyone that shows wizard potential. In Rolan and the other kingdoms they use us as slaves. Be grateful that you were born in Garenland. Being of the nobility would offer you no protection in the other lands. Now show me your fire.”
Otto grinned. He loved this part of the lesson the most. He’d used his magic instinctively as a child, but now that he’d learned the proper way to do it, the things he could accomplish had multiplied by a hundred, as had the Bliss. It was a pleasure beyond anything imaginable to a non-wizard and Otto pitied them its absence.
He rubbed his fingers together to build up heat. Fire magic was a form of enhancement magic. Next he focused on the warmth between his thumb and forefinger and sent ether into it. A flame blossomed to life. A quick adjustment to the etheric flow and the flame started feeding on the magic.
Like the dagger earlier, the flame was fully under his mental control. Otto shaped it first into a dancing girl that pranced around on the palm of his hand. Next he made a dragon and sent it flying around the room, breathing tiny fire blasts.
The dragon landed on his finger and he considered what to have it do next.
“That’s enough, Otto. I think you’re ready for a new spell.”
Otto snuffed out the dragon and blinked away the ether to better focus on the spell book. Finally, a new spell. Master Enoch was so stingy with his magic. He never let Otto learn a new one until he had full control of the last. “Which one this time, Master?”
The wizard didn’t even bother to correct his use of “master” as he grabbed one of the books at the end of the bench. “Since you have the knack of enhancing heat to make fire we’ll see if you can enhance electricity. Here we are.”
He set the book down and Otto peered eagerly at the pages. You could build up a charge capable of rendering a man unconscious by enhancing the spark you made when you shuffled your feet on a carpet. The etheric flow matched almost identically the shape he used for fire magic. The description went on to offer a number of ways to create the initial spark since there wouldn’t always be a carpet handy.
Otto eagerly read and reread the pages, setting it all firmly in his mind.
The sooner he mastered this spell the sooner Enoch would teach him another one.
He blinked and turned towards Master Enoch. “Did you say something?”
“It’s time for your sword practice. If you don’t hurry, you’ll be late.”
Otto’s momentary happiness vanished. He hated sword practice, but it was a skill required of a nobleman. Never mind that he didn’t have the least aptitude for the blade, much less any interest. Father expected him to show up for training and if he didn’t, the beating he’d receive would keep him in bed for a week.