Chapter One

Another Fine Myth

There are things on heaven and earth, Horatio, Man was not meant to know.”

HAMLET

 

ONE OF THEfew redeeming facets of instructors, I thought, is that occasionally they can be fooled. It was true when my Mother taught me to read, it was true when my Father tried to teach me to be a farmer, and it’s true now when I’m learning magik.

“You haven’t been practicing!” Garkin’s harsh admonishment interrupted my musings.

“I have too!” I protested. “It’s just a difficult exercise.”

As if in response, the feather I was levitating began to tremble and wobble in midair.

“You aren’t concentrating!” he accused.

“It’s the wind,” I argued. I wanted to add “from your loud mouth,” but didn’t dare. Early in our lessons Garkin had demonstrated his lack of appreciation for cheeky apprentices.

“The wind,” he sneered, mimicking my voice. “Like this, dolt!”

My mental contact with the object of my concentration was interrupted as the feather darted suddenly toward the ceiling. It jarred to a halt as if it had become embedded in something, though it was still a foot from the wooden beams, then slowly rotated to a horizontal plane. Just as slowly it rotated on its axis, then swapped ends and began to glide around an invisible circle like a leaf caught in an eddy.

I risked a glance at Garkin. He was draped over his chair, feet dangling, his entire attention apparently devoted to devouring a leg of roast lizard-bird. A bird I had snared, I might add. Concentration indeed!

He looked up suddenly and our eyes met. It was too late to look away so I simply looked back at him.

“Hungry?” His grease-flecked salt-and-pepper beard was suddenly framing a wolfish grin. “Then show me how much you’ve been practicing.”

It took me a heartbeat to realize what he meant; then I looked up desperately. The feather was tumbling floorward, a bare shoulder-height from landing. Forcing the sudden tension from my body, I reached out with my mind… gently… form a pillow… don’t knock it away….

The feather halted a scant two hand-spans from the floor.

I heard Garkin’s low chuckle, but didn’t allow it to break my concentration. I hadn’t let the feather touch the floor for three years and it wasn’t going to touch now.

Slowly I raised it until it floated at eye level. Wrapping my mind around it, I rotated it on its axis, then enticed it to swap ends. As I led it through the exercise, its movement was not as smooth or sure as when Garkin set his mind to the task, but it did move unerringly in its assigned course.

Although I had not been practicing with the feather, I had been practicing. When Garkin was not about or was preoccupied with his own studies, I devoted most of my time to levitating pieces of metal keys, to be specific. Each type of levitation had its own inherent problems. Metal was hard to work with because it was an inert material. The feather, having once been part of a living thing, was more responsive… too responsive. To lift metal took effort; to maneuver a feather required subtlety. Of the two, I preferred to work with metal. I could see a more direct application of that skill in my chosen profession.

“Good enough, lad. Now put it back in the book.”

I smiled to myself. This part I had practiced, not because of its potential applications, but because it was fun.

The book was lying open on the end of the workbench. I brought the feather down in a long lazy spiral, allowing it to pass lightly across the pages of the book and up in a swooping arc, stopped it, and brought it back. As it approached the book the second time, I disengaged part of my mind to dart ahead to the book. As the feather crossed the pages, the book snapped shut like the jaws of a hungry predator, trappmg the missile within its grasp.

“Hmmmm…” intoned Garkin, “a trifle showy, but effective.”

“Just a little something I worked up when I was practicing,” I said casually, reaching out with my mind for the other lizard-bird leg. Instead of floating gracefully to my waiting hand, however, it remained on the wooden platter as if it had taken root.

“Not so fast, my little sneak-thief. So you’ve been practicing, eh?” He stroked his beard thoughtfully with the half-gnawed bone in his hand.

“Certainly. Didn’t it show?” It occurred to me that Garkin is not as easy to fool as it sometimes seems.

“In that case, I’d like to see you light your candle. It should be easy if you have been practicing as much as you claim.”

“I have no objections to trying, but, as you have said yourself so many times, some lessons come easier than others.”

Although I sounded confident, my spirits sank as the large candle came floating to the work table in response to Garkin’s summons. In four years of trying I was yet to be successful at this particular exercise. If Garkin was going to keep me from food until I was successful, I could go hungry for a long time.

“Say, uh, Garkin, it occurs to me I could probably concentrate better on a full stomach.”

“It occurs to me that you’re stalling.”

“Couldn’t I…”

“Now, Skeeve.”

There was no swaying him once he used my proper name. That much I had learned over the years. Lad, Thief, Idiot, Turnip-Head, though derogatory, as long as he used one of these, his mind was still open. Once he reverted to using my proper name, it was hopeless. It is indeed a sorry state when the sound of your own name becomes a knell of doom.

Well, if there was no way around it, I’d just have to give it my best shot. For this there could be no half-effort or feigned concentration. I would have to use every ounce of my strength and skill to summon the power.

I studied the candle with a detached mind, momentarily blanking the effort ahead from my consciousness. The room, the cluttered workbench, Garkin, even my own hunger faded from view as I focused on the candle, though I had long since memorized its every feature.

It was stout, nearly six inches across to stabilize its ten-inch height. I had carved numerous mystic symbols into its surface, copied painstakingly from Garkin’s books at his direction, though many of them were partially obliterated by hardened rivulets of wax. The candle had burned many long hours to light my studies, but it had always been lit from a taper from the cooking fire and not from my efforts.

Negative thought. Stop it.

I will light the candle this time. I will light it because there is no reason I should not.

Consciously deepening my breathing, I began to gather the power. My world narrowed further until all I was aware of was the curled, blackened wick of the candle.

I am Skeeve. My Father has a farmer’s bond with the earth. My Mother was an educated woman. My teacher is a master magician. I am Skeeve. I will light this candle.

I could feel myself beginning to grow warm as the energies began to build within me. I focused the heat on the wick.

Like my Father, I tap the strength of  the earth. The knowledge my Mother gave me is like a lens, enabling me to focus what I have gained. The wisdom of my teacher directs my efforts to those points of the universe most likely to yield to my will. I am Skeeve.

The candle remained unlit. There was sweat on my forehead now, and I was beginning to tremble with the effort. No, that was wrong; I should not tense. Relax. Don’t try to force it. Tension hinders the flow. Let the energies pass freely; serve as a passive conductor. I forced myself to relax, consciously letting the muscles in my face and shoulders go slack as I redoubled my efforts.

The flow was noticeably more intense now. I could almost see the energy streaming from me to my target. I stretched out a finger which focused the energies even more. The candle remained unlit.

I couldn’t do it. Negative thought. Stop it. I am Skeeve. I will light the candle. My father… No. Negative thought. Do not rely on others for your strength. I will light the candle because I am Skeeve.

I was rewarded by a sudden surge of energy at the thought. I pursued it, growing heady with power. I am Skeeve. I am stronger than any of them. I escaped my father’s attempts to chain me to a plow as he had my brother. My mother died from her idealism, but I used her teachings to survive. My teacher is a gullible fool who took a thief for an apprentice. I have beaten them all. I am Skeeve. I will light the candle.

I was floating now. I realized how my abilities dwarfed those around me. Whether the candle lit or not was inconsequential. I am Skeeve. I am powerful.

Almost contemptuously I reached out with my mind and touched the wick. A small bright ember appeared in answer to my will.

Startled, I sat up and blinked at the candle. As I did, the ember disappeared, leaving a small white plume of smoke to mark its departure. I realized too late that I had broken concentration.

“Excellent, Lad!”

Garkin was suddenly beside me pounding my shoulder enthusiastically. How long he had been there I neither knew nor cared.

“It went out,” I said plaintively.

“Never you mind that. You lit it. You have the confidence now. Next time it will be easy. By the stars, we’ll make a magician of you yet. Here, you must be hungry.”

I barely got my hand up in time to intercept the remaining lizard-bird leg before it smacked into my face. It was cold.

“I don’t mind admitting I was beginning to despair, lad. What made that lesson so hard? Has it occurred to you you could use that spell to give you extra light when you’re picking a lock or even to start a fire to serve as a diversion?”

“I thought about it, but extra light could draw unwanted attention. As for starting a diversion, I’d be afraid of hurting someone. I don’t want to hurt anyone, just…”

I stopped, realizing what I was saying. Too late. A heavy cuff from Garkin sent me sprawling off my stool.

“I thought so! You’re still planning to be a thief. You want to use my magiks to steal!”

He was towering in his rage, but for once I stood my ground.

“What of it?” I snarled. “It beats starving. What’s so good about being a magician, anyway? I mean, your life style here gives me so much to look forward to.”

I gestured at the cluttered room that was the entirety of the hut.

“Listen to the wolfling complain,” Garkin sneered. “It was good enough for you when the winter drove you out of the woods to steal. ‘It beats sleeping under a bush,” you said.”

“And it still does. That’s why I’m still here. But I’m not going to spend the rest of my life here. Hiding in a little hut in the woods is not my idea of a future. You were living on roots and berries until I came along and started trapping meat for the fire. Maybe that’s your idea of a wonderful life, Garkin, but it’s not mine!”

We glared at each other for several long moments. Now that my anger was vented, I was more than a little afraid. While I had not had extensive experience in the field, I suspected that sneering at magicians was not the best way to ensure a long and healthy future.

Surprisingly enough, it was Garkin who gave ground first. He suddenly dropped his gaze and bowed his head, giving me a rare view of the unkempt mass of hair atop his head.

“Perhaps you’re right, Skeeve,” his voice was strangely soft. “Perhaps I have been showing you all the work of magik, but not the rewards. I constantly forget how suppressed magik is in these lands.”

He raised his eyes to meet mine again, and I shivered at the impact. They were not angry, but deep within them burned a glow I had never seen before.

“Know you now, Skeeve, that all lands are not like this one, nor was I always as you see me now. In lands where magik is recognized instead of feared as it is here, it is respected and commissioned by those in power. There, a skillful magician who keeps his wits about him can reap a hundred times the wealth you aspire to as a thief, and such power that….”

He broke off suddenly and shook his head as if to clear it. When he opened his eyes again, the glow I had seen burning earlier had died to an ember.

“But you aren’t to be impressed by words, are you, lad? Come, I’ll show you a little demonstration of some of the power you may one day wield—if you practice your lessons, that is.”

The joviality in his voice was forced. I nodded my agreement in answer to that burning gaze. Truth to tell, I needed no demonstration. His soft, brief oration had awed me far more than any angry tirade or demonstration, but I did not wish to contradict him at this time.

I don’t believe he actually noticed my response. He was already striding into the large pentagram permanently inscribed in the floor of the hut. As he walked, he gestured absentmindedly and the charred copper brazier scuttled forth from its place in the corner to meet him at the center of the pentagram.

I had time to reflect that perhaps it was that brazier that had first drawn me to Garkin. I remembered the first time I peered through the window of his hut seeking to identify and place objects of value for a later theft. I had seen Garkin as I have seen him so often since, pacing restlessly up and down the room, his nose buried in a book. It was a surprising enough sight as it was, for reading is not a common pastime in this area, but what captured my attention was the brazier. It hobbled about the room, following Garkin like an impatient puppy that was a little too polite to jump up on its master to get his attention. Then Garkin had looked up from his book, stared thoughtfully at his workbench; then, with a nod of decision, gestured. A small pot of unidentified content rose from the clutter and floated to his waiting hand. He caught it, referred to his book again, and poured out a dollop without looking up. Quick as a cat, the brazier scrambled under his hand and caught the dollop before it reached the floor. That had been my introduction to magik.

Something wrenched my attention back to the present. What was it? I checked Garkin’s progress. No, he was still at work, half-hidden by a floating cloud of vials and jars, mumbling as he occasionally plucked one from the air and added a bit of its contents to the brazier. Whatever he was working on, it promised to be spectacular.

Then I heard it again, a muffled step outside the hut. But that was impossible! Garkin always set the… I began to search my memory. I could not recall Garkin setting the protective wards before he started to work. Ridiculous. Caution was the first and most important thing Garkin hammered into me, and part of caution was always setting wards before you started working. He couldn’t have forgotten… but he had been rather intense and distracted.

I was still trying to decide if I should attempt to interrupt Garkin’s work when he suddenly stepped back from the brazier. He fixed me with his gaze, and my warning died in my throat. This was not the time to impose reality on the situation. The glow was back in his eyes, stronger than before.

“Even demonstrations should give a lesson,” he intoned. “Control, Skeeve. Control is the mainstay of magik. Power without control is a disaster. That is why you practice with a feather though you are able to move much larger and heavier objects. Control. Even your meager powers would be dangerous unless controlled, and I will not teach you more until you have learned that control.”

He carefully stepped out of the pentagram.

“To demonstrate the value of control, I will now summon forth a demon, a being from another world. He is powerful, cruel, and vicious, and would kill us both if given the chance. Yet, despite this, we need not fear him, because he will be controlled. He will be unable to harm us or anything else in this world as long as he is contained within that pentagram. Now watch, Skeeve. Watch and learn.”

So saying, he turned once more to the brazier. He spread his hands, and as he did, the five candles at the points of the pentagram sprang to life, and the lines of the pentagram began to glow with an eerie blue light. Silence reigned for several minutes, then he began to chant in a low mumble. A thread of smoke appeared from the brazier, but instead of rising to the ceiling, it poured onto the floor and began to form a small cloud that seethed and pulsed. Garkin’s chanting was louder now, and the cloud grew and darkened. The brazier was almost obscured from view, but there… in the depths of the cloud… something was taking shape.

“Isstvan sends his greetings, Garkin!”

I nearly jumped out of my skin at the words. They came from inside the hut, but not inside the pentagram! I whirled toward their source. A figure was standing just inside the door, blinding in a glowing gold cloak. For a mad moment I thought it was the demon answering Garkin’s summons. Then I saw the crossbow. It was a man, alright, but the crossbow, cocked and loaded in his hand, did little for my peace of mind.

Garkin did not even turn to look.

“Not now, you fool!” he snarled.

“It has been a long hunt, Garkin,” the man continued as if he hadn’t heard. “You’ve hidden yourself well, but did you really hope to escape….”

“You dare!?!” Garkin spun from his work, towering in his rage.

The man saw Garkin’s face now, saw the eyes, and his face contorted in a grotesque mask of fear. Reflexively, he loosed the bolt from his crossbow, but too late. I did not see what Garkin did, things were happening too fast, but the man suddenly disappeared in a sheet of flame. He shrieked in agony and fell to the floor. The flame disappeared as suddenly as it had come, leaving only the smoldering corpse as evidence it had existed at all.

I remained rooted to the spot for several moments before I could move or even speak.

“Garkin,” I said at last, “I… Garkin!”

Garkin’s form was a crumpled lump on the floor. I was at his side in one bound, but I was far too late. The crossbow bolt protruded with silent finality from his chest. Garkin had given me my last lesson.

As I stooped to touch his body, I noticed something that froze my blood in its veins. Half-hidden by his form was the extinguished candle from the north point of the pentagram. The lines were no longer glowing blue. The protective spell was gone.

With agonizing effort, I raised my head and found myself gazing into a pair of yellow eyes, flecked with gold, that were not of this world.