once heard that if a man couldn’t escape the workhouse in his dreams, then
death would be his only release. After months of the same drudgery, he was
beginning to believe it.
After being exiled from their homeland, Basen and his father had come to Kyrro—a territory of war-hardened people who regarded his family being on their land with the same abhorrence as discovering rats in their kitchens. However, living in Kyrro was the better alternative to being out in the wild and easy prey for Krepps.
Basen and his father figured it would be difficult to find work because of their surname, but “difficult” turned out to be grossly optimistic. Soon, the loathsome workhouse became their only chance to provide themselves with food and shelter. The workhouse administrator advised them to shed their Hiller surname and choose another while inside, a measure to protect them from the enforcers just as much as from the other workers. No one called the workhouse a prison around the enforcers, but the high walls and the oppressive air could make men think of nothing else.
“We’ll just stay here until the war is over,” Basen’s father would say when they went to bed hungry. “Eventually Kyrro’s grudge against my brother will subside and we can find work.”
But the war had ended months ago and the grudge against the Hiller family remained heavy in everyone’s hearts, including Basen’s. His uncle may be dead, but the damage he’d done to Ovira lingered like fissures after an earthquake.
His father tried to find work, but each day Henry spent outside of the workhouse was a day he slept in the street and went hungry. Food and bed were earned only by those who remained in the workhouse, like Basen. Given his rare strength and even rarer youth compared to the others, he was appointed the more arduous tasks of breaking stone for roads or crushing bone for fertilizer.
As the months dragged on, Basen saw the lack of eating and sleeping catching up to his fifty-three-year-old father, and after enough pleading, Henry finally accepted his fate in the workhouse. He would take no more trips around the city of Oakshen looking for work.
There was one last hope for them to break the perpetual cycle of the workhouse: the Academy. Now that recruitment day finally had come, every hungry man between ages sixteen and nineteen nervously awaited the call. Basen had his father’s sheath strapped to his belt as he worked that day. In it was his father’s wooden training sword, the last of their possessions they’d brought with them from the castle after the exile. It bothered him that Henry had forced him to sell his wand and keep the sword, especially considering Basen had used the wand every day since he was a young child and he’d never seen his father use the supposedly beloved training sword. But the Hillers were sword fighters…at least according to Henry. According to everyone else, however, they were the blight of Ovira.
Every day at the castle in Tenred, Basen used to train with the most skilled swordsmen. He was exceptional, the best of his age. But he was even better with a wand.
Suddenly, men shushed each other to stop the incessant clanking and cracking of their hard labor. Beneath the fading din, Basen heard a bell chiming from outside the walls. He strained his ears to make out the coinciding announcement.
“…at Worender Training Center for recruitment!” a voice bellowed. “Warriors are to bring their training swords. Mages are to bring their wands.”
Nervous excitement buzzed around the workhouse. Henry showed Basen a dire look, as if he were marching to battle. “Are you worried?”
“How can I be when I stand before such a comforting smile?” Basen teased.
Henry stared blankly, still waiting for the answer to his question.
“No, Father,” he lied, “I’m not worried.”
“Good. You shouldn’t be when you have more training than the rest of them.”
That might’ve been true months ago, but Basen hadn’t done any sword fighting since his exile. He pretended to let his father’s words comfort him as he smiled and nodded.
To his surprise, his father hugged him. “Come back with good news.” Then came the strong pat to his back he’d expected.
He left the workhouse with nearly twenty others his age. They were dirty, stinky, yet full of hope. He could see it in their eyes; they thought themselves to be better than the rest of this mangy lot. What only Basen seemed to realize, however, was that they weren’t in competition with each other but against the trained swordsmen who would make them look like fools.
Worender Training Center was the nearest training center to the workhouse, but it was in a less impoverished area of Oakshen a mile away. From what Basen had heard, recruitment day was the only time when a destitute young man like him would be seen within its metal fences, for city guards usually disallowed the untrained from entering. It seemed harshly ironic to Basen, but he supposed there weren’t many complaints. It wasn’t as if the poor had the time or energy to spar when working to survive took every hour of daylight.
Young men came from shanties to join their small posse, all of them wielding wooden swords that were of the same crude quality as their clothes. At least Basen had that advantage, for his father’s training sword was made of wood both light and strong.
But when he arrived at the training center, he saw there were no more advantages to claim. A line of strong, budding warriors twisted out from the open gates. Each formidable young man fiddled with a wooden sword of the highest quality. Their clothes made them appear like royalty in comparison to the dirty mob of novices approaching with Basen. A couple of the impoverished men lost hope right there, turning to go back to the workhouse where food and a bed awaited.
They’re the smart ones, Basen thought, and almost turned around to go with them. But he clung to his small hope, or maybe it was just stubbornness by then. He couldn’t be sure.
Everyone but him filed into place at the back of the long line, quietly swallowing their shame and ignoring the snickers from the finely dressed young men in front of them.
That left Basen standing alone as he tried to determine his odds. He estimated he was one of three-hundred hopefuls. If what he’d heard in the workhouse was true, twenty swordsmen would be accepted into the Academy from this training center.
A one in fifteen chance.
But that wasn’t right, he soon realized. There was no chance involved. Really it was that he had to be a better swordsman than two hundred and eighty of them.
Is such a thing possible when I haven’t fought in months?
He watched two men duel as an older man looked on with a scroll and quill in hand. The two dueling were trained, ducking and weaving with grace and speed.
On the other side of the training center was the line for mages. It was so short! He squeezed by the line of rowdy swordsmen to walk into the training center for a better look. There were only twenty! Wishing his father’s wooden sword wasn’t at his hip, he approached the woman he identified as the mage recruiter given the scroll in her hand and her age above the others.
She seemed to be offering encouragement to a young woman nervously pointing a wand at a charred training dummy, but both stopped as they noticed Basen.
“The line for warriors is there,” the mage recruiter said with a quick lift of her chin in the right direction. She had a cautious look as if concerned Basen might be a madman for not realizing it.
The dirt caked into his clothes and skin filled him with shame. “I’m interested in proving myself as a mage. May you inform me how many are accepted from this training center?”
“Twelve,” she said with curiosity, her eyes no longer dismissive.
His heart skipped in his chest. I only have to show I’m better than eight of them.
Not only were the odds better, but he would join as a mage instead of a warrior. When his three years at the Academy were finished, he’d be trained for a job in which he was paid to cast magic. The contract to the Academy required that he fight in any future war, but that didn’t scare him as much as the thought of spending the rest of his life in the workhouse.
“Have you trained as a mage?” The recruiter glanced at his belt. “I don’t see a wand on you.”
“I have trained, but I have no wand at the moment.”
“You can’t stand in line until you have one.” She looked back at the young woman. “Go on and cast.”
Clearly, this recruiter thought that would be it. But Basen was now determined. He would procure a wand if it cost him his shirt and pants and he was forced to prove himself in his undershorts.
“Thank you. I’ll return.”
He sprinted out of the training center. He would need time to scrounge up the necessary coin. Wands were no cheaper than swords, even considering their difference in size.
There was a small audience watching the warriors and mages from outside the training center. He asked every person for any money they could spare so he could buy a wand, earning nothing but a stomach full of humiliation as they snickered at him.
He noticed a wand shop next to a sword shop across the road. Positioned strategically close to the training center, the shops would no doubt set their prices substantially higher than anywhere else, but he had little choice. He went inside the wand shop.
The owner was a bespectacled man, his elegant robe giving him the appearance of a mage. He grimaced. “What could you be looking for in here?”
Basen feigned confusion. “This isn’t a bathhouse?”
“Oh, then I must be here for a wand.”
The owner grumbled at his quip. “Do you have any money?”
“Not yet. I need to know how much your cheapest wand is.”
“I don’t want stolen coin.”
“I’ve never stolen anything in my life, and I don’t plan to start now. How much is that one?” Basen pointed at a shameful cylinder of wood that looked to be the least expensive one in the fancy glass case before him.
“More than you can afford at zero coins.”
Basen drew his father’s wooden sword. It startled the owner as Basen placed it on the counter between them. “I will trade this for it.”
The owner tried to pretend he hadn’t been reaching for the wand on his belt and stepped forward to investigate the quality of the wood. He made a sour face that was far worse than what his father’s sword deserved.
“It’s quite worn.”
“Not nearly as much as that wand.”
The owner studied him for a moment. “Do you even know how to manipulate energy?”
Basen needed to practice gathering bastial energy before the trial anyway, and he saw this as a good opportunity. He opened his mind to sense for the energy. As he became aware of it, the sensation was like feeling heat from a surrounding fire. Drawing it toward him was surprisingly easy, as if he’d never had a hiatus in training. He pulled the bastial energy out from where it sat trapped in the walls and beneath the floor, then even more from his body. Turning up his hand, he directed it all to a single point above his palm.
With a soft grunt, he aimed his arm and willed the energy toward a table on the other side of the shop. The heat would be too much for his skin if not for the speed with which he accumulated the bastial energy and released it, all done in the span of a quick breath. The heavy book atop the table slid off and struck the floor with a thud.
The owner seemed slightly frightened, his hand once again going for his wand. Basen calmly nudged the sword toward him. “It’s a good trade,” he urged, trying to keep desperation out of his tone. The line hadn’t been long when he left, and mages took less time to judge than warriors because they didn’t have to duel each other.
“Fine. I accept your trade.” The owner slapped the wand onto the counter. “Go, then. Hurry off.”
Henry would seethe with anger when he found out Basen had traded their family sword for a wand that looked ready to break after a single spell, but he couldn’t worry about that now. He had to remember how to cast a fireball. Drawing in bastial energy was easy. Mixing it with sartious energy—without burning himself—was not.
The wand felt awkward in his hand. He couldn’t tell if it was a different weight or thickness from his beloved wand his father had made him sell months ago, but his fingers couldn’t find a comfortable spot along the chipped wood. It felt akin to using a fork with his right hand instead of his left, something his mother had tried to force him to learn as a child until his stubbornness had worn her out.
There was only one mage left in line when Basen returned, though he estimated well over two hundred warriors still waited. As he maneuvered past them, he feared someone would notice he’d left with a sword and was now back with a wand.
His fear came true. Some grating-voiced individual announced it with a teasing cadence. “Look! The poor-boy traded his shit sword for a shit wand!”
A roar of laughter followed as well as two comments: one about him lacking manhood between his legs and another wondering if he had a pair of teats beneath his grime. It was true that most mages were women, for they weren’t allowed to join the Academy as warriors. But the other two classes were mostly composed of women as well, yet there wasn’t the same derision toward male chemists and psychics.
“Let’s see how humorous you find it when you’re walking home with your swords and I’m walking to the Academy with my wand,” he told the lot of them.
They looked to each other for a response.
“Shut up, woman,” someone blurted.
Another roar of laughter followed at the poor excuse for an insult.
Basen scoffed as he walked away from them.
Idiot swordsmen. Their flavorless banter was part of the reason he first thought to try the wand instead of the sword.
The last woman in line was just about to cast a fireball when Basen came to the mage side of the training center. She let loose a small fireball, about the size of Basen’s fist. It sailed over all three training dummies twenty yards ahead of the young woman, exploding against a blackened brick wall.
The recruiter offered a polite smile. “Thank you. Please wait over there with the rest.”
The other women were gathered in the corner with just one man among them. They all seemed to stop their conversations to watch Basen, the dirty, destitute man who came in here a warrior not long ago. He would be watching as well if he were them.
“I see you’ve traded your sword for a wand,” the recruiter commented with an entertained sneer. “I haven’t seen this before.”
“Yes, the sword would’ve been too difficult to cast with.”
She pursed her lips in a repressed smile. “And what is your name?”
Dread came as she readied her quill to write. He hadn’t thought about having to give his name.
He glanced at the other mages. All were listening closely.
“Hiller,” he said softly.
She turned her head to glance at him sideways. “What did you say?”
Gasps came from the mages watching beside him. Then he heard his surname among the murmurs that followed.
He recognized the shocked expression on the recruiter’s face and knew she was about to ask the same question everyone always did: How was he related to the late king of Tenred? He saved her the trouble and answered preemptively.
“I’m Tegry Hiller’s nephew.” He knew what question was next, so he answered that as well. “Yes, the one who was exiled when the truth came out about my mother and supposed brother.”
The recruiter stepped back as if Basen were an animal baring teeth. “Wait here a moment.”
She hurried across the training center until she reached the warrior recruiter, a man twice her size with a face as ugly as a dog’s ass. At his command, the two dueling young men came to an abrupt stop. Everyone huddled closer to listen as the mage recruiter said something and pointed to Basen. Soon the entire line of warriors was staring at him. It was no better on the other side, the mages still gawking.
It was a constant effort not to roll his eyes. It wasn’t like he was the one who’d started the war. He hadn’t even fought. In fact, he’d come to Kyrro before the war had ended and would’ve died with the rest of them had Kyrro lost. They probably knew this. Most everyone damn well knew everything about his family by now. Chances were good someone in this territory even knew where his mother was, something he wanted to know yet equally didn’t want to know.
Both recruiters seemed to come to a decision. The mage walked back and formed a grin as she came near. She seemed young for an instructor of the Academy, but her deep smile lines helped make Basen aware of their age difference.
“Basen, are you aware that everyone who is accepted to the Academy still has to have their loyalty questioned by a psychic upon entering the school?”
“I’m aware now.”
She waited, looking as if she expected him to make an excuse to leave. He said nothing.
“Would you care to explain why that doesn’t seem to worry you?” Now she appeared to be enjoying this anomaly in her otherwise straightforward recruitment day, drawing out the prelude to his test. But Basen wasn’t getting any more comfortable with holding the attention of an audience.
“Madam, it would take insanity to remain loyal to a man who ruined my life, and it would take idiocy to do so simply because he was my uncle. I’d like to think I’m neither insane nor an idiot. Now if we’re done judging my character, can we begin judging my aptitude? If you still want to know more about me after that, I can sing and dance so you can judge my artistry. I should first warn you, though, that I dance like an ape and sing like one, too, so I hope my ability with bastial and sartious energy and my loyalty to Kyrro are the only things that matter in your decision.”
She held a pressed smile as she looked up at him, clearly entertained by his glib response. He would’ve been a fool to try the same thing with the warrior recruiter, but this woman had a predilection toward humor, something he could often determine about people upon their first conversation.
“Very well, Basen Hiller.” She spoke his name slowly and loudly, turning this into a spectacle as best she could. “Let’s see your strength and aim with fireballs.”
He tried to ignore that the entire training center was watching him, but it was like trying to disregard a naked woman. He closed his eyes and took a deep, calming breath.
For most mages of seventeen like him, it took about four heartbeats to gather the necessary energy and cast a fireball. He knew himself to be twice as fast, but the recruiter hadn’t asked for speed, so he would focus on power instead.
Basen took his time drawing in an enormous amount of bastial energy near to him, preparing himself for the upcoming part that needed to be done in a blink. The energy wanted to keep moving, but he held it in a wide ring around him. It was almost invisible to the eye, though true mages could sense it as easily as a baker could smell when his bread was done.
In an instant, he then pulled all the bastial energy to the tip of his wand. At the same time, he used the rest of his mind’s focus to scrape out sartious dust from the pellets in his wand. But something was wrong—he couldn’t grasp the sartious energy within his weapon. He pulled at it harder with his mind, but it was too late. He was forced to let go of the hot bastial energy before he burned himself, willing it at the training dummy.
A strange and new feeling came to him, like willing a door open that had taken all of the strength of his mind. He didn’t know what to make of it, for the spell had been a failure—a blast of hot, clear bastial energy that dissipated halfway to the training dummy. However, there was something he’d never seen before at the center of the ball of heat. It was gone just as quickly as it had appeared, but it had looked like a circle the size of his palm with something yellow and fiery deep within it.
He was noticeably more fatigued than usual after casting a single fireball, and he hadn’t even managed to do that. As he tried to keep his heavy breathing under control, the crowd laughed and went back to its business.
“Did you see the strange yellow circle?” he asked the recruiter, hoping that if she was going to send him back to the workhouse hungry, at least he would’ve learned what he’d done.
“Yes. It seems that there wasn’t enough sartious energy to burn. You need more for all that bastial energy you gathered.”
So she thought that it was simply the beginning of a fireball, nothing special about it. Perhaps she was right.
“Please allow me to try again,” he said. “It’s been months since I’ve cast anything, and something felt wrong.”
She thought for a moment. “That was a large amount of bastial energy I felt. But if you have no control over sartious, then you’re not ready for the Academy.”
“I can control sartious energy.”
“Then let me see you make a trail of it.”
This was a simple spell. He could focus purely on grinding out dust from the sartious pellets in his wand. But as he tried to scrape the energy with his mind, he couldn’t feel it. He tried harder.
Panic set in. Have I lost the ability?
The recruiter frowned and extended her hand. “Let me see your wand.”
Hopeful she might discover some defect, he gave it to her. She unscrewed the top and looked inside with one eye.
“It’s empty.” She turned it upside down and shook it to show him.
Relief washed over him. There were no sartious pellets for him to use. Anger quickly followed. That bastard wand seller. Most of the price of a wand came from a master green mage gathering a tremendous amount of sartious energy over many hours, packing it into hardened pellets, and securing them in the weapon.
“Where did you get this wand?” the recruiter asked.
Basen explained trading his sword for it and rushing back without thinking to check inside.
“He shouldn’t have sold you an empty wand even if it was a trade,” she said. “Here, use mine.”
When the recruiter handed it to him, his hand clasped her wand so comfortably he didn’t want to give it back. It was made from beautiful and expensive ironbark, black and glossy. Even though it was filled with hardened sartious energy, it was lighter than the dense wood of his wand. Probably why I never suspected it could be missing sartious energy.
Basen repeated the process as before and felt nothing strange this time. Both bastial and sartious energy obeyed his will and the result was a fireball the size of the training dummy’s chest. It exploded loud enough to draw the attention of the warriors on the other side.
Unfortunately, he was in too much pain to enjoy the moment. He’d held the bastial energy at the tip of his wand a blink too long after mixing in the sartious dust and ended up severely burning himself. The ironbark of the recruiter’s wand could withstand any amount of heat, but the skin on his fingers couldn’t.
His seared hand dropped the wand as he hopped back and forth, barely managing to hold back curses. He snatched the recruiter’s wand off the ground with his right hand and hopped over to hand it back.
“You do dance like an ape.” She chuckled and gestured at his burned fingers. “That’ll happen when you haven’t trained in months and you try to impress me with the biggest fireball you can possibly make.”
“It was worth it if it did impress you.”
She breathed in as if to sigh but then let out a laugh. “You’d better visit the healer.”
Basen followed the direction of her pointing finger and saw a woman standing just outside the training center.
“But before you go,” the recruiter continued, “you should know that was the best fireball I’ve seen today. However, that means nothing if you can’t make another without burning yourself.”
He grimaced as he reached out his right hand for her wand.
“No, no,” she laughed. “I was just expecting a promise not to injure yourself again. Forget it. Just go have your hand treated.”
He had a good feeling he’d be accepted, though it was buried beneath the excruciating agony of his fingers and knuckles. He hurried toward the healer.