7: The Seekers
Iliya had been in Markandberg for almost ten months when the seekers arrived.
During assembly in the main hall, the headmistress told everybody that it was the day of the annual visit. A wave of murmurs went through the crowd of students. Annual visit from whom? Iliya didn’t have time to ask before they were all told to go scrub their nails and brush their hair and make sure that they were presentable like proper wizards and witches should always be. After that, they would all head to their respective classes and would be notified if they were needed. As Iliya polished his shoes and put on his best shirt, theories were beginning to form in his mind. It had to be someone very important. Could it be someone from the castle? Or perhaps the Keeper himself?
Of course Iliya had heard of the Guard of the Demon Lord. Everybody knew of him. The story went that a thousand years ago, a powerful demon had been unleashed into the world. It was speculated that it had formed of ancient magic that had gone bad over the course of history. The demon wrecked havoc and threatened life on the whole continent. The only way to end the destruction had been for a brave wizard to take it upon himself to absorb the demon. Iliya wasn’t sure how one absorbed a demon, but apparently the demon was sealed inside the wizard’s body. Its devastating powers were contained there until the wizard died. And then another stepped forward to take it from him. Only the most powerful, competent wizard of each generation was able to handle the honourable calling.
The current Keeper was a young man called Cornelius Rowenheall. He had been taught by the best witches and wizards, been the pride of his school and later his master. He was tall, handsome and wealthy, and the story of how he had conquered the demon and sealed it within himself was the stuff of living legends. Some said it made him even more powerful.
All the students in the first class of the day were tense. Just like when there was going to be a test. Iliya was only confused, but he usually scored well on tests, so if there were going to be one, he’d probably be all right. Granted, his artistic skills weren’t the best when they were asked to draw herbs or plants, his handwriting could be neater and he didn’t find potions and amulets all that exciting. But he had discovered that he was good at everything he liked. Deciphering languages, remembering spells, even using them in new ways. He had not expected a teacher to interrupt the class and take him out of the classroom with two other boys because the visitors would like to see them.
Iliya exchanged glances with the other students. One of them was grinning like a madman. He looked like someone had handed him a bag full of marks to spend in any way he wanted. The other one, a short, timid boy, was trudging along next to Iliya. He seemed worried rather than happy. Iliya didn’t know what to expect, but he decided that it probably wasn’t something bad. He had broken a few rules now and then, and though no one usually caught him, someone could have ratted him out. But the other boys were well-behaved. One came from a rich family and a long line of wizard and witches. The other one had been orphaned early, but he had been raised by a local wizard who had taught him a lot. They were both good students and, more importantly at the moment, not troublemakers.
The teacher led them into a classroom that was already half full. Boys from other classes were standing in small groups. Iliya spotted a boy that he had almost had a duel to the death with a week ago. It wouldn’t really have been to the death because none of them knew enough magic for that, but they had an intense argument that would have ended in a fight if not a teacher had stepped in and sent them both back to their rooms without supper. There was also the older boy who was known around the school mainly for being extremely pretty and the guy who was feared a little bit by everyone because his magic was so potent. And then there were the adults.
They were five. Three men and two women, dressed in distinct magic user robes showing their ranks. One of them was the headmistress of the school, but the rest Iliya didn’t know. None of them was the Keeper, after all. They all had a special pin under the usual insignia on the clasp of their collars. And they were studying the students. A piece of paper lay on a table in front of them, and their eyes went from it to the boys once in a while.
Two more students entered the room and found a place to stand. One of them looked terrified. He was pale and had fisted his hands at his sides. Someone probably ought to remind him to breathe. A few looked like they owned the whole school and were smirking their heads off. Some seemed almost as confused as Iliya felt. They were twelve in total. Twelve boys who must have something in common to be here. Iliya straightened his back and tried to look calm and as if he were completely aware of what was going on. The teachers left the room, and students were alone with the headmistress and the four strangers.
“I assume you all know why you are here,” said the headmistress.
There was an awkward silence. Some of them clearly did. They wisely nodded their heads. A few shuffled their feet nervously. Iliya grew annoyed. No, he didn’t know anything. He raised his hand.
“Yes?” asked the headmistress.
“I’m sorry, but I was not informed,” Iliya said. Everyone looked at him now, but it was better to be honest than to have to admit later that he had no clue. He caught what looked like a grin on the face of the youngest of the strangers before it was quickly removed.
“Well … These are the Seekers,” said the headmistress slowly as if he were a little bit daft. “They are looking for young wizards eligible for keeper training. That is to say, you are here because you are the most talented wizards that our school can offer.”
Now Iliya did feel silly for asking. Hopefully everyone knew he really had been clueless and not pretended in order to be told that he was talented in front of everybody.
“Did that answer your question?” asked the young man who had almost laughed.
“Yes. Thank you,” Iliya said, trying not to seem flustered.
“Well, then. As you are aware, the Keeper is young, but as we never know what may happen, the Seekers are always looking for candidates.” The headmistress continued to explain that whoever was selected would not immediately receive special training. They would be put on a list with the names of promising students from other schools around the continent and an eye would be kept on them. It was not mandatory, of course, so if any of the students did absolutely not want this, they were free to say so. However, it was a great honour to be considered, and even if they were not selected for further training when they graduated, they were likely to be able to secure themselves quite good positions in society if they had been on the list for years.
Iliya took all this in. He had not known about that list, and certainly not expected that someone would consider him for special training to become the greatest wizard in the known world. Well, even if he did make it to the list, the chances of ever becoming the Keeper’s successor were very slim. But little did all that matter now. He was here, and that was something to feel proud of.
The Seekers asked them all to do some magic. No one specified which kind, but all the boys cast illusions spells and conjured up images of something in midair because that was the only kind of slightly impressive magic they knew that didn’t take time or props or included setting fire to something. Iliya wished he could have thought of a different spell. But he couldn’t, especially not with the strangers looking at him. No, it was more than only looking. They were scrutinising, judging his magic in a way that Iliya had never experienced before. Not even during tests.
Finally the youngest of the Seekers called out the names of six boys. Iliya’s was among them. They stayed while the others left with the headmistress. Now, explained the young wizard, they would see each of the boys alone in the next room.
No one said very much while the boys waited, but Iliya found that they all looked suspiciously at each other. As if they were enemies or rivals. Well, in a way, they were rivals. Iliya was the fifth to be called into the other room. All four Seekers sat at a table, and Iliya was told to stand in the middle. Then they began to ask him questions. What was his name, his age and where did he grow up? Had he received any kind of training before entering the school, and were there any wizards or witches in his family?
Iliya answered the questions to the best of his ability. It felt like a test now, but he didn’t know what exactly was being tested. After the initial questioning, the witch told him that they would like to see him perform a bit more.
The Seekers asked him to do a number of spells. The first two went fine. Iliya remembered the incantations and said them flawlessly, and the magic was easy to control. The third one, however, was a problem. He had no idea how to make a gust of wind blow through the room and tear away the sheet of paper in the witch’s hand. So this had to be the real test. Iliya thought for a moment, tried to figure out a way to create wind using a combination of ancient words and his ability to draw magic from the surroundings. He spoke as determinedly as he possibly could, put forward his hand as if to push the paper, and implored the magic to do the rest. The paper moved feebly. That was no gust of wind. It was hardly a breeze. Iliya bit his lip, but there wasn’t much to do about it. The next spells were easier, and the Seekers were constantly studying him. He was certain now that the were not only looking. They were doing something else, something with magic, to assess him.
Eventually, the witch thanked him, and Iliya tried to catch his breath. He was lightheaded from all that rapid magic. Throughout the performance, the Seekers had been taking notes.
“Couldn’t you remember the wind spell, boy?” asked the oldest wizard now. He sounded almost disappointed.
Iliya cleared his throat. “No, sir ... I mean ... I haven’t learnt any wind spell.”
The four of them regarded him for a moment. Did they wonder if he were telling the truth or making excuses?
“I see,” said the old wizard. “Then why did you try?”
“I thought it was best,” replied Iliya truthfully. “I know that experienced wizards can do spells without learning them first. That’s how new spells are invented, too.”
The young wizard looked like he was going to laugh again. Iliya didn’t see what was so funny. “That’s right,” he said. “This one does exist, though, and we wouldn’t have asked you if we didn’t think you knew it. Actually ...” He turned to his fellow Seekers. “Why don’t we see what happens if he gets the words right?”
“This isn’t a lesson, Elswain,” said the wizard who had so far not spoken to Iliya. “How long time do you think we have? We aren’t here to teach them.”
“Humour me. Please,” said the young wizard.
The other man made a dismissive wave of his hand and nodded.
“Just a moment ...” The young wizard turned around the paper in front of him and quickly scribbled something on it. “There,” he said and held out the paper to Iliya. “Read it and try.”
Iliya read the spell. The handwriting was sloppy and not at all as easy to read as the copies they were given in the classrooms. But he could make out all the words. He had used some of them in his own attempt at a spell, but this was a solid incantation, one that had been tried and tested and would work if he said it right and thought it right. He quietly mouthed the words, then handed back the paper to the wizard.
“Do you think you can do it?” the wizard asked.
“I think so,” Iliya said. He took a deep breath and spoke the incantation as forcefully as he could. He held out his arm and willed the paper in the witch’s hand to move. This time it fluttered. And then it was ripped apart. “Oh ... I’m sorry,” Iliya said. He had put too much force into the spell because he was afraid it may not work.
They all wrote something on their papers, except the witch who put hers in front of her and waved her hand above it to instantly mend it.
Later that day, Iliya was told he had made the list. Three of them had.
Sometimes, he wondered what happened to that list. If his name were crossed out when he left the school. But he told himself that it was of no consequence. No one had ever sought him out. Until, possibly, now … Iliya couldn’t help wondering whether the Keeper knew. Whether it somehow were the reason for his being in Larkon. And whether, if that were the case, it would be in Iliya’s favour or not.