Friday, June 21, 2013

The Tenth Student

The Tenth Student
Bobby Derie

South of Sibiu, up in the old mountains where it is still wild, there is a secluded portion of the country that was never conquered when the Romans warred against Dacia. Three peaks look down on a little brother, packed so tight together that they form a valley about that smallest peak, and the cold water of their melting snows form streams through the dense, foggy forests, and fills up that valley so it looks to be the deepest lake in the world, and that small peak an island in the middle of it with roots that go down to the heart of the world. If one climbed those peaks and hiked through the forest on the game trails to the shores of that lake and looked out across the clear waters that reflected the sky, they would see the foundations of some mighty tower, long toppled. There, in a cellar beneath a cellar, is the celebrated school of Scholomance.

Now every ten years the master of this school goes forth, and scours the land for ten boys marked for magic by their red hair and other signs, and takes them back with him for instruction. It is not as schools today, for he is a hard master and cunning, and each student must find their own path and overcome their own trials to mastery. And when their course of study is complete, nine are released into the world as master occultists, and the tenth the master keeps for himself. Yet always that dark master smiles to see his nine charges go, for whatever good or ill they do with their powers, it is his work that they accomplish, and he knows he will see them all again in time.

It was the tenth year, and the old master rode out upon his dragon, which had taken the form of a horse as black as coal with antlers like an antelope, cut cabochons for its eyes, and iron teeth and iron hooves that struck sparks with every step. The master had his own strange ways of going that few are privy to, and was surprised at one dark crossroads to find a mother and child and a cat waiting for him there—and then the woman straightened and looked him full in the face, and he smiled to recognize a favorite retainer from the Sabbat-revels, a drowner of ships and despoiler of men and cattle. The cat he knew too as her familiar, a disreputable one-eyed dam named Wotan whose fur was so long and wild that the cat seemed almost shapeless. He greeted the witch with familiarity, and she bent to perform the old obsequious kiss, but he waved her away and had a look at the child. The cat ignored him, and he returned the favor.

“Who is this that stands before me? Some abortion you have delayed to deliver up to me, these seven years, as I judge.” Said the master. The child stood tall for its age, with close-cropped henna hair and green-blue eyes, and was dressed in a simple sack of white cotton that hid much of its shape.

“His name is Aiden, lord. Born with the caul, oh lord, and a mouth full of teeth so that when I brought him to my breast his first meal was blood. The seventh child I had delivered, the other six of which I had given up to you as soon as they were born, their throats slit to proffer you libation. Yet this one I kept, my seventh son, and I have schooled him in all that I know—yet I would have him go to the Scholomance.”

Now the old master licked his lips at the memory of the drinks she had served him as a wild girl of sixteen, naked and still aching from the birth, blood dripping down her thighs as on shaky legs she brought to him the old copper cylix full of hot blood. And each time the witch said “son” he smiled wider, for he took pleasure in lies.

Kneeling down to the child, the old master looked deep into those eyes.

“Well, little witch. I have heard your mother make your case, and good it is too. Yet you must know that this course lasts nine years, and at the end I keep one of my students as payment for my services. Do you accept these terms?”

The child nodded, and with that the pact was sealed. Mother and child embraced one final time, and the dragon bent at the knees to except his newest passenger, who sat behind the master. Then in a crash of sparks, they were off.

Nine more children came to Scholomance, all with their own skills and their own secrets, and Aiden kept hers as well as any of the others. Some had been schooled already in certain arts, while others possessed only their native skills, but all had come to learn, and the master had his own peculiar style. It was rare of him to give any straight answer to a question, but he would always proffer a path to the solution that rewarded and enriched the earnest or clever student. There were no tests or exams, but always the ten children awoke to new challenges and perils that drove them onward.

So it was that one day the whole school might be covered with venomous serpents of every description, and it was up to each to deal with the situation, scrabbling through the books in the vast library for some spell or conjuration to deal with the crisis of the day; and the next day a creature of balefire stalked the halls, but the only book to bind or dismiss it was written in runes none had yet mastered…yet by the end of the day they had. Other parts of their training were more subtle; their every meal was laced with dire poisons in growing strength, so soon they evinced immunities to many life-threatening drugs, and every day their cloths grew a little more heavy, so in five years’ time they wandered about stooped as a group of muscled blacksmiths in smocks heavy as iron.

In the fifth year, individual lessons began. While no student had ever been denied access to any book in the library, now the master queried them closely on the lore they wished to master, and told them which books to read, and what they might do to improve their skills and attain the powers they wished, and together student and master would plan out their course. It was in the fifth year that Aiden determined to summon a familiar.

Now in her twelfth summer, Aiden still maintained the guise of a boy, using a wrap to contain her budding breasts, and keeping her hair shorn close to the scalp. The master approved of her project, and they talked long about the various benefits and difficulties of a familiar, and the rights and responsibilities of the pacts to be made, and where the various ingredients for certain of the spells might be kept.

“But master,” Aiden said. “Could you not simply assign me a familiar, as you did my mother?”

At that, the master hesitated. “I did not assign her that creature, my child.” He said. “I had given her a thing of crooked wings with the face of an old man, a descendant of some elder race that might have become Man before they fell from favor and grace, and it would have served her well and faithfully through all the years she was bound to me, fed by the bloody milk of her witches’ nipple.” He sighed. “The cat ate the thing, after a long night of torturing it, and attached itself to your mother in its place. A rare case of the familiar choosing the master.”

Aiden said nothing, and did not smile, but the master was not surprised a week later to recognize the pile of fur that followed his student’s steps, and coiled in her lap to listen during their private lessons. It was of no fixed breed, but the long hairs were black and brown and grey that seemed to shift whenever it moved, and its limbs always seemed a little longer than any domestic mouser. Most worrying of all, the master noted, was that the cat had no fear of thunder at all, but would come and watch as the students of Scholomance went to the lake to craft storms and lightning.

In the ninth year, each student at Scholomance was given a book, and charged as their final effort to fill it with all they had learned—and this was the sole grade of the whole nine years of study, he said to them, for he would read each book and so determine which was to be payment for their time here, and as for the rest they would no longer have access to the sprawling occult library of the school, but would have only their own book to refer to. So for a twelvemonth, they set to work.

Now the master did not set them this task and leave them to it, but guided them in their work with questions and suggestions, and never more in their nine years did the ten students so deeply reflect on what they had learned, nor questioned so much of what they had taken for granted. More than a collection of recipes, each grimoire they crafted was a universe to itself, a personal manifesto of all they knew and understood of magic, and with many original insights as well.

One day late in the eleventh month, Aiden approached the master with the request. “I have studied well here, and written down nearly all I think I’ve learned in my book.” said the girl dressed as a boy. “Yet I approach the final chapter and I know it is incomplete, for there are some final secrets of my early training with my mother I have forgotten and must know again.” And the master smiled, for he liked to hear lies.

“In the final year, the students are permitted to sojourn beyond these walls unaccompanied,” he said “and may even go beyond the barriers of this valley by whatever powers they possess, for not all the instruction of Scholomance is in dusty books and unlocked crypts. Your mother dwells just beyond this valley; go to the east where you will find a trail of bones, and follow it to her house.”

So Aiden and Wotan took themselves across the still, clear waters of the lake, and the dragon in its depths blinked as they walked across the surface as though it were solid ice, and took themselves into the woods to the east. The master stood on the shore and clucked his tongue, for Aiden had not thought to ask what might have left the trail of bones to her mother’s house.

In the forest Wotan became as one with the muddy darkness, and Aiden picked the way through secret game trails she had learned to find and to follow, and recalled all the names of the herbs and plants and trees that she passed and their uses, and caught the signs of all the game that had been this way before. After an hour of this winding way, the land slowly climbing as she went up the side of the valley, the trees gave way to scrub grass. Before her she could see a slight pass between the mountain peaks, and trailing down on it to the forest’s edge was a heap of bones bleached by sun and wind, picked clean by birds and insects, all the way to the forest’s edge where there was a bare muddy spot with a track that Aiden had never seen before. It was something like a lion, if a lion had been the size of an elephant, and Wotan crept next to her and the cat’s tail twitched as it sniffed the wind.

Together, they climbed the road of bones, and at the crest they found the sphinx, gnawing on the remnants of a horse. It was indeed the size of a small elephant, and it had the deep chest and tawny limbs of a panther rather than a lion, but it was wide at the shoulder and the spine curved up at the back, so that it’s front limbs were always splayed and the chest always appeared puffed out, the better to display its vast bare breasts, and the face was of a dark-skinned human woman with the teeth of a cannibal, and matted hair twisted into long hanging dreads. A little ways off Aiden could see her mother’s house, which in truth was a cottage built into the side of the mountain, and so overgrown with grass and moss as to seem almost a part of nature.

“Good evening,” she said to the sphinx, as the sun was setting but it only stared at her and spoke in a hissing sibilance. Now Aiden grew afraid, for she knew the purpose and way of the sphinx, to devour any who did not answer their riddles. She knew too that the beast had likely been set here by the master to guard the entrance to the valley, and keep any of his charges from escaping their doom. All this she knew—yet never once did she think that the sphinx might not ask her riddle in a tongue she spoke.

Then Wotan hissed and yowled a reply, and the sphinx stared down at the one-eyed cat and stiffly bowed its head—and Aiden remembered that the cat is cousin to the sphinx, and speaks her language.

The reunion with mother and daughter was brief and joyous, and they talked long into the night, each feeding Wotan choice morsels and doting on her between them by the fireplace. From outside came the yowl—Frieda, her mother’s other cat, who was with kittens and would go into labor any time now. When the moon was high the old witch told her daughter the last of her secrets, the three great secrets all witches share, the least of which is that every woman has it in her power to be a witch, and needs no pact or bargain, but only to decide to be so. Then as the moon hid its face behind a cloud, Aiden wrote the last page in her book and slipped into a dreamless sleep.

The master arrived well past midnight, and the old witch was by the fire, and seemed to expect him. He took the book there because the light was better, and finished that final chapter.

“A good student,” he said. “And like the mother, will make a good and devoted servant.”

“You’ve decided then, lord?” she said, her voice barely a whisper, devoid of hope.

“I have.”

And the conversation turned to other things, remembering rites long past, and obscenities lovingly crafted over the years. Neither paid any attention as Wotan uncurled herself from the fire, and padded softly to where Aiden lay sleeping.

It had been many years ago since last she had done so, yet the cat clambered up and sat high on her mistress’s chest, head drawn close to the witch’s gaping mouth, and opened her own as though in a silent scream. Long minutes passed as Aiden seemed to find it harder and harder to breathe, and finally a shudder ran through her body and something flitted out from Aiden’s open mouth and Wotan’s jaws crashed sharply on it.

There was a roar and peel of thunder behind her as the cat sprinted from the cottage, and the master appeared at the doorway in surprise, but his eyes caught sight of the dark mottled shadow and gave chase into the night. It was a brief run, for by the time he had caught up with Wotan the one-eyed cat sat guarding before Frieda and her passel of new kittens, all of which where black with white bellies and feet—save for one, henna-furred, and though its eyes were not open the master knew they would be blue-green.

“You dare cheat me?” he addressed the one-eyed cat, and it flicked its ears at him.

“You know well the bargain you made with my race,” Wotan rasped as the rain began to fall, and lightning flashed on the mountains. “We alone tread the worlds of day and night, and carry your news and act as your eyes and ears. We have burned and drowned for your servants’ crimes, and submitted to many sorceries and cruelties by those who seek a path to you, and all for this: you cannot harm a cat, nor lay claim to us.”

The master trembled with anger as the storm raged, her book still clutched in his grip, but at last the mood lifted, and he turned back to the school. There were, after all, nine others to choose from for his price.


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