“Come on. Just a little higher,” the calm magician spoke softly. He looked up at the twenty-foot bar and growled as it rose to thirty. Time and time again, they were pushing his limits. Time and time again, he’d nearly given up. But time and time again, he grew angry at the obstacle. Whenever that happened, he easily overcame it. The first few were child’s play. Twelve feet. Fifteen. Eighteen. Twenty was moderately difficult to reach but he still reached it on his first try. To expect him to go from twenty feet to thirty was just ridiculous. He knew they were trying to push him into it. That frenzy. The crazy, mindless, rage. It let him do anything, but the cost was too much. He lost himself and something else took over. And it was getting easier all the time.
“Go on. You can do it.” A voice broke intruded upon his thoughts. The gray-eyed magician was watching him, obviously hoping that no further encouragement would be necessary. Too much “encouragement” and it may very well be the last thing the magician ever did. There was a precedent.
Turning away from the magician, the boy eyed the bar. It was hanging in the air, unsupported by rope or chain. Keeping his eyes on it, he started running in circles around it, wider and wider, getting faster all the while until his eyes were just a blur. Turning, he ran to the middle of the room. Compressing himself like a spring, he launched himself up at the bar, legs flailing madly. After what felt like forever, two fingers connected with the bar and it was just enough for him to pull himself up. The bar lowered slowly until his feet hit the ground. He took a sip of water from a skin and looked up at the magician. The magician quickly concealed his look of awe and replaced it with a mask of calm. “A little higher.”
As the boy watched the bar float back, higher than he’d ever seen it go before. Fifty feet. A feeling of dread sank like a stone into the boy’s stomach. He hadn’t eaten in a few hours and was utterly exhausted by the previous exercises. Without letting the feeling of despair color his countenance, he stepped calmly into the center of the room. Looking straight up, he let the fury he was feeling into his muscles; let it flood into his legs. He watched as his tattoo rustled and started to glow, the maw of the phoenix opening, the wings rustling. Then he burst into flame.
He felt the magic infuse his muscles, but didn’t let it overcome him. It would be very bad to lose control. Tensing his legs, he bunched up all his muscles and let the magic do the rest. Looking at the bar, he relaxed his hold and the magic burst through his body. He left the ground like a missile, the ground falling away at an impossible rate. He passed the bar and it followed him, trailing a few feet beneath him until his momentum diminished. Letting the bar catch him, he looked down to see the distance he had traveled. Looking down, the boy could not see the magician and the ground looked impossibly far away. Had the bar not caught him, he would have fallen for several seconds before the ground, and death, had swiftly rushed to meet him. All at once, the magic abandoned him and mere adrenaline could not fight the darkness that overcame his taxed system.
He awoke in silent agony. Every muscle, from his neck to his toes ached. Remembering his ordeal, he forced himself to sit, his abdomen screaming in protest. Opening his eyes, he saw that he was in the sick wing. The white, stone walls were soothing and the glows hanging from the ceiling threw a very gentle blue light on the ground. A kind-looking, female magician looked at him with maternal eyes from a chair across the small room. He released a groan as he fell back into the white-sheeted bed.
“You gave us quite a scare, young man,” her gentle voice trilled. She was at least as young as he, and the word “young” bothered him a bit. Reflecting further, however, he realized that though she was young, she was far more educated than he, perhaps allowing her to call him young. “Young man,” she mused. “I wish we had a name to give you…” The boy was astonished. This was the first time a magician had come close to being sympathetic to him. Though raised by magicians, he had learned at a young age that he was not one of them. The magicians learned their art through learning and study. Being an innate as he was, instinct guiding his magic rather than learning, he was an animal on which the experimented and tested. He wondered what her name was.
Abruptly, her demeanor changed, perhaps sensing the direction his thoughts had gone. “Quite a fall you made. Your instructor only barely managed to slow you as you fell.” A kinder look came across her features. “How do you feel? A little spent, yes?” Silently, the boy rose, refusing to allow any sounds of discomfort to reach her ears. He walked out, ignoring her calls from down the hall until he came to a mirror and fountain.
He looked at the mirror and watched his reflection. He wore no shirt but had a birthmark that covered his chest. He wore dark leggings and wore a black leather belt with a steel buckle. His hair was a dark maroon that curled as it fell around his face. He had slightly angular eyes and his eyebrows curved sharply as they neared the bridge of his nose. He had a strong jaw and prominent check bones framed his face. Excepting his hair, all his features were well within the norm of their culture and the geography of the area. But his eyes were another story.
Magicians’ eyes all glowed. Some glowed brighter than others, but all were the standard colors. There were blue, brown, green, and occasionally gray. It was unusual but not unheard of for a magician to change their eye color magically. For that to happen naturally was another thing entirely. He stared at his eyes as purple, red, and black swirled around his jagged irises. A touch of yellow started in his left eye, flowed through his right and disappeared. Most magicians had a difficult time maintaining eye contact and normal people would have burned him long ago had the magicians not taken him in.
With a sigh, he dunked his head in the fountain and shook his head. Emerging, his water-darkened hair hung in small ringlets on his face and neck. He shook his head and jumped in surprise when he heard a small giggle behind him.
Standing not one foot behind him was the young healer. “Come on,” she said with a small smile. “We still have to fill out the report.” Ah. The report, he thought. Another of the tedious things the experimenting magicians plagued him with. No matter how many times he answered their questions, they always had more. They were back in the bare white room, him on the bed, the young healer occupying the only chair in the room.
She asked the standard questions, what did it feel like, describe what you were thinking, did you know you were going to overshoot the bar, did you expect to black out. They were always the same terrible, condescending questions. But he knew they were not her questions. The tablet in her hand was glowing with the questions she needed to ask and faded when his answer was deemed sufficient. He thought his answers and the tablet recorded them. After over an hour, the tablet finally faded for the last time and no new questions appeared. He tensed to rise when he felt a hand on his arm. Looking up, he saw the young healer standing above him. He looked at her, saying nothing, nor could he if he wished.
The boy had no vocal cords. His mouth could smile and eat, but nothing more. The magicians had overcome that problem however. He could project his thoughts to others, though he could not hear the thoughts of others. He’d also learned that he could project a thought to a single person with as much intensity or “volume” as he could muster, and only that person could “hear.”
What? he asked her softly. She didn’t flinch.
“How do you feel?”
I am well. I am ready for another test.
“That’s not what I asked,” she said softly, “Are you all right?”
It was the look of compassion in her eyes: the soft, almost loving expression on her face. For the first time he could remember, he felt like someone cared about him. And it scared him. With a spasm of emotions the boy couldn’t identify, he rose. He shook his head and blinked his eyes as he found some kind of water obscuring his vision.
He blew out the doors of the sick wing and ran headlong into two warrior mages. When they saw him running, their hands started to glow, one green, one red and globules of colored light flew at him. He leaped from wall to wall in the narrow hallway until he had covered the twenty or so feet between them. He struck the first magician in the crook of each shoulder and knees consecutively. One more punch between the eyes and the magician sank into unconsciousness. All this took place in a matter of seconds but it was still long enough for the other magician to run away and summon a full battalion of warrior mages.
As he burst into the training room adjacent to the sick wing corridor, he flew into the full complement. 24 direct combat mages, hands aglow stood in carious stances of battle readiness. On the left, 12 beast summoners, and on the right twelve men bearing scrolls of defenses from various forms of missiles and magic. One in the front, one he recognized from his unarmed combat training exercises, stepped forward. With a loud voice, he called out- or started to call out- the word “surrender” when a globule of light flew from the hands of a magician behind him. The boy let power infuse his hand as he slapped it aside. Looking up, he saw a hail of light flying at him from all directions. As he saw the terrible volley before him, some other part of him took over. His eyes glowed and he let the power infuse his body in a way he had never allowed before.
Spinning in circles, he leaped from side to side, dodging most of the missiles and deflecting the rest. He crossed the distance between them only to find a dozen beasts ranging from wolves and bears to griffins and rocs. Still dodging and deflecting the missiles, he realized that he was going to die. With that knowledge on his mind, he thought of the kind healer. The one that asked him how he felt. When he thought of her face, her kind eyes looking at him and coupled it with the certainty of death he was experiencing and something within him broke.
With a scream that he never knew he had, he exploded upward from the ground and kept going. When he realized that he wasn’t slowing down, he realized that he was shifting.
He’d seen shifts before, magicians turning to animals and back. But partial shifts were rare and often accidental. More often than not, it resulted in death. But looking to either side, he saw eight-foot wings with black, scarlet, maroon, and crimson feathers. On his arms and shoulders were feathers. Suddenly, pain lanced through his right side as a globule of green fire blasted his wing. He hit the ground with a force that left a crater several feet deep. With a flap of his great wings, he launched himself into the center of the magicians and with that scream of defiance, gathered all the magic he could muster and put it into his hands. Instinctually knowing how, he ripped his wings to his side and cast his arms out to his side. No one could have predicted what happened next.
Crimson fire exploded from his hands in deep slicing arcs. But, before he could direct it in any way, his vision swam and darkness overcame him. The last thing he thought was a picture of her face. The face of the kind healer.