Welcome to my second novel length story. This one goes out to my friend Shakyr.


Prologue

Lacet struggled to keep his eyes open as he suppressed a yawn, hoping it would end soon. Beneath him, the chair uttered a loud squeak as he shifted his weight. The master of ceremonies stopped, scanning the crowd of sixty graduates and their families, his eyes narrowed to slits. Unable to find the perpetrator, he cleared his throat and continued to drone on in his deep baritone. It was the same old speech that Lacet had heard a thousand times before. If he was not thanking the founders of the Academy, the dean would show his appreciation for 'all the hard work that they had put in over the years of their study' as he vaguely addressed the recent round of scholastic achievements within their cohort.

It was far more interesting, by far, Lacet had found, to simply study all the contours of the black robe that trailed behind the lectern or count the individual blades of grass on the quadrangle lawn of the new college.

Then again, perhaps he shouldn't have been up all night, tinkering with the little clockwork machines he had purchased just over a week ago at one of the many stalls in the bustling marketplace. But he had wanted to celebrate the freedom he had in spades now that exams were over. And while his marks had not been top of the class, Lacet had been pleasantly surprised by his results. Revision had been gruelling but he was finally reaping what he had sown all those months before.

Besides, drinking until early morning and waking up with a splitting headache was not his idea of fun. Better to leave that to many of the others in his dormitory, he had thought as he closed the door with a soft click just before midnight. Like the one in the back row that had a pair of darkened eyepieces.

"—is why I would like to call on Marus to come up on stage."

There followed a polite round of applause. Reluctantly, Lacet clapped along with the others, a heavy scowl contorting his features. He had known Marus back when they were still toddlers still learning how to walk upright. For years they had been as close as two peas in the same pod, causing mischief for the matron and the other orphans.

Yet when they had enrolled at the Academy, Marus had soon distanced himself from both his past and childhood playmate. In the highly competitive environment of the Academy, Marus's gifts had flourished. As had his ambitions. Lacet could barely recognise his friend and brother. It sickened him to watch as Marus stepped up to the dais, beaming with pride and ready to deliver a speech that had, most likely, been written and approved by one of the more obnoxious staff members.

Lacet barely listened as Marus began to speak, his thoughts turning to the rumours he had heard in the dormitories about the several lucrative scholarships that had been offered to the valedictorian of their class. Had he been younger, Lacet might have felt the sting of envy.

Over the years, however, Lacet had found that his bitterness had lessened. In the last two years, he had also learned that constantly comparing himself with Marus had not been helpful or even healthy. As long as he put in the hard work, Lacet had found that his own accomplishments were nothing to sneeze at. True, they might not net him a position as a court mage but he already had the necessary funding to open up shop in a small town. If he played his cards right, he could make an honest living.

Fame, in any case, had never sat well with him. To be hounded every day sounded like a nightmare. Better to live far away from the hustle and bustle of city life, decided Lacet as Marus extolled the virtues of their educators or some other such nonsense. At the very least he would not be privy to all the grandstanding and hidden politics that had so quickly disabused him of seeking a life in the capital.

Now it was simply a matter of finding where in the rural countryside to settle. Somewhere close to the orphanage, for one. Although, if he thought about it, it would be nice if his home was somewhere in the southern mountain ranges where the air was fresh…

Lacet startled awake at the sound of his name. He heard his name called out a second time and hastily rose to his feet, a little sheepish. Many of the other students already on stage frowned in his general direction. Off to the right of the lectern was Marus, standing as stiff as a board, a fake smile plastered on his face and his gaze fixed to the assembled parents.

Figures, snorted Lacet. The Golden Boy of the Academy had a pristine image to maintain. He wondered if it would be worth it to upend this special day by doing something regrettable. Before he could give the prospect much thought, a sharp reminder to his ribs bade Lacet move. Like a recalcitrant child, he shuffled down the aisle, smoothing his crinkled robes so that he might be deemed presentable.

When he finally stepped up on stage, though, he was a bundle of nerves. It felt as if all eyes were focused on him. Palms slick with sweat, Lacet forced his feet to take one step after the other. Any thoughts he had earlier to sabotage the ceremony and scarpering into the nearby park flew clean out of his thoughts. He wanted it to be perfect. Like how the the others, no doubt, had envisioned.

As he passed Marus, a hand reached and grabbed his arm in a vice-like grip.

"Marus," said Lacet, giving his former friend a shallow nod as he forced a smile to his lips. "Congratulations on being selected as valedictorian. You deserve it after all the work you put into this. Good things come to those that prove themselves, as they say."

"Thank you, Lacet. Your words mean much and I wish only that the same could have been said for you, old friend." He paused and for the first time in a long while looked at a loss for words. A brief moment passed before he managed to gather himself. "Now, I hope you hear great things from you in the near future. Don't be afraid to reach out. Before you know it, it'll be the two of us against the world."

"I'll take that into consideration. Truth be told, I'm simply happy that I managed to pass. And that Amoleth blessed us with such a beautiful day. Now, if you'll excuse me, there's the matter of my diploma that needs attending to."

"Right, right," said Marus, releasing him. "Well then, Lacet, it's been a pleasure."

Free to continue, it was not long before he was standing before the unsmiling dean. "I hope I do not have to remind you, young Lacet, that anything you pull today will be punished severely."

Though the dean was several inches shorter than him, Lacet could not help but quail beneath the man's imperious gaze. Nervously, he licked his lips. "It won't happen again, sir."

"Well, considering that this is your graduation, I sincerely hope not. It would be a shame if I had to hold you back a year," said the dean as he shook Lacet's hand and handed him his diploma. It was sealed in such a way that only he could open it, for it was his name etched in gold lettering on the top. "Now, enjoy this day for as long as it lasts."

It was disconcerting to see how quickly the grin spread across the man's face. When the dean slapped. But Lacet soon discovered one of his very own that stretched his lips wide as he joined the others after the dean had slapped him affectionately on the back. The excitement was infectious. He had done it! They all had. After what had been a difficult year, they had all managed to see it through.

There was little time to ruminate further. Within moments, they were asked by one of the staff to huddle close together. Caught up in the moment, he cared not that he was near blinded when the bulb flashed. This was something to be properly commemorated. It was not everyday that he would be graduating from one of the most esteemed educational institutions on the whole continent!

When he, at last plonked down on his seat, Lacet found himself exhausted. The energy that had fuelled him mere moments ago had deserted and bled him dry. How was he going to endure the closing speech? Goddess above, but he did not envy Marus one bit as he watched the valedictorian return once more to the lectern.

As Marus thanked those in attendance, Lacet's thoughts turned to the fete that would be waiting in the dormitory mess hall. Roast boar or turkey, pumpkin pies and salads of middling quality. Of course, it would not be as grand a banquet as what the matron might cook up had she still been alive.

He smiled at the memory of the matron. No parent could have been as proud as she had been when the letters had arrived at their rundown orphanage, inviting both he and Marus to enrol at the Academy. It had been a surprise to all involved and the matron had been both ecstatic and hesitant. None of the other orphans she had looked after had even a drop of magic in their blood.

At first, she had been resistant to the idea. It had always been her intention to find good families for the many children that had lost their parents to the pandemic that had struck years past. After some persuading, mostly from Marus, she had acquiesced. The real problem, though, was the matter of coin. There was simply not enough to send both him and Marus to the capital. Lacet knew that the matron had endured many a sleepless night as she tried to balance the books, calling in favours from the less savoury characters in their neighbourhood in order to send them away.

And now they were expected to forge their own path in the world. It was all so dizzying, seeing how quickly the world that he knew could change.

Lacet made a mental note to visit the orphanage and the grave. It was the least he could do after all the years he had been bequeathed a roof over his head, a warm bed to sleep in and good food to fill his stomach. Mayhap once he had established himself as a reputable apothecary, he could even send the children little toys and gifts, or donate what coin he could.

Pleased with his more immediate plans for the future, Lacet listened with half an ear to the rest of the lengthy speech that Marus had painstakingly prepared.


The storm had rolled in during the early hours of the morning. When the first wave of thunder crashed overhead, Lacet jolted awake, eyes wide. Heavy drops of rain soon followed, thudding on the fragile pane of glass as the wind began to howl. Knowing that finding his way back into the world of slumber would be a fruitless effort, he begrudgingly dressed in the semi-darkness.

Yawning, he wrangled up a small globe of light to see. Better make the most of the early start, he thought, as he opened up the armoire stationed on the far side of the dormitory room. With no small amount of effort, he managed to uncover the battered suitcase that the matron had gifted both him and Marus with before they had set out to the capital together.

Looking at it now, thought, Lacet knew that it would be too small for all the little trinkets he had picked up over the course of his studies. There were ways to enlarge it, he knew, but the theory behind it was quite complicated. Still, given enough time, Lacet was certain he could figure it out. Or he could always buy another one when the marketplace opened. The stipend he received as part of his scholarship was enough to cover it, though he was loath to use it for something so trivial.

If he was being honest with himself, there was much he wanted to do and not much coin to spare. The stories made everything sound so easy, but if he had any hope of making his dreams a reality, he needed to conserve as much as he could.

Just as he finished the calculations for a spell that would aid in enlarging his suitcase, Lacet heard a quiet knock at his door. At first, he thought it the distant rumble of thunder as the storm raced to antagonise another section of the city or Minerva returning from the hunt. He glanced up towards his window, but saw nothing. That was when it came again, louder and more insistent.

"Who is it?" he called out, quickly taking a peek at his pocket watch. It was still early – an hour before breakfast. Surely, thought Lacet, they were not thinking of having him clear out before he had some toast, a side of eggs and, if he was lucky, a sausage or two.

But when he opened the door, he was greeted by a rather young woman clutching a bundle of blankets in her arms. The oiled hood she wore obscured most of her features but Lacet was able to make out strands of strawberry blonde hair. She was accompanied by a much older gentleman. For want of a better description, he looked like a drowned rat. What little remained of his hair was plastered his shiny pate. His cloak all but useless as it dripped water onto the polished floor of the corridor.

Lacet might have turned on his heel and slammed shut the door. There was little doubt in his mind that this was another prank by one of the other students. The other possibility was that he was still asleep and all of this was simply a convoluted dream. In fact, he almost did just that. He had no time to indulge some silly mischief by one of 'the boys,' particularly on an empty stomach. Yet when he spotted the ever-darkening splotch on the woman's shirt and noticed her shortness of breath, Lacet stayed his hand and bade them enter.

"Thank you," said the man as they stepped into the room.

"What's going on? Who are you?"

The woman let out a pained hiss, stumbling the last few steps before she made it to his unmade bed. Despite what appeared to be a serious injury, she seemed entirely focused on the bundle of blankets. Ever so gently, she placed it down onto the cover, cooing gently as she did, before easing herself down onto the floor.

"Careful, careful. We need you patched up before you go and do something reckless again," admonished the man, ignoring the questions Lacet had thrown their way. "You, boy, do you have any tinctures to spare? Or perhaps have knowledge in healing spells?"

Caught off-guard, Lacet stammered out an affirmative. He kneeled beside the woman, the words of a spell already coming unbidden to his lips. As the magic flowed into her, he sat back on his haunches. "She should be fine now," he said to the man. "I've closed the wound and encouraged her body to mend itself. Simple stuff, really, although she will need plenty of rest."

"You hear that, Merrine? Best not to put yourself in harm's way no more, aye?"

That drew a soft chuckle from the woman. "Oh, I will. As long as you don't do something just as stupid. What kind of example will I be setting if I allowed my husband—"

"Hush now," interrupted the man. "We're not out of the woods yet." He glanced pointedly towards Lacet. "You, boy, is there any place we would be able to stay?"

Lacet blinked dumbly up at the man. So much had happened and he was still trying to wrap his head around it all. It took a minute for him to understand that the question had been directed to him. "Well, I am leaving soon, so the room will be empty. Just graduated, you know. As for new students, they won't be coming in for another month or two," he said. "That being said, I think it wiser if you speak to the dean. He might be able to provide you with lodgings in the short term. Otherwise, there're the inns. The closest one might be a tad expensive but you'd be hard pressed to find any place else with quality entertainment."

"Is there anyone you know that might be a little discreet?" asked the woman.

Lacet shook his head. "I wouldn't know. You could ask one of the other students. Some of them frequent the city proper. Me? Well, I tend to like my own company."

"Yet you opened your door to us," said the woman. "What's your name, so I can thank you properly for the help you've given."

"Lacet," he answered. "But there's no need to thank me. I only did what I could."

"Well, then Lacet, we had best be on our way." Already, the woman was rising to her feet. The older gentleman hovered at her side, ready to offer any support she might need. "I think we've lingered here too long."

Alarmed, Lacet shook his head. "No, no. You need to keep still lest you reopen anything. The spell I used takes time to properly work."

"We've stayed long enough," said the man. "Merrine is right. Every moment draws you closer to danger, boy. None of us want that on our conscience."

Just as the woman – Merrine – managed to stand, there was another knock on his door. A voice accompanied it, asking for entry. Lacet immediately recognised it as one of the tutors that had helped him during those gruelling months just before the final exam. Reuvan was a friend. Better yet, he knew a lot about the city and could provide guidance to both Merrine and the gentleman on a place that they could stay.

With that thought in mind, Lacet headed towards the door, missing the furtive look that the two exchanged behind his back. Nor did he see the man pick up the bundle of blankets from the bed and push it into the woman's arms.

The person standing outside his door, however, was not Reuvan. Nor was it anyone else he knew. Before he could so much as blink, they pushed past him, drawing a revolver from deep within a hidden pocket in their coat. Two shots rang out in quick succession, one right after the other. The shots missed, lodging deep into the far wall of his room.

"Stop this! What do you think you're doing?" roared Lacet as the shock subsided, to be replaced by fear and indignation as he grabbed for the gun. Who did they think they were? This was the Academy, for Amoleth's sake, not some tavern in the middle of nowhere! There were rules that needed to be followed and he was not going to be blamed for any damages that might be sustained. His stipend was little enough.

The hooded individual said nothing as they whipped the hand around and clobbered Lacet with the butt of the revolver. Stunned, it took for Lacet to collect his wits about him. He reached into the aether, drawing upon the energy that encompassed every living thing and brought it to bear upon his assailant.

A ball of white smashed into his foe.

They only stumbled back a little before they pushed further into the room, their cloak smoking from the attack. How was that even possible? Before he could figure out why his spell had not worked, both Merrine and the gentleman rushed forwards. She screamed something unintelligible in his general direction and pulled out a cast-iron ball. He felt, more than saw, as something heavy was pushed into his arms. Then he was urged out of his room. An explosion sounded and the next moment, Lacet found himself running for his life.

He did not stop until he was standing on the outskirts of the capital, trying hard to keep his lungs from collapsing. Cold terror had flooded his veins when the woman had whispered into his ear. The terrible compulsion that had seized him was finally leaving and Lacet felt more like himself after his frenzied flight.

Glancing down, Lacet saw what the woman had so desperately tried to keep safe. In his arms was a baby with hair as white as snow and eyes that were a vibrant green with flecks of gold.