It had been a long ten years. After this was over Meladath swore she would never teach a single person anything ever again. How people did this job their entire lives she could not understand. She saw the other teachers in the corridors and they smiled at the children, they actually smiled. Did they put something in the water around here? The blood they served for meals wasn’t exactly the standard she was used to but then again, donor blood never was. It lacked the sweetness that accompanied a truly corrupt soul. So maybe they were drugging the water after all? She wouldn’t put it past the damned Headmistress.
Cóir had left after his six month assignment and she had almost found herself ready to beg him to stay. The Headmistress was clearly delusional but she wasn’t stupid and the thought of being trapped in a school with her for the remainder of her assignment was truly horrifying. Cóir could be as condescending and dismissive of her as he liked, after all, he was only here for a short time and no matter how many letters the Emperor received about him his position in the school was less about his skill as a teacher than it was about the Emperor reminding him of his position within her staff. He had dismissed the Headmistress as “a fussy old medlin’ bat” but Meladath wasn’t so sure.
She had been left alone and in the new employ of a single minded woman with a vision. Up until that point Meladath had believed those who experienced visions generally did so due to being in possession of a brain that was wired slightly differently than the average persons. Sometimes Meladath rather envied them. This was different. This was some form of mania. Meladath had been across the wall into The Wilds a lot and she had seen the tribes, towns and Cities beyond it. Quite a number of them had people who seemed, to Meladath, to be suffering from a mass delusion called Religion. They would each claim to be in possession of secret wisdom and be able to influence the world around them either by sitting in a funny way and hoping or placing their hands together and muttering to themselves. They claimed that they were communicating with their Deities through Prayer and that their Deities would reward them for this by answering said prayer. The strange thing was that if these Religious people didn’t get the answer they were looking for from their imaginary Gods then they believed even more and prayed even harder. They seemed to be putting even more mental effort into making it work and supporting the delusion. Meladath had watched one day, when, after suffering from a long illness, a man’s wife had finally recovered. She was weakened by the medicine she had been given, but it had saved her life. The man, after reassuring himself that his wife was now saved, fell to his knees and started to pray. He was thanking his Gods for something the medicine had done. He swore to Meladath that after four months of praying his Gods had answered him.
Back then Meladath had chalked this delusional thinking up to the persuasive and power hungry leaders these places seem to have and the gullibility of the populace. Apart from anything else, they were afraid of death and in need of a great deal of hope. Now, however, after having looked into the eyes of the Headmistress of the school Meladath wasn’t so sure it was that simple any more. She had seen the same fervour in the eyes of the schools head as she had in the eyes of those suffering from Religion. She was in the grip of an Idea and nothing anyone said to her was going to change her mind. She talked in the way they did; as if she had suddenly seen Truth and Light and that if people only did things her way the world would be right again. People failed to notice that the world wasn’t wrong now. Yes bad things happened but bad things always happened. If bad things didn’t happen, no one would ever know what the good things were. Without darkness there was no light and without sadness no joy. It wasn’t hard to understand but no matter how much she talked with people like the Headmistress she could never get through to them. The Idea wouldn’t let go.
She had, of course, reported all of this to the Emperor and she had replied back informing her that her mission objectives were still the same and new staff members would be arriving to observe the Headmistress shortly. Three new slaves had been employed a week later. One was the new personal assistant to the Headmistress, the other two a handyman and a gardener fit right in without anybody noticing their arrival. They were a gift to the Headmistress, the Headmistress had been told, from the Emperor for putting up with Cóir. For quite some time afterwards Meladath had been amazed that the Headmistress’s head could fit through her doorway. The woman never even questioned the motives of her Emperor; after all the Emperor’s words fitted with her vision and so couldn’t possibly be wrong. Meladath really did fear for the state of The Empire sometimes.
The kid was nice enough though. Ventur was indeed very sweet and amazingly naive. It was mind blowing the things you could make a five year old think were true. Meladath found herself having to resist passing on Alcibiades’s stories and flights of fancy. She had to stop herself from telling the small child that certain trees were made of toffee or that the huge bales of hay that were wrapped up in black cladding in the nearby fields, were in fact giant rabbit droppings from the giant rabbit that lived in the next village. He would have believed her. He would have believed anything she told him; she had, upon the advice of Alcibiades, been introduced to him as Master Cóir’s friend. The child eyes had practically glowed with excitement and he had barely resisted the urge to wrap his arms around her in delight. Meladath had had to stop herself from making any sudden moves and had as tactfully as possible distanced herself from the child, to no avail. He had followed either Cóir or herself around the school almost constantly, and seem to make a sport of trying to sneak up on them when they weren’t looking. Cóir had simply laughed and told the child to try harder next time, which seemed to be exactly what the boy wanted to hear. When Meladath had pointed out to the Hunter that the child should have been attending classes Cóir had shrugged and said that it was real-life training and that he was learning far more from the experience than books could ever teach him.
Despite his ability to disappear from her vision. The boy didn’t seem to have developed the skill of masking his footsteps and as he was so young didn’t really understand the importance of staying quiet. She could easily tell where he was by the noises he made and his very distinct scent. This, of course, meant that she was able to take him back to the classes he was so determined to miss and to take him back to his dormitory whenever he ventured out to raid the kitchens or visit his friends after lights out. Between the two of them, Meladath thought, they could just about keep a lid on things and make sure that the child remained well looked after and securely hidden. She was amazed by the amount of work it took.
After she had arrived they had debated long and hard as to whether or not they should tell Ventur what he was. In the end it was the Emperor that had intervened and put her foot down, stating that the best way to keep the secret was to not tell it to a five-year-old child about it. Cóir had reluctantly agreed to this, much to Meladath’s relief. She was not looking forward to the day when she had to tell the boy exactly what it was that he was or what it was that he had to do.
Cóir, for his part seemed to have given up sulking over losing the argument about whether or not tell Ventur what he was and instead somehow managed to take great delight in the child’s enthusiasm for all things Hunter -related. He spent hours on an evening going over the do’s and don’ts of stalking, tracking and hunting. He would sit in the tall grass at the edge of the forest discussing how best to catch rabbits and why it was important to stay downwind of animals when hunting them. He would talk about his philosophies and the five-year-old would sit enraptured listening to the old man as he monologued on the nature of truth and justice and explained why lying would only ever lead a person into trouble. Meladath had laughed at this, picturing her husband’s face and exactly what he would have to say about that idea. But the child seemed to take whatever Cóir said as dogma. The old Hunter could do no wrong in his eyes, and so doubting his ideas never seemed to cross the young boys mind. It was hard for Meladath to watch. Children, as far as she could tell, would question almost everything they were told, and yet there were certain things they seemed to take as blind facts; certain truths appeared almost self-evident to them. Cóir had mastered the art of speaking as if everything he said was a self-evident truth. There was never the slightest tone of doubt in his voice, and despite the fact that he had no eyes, he would never fail to look those he was speaking to directly in theirs. It was a habit that unnerved most of the staff and the older children in the school but didn’t seem to phase the younger ones in the slightest. They would simply stare right back at him and asked how he could see them through the blindfold?
Meladath had been there when Ventur had plucked up the courage to ask him again about the blindfold, after their first meeting in the Great Hall earlier that week. He had smiled indulgently down at the boy and said that he lost his eyes a long time ago and now he used magic to see. She had been quietly impressed. Cóir had managed to skirt around the full truth without ever lying to the child. He was almost pathological in his devotion to never lying, but he was not so brutal as to reveal one hundred percent of the truth one hundred percent of the time. For all he claimed to despise manipulation and word games, Cóir certainly was good at playing them. He practically had the child eating out of the palm of his hand by the end of the first week. Within a month all Ventur talked about was the next time he would see master Cóir again and by the time six months had lapsed Meladath was sure that Cóir had created a devout disciple. She could almost physically see the moment Ventur’s heart broke when his Master Cóir left to return to his position as the Emperor’s Hunter. She had had to physically pick him up and carry on back to his dormitory when he refused to move from his vigil at the main doors of the school. He had sat there for over five hours, waiting for his friend to return and had cried solidly for a week when he realised he wasn’t ever going to.
Thankfully his new room-mates were a lot more forgiving of this than his old ones and through the process of many hugs and a lot of snotty tissues he had finally calmed down enough to speak. Soon after that he had looked up at Meladath through puffy red eyes and asked her if she would be his friend now? She had smiled through the internal horror and said yes. That night she had tracked down two rapists and one shifter who enjoyed ripping its victims in two. She had had to burn her clothes when she arrived back at her apartment but it had been worth it.
After that all she could do was wait. Time would tell and she had a job to do. Slowly but surely she had watched as the small gullible child that had cried in her arms began to change into a gangly and thoughtful boy. She had seen his fragile frame grow and watched his thick brown hair slowly curl and fall gently to cover his ears. His shoulders were beginning to fill out and, though his hands and feet were still too large for his frame, he wasn’t at all clumsy like some of the other children in his classes. He had moved through his life with a dreamy determination as if reality was some sort of personal challenge. At the same time he had seemed just as content to sit and watch the world go by as he was to laugh and play with his friends. He would laugh as he watched young boys kick footballs at each other and marvel at girls who were learning to summon fire serpents; his eyes would go wide as he watched the flames stretch and curve around their arms. He would whisper and read quietly with Theo and do his best to avoid the stares of Rheandra and her new best friend Leona. All in all, Meladath had thought, he was growing up to be a perfectly normal young person.
Quite frankly, if it weren’t for the invisibility she would have started to wonder if Cóir had been right. The kid was…well, frankly he was boring. He was eleven years old and in the six years she had known him he hadn’t done a single thing to make himself stand out from the crowd. Yes, he was turning into a very accomplished Hunter. His hero worship for Cóir hadn’t faded and he approached any task she set him with a single-minded focus that impressed the hell out of her; but when he wasn’t Hunting he would sit for hours in the school fields staring up at the sky or he’d read stories about Herakuleze and other mythological Heroes. He was just a little boy, nothing more. She hadn’t been able to see how he would grow into the man the Emperor and Cóir seemed to believe he would become.
The Emperor had assured her that according to all the information she had managed to put together he would become what they needed. He was very powerful and, just like most other magics his powers would start to kick in when he hit puberty. She had warned her that it wouldn’t be subtle and it wouldn’t be easy to handle but that it was vital she did just that; and that she taught him how to manage it once it had happened. No one could know about Ventur, no one.
In hindsight, Meladath shouldn’t have been surprised by the huge purple butterfly that had appeared in his Maths class when he hit thirteen. It was just, well, she thought that teenage boys daydreamed about other things. After she had wiped the memories of his teacher and classmates she had asked him about it. He had said through a haze of shock and disbelief that he was thinking about what it’d be like to fly.
“Am I in trouble?” His eyes were wide and his deepening voice cracked.
“No, you’re not in trouble,” she assured him “it’s just that you can’t tell anyone about this, OK?”
Venture nodded. He was staring at the floor guiltily.
“You really aren’t in trouble Ventur. I’m here to make sure that things like this don’t get you into trouble.” She tried to smile her best reassuring smile but Ventur still wasn’t looking at her. He was sniffing and she had the distinct impression that he was trying not to cry. How in the name of the seven seals was this boy supposed to save them?
She almost missed the muttered “Why?”
Sighing she put her hand under his chin and tilted his head up to face hers. He really was scared. She could feel the slight shaking and smell the subtle acidic tones that accompanied true fear. She honestly wished she didn’t have to do this.
“Because you’re special.”
Ventur was lying on his bunk staring blankly at the mattress above him. His eyes were glassy and he hadn’t moved for the last half an hour. He hadn’t even twitched and Theo was starting to get worried. Maths had been the last class of the day and Ventur usually liked to go and walk in the woods after school but today he’d just walked out of the class looking like someone had died and then gone straight to their room. He hadn’t even looked at Theo when he’d followed him in and now he’d gone, well, he looked like he was dead. Theo glanced around and found a ruler. He leant forward, the back legs of his chair lifting off the floor, and gingerly poked his best friend in the side.
“Oh thank fuck you’re not dead!”
“Dude, you didn’t move for half an hour…I think you even stopped blinking at the end there. What’s up with you?”
“So? Nothing…Hey! Stop poking me!”
“No, not gonna happen. Not until you tell me what’s up. What” poke “happened?”
“Nothing!” Theo made another stab at Ventur with the ruler. “Look, I can’t tell you OK?” Ventur slapped at the ruler before Theo could jab his ribs again.
“Bullshit. Why can’t you tell me? I’m your best friend. I’m not gonna say anything.”
“Because I can’t that’s why. Give that here!” Ventur snatched the ruler and threw it onto the bed behind him. “I can’t, I can’t tell anyone.”
“Says who? Dude, you really need to calm down. It’s not healthy to hold stuff like this in.” Theo let his chair rock back onto the floor as Ventur finally turned to face him. It was clear he wasn’t really seeing him but it was a start. “Please Ventur. Tell me what’s up?”
Theo watched the internal debate play out across his friends features. Ventur wasn’t a good liar at the best of times and it was painfully obvious that something had happened. He wasn’t going to let Ventur shut him out like this.
When Ventur spoke his voice was small and quiet. It had an edge of panic that hadn’t been there before “I can’t. You’d be in danger if I did. She said I can’t tell anyone, not even you. I asked her about it but she said I couldn’t say anything to anyone but her. I’m so scared Theo.”
“What the hell? Nothing’s happened Ventur. We’ve just come out of maths and absolutely nothing happened. Professor Constant didn’t even talk to you. Who’re you talking about?”
“That’s just it!” Ventur burst out “Something did happen! You just can’t remember it. She made you forget and now I can’t talk to you about any of it because if I do she’ll know and…Why didn’t she just make me forget?” Ventur’s voice cracked. “Why? I’d give anything to forget.” Ventur screwed his eyes shut and balled his fists “It’s not fair!”
“Who? Who’s told you this Venter? Whoever it is the lying, nothing happened today.”
Ventur’s voice was bitter. “Yeah, right. I wish.” He met Theo’s eyes for the first time. “I’m not messing with you mate, honestly, I really wish I could tell you but I can’t. She would find out and then something really bad would happen to you. I shouldn’t even be telling you this.” Ventur paused to take deep breath “I’m totally screwed and I can’t tell anyone but her. How is this my life?” He began to sit up and Theo tilted his head. He took in Ventur’s pale features and the stiffness in his limbs “Do you want me to call Mistress Sage?” he asked “I’m sure she can help.”
“I’m not sick Theo. But thanks” Venter stood up, the afternoon light cast a gaunt shadow across his angular features. Theo stood up equally fast and tried to block him from leaving.
“You can’t leave. You aren’t well, you need help. Just, just stay here OK? I’ll get Mistress Sage for you.”
“It’s not Mistress Sage I need to see Theo.” Ventur pushed past his friend and grabbed his coat. He was out of the door before Theo could stop him and when Theo rounded the corner to run after him he’d vanished.
“Ventur! I want to help!” Was the last thing Ventur heard before he was running out of the nearest emergency exit and across the lawns towards Mistress Hunter’s apartment. Panic was beginning to set in and he had to fight down the urge to vomit as he ran. This was too much. It was some sort of messed up joke and he was not going to play along. She was going to tell him everything. She was going to tell him who was doing this to him and he was going to beat the shit out of them.
His heart was pounding in time with his feet as he made his way through the trees, mud soaking into his shoes. It had rained earlier that day and the smell of pine and bracken was everywhere. Birds scattered as he pushed past bushes and branches, jumping tree roots without a second thought. The house was close now, the straight rectangular lines of it were markedly distinct from the smooth curves of the clearing it was situated within.
Before he knew it he was banging on her door, desperately shouting her name and pleading with her to let him inside. He could hear movement within the apartment, the sound of voices drifted through the cracks around the door, low and muffled. Someone was there with her. Ventur redoubled his efforts, banging harder and grabbing at the handle of the door. When it finally opened and he looked up into her face, she did not appear amused.
“What do you want Ventur? I’m busy and you shouldn’t be out here.”
“You have to help. You said that you were sent to help me, well…I need help.”
Meladath scowled, “Venter it’s been half an hour. Whatever it is that’s going on in your head you need to stop it right now and calm down.” She turned to look inside her apartment and Venter tried to look past her. There was no one there and as far as he could make out there never had been. The table had one glass on it and although there were two chairs, only one was pulled out as if she had just gotten up to answer the door. “You better come in.”
She turned and Venter followed her into the warm house. It was brighter than he had imagined. The windows were large and ornately patterned, there were a few pictures hanging on the wall of people that Venter didn’t know and the remains of last night’s fire was still present in the grate. There was a large double bed to one side of the room and a big double fridge stood humming quietly in the other. Despite his panic Venter felt his muscles relaxing; the isolation and quiet of the cottage, and the knowledge that he could now talk freely was beginning to sink in.
“So” Meladath said “I suppose you want to talk about earlier?”
The adrenaline was starting to wear off now and he was beginning to be able to think more clearly. This was really happening and now that he was here with his mentor, he wasn’t quite sure what to say. “Yes.” Was all that came out when he tried to speak.
“Well, what would you like to know exactly? I don’t have access to all the details myself, but I’m authorised to share what I know with you.”
Ventur thought for a second and then asked “Why me? Why is this happening to me?”
“A fluke of genetics as far as I’m aware. The last illusionist died 400 years ago and there hasn’t been another since then that we know of. Her name was Magda and she was the most powerful woman of her era. No one knows how or why she died, the elves claim she went mad but there’s no proof of that. All we know is that since then there’s been a steady decline in the stability of the world. It seems the illusionists are somehow connected to it, but, again, we don’t know how or why this is.
“I’m here to make sure that your abilities stay a secret.” Meladath paused and appeared to be thinking hard. “You see Ventur, Illusionists are special. Their magic is different from everybody else’s and that makes some people scared of them. If people found out about you, they could try to hurt you.” She placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder “I need to teach you how to use your magic in a way that will keep you safe and at the same time make sure that you stay hidden.
“I know that it will be very hard for you to keep this from your friends; but the less people that know about you, the better it will be for them and for you. Do you understand?”
Ventur nodded, feeling guilty. “I think Theo thinks something’s wrong with me. I freaked him out a bit after class, he wanted to get Mistress Sage. Does she know about me? Who else knows? I still don’t understand why I’m so special… What is an illusionist?”
This time, Meladath didn’t sigh. She did however, drain the contents of the glass on the table. “No one else knows but Cóir, myself and the Emperor and that’s how it has to stay am afraid.”
“Don’t worry about Theo, I’ll go and see him and he’ll be fine. He won’t remember talking to you and he won’t go see Mistress Sage.” Meladath saw the sadness in Ventur’s eyes “I’m sorry kid, it’s to keep him safe.” She looked as if she was about to say something else but then changed her mind. “Tell you what, why don’t I show you what you can do? It’s not all doom and gloom. Secrets can be fun you know.”
Ventur looked sceptical but followed as she left the house, making sure to lock up after herself. They walked in silence for quite some time until they reached a clearing within the Woodlands. Ventur had been here a few times before; it was where they were taught more advanced hunting techniques and the older students were rumoured to come out here to practice illicit experiments and spells. Certainly, there were a few scorch marks on the floor to attest to this but Ventur wasn’t paying attention to them. Mistress Hunter was walking towards an old tree stump a few paces into the clearing. She stopped next to it and raised her foot, placing it atop the wood. She looked relaxed for the first time that day. A smile was beginning to form around the corners of her mouth despite the clear annoyance she was feeling. Reluctantly, Ventur followed his teacher into the clearing but remained a polite distance away.
He’d run for a full two days, he barely slept, he hadn’t eaten at all, and his only source of water had been the occasional stream or puddle. He knew they’d be looking for him. They had dogs and his only chance of escaping them was to keep going. If he ran far enough he knew they’d give up and leave him for dead. If he kept going he’d be free.
He tripped on a root and fell, landing heavily on his side. Pushing himself back upright he paused to get his bearings. The sun was directly overhead and blinding his eyes; that meant he was going in the right direction. He was heading away from his captors and further into the unknown jungles of the inner world. He’d take the jungles over the arena any day.
Theo had gone back into his room after Ventur had left. He’d paced and argued with himself for at least 10 minutes before making the decision to go find Mistress Sage. He didn’t care what Ventur thought, he was his best friend and it was his job to help him. He wasn’t going to let his stubborn pride get in the way of making sure his friend got the help he needed.
He was halfway down one of the endless winding corridors when he noticed the man. He was leant casually against the wall, legs crossed carelessly and he was rolling a coin easily between the fingers of his left hand. As Theo approached the man’s head turned and he smiled warmly.
“I was wondering if you could help me?” He said “I’m a bit lost. I’ve been advised that your Mistress Sage is quite the healer and I have a problem that I need to discuss with her. One of my friends is sick and I’ve been told that she’s the expert I need. I don’t suppose you’d be able to show me where to find her, could you?”
“Oh I do apologise, where are my manners? I’m Master Alcibiades, a friend of your Mistress Hunter.” He held a gloved hand out for Theo to shake.
“Theodore.” Automatically he reached out and grasped it. He frowned when the expected warmth and give of skin that he expected was replaced with the cool hardness of metal.
“Industrial accident, nothing to worry about.” Theo noticed for the first time that the man had a slight lisp and despite everything he’d been told about not talking to strangers he wanted to help. He looked up and the coffee coloured eyes looking down at him were soft, framed by gentle brown curls and sculpted cheekbones. “I’m really not here to cause problems Theodore. I do need to find Mistress Sage. A very dear friend of your Mistress Hunter is badly ill and Mistress Hunter has asked me to find her whilst she’s in a staff meeting.”
“Oh… In that case, I suppose I could?”
“Magic,” Meladath said “is a little like a dog. Treat it well and it will reward you for as long as you live; treat it badly, however, and it’ll bite you in the ass. Magic is all around us and is for the lack of a better word, sentient. Fire and water Mages who go around throwing fireballs and hurling hexes without any regards for the consequence of their actions have been known to spontaneously combust and drown on dry land. Earthmovers and wind callers have been buried alive and suffocated in their town Square. For the people like ourselves, masters of mind magic, it is our destiny to go insane, should we abuse our power.
“That being said magic is not like you and I. We live in a society that has grown and morphed over millennia. It has ideals and rules that are based upon the ideas and societal norms of people who lived and have been forgotten before even Cóir was born. Magic hasn’t had to bow to the whims and fancies of its own people. It doesn’t have to change who or what it is to please others. On the contrary, it is ourselves who change to please it. Its rules are simple and the consequences for breaking them equally so.”
Meladath paused and looked Ventur directly into his eyes. “This is the important part Ventur, so make sure that you’re listening carefully.”
Ventur nodded once in acknowledgement.
“Rule number one; you do not murder an innocent using magic. Rule number two; you do not torture an innocent using magic and rule number three; you do not abuse an innocent using magic. Observe these four simple rules and you will stay safe, sane and happy for the rest of your life. Breaks these rules and the death that awaits you will be one of nightmares and screens in the dark. Do you understand?”
Ventur stared at his mentor, dumbstruck and ever so slightly overwhelmed. It took him a while to process what she had just said to him, but when everything had sunk in the questions seemed to trip over one another to get out of his mouth.
“Why would anybody want to do that?” He watched his usually stoic mentor actually chuckle to herself.
“Not everybody thinks like you Ventur. There are some very bad people in the world and they will use anything that they can to give them the edge in life. If you want to become a Hunter like Master Cóir and myself then it will be your job to hunt them down, if the magic doesn’t get to them first.
“People do bad things for all sorts of reasons; some of them aren’t planned and are done in the heat of anger or from a broken heart, but there are people out there who hurt others deliberately. Often they do this simply for pleasure or to gain some form of power or control. It’s these people that we hunt down and remove from society.”
“But what happens if you hurt somebody by accident with your magic?” Ventur’s voice was pitched high with panic and he stared beseechingly at his teacher. “I didn’t even know what I was doing when the butterfly appeared… Am I going to go mad?”
Meladath shook her head. So like Cóir, she thought. He sees in black and white. “No Ventur, don’t worry. No one remembers seeing the butterfly and in any case was anybody hurt by what you did?
“Then there isn’t a problem. You see it’s not the magical act itself that’s evil or innately bad. Magic’s simply a tool that we can use, just like a hammer or a pencil. By themselves, they’re not good or evil and they can be used for both. A hammer can be used as a weapon just as easily as it can be used to create something useful; just like a pencil can create beautiful art or write hurtful things.”
Ventur thought back to all the comments that had been left on his workbooks over the years by frustrated teachers and bored classmates. “I suppose so.”
“It’s the intention behind your actions that you are punished for. Your magic is a part of you. You can’t bluff or bargain with it because it knows your soul. It monitors your actions and reacts accordingly. Daydreaming doesn’t hurt anybody. You just have to be careful, that’s all, because you have the power to make anything you can imagine come true. Right now, if you daydream about flying and let yourself get too caught up in it, you create a butterfly that can’t hurt anyone; but I’m sure you can think of things that would scare people, and we don’t want them accidentally appearing in the classroom do we?”
Ventur shuddered. “No.”
“Well then, let’s get practising shall we?”
“But I don’t see how you can teach me, didn’t you just say that I was the only Illusionist alive and that you don’t know how my magic works?”
“I can’t teach you exactly how to create your illusions, that’s true. What I can teach you is how mind magic works. You’re a smart boy Ventur, don’t think for a moment that I hadn’t noticed. I have every confidence that you can figure it out. Most mind magic is simply about force of will and you have plenty of that.” Meladath smiled encouragingly and gestured Ventur to move forwards. “I want you to think of something that makes you happy, an object or a person, something that you can easily picture in your mind. Can you do that for me Ventur?”
Hesitantly, Ventur moved forward. He didn’t like the openness of the clearing and was beginning to feel vulnerable, as if the shadows were watching but he tried hard to push the feeling to one side and concentrate on what Mistress Hunter had asked him to do. He didn’t trust her in the same way he did Master Cóir, but Master Cóir trusted her and she had, after all, been sent to help him. It was then, a thought that had been lurking at the back of his mind ever since Mistress Hunter had talked to him during his Maths class struck him and without thinking he blurted out “How long have you known? About me being an illusionist, I mean?”
“That’s not important right now, Ventur. What’s important is you learning how to control your powers. Now concentrate, please.”
Ventur frowned “I don’t see why you won’t just tell me?”
“Ventur. I was sent to this school for one purpose; to make sure that you’re kept safe and can control your abilities. I have known about you since you were five years old. I do not have to answer to you and if you don’t listen to me and treat this seriously, then we will have a big problem. Now concentrate, please.”
“Since I was five!”
“Ventur, this is neither the time nor the place for this talk. This is serious and you will do as I say.”
“I am taking this seriously! You’re the one that’s not answering my questions and anyway, it’s hard to think of something happy here.” He gestured to the clearing and the surrounding forest. “Were all exposed and anyone could be watching. How do you know that there aren’t people behind those trees over there?”
This time, Meladath was silent but her glare spoke volumes. She had found that silence tended to unnerve people far more than shouting and she wasn’t about to take orders from a child. He had to understand the importance of what they were doing here and he was never going to learn anything if she allowed him to dictate the terms of his tutelage. He also had to trust her. She had thought that she had proven herself trustworthy over the years, but evidently this new revelation had shaken the child and she still had more work to do.
“Do you honestly think that I would let anyone hurt you Ventur? Would I take you somewhere that wasn’t safe?”
“For this to work you have to trust me Ventur. I’m on your side. Master Cóir asked me to keep you safe and that is what I intend to do. Do you trust me?”
Meladath watched as Ventur’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “Yes, Mistress Hunter, it’s just…” The young boy seemed to be lost for words. His gaze lingered on the tree-line behind her whilst he collected his thoughts, only returning to hers when the words came. “This is all too much. How am I supposed to do this? You tell me that I’m supposed to help the Emperor to save the kingdom and yet I’ve never even left the school grounds. I only know what the Emperor looks like from photographs in my school books…and I didn’t even know that the kingdom needed fixing in the first place! I’m only thirteen. How am I supposed to do this?”
His voice trailed off and was so quiet towards the end that a human would have had to strain to hear it. As it was Meladath caught it all and much more. His scent had turned acidic once more and he was beginning to panic again. Slowly and very gently Meladath approached the young teenager. It had been a long time since she was thirteen and the world was vastly different now but she had distinct memories of feeling very angry and confused. She knew what it felt like to be isolated and alone. To be one of a kind.
The small village she had been born into had not welcomed a Vampire child and her parents had had to travel almost constantly in order to keep her safe and hidden. She had been about Ventur’s age when she had met her first Hunter and he had told her about a place she would not only be welcome, but would thrive and creatures like her existed alongside all manner of other species. She must have sounded similar to Ventur when she had begged her parents to take her to the city so that she could join the army that was being put together. All she had wanted back then was to find a place she belonged and to meet people who were like her. The architecture and technology may have evolved since she was young but the essentials of life had not.
When she spoke, her words were soft “I know this is hard Ventur and believe me, I do understand how scared you are; but the best thing you can do right now is listen to me and face what’s right in front of you.” Gently, she placed two fingers under his chin and lifted his head until he was looking directly at her. “The future hasn’t happened yet and the past is behind us. All we can do is face what’s here right now. What do you think Cóir would say if he could see us, hmm?” She didn’t miss the slight wince and flash of guilt that crossed the boy’s face when she mentioned his idol, but the fight had gone from his eyes and he nodded in agreement. “Okay, can you think of something happy?”
It was past midnight by the time Ventur got back to his room. Theo was nowhere to be seen and for a few moments he worried that his best friend had gone to Mistress Sage after all. The last thing he needed was to have to make up something to tell her. It came as a relief when Theo entered the room sleepily mumbling about the locks on the boy’s toilets being broken again. He was wearing his pyjama bottoms and his feet were bare. He hardly registered Ventur’s presence as he climbed up onto his bunk and soon began to snore. Gratefully Ventur lay back against his pillow and thought through everything that had happened that night.
At first it had been hard, he didn’t know what to do or how to do it. He had been so scared and it had only been his teacher’s mention of Master Cóir and the thought of letting him down that had made him go through with the lesson. When Mistress Hunter asked him to imagine something happy, the only thing he could think to do was what he had done before. He had closed his eyes and thought, yet again about flying. He had imagined himself soaring away from the clearing, of getting out of the dark and the gloom of the forest. He was trying to imagine leaving the world behind but before he knew it, the image of Theo shouting desperately that he only wanted to help and that he was worried about him took over his mind. His best friend’s face was all he could see and the guilt of leaving him behind and having to lie to him was all Ventur could feel. Before he could stop himself tears were running down his cheeks and he opened his eyes to see Mistress Hunter staring at a life-size and very concerned looking Theodore.
She had raised an eyebrow and expressed concern about his version of happy but otherwise hadn’t batted an eyelid at his best friend appearing in the clearing. It had been Ventur who had staggered away. He had tried to run but Mistress Hunter had easily outpaced him and wrapped her arms tightly around his waist. She had held tight whilst Ventur struggled and kicked. She barely flinched when his shoes had collided with her shins and she refused to back down when he screamed at her to let him go. He had screamed louder when the shadows of the clearing morphed and started to creep towards them. Mistress Hunter had merely tightened her grip on him and told him that what he was seeing was not real. Over and over again she assured him that he was the one in control and he could make them go away. She told him to concentrate and assured him he was safe.
Ventur turned his head into his pillow as he remembered the black smoky forms that had emerged. They had had long arms with claws for hands. The shapes were his nightmares made real. Their stick thin legs that had supported wildly misshapen bodies and had oozed and jerked their way towards him. They had had heads whose eyes burned impossibly yellow in the darkness and he had watched helplessly as their mouths had opened and closed as if they were chewing on the air, tasting their way towards him.
It was then that Mistress Hunter had turned him to face her and slapped him hard across the cheek. The shock and sting of the blow, along with her command to look at her and nothing else had jarred him sufficiently to overwhelm his panic. He’d followed her instructions to breathe slowly and to keep looking at her. It had helped that her own eyes never strayed from his face and that she showed no concern about what was happening around them. She’d totally ignored the shadow of Theo that was slowly disappearing to his right and had breathed with him as the monsters faded and became nothing but shadows once more.
After that Ventur had broken down. He’d collapsed into his teacher’s arms and the tears had overwhelmed him. He couldn’t have stopped himself if he’d wanted to. All he’d wanted to do was curl up into a ball and for this to have all been a dream. He’d held a hand up to his cheek and rubbed at the sore red flesh. Dreams couldn’t hurt like this, could they?
He didn’t know how long they had sat there. His teacher hadn’t said a thing, she had merely held on and rubbed circles into his back until he couldn’t cry any more. She had handed him a rag that she kept to clean her weapons with and he’d wiped his face the best he could before embarrassedly pushing it into his pocket and promising to return it when it was clean again. She’d laughed then and told him that she had seen far worse than tears. She had raised him to his feet as if he weighed nothing and told him that all soldiers broke down, but it was only the heroes that got up to fight again. She had said that, Master Cóir would be back at the school in two years’ time and that she knew it sounded like a long way off to him, but that if he ever hoped to be trained by the man then his skills would have to be nothing less than perfect. She had said that Master Cóir only ever trained people he considered to be exceptional students and the only way to prove that he was exceptional was to master his magic.
Ventur sighed to himself. In the safety of his room, he could see now that he had been played. Mistress Hunter clearly knew his buttons and how to press them, but he had to concede she had made her point well; and it had worked. The fight had been taken out of him and all he had wanted to do was make sure that he never saw those monsters again. If the only way to stop them from coming back was to take charge and master his magic then master it he would. He had promised himself in that clearing, then and there, that he would prove to Master Cóir that he was good enough and, he thought with a twinge of guilt, that he would find a way to never leave Theo behind again.
“OK,” Ventur said “I’m ready to try again.”