Thalia was not quite sure how she managed to stay awake during the lecture master Khador was giving. Fortunately, she had mastered the art of appearing attentive while letting her mind wander where it would.
In the space of a few short weeks, she had gone from delight that a magus of Khador’s stature would take her on as an apprentice, to a hearty boredom at the plodding pace of instruction. Most of what he was covering she already knew from lessons her aunts had given her. While their “witchery” wasn’t in the same league as the high magic, surely he could see that she was more skilled than this.
So caught up was she in her feelings of self-pity, that she failed to notice (until far too late), that Khador had ceased instruction and was staring at her with a mixture of contempt and anger. “If you know the lesson so well, perhaps you would prefer to take over instruction? I would be delighted to hear what insights you can bring to the subject.” His voice dripped with an artful sarcasm well-honed after many decades of not suffering fools gladly.
“M-master Khador, I…”
He held up a peremptory hand, instantly silencing her. “Listen carefully, girl, for if you don’t learn what I’m about to tell you, it will be your last lesson. My time is more precious than you can possibly imagine and I only rarely interrupt my studies to teach an apprentice.”
A cold thread of fear curled around Thalia’s spine. It was not beyond Master Khador to dismiss a student out-of-hand or, it was rumored, to kill the ones that he judged particularly unfit.
“You are a good ten years older than I prefer my apprentices and, on top of that, you had already been initiated into the magical arts of another discipline. It was only with the assurances of your aunt Magdalelan that I even agreed to test your suitability. While you have some talent, please do not delude yourself that you are in any way unique.”
Thalia sat perfectly still, afraid to make any comment.
The magus suddenly slammed his hand down on his podium like a crack of thunder, causing her to jump. “Rest assured that if you cause me to waste my efforts again, it will be the last time. You will learn as I dictate, girl, or not at all.” With that final pronouncement, he left the room, leaving Thalia to her thoughts, black as they were.
From that day forward, Thalia was scrupulously attentive but did not give up her thirst for faster-paced instruction. Her days were filled with rote memorization, bizarre logic exercises and an endless cycle of cleaning and straightening in Master Khador’s library.
After shelving the same book for what she swore was for the third time that day, she sat down amidst the as-yet unfinished stacks and mopped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her arm. Khador had a very precise system of shelving and organizing books, so she was amazed it could end up in such disarray so often.
Thalia leaned back against a shelf with her eyes closed, enjoying a brief respite from her labors when she heard the distinctive shfffff of a book being pulled off of a shelf.
Fearing discovery of her unauthorized break, she leapt to her feet and tried to look busy before realizing that there was no one in the room with her. Peering around a corner, she was flabbergasted to see that two of the books she had painstakingly organized were nonchalantly exchanging positions.
Her initial surprise gave way to a towering rage that cause to flush hotly. “He’s given me an impossible task, wasting my time when I could be learning some real magic!” She barely stopped herself from kicking over a tall stack of books. With a self-restraint she had not possessed before her apprenticeship, she checked her temper and unclenched her fists enough to stop her nails from digging into her palms.
Not for the first time, Thalia eyed a shelf of books near Master Khador’s desk. He had informed her that she would not need to arrange them. From that moment on, she was certain they held the spells he had been denying her. This time, however, she was going to do something about it.
Steeling her nerves she hesitantly approached the desk she had walked by dozens of times, as if, somehow, the tomes would sense her intentions and strike her down. Clutching her skirts like a shield, she reached out and touched the leftmost book with a quavering hand. When no hue and cry was raised, she became more bold and pulled the large volume down while mentally practicing excuses she would use if caught with it.
The broad leather cover was marked in red with mystic symbols, some familiar, some not and most strangely abraded to the point of illegibility. Even after a careful examination, she couldn’t determine if any spells warded it. Taking a deep breath she pulled open the cover.
Or rather, she tried to open the cover. What happened, instead, is the tome leapt from the desk causing her to stumble backward and trip over an unshelved book. The animated tome hovered over her, radiating a menace that was palpable as she scrambled for cover.
With a diabolical accuracy, the book swooped down and impacted her behind, drawing an involuntary yelp from the apprentice and sending her sprawling across the floor. Before she could move to protect herself, it had swatted her twice more, each time harder and preventing her from getting up from the ground.
The pain was edging her toward panic and she barely kept herself from screaming out loud and running for safety. Thalia managed to roll over and wedge herself in a corner, gulping back sobs of pain.
The possessed tome nosed around as if confused as to where its prey had vanished. Thalia smiled grimly as she carefully kept her backside hidden. The smile gave way to an expression of naked fear as the book almost seemed to shrug and made a beeline toward the amber-bordered archway on the other side of the room.
The archway that led toward Master Khador’s personal quarters.
The quarters that currently contained Master Khador.
The same Master Khador that would undoubtedly notice a flying book and deduce exactly what had prompted its flight.
Thalia lunged up, all thoughts of protecting herself forgotten as she tried to grab the book. With an inhuman speed and agility, it easily eluded her grasp and gave her another mighty wallop on her buttocks, causing her to cry out. She sat down hastily and, once again the book ‘sniffed around’ and then zoomed toward the archway.
Proving that panic and desperation can also be the mothers of invention, she threw herself against Khador’s desk and fumbled for some parchment and a quill.
The book, once again sensing its prey was present, gleefully took the opportunity to slam against her backside. Braced against the desk, however, she was able to avoid being slammed around the room by the fiendish device.
Struggling against the pain of her increasingly abused backside and timing her quill strokes between strikes of the tome, she drew a sigil her aunt taught her years ago. Stifling a curse, she read off the rune and was gratified to see the book held fast in a green glowing net.
“Aunt Magdalelan will be pleased to know her crow catching spell works equally well against pesky books.” Her smile of victory was short-lived when it was replaced by a wince as she rubbed her sore butt.
Her immediate problem solved, she pondered what to do with the madly struggling book. Her spell was effective, but not strong enough to last for an extended period of time even if Master Khador would somehow ignore the magical glowing net.
For a minute she contemplated admitting her transgression and accepting punishment. However, having come this far, she was determined to get what she came for. Reading the tome was surprisingly easy considering its attempts to lunge at her posterior. To her disappointment, this book dealt with modifying existing spells rather than producing new ones.
Still, perhaps something useful could be gleaned from it. Thalia pored over page after page of formulae, until she came to a title that practically jumped off the page, “How to Diminish and Suppress Spells.” All but the first sigil were far too complex for her, but that one was remarkably simple.
A few strokes of her pen and a quick enchantment stilled the fiendish book. She released her net spell warily, but the offending manuscript simply fell to the ground with a solid thump. Delighted, she picked it up and slid it back into place with a relieved sigh.
As she turned back to her long-delayed task, she got an impish idea. If her knowledge would work for one book, why not a whole roomful? The spell was simple and it would be quicker than reshelving the library every other day.
With a renewed vigor, she shelved the books and cast her new spell many, many times. With a feeling of deep satisfaction (and no small degree of weariness), she dragged herself to her quarters and collapsed on her cot.
In the morning she did a cursory inspection of the library and was gratified to see only the few books that the magus had used were out of place. Gleefully, she reshelved those few. The next day was much the same, but the day after she noticed that the ‘swatting book’ seemed to be quivering slightly. Thalia quickly renewed the suppression spell and, for good measure, on the rest of the library.
She found that the books were ‘restless’ the day after, and the day after that. By the end of the week, she was suppressing the books twice a day and had taken to sleeping in the room so she could groggily awaken and renew the spells as necessary.
In desperation, she returned to the original book to read more about the spell she had been using. After hours of study (occasionally interrupted by having to recast the spell to prevent twitching), an innocuous passage riveted her attention. “While some spells will remain quiescent when suppressed, others, most especially spells of movement, may gain in strength until the cumulative weight of the magic may overcome any attempts at control.”
With a growing dread, the apprentice carefully reshelved the tome and glanced around the room as if she were surrounded by wild dogs. Perhaps it was only her imagination, but she seemed to hear a barely-restrained impatience from them.
Her diligence in the library had not gone unnoted, however. Khador strode in with an unaccustomed smile on his face. “Ah, Thalia, I was hoping to find you in here. I must say, despite your inauspicious start, you have dived into your studies and other duties.”
He continued as if he were lecturing. “Some lessons are harder to learn than others. Patience. Discipline. Qualities that are as rare as the Gift itself but with the benefit that they can be taught . . . sometimes.” Khador waved a hand at his library and Thalia held her breath as the gesture seemed to cause every tome within reach to quiver. “This room is a particular challenge. It’s designed to reorder itself slowly to keep me from getting too set in my ways.” He chuckled, “Much the same reason I take an apprentice from time to time. Of course, you can’t let it go too long, or it would be completely unmanageable.
“It’s time to teach you some real magic, though. Simple things, but quite useful if used properly.” He reached for a book over his desk.
Thalia closed her eyes in horrified anticipation and felt, rather than heard, all of her suppression spells collapse simultaneously. In an instant, every book in the room tried to exchange places with every other one. A split second later, the spellbook had struck her backside with enough force that she felt she could read the title through her clothing. The blow sent her halfway across the room, where her body knocked over two podiums and upset a cabinet full of assorted amphibian parts.
Khador stood in shock as he watched his library collapse into a cyclonic whirl of colliding books and wind-blown papers. With extraordinary self-control, he held up a hand and sketched a rune in lines of blue fire in the air and spoke a single word. The racing tomes halted immediately and, one-by-one, quietly shelved themselves until all was neat again.
He found his apprentice pulling herself aright and brushing newt toes out of her hair. Khador spoke with a calm, even menace that frightened her far worse than tirade of a week ago. “As I was saying, proper use of the High Art requires great discipline as it does not have the natural limits that witchery does.”
“M-Master Khador, I’m sorry about…” She stopped her apology and hung her head, “I’ll get my things and trouble you no more.”
“Whatever for?” he asked, puzzlement evident in his voice.
“The library, the books, I thought you’d send me away.”
The magus gave a short, barking laugh. “Nonsense! I expect a little initiative from my apprentices. It must have been quite challenging to recast that little cantrip. How often was it, eh?”
She did a quick mental calculation, “Nearly 10,000 times, Master Khador.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Indeed. That shows the kind of persistence and dedication that I desire in a student. It’s the first sign I’ve had that you possess the ability to school yourself into a regimen strict enough to learn my Art.”
“Then I’m not in trouble, Master?” she asked hopefully.
Khador’s voice rose angrily, “Of course you are in trouble, girl! You nearly destroyed my library with your ill-considered meddling in things you do not understand! Had a single tome been damaged, you’d pay and pay dearly! Fortunately for you, they seem to have survived the storm.”
He paused significantly, “The lesson for today has changed, apprentice. It seems instruction in discipline is more important than any magic you might learn right now. Go stand beneath the hook, I shall return momentarily.” The magus left the room without glancing back to see if Thalia had complied with his order.
She knew exactly which hook he referred to; she had seen it weeks ago but hadn’t gotten the nerve to ask about it. It was a large thing, protruding from an otherwise unadorned section of wall. Without knowing why, she dreaded being near it. The faint patina of rust on its surface reminded her unpleasantly of blood. Thalia stood beneath it, but couldn’t bring herself to look up.
Master Khador arrived after a short delay, holding an unfamiliar object. He held it like a sword and, indeed, it did have a hilt. But instead of a blade, there were seven very thin pieces of wood, tied together at three points along their length. The total diameter may have been as thick around as a man’s thumb at the base and slightly less near the end.
He waved his left hand absently and the apprentice found her wrists jerked upwards and toward the hook until her toes barely scraped the floor below. Bands of energy, invisible to those without the gift, held her firmly. Except for the mounting sense of panic, she found there was only minimal discomfort. A quick twist of the magus’s wrist and she was facing the wall, about a foot away from its stone surface. She instinctively struggled against the bonds but their strength dwarfed hers.
“Every culture has a need to discipline and instruct its members,” Khador lectured his errant student. “The methods are usually different and, at times, the solutions are ingenious. You are being held in place by a ‘slave hook’ invented by the Pandran peoples of the far north. Remarkably subtle… I keep it around for study because the Pandrans lost the knowledge of how to produce them.”
Thalia mind raced as she tried to figure out some way out her predicament. Whatever punishment he had planned, perhaps she could delay it. She tried to keep her voice calm, “Oh, and why was that, Master Khador?”
“Decadence and corruption, mainly. After having achieved an empire, they spent more time with their slaves and entertainments than maintaining it. Learning and responsibility were viewed as unfashionable so, naturally, they lost the exact things that had served them so well.” He shook his head, even though she was unable to see the gesture.
“Which brings us to this item. It’s a sword of sorts. A major dilemma of training someone in the art of warfare is that only the strongest blows can affect someone wearing armor. The problem arises that blows that strong run a risk of hurting the trainees. And yet, you cannot train while NOT wearing armor. Unrealistic and dangerous, to say the least.” He lightly tapped her back with the ‘sword’ and a powerful chill raced through her body. The tip of the weapon had somehow touched her skin as if her tunic were not there at all.
“Hence, this solution. The wood that can accept this enchantment is far too weak to make real weapons out of, but it’s excellent for this purpose. It can penetrate the strongest armor and still make an impact on a student, so to speak.”
“I’m sure it’s very effective, Master Khador. Those fighters must have been, umm, very motivated. Yes, I’m sure of it.” A bead of sweat worked its way from her temple to her cheek, followed closely by another. She felt terribly exposed despite being fully dressed. While not physically uncomfortable, some aspect of the magic she guessed, Thalia was acutely aware of her helplessness.
“History believes so as well, girl. They were the ones that brought down the Pandran empire in the end.” He emphasized his point with a few light taps on her buttocks.
“As I said earlier, you have potential but neither the knowledge or discipline required as of yet. Discipline first, of course.” Without further ado, he swung suddenly and caught her directly across her rear.
Thalia gasped as she felt the line of fire explode across her buttocks. It had been many years since she had received physical punishment and this was far, far more painful than any in her memory. The second blow was even worse and the third worse yet.
“Without control,” Khador said as he continued the beating, “I cannot allow you to learn the secrets of my craft.” He swung again and caught her on the upper part of her thigh, causing her to cry out. “You would be a danger to yourself and others.”
She desperately tried to twist around and see when the next blow would land, but the hook’s spell held her fast and she could only guess by the slight sound made as Khador swung the magical weapon. Swish! Crack! Swish! Crack! Involuntary yelps of pain escaped her with each blow as her intention to bear up stoically failed under the assault.
With a relentless and characteristic efficiency, the magus caned her thoroughly, pausing only long enough to let her drag in a few, ragged breaths before he continued again.
Thalia jerked with each stroke, with each line of pain across her backside. But with each movement, her vividly striped body rubbed against her clothing causing fresh anguish. “P-please, master. I cannot bear any–” Her plea was interrupted by another blow from the sword.
“You most certain can bear it, my apprentice, for you have no choice.” He laid two more quick swats on her, prompting renewed begging. Still he continued, showing no sign of mercy, no hint of compassion.
Finally, an inner reserve within her broke. When she realized that there would be no escape from the punishment until Khador deemed it sufficient, her pleading ceased and she just sobbed piteously. Six more excruciating blows later, Khador suddenly stopped. Thalia’s crying continued, tears following tears down her face, and she hardly noticed as she was lowered gently to the floor. After another minute, she was finally able to bring herself under control and draw a long, shuddering breath without breaking into sobs.
Her buttocks were ablaze and the touch of her skirt against the abused flesh of her thighs almost made her scream. Gathering herself, she stood slowly before her mentor, eyes downcast.
“No, Thalia, look at me,” he said with surprising gentleness. She raised her head and found him looking down at her with a shocking sympathy for her suffering.
“What I’ve given you is instruction that I hope you will take to heart. This little lesson,” he waved the wooden sword absently, “is lightest of consequences you will ever receive. My art . . . our art . . . does not punish the foolish, it breaks them. Death for most, and,” he paused. His eyes held a depth of pain that chilled her soul before he continued. “And for the rest, death would be the dearest blessing. Now, have you learned?”
She was about to stammer out the affirmative but stopped in thought. The magus was telling her in no uncertain terms that she would pay dearly for the knowledge she wanted. Thalia considered her ordeal of the evening. Was she willing to pay the price?
The apprentice looked him in the eyes and said, “Yes, master, yes I have.”
He smiled, “Good. Now tend to your wounds and we’ll begin your instruction again in the morning.”
Thalia turned away slowly, painfully, but turned back at the doorway. “And Master? Thank you.”
Her only response was a muted ruffle of his robes as he returned to his chambers.