Eric took his exam. The words “Magic Theory, Practice, and Society” were centered on the cover.
What a joke.
This test was a joke.
The practical portion would be a joke.
The whole class was a joke.
All the knowledge in the world wouldn’t make him stronger. And it wasn’t like he would be able to get a job in any Luxen field either; he’d be doing construction or flipping burgers alongside Anluxen, people who couldn’t use magic, even if he studied hard and aced the test. He thought he’d done well enough in English, passable in Geometry, miraculously managed a C- in Chemistry, but here in this cruel joke of a class was where his worth was defined.
Worth. The word echoed around his mind, making him laugh to himself.
Behind him, Alex received her test. Her self-satisfied sigh warmed the back of his neck in a humid puff. Without thinking, he turned to glare at her. She was a dusty-looking girl with dusty blue eyes, wrapped in dusty tanned skin, topped with dusty blond hair.
Dusty, dusty, dusty.
“Eyes on your own test, Eric,” Ms. Finley said, causing the entire class to look at him. He cursed at her inwardly, but complied.
“Ms. Finley,” Alex stated. Eric rolled his eyes and a wave of sighs and creaks of desks spread around the classroom.
“Here we go,” someone whispered a little too loudly.
“Yes, Alex?” the teacher responded, her face a mask of professional caring.
“I know what you guys think. About me. About my mom. But the Curator’s real,” Alex warned, sealing her reign as the most annoying girl in the Midwest. “I just wanted to tell you before break. Be careful.”
Of course, she believed in the foreboding “him,” the Curator. The Great Evil looming over all Luxen, those who could use magic. Too bad the Curator and his Hunters were little more than a fable told to give children nightmares. Once, it was funny she was so gullible, now it was annoying.
Suddenly, Eric’s skeleton felt uncomfortably constrained by his skin so he flung his arms and legs out in a stretch, allowing his long limbs to spring from under his desk. If Alex didn’t shut her mouth, he was going to kill her. Or himself. It just didn’t matter anymore. How dare she make him view taking and inevitably failing the final exam as an escape?
A glance at his best friend, Ben, two rows over Eric saw he wasn’t alone. Ben was absently toying with the douchey medallion he’d worn around his neck since forever and eyeing his test like a wolf at a steak. He blinked, then shook his dark hair off his plump face and flicked his almost black blue eyes up to meet Eric’s. Though almost a full year younger, he had been bumped up a grade shortly after his arrival at Kingston Preparatory Academy. The bump was lucky for Eric, who wouldn’t have survived most of school, especially the Magic classes, without his fellow pathetic orphan. He rolled his eyes as he gestured with his head back to Alex, still giving her monologue. Ben suppressed a grin then looked eagerly back to his test, leaving Eric alone in his suffering. The younger boy already had his name written on top. Yeesh. Eric shook his head in a mixture of pride and another emotion he couldn’t name then scrawled his signature across the top of his. Which brought him that much closer to getting this over with and to the freedom of summer break—if Alex would just shut up.
When he was little and alone, he used to dread breaks. All the other students got to go home to their families or on exotic vacations over breaks. Fairy tales compared to the series of Grad students who watched him. All researching Magic development in children. All inevitably disappointed.
That changed seven years ago when Ben appeared with his aunt Lea—a student herself at the time—after his father died. At first, he was a mess. Scared. Always crying. Afraid of monsters and the dark. But after a few days of Eric showing him around, including all his favorite hiding spots and stashes of junk food he’d stolen, they were as close as brothers. Ever since, as soon as the other students left, the school transformed into their private kingdom. The school, a cobbled-together survey of architecture was their castle, and the miles of forest, caves, and creeks their playground.
Feeling Ms. Finley’s stare on him, Eric reluctantly folded his legs back under his desk. She wasn’t so awful, not really. When she first arrived, she’d tried tutoring him to see if something was wrong with him, since he was the weakest in ability in the entire school. It didn’t help, but it was nice of her. Especially because he’d heard multiple other instructors warn her of the futility. Hell, he’d warned her of the futility. She gave up on him like all the others just like he knew she would. But she tried despite all the naysaying and that meant something. And, more importantly, she was beautiful. Her heart-shaped face, white-blond hair, pale blue eyes, and ivory skin had made her the heroine in many of Eric’s private fantasies. As if on cue, she cleared her throat, silencing Alex and saving the rest of the class from her torture.
“Alright, thank you, Ms. Harper, for sharing that warning,” Ms. Finley said evenly and clasped her hands in front of her, highlighting her engagement ring. Eric eyed it in disdain, sure the marriage wouldn’t last. Well, hoping it wouldn’t. “There’s an hour time limit for the written portion and you’ll Pair as you finish.” She paused for effect. “Good luck.”
Swallowing his pride, Eric scribbled circles around random letters in the multiple-choice section then flipped to the next. A breath of laughter escaped through his nose as he read the first question and wondered if it was written specifically for him.
What are the three rules of Pairing?
This, at least, was one question he knew the answer to, because he had to. He was the poster child of their need, if an extreme case. Magic was appearing less frequently and increasingly lackluster. Pairing allowed for two or more to combine their powers to achieve the abilities of old. To do it, one or more people accessed their magic and then offer their strength to the leader of a Pairing. The leader could then use all those whose power was offered to them. The Concordat, the global government of Luxen, in all their shadowy wisdom, made proficiency mandatory for graduation.
“Collaboration, boundaries, and breaking,” he wrote wryly. Collaboration, because the leader wasn’t supposed to be a slave master. Then, to ensure rainbow-sprouting teamwork, they were taught how to set limits for how much of themselves was available for use. Finally, they learned how to break a connection if necessary. There were other ways to Pair that didn’t allow for these tenets, but for obvious reasons they weren’t part of the curriculum. Especially the one that didn’t require Luxen magic. Alex was probably writing a thesis about those methods in her answer, because part of the Curator’s legend said he did one such version called Control. Older students terrified younger ones by explaining Control didn’t have safety outs or limits because it developed out of desperate Anluxen necessity. Leaving Alex to her overachievement, Eric wrote a very thorough three words. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
Except that the next section proved it was.
When and why was the Concordat founded? What precipitated the Rebirth?
Nope. He wasn’t even going to try that one.
Explain the origins, development, and qualities of Extrinsic magic.
Describe the challenges facing the study of Intrinsic magic.
He was already on academic probation; what if he had to get an assigned tutor for summer school? They were always so full of themselves and mean. He’d squeaked by with Ben’s help and hadn’t had a tutor since his last caregiver when he was eight, an experience that still gave him stress dreams.
A second glance at his younger friend showed him Ben wasn’t having his same trouble. Grinning, eyes shiny against his russet skin, he paused in his confident, steady writing and looked over. Eric pulled up an imaginary noose around his neck.
“Eric,” Ms. Finley said. They both looked down. Eric bit his lip and squirmed in his seat before putting his pencil to the paper.
Extrinsic magic came from dragons a long time ago, back when dragons existed. Traditionally, Extrinsic magic was seen as destructive, a concept that bothered Ben. His roly-poly friend was an Extrinsic user and sap who believed in ridiculous ideas like goodness and world peace. Lucky for him, modern framing was different. At its most basic level, Extrinsic users controlled power and elements outside of themselves: earth, water, air, and fire.
Intrinsic magic, on the other hand, was less understood. The energy used in Intrinsic magic, came from the user, which led to more pronounced consequences. Here, traditional views held steady, so it was seen as restorative—mostly because Intrinsic magic could heal. But it could be just as destructive as Extrinsic, perhaps even more so. Though Intrinsic magic could not command the wind or fire, it could still create storms and explosions, blasts of magical energy that were more powerful than bombs.
Eric was Intrinsic and couldn’t lift a pencil.
After expending his knowledge in a few sentences for each, he stood to turn in his test. A slight rustle behind him made his heart stop. Alex stood behind him. Please, no. Horror pulsed in Eric’s stomach. Alex’s dull eyes glinted with fury. But Ms. Finley was already beckoning them forward.
“He had to have cheated,” Alex whispered as soon as they were close enough. “There’s no way he finished that fast. He’s too-”
“You’re just mad you didn’t finish first,” he cut her off and quickly placed his test face down on Ms. Finley’s desk before she did.
“Enough,” Ms. Finley interrupted quietly but firmly. “Pair for me and then you can leave. Just keep it together until then, okay? You’ve been at each other’s
throats all term.”
“Fine,” Alex turned to him. “You go first.”
“What? No, you go first.”
“I’m not going to let you copy me,” she said. Which had been his plan.
“Well, I’m not going to let you copy me.”
“Alex will go first,” Ms. Finley declared brusquely. “I’m grading on both parts so you’ll each see how it’s done one way or another. Now go. Others are waiting.”
Eric took a breath, closed his eyes to focus, then held out his magic-fueled hand. It wasn’t an actual hand; that was just a childish device teachers used in the elementary levels. Really, he opened himself up and offered control of his power. That phrasing made him want to puke, however, so he stuck with the kiddy version. Especially because proving the world was entirely unfair, Alex was notably strong.
He immediately felt the strain deep in his chest, but didn’t react. There was no way she was going to get the satisfaction of him admitting he was hurting. Oh yeah, he remembered. Intrinsic magic was more physically draining that Extrinsic. That would have been nice to add to his essay. Too late now.
The pull crept down his arms, making his wrists ache and fingers start to go numb. If he’d managed to Pair with Ben, this never would have happened. His friend knew his limits better than he did and not only in magical power. He was the voice of reason at the brink and had coaxed him out of bad ideas and probably saved him from alcohol poisoning at least once. But Ben was waiting, thoroughly-answered exam in hand, with the auburn-haired transfer student whose name Eric couldn’t remember. John? Jack? Jaquan? No, that couldn’t be right, but he was sure it began with a J. Maybe a G. Whatever his name was, he was giving Ben strained, anticipatory looks. With an easy smile, cheeks full from youth and cupcakes, Ben was a pretty unintimidating happy-go-lucky guy. The kid needed to calm down.
“Uh, I think it’s my turn,” he turned back to Alex. She pulled harder and he couldn’t stop the gasp that escaped through his nose or his back arching against the strain, now spread to his legs.
“Alex, that’s enough!” Ms. Finley shouted.
Alex instantly dropped the connection. Despite himself, Eric sagged where he stood, breathing deeply through his nose. He clenched his hands into fists to hide their shaking but his stomach had other ideas. He bolted out of the room, down the stairs, past the sign that that forbade admittance, and through the door of the third-floor balcony. The thick, hot air didn’t help so he leaned over the barrier and heaved the partially digested remains of his lunch onto the front lawn. After he sucked in a lungful of air, he heaved a second time before resting his face on the sun-warmed stone.
“You alright?” Ben asked a few moments later, brandishing Eric’s forgotten backpack. “She could get expelled for that.”
“She won’t.” He spat the taste off of his tongue and wiped his mouth with the back of his trembling hand. Ben was polite enough to pretend not to notice. “I might get some sympathy points, though. Enough to pass, at least.”
Ben breathed out a laugh and held the door open for him to stumble inside where Ms. Finley stood, looking worried.
“Are you okay?” she asked, and he nodded. “I don’t leave until Thursday, so you can do a makeup tomorrow after you’ve rested.”
“Sure, thanks,” he said, though that meant another day to wait before real freedom. She gave him a smile that he memorized for later, then turned to reenter her classroom. Looking terrified, Alex stood by her desk. He gave her his most winning smile before trailing in Ben’s wake down the hall.
He had to dig around in his backpack for a minute to find his phone. It was ancient, closer to a brick than a phone, but acquiring it had taken months of begging the Concordat office. As their ward, they were responsible for his upkeep for a little over two more years until he was eighteen, but apparently, that didn’t mean he had to have technology that had been made in this decade. Once on, the beast took a few moments to register it could, in fact, receive messages, but as soon as it did, there was a flood. Each one asked details about the party later that were easily found on the damn invite. He put his phone back in his bag without answering.
The longing for his bed was physical, but he ignored it. Ben wouldn’t give him sh**—his friend was well aware of the consequences of his magic use. But he still had to follow tradition and meet up with Ben’s aunt Lea and hang out until the bulk of the students left. Some left directly after the last class, jubilant and bidding farewells, but most wouldn’t leave until the morning while the instructors fled after their grading was done. When he was little, some of them would send him gifts over summer, books or movies to keep him entertained. That had stopped when he’d entered the middle school levels, though. And there used to be a grandfatherly headmaster who’d lived at the school the entire summer, took him fishing, and listened to him prattle on. But he had died when Eric was ten, and his replacement had the personality of a blank white sheet of paper.
He really missed that old man.
Luckily, the Paper Headmaster came and went with the wind over break, which left Lea as their sole authority. Under her supervision, as long as nothing caught on fire that wasn’t supposed to, they were fine. Her technical title was Head Groundskeeper, but Eric had never seen her so much as mow the grass. Despite her living at the school year-round, she sometimes disappeared for days at a time. As a result, there were a bunch of rumors about what Lea’s real job was. Some said she was a spy. Some said she was secret service for some of the more upper-class students. One stated she was a mistress the headmaster hired to hide an affair, but that was ridiculous. Even if she had liaisons, it wouldn’t be with someone so bland.
When they arrived, her door was a bit ajar. Eric put a finger to his lips and they crept closer so they could eavesdrop—shamelessly, in his case.
“Tonight?” she hissed. “And you’re just telling me now? You haven’t changed at all. Can’t you change it?... I don’t know, make something up!... You don’t understand, there’s… I know, you understand, but you barely see us as people... What am I supposed to do? I can’t do miracles. I can’t… I know you can’t either… I’m not saying that, damn it! What do you expect me to do? They’re kids!”
Eric shared a look with Ben. What. The. Actual. Hell. Then Ben ruined everything. Putting on his characteristic carefree grin, he knocked twice, and walked in like he had just arrived. Annoyed and nosey, Eric had no choice but to follow.
“Look, I gotta go,” Lea said instantly. Her already large brown eyes widened for a second before they narrowed. “Who else?” she snapped, then slammed her phone face down on her desk so Eric couldn’t catch a glimpse of who was on the other end.
“That my competition?” he raised an eyebrow.
“Shut up, Eric,” she said automatically.
“You alright, Lea?” Ben asked.
Lea was only ten years older than him so he never referred to her as “Aunt Lea.” It felt too awkward. For all parties involved. Especially for Eric, who had been in love with her since he was nine. She was short with a thick, athletic build, darker-skin than her nephew, jaw-length black hair, and an amazing smile.
“What? Yeah, totally,” she said.
Eric raised his other eyebrow and shared another look with Ben signifying they both agreed Lea was lying through her cute snaggleteeth. Well, Eric thought they were cute.
“Hey, so I was thinking,” Lea said. “Do you want to go up to the cabin this summer? Or camping? Or something? Anything?”
That was weird. Her grandparents had left her a cabin in Wisconsin when they passed away, but Lea had never offered to take them up.
“Um, okay,” Ben said.
“Cool, we can start packing now and leave by six, right? Does that sound good?”
“No,” Eric jumped in. “Six tonight? What? No way. I was roped into organizing this stupid party and you’re just going to leave me alone at it? Can’t you guys leave tomorrow?”
“Don’t be stupid; you’re coming with. I know you two are inseparable.”
“Still, I don’t know. I was kind of looking forward to tonight. Can’t we just go tomorrow?” Ben said. “Why so sudden?”
“You’re acting crazy, Lea,” Eric pointed out.
“You know what? Never mind. Go have fun, but no drinking or drugs or too much fun, deal?”
“Would you rather I lie?” Eric said, favoring her with a wink. He was going to do all those things.
“Shut up, Eric,” Lea grumbled. “Just don’t drag Ben down with you. Now get out of here. I have actual work to do unlike you freeloaders.”
“Anything I can help you with?” Eric gave her a playful look as he stood.
“Oh my god, how many times do I tell you this? Shut up! And get some sleep, you look like hell.”
He would, but that didn’t calm his nosiness. Who had she been talking to? And, more importantly, what was supposed to happen tonight?