A New Leaf

“He’s ready for you,” the receptionist said.

Jack, somewhat relieved, sunk into the soft leather armchair and smoothed out his navy dress robes as the candidate ahead of him went into the office. Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, he thought, but it did little to calm his nerves. He looked around at the variety of people who had gathered.

A young man around his age was taking frenzied notes on a bit of parchment.

There was no way he could be listening in, Jack thought. He pointed a finger toward the door and concentrated, but his spell was easily deflected.

“Already tried that,” the young man said, not taking his eyes off of his parchment.

“No luck?” Jack asked.

“None,” he replied. “Tried getting some advice out of the receptionist too, but she just told me to sit back down. Good thing I did. One guy who pressed her earlier got turned into a sparrow.”

Jack smiled. “They aren’t messing around here,” he said.

Why would they? Jack thought as he looked her way.

Rudolfo was a master sorcerer after all.

***

There comes a time in every magical person’s life when they have to decide to stick with the wand or ditch it… and it usually happens within about a year of graduation.

Having found no magical work had accelerated this process for Jack who, ever the optimist, felt the aimlessness had been a real chance to reflect on his life, especially his past financial decisions.

But he never expected it to find himself here after so many rejection letters.

Rudolfo’s office smelled of old magic.

Everything from the leather seats adorned with golden buttons, the parchment with the sorcerer’s official letterhead, and the ancient oil lamps smelt of raw magical power. Jack inhaled deeply and let it fill him up.

He had spent the better part of the morning reading a biography of the man and his family, but he’d only managed to read through the first few chapters before the store keep had kicked him out.

Rudolfo’s company brought together powerful wizards, warlocks, druids, and magicians from across the land to defend kingdoms big and small. His contractors were feared not only for their might, but the knowledge that backup was just one teleportation spell away. The sorcerer was also no slouch. There were stories of legendary duels that helped him build his fortune. He spared his opponents, which was considered to be a fate somewhat worse than death.

From what he’d gathered from the grapevine, it had been months since the sorcerer had accepted a new apprentice. That news combined with the stories of heretical attacks in the south meant that he wasn’t taking any risks on new hires, so Jack had to outshine everyone else.

“Jack?” the receptionist called out. “He’s ready for you.”

“Good luck,” the candidate beside him whispered. “I don’t think the last guy who went ever came out.”

***

The ceiling of the board room faded to blue skies with white, fluffy clouds, the carpet turned to short, dew-covered blades of grass, and the chairs morphed into a tree stumps topped with crowns of mushrooms.

“Impressive,” Rudolfo said as he surveyed Jack’s work. He prodded his desk, which now resembled a log with tangled roots for legs. A smile appeared on the sorcerer’s face as his notebooks grew wings, transformed into birds, and fluttered about. “Transfiguration’s tricky stuff and dangerous if you lose control. Very impressive.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jack said trying to hide the effort.

Rudolfo waved his hand and the illusions faded instantly, which knocked Jack off his feet. “I like what I see,” Rudolfo said as he sat back down behind his desk. He grabbed one of the notebooks that was still fluttering and gave it a gentle shake returning it to its original shape, size, and species.

Jack’s mind was abuzz with the incantations he’d invoked to complete the complex illusion. He flopped down into the chair opposite of the sorcerer and brushed a hand through his sweaty hair to smooth it down. He raised his hand toward a bird that sat on the desk, but Rudolfo waved him away.

“Don’t worry about that one,” Rudolfo said with a laugh. “When I ask candidates to impress me they usually struggle with the task,” he said. “Not for want of power, but from lack of… creativity, which is something you seem to possess in spades.”

“Thank you,” Jack said as he tried to focus on his parchment, which had some key points he still wanted to cover during the interview.

Rudolfo looked at him from over his gold-rimmed spectacles. “You don’t need to say anything more,” he said. “I want you to work with us.”

Jack smiled. “Thank—”

“No more thank you’s either,” Rudolfo said. “From now on you can thank me through your blood, sweat, and perhaps even tears.”

Jack nodded and gave a weak smile as a slip of paper appeared before him on the desk. The parchment, adorned with the golden letterhead, sparkled on the dark desk. The text was slowly filling in with all of the personal information Jack had handed over to the receptionist earlier with an impressive cursive script.

“Sign on the line and you’ll be one of us,” Rudolfo said.

Jack reached for the quill and pulled the parchment closer, but hesitated as what looked like an army of ants were spilling onto the bottom half of the parchment. The wave of tiny words grew seemingly without end as did the feeling that there was something wrong.

“Wait are you waiting for?” Rudolfo asked with a smile.

“It’s,” Jack said, but faltered. “It’s unpaid?”

***

Jack’s heart sank as the sparkle in Rudolfo’s pale blue eyes faded.

“Experience is the pay you’ll receive here,” Rudolfo said cooly. “Our network of mentors will bring countless opportunities with them. I can see potential in you, Jack. Those who bring their all are rewarded,” he said. “Powerful witches and wizards get their start in positions like these, and you could too.”

Jack’s stomach churned. Don’t give away your talents for free, the voice of one of his professors called out from within. You’re good enough to be choosy!

The last thing Jack wanted to do was make an enemy out of the most powerful sorcerer in the city by refusing the job, but no amount of experience was going to fill his empty icebox at home.

“I’m sorry to ask,” Jack said cautiously. “Is there any chance of this being… paid? It’s a lot of hours in the week and I’m just a little low on money at the moment—”

“Money’s not everything, you know,” Rudolfo interrupted.

“It is right now,” Jack said before he could stop himself.

Rudolfo shuffled the papers on his desk. “This is a once in a lifetime kind of thing,” Rudolfo said. “Don’t let this pass you by, Jack.”

“It’s not that I don’t want it,” Jack stammered. “It’s just—”

“This is disappointing,” Rudolfo said as he pulled back the paper. “Please see yourself out. I tried with you. I really did.”

“Sir, I—“

“Out,” Rudolfo said loudly.

Jack was reeling from the sudden turn in the conversation, but the advice of his school professor sounded off in his mind. Don’t let them take advantage of you. You’re better than that.

“If you could just—”

“Why did you even apply if you were expecting to be paid?” Rudolfo asked. “It’s an unpaid position. It was right on the job description.”

“It was in really tiny letters,” Jack said despondently after he scanned the job notice.

“That’s your fault,” Rudolfo said. “Now I’ve got more candidates to go through, so if you would.”

As Jack reached the door, face flushed and anger burning within him, he turned.

Transfiguration required an eye for detail and, as Rudolfo had pointed out, a lot of creativity. Finding objects that were the same size, shape, and weight as others made the spell simpler. By far the most difficult objects to transform had been the awards scattered across the office. One, ironically, was an award for most equitable practices.

“Something to say?” Rudolfo said not looking up.

“How did you start?” Jack asked. “Just looking for some feedback on my career path.”

Rudolfo removed his glasses. “Same as you,” he said. “I started in a position much like this and worked my way up.”

“Were you paid?”

Rudolfo paused. “I was,” he said. “A measly sum.”

“Funny that,” Jack said.

Rudolfo rose to his feet and he held his hand out to the door, which slammed open. “If you would,” he said loudly enough for those waiting in the reception area to hear. “Please, leave immediately.”

Jack stood in the reception area, face burning. He wanted to warn the candidates. He wanted to say something meaningful that would let them know… what? Everyone wanted an opportunity to work and perhaps this place would help them in the long run, but how long would they have to wait?

Money wasn’t everything, but it was something.

He’d heard stories of people just like him burning out after a few years. One too many complex incantations, fierce battles against demons, and clandestine trips to the local graveyard took their toll and when the bill was due and you couldn’t pay up you ended up in the nut house.

Jack took a deep breath, but he found the smell unpalatable. He slammed the door on his way out and left.

Moments later, the receptionist followed.

***

Lasane was a town of few sights, many sounds, and plentiful smells. Its university brought in all kinds as did the opportunity to work with companies like Rudolfo’s. Jack couldn’t bear to look at it his tower as he stalked away from it.

The storekeep had given Jack a dire ultimatum when he’s tried to sneak back into the bookstore, so he’d slipped into Lasane’s library to read the rest of the biography. Alumni were officially discouraged from using tomes they were no longer paying to upkeep.

Everyone at the university could spot an alumni, which made Jack nervous. They were shadows who stalked the halls hungry for the nostalgia of academia. Jack grimaced at all the times he’d spotted them when he had been a student a year earlier.

He’d found Rudolfo’s biography and sat at a desk hidden from sight. Petty anger had him reading sections describing the deaths of family member or spats with other wizards. The librarian had been circling his general area for some time now.

One last passage, Jack thought.

Rudolfo has since expanded his retinue to include those from every corner of the land. Former employees say that the expansion had given them unheard of reach, but that as their control grew so did the strain on resources… his is a company that’s almost too big to fail, but economic strains are finally starting to catch up to the sorcerer who once had the golden touch.

“Excuse me,” a voice cut in. “This is a student library, not a public one.”

“I’m sorry,” Jack said. “I’ll just be going.”

“The book,” the librarian said pointing at the tome.

“Of course,” Jack stammered as he put it back onto the desk.

Jack rushed out of the library and took to the grounds of the university. A wave of nostalgia hit him as he watched students walk about in their blue, green, and gold robes. A group of witches giggled as they passed him. Once upon a time, he would have followed them to get in on the joke with some self-deprecating humour, but now it’d likely just get him into a scrap with an angst-ridden group of warlocks.

At the centre of what little green space the university offered was a tree. It’s wide array of leafy branches provided much needed shade from the heat, but few students sat under it. The spiked acorns that fell from it limbs could slice through clothing. Some of the older professors said the tree had been a prank created by the herbology department, but not a very funny one.

Jack sat at the base of the tree and looked up into the shade. The branches reached into the sky to suck in the sunlight. He’d had multiple dreams about the tree’s youth. It had a healthy leafy head and beautiful crimson blooms. As it aged in these dreams, the tree had grew gnarled and blooms turned into those spiky seeds. His professors said the visions were a symptom of spending too much time in the tree’s shade, but Jack found it comforting.

The seeds were falling, but they didn’t hit their mark. They sparkled as they bounced off a nearly-invisible barrier. The spell could repel rain and dust, and light enough on his well of magic to be used almost indefinitely. Today, Jack struggled to keep it up. A few acorns fell through gaps in the barrier. His stomach gurgled. The shield contracted around him providing less and less cover.

He needed to find a job and more and more regular work was seeming like his only option.

“Hungry?”

Jack looked around. He sat up and looked to the other side of the tree trunk. There sat the receptionist from Rudolfo’s office.

“Lunch?” she asked.

***

The receptionist had gotten them a small booth inside of Lyon’s, a local pub well-known to Lasane university seniors. He checked out the menu and unconsciously jangled his coin purse, which he knew to be empty. Everything seemed to have gone up in price since he was last here.

If only a money making charm existed, Jack thought.

The two had spoken only briefly on the walk to the tavern, but Jack could feel she possessed powerful magic. Magical people walked a certain way in a place like Lasane. They looked as if they owned the very cobbles or at least had a pretty good lease on them. Jack had never been able to get the posture right to look like a proper wizard.

The receptionist sat down in the booth and smiled. “Demetra, by the way,” she said.

“Nice to meet you, miss By the Way,” Jack said.

Demetra smirked.

“Jack,” Jack said, “but I’m sure you already knew that.”

“I read through all of the resumes,” Demetra said. “Especially the ones from Lasane.”

In the airy light of the pub, Jack was able to get a much better look at Demetra. Everything before and after the interview had been a blur of moments seemingly unconnected, but entirely so. Now her silvery hair and purple eyes came into sharp focus as did a familiar looking slip of paper.

“Food before we have the talk,” Demetra said.

She called over the maitre’d and ordered herself the greasiest burger on the menu. “Go on,” Demetra said. “Order whatever you want.”

Jack restrained himself and ordered a sensible vegetarian wrap with a side of gravy covered fries and giant onion rings.

“Thank you,” Jack said as his mouth watered.

“You’re very welcome,” Demetra said. “Before we get to business, why don’t we get to know one another a little better?”

“A little ice breaking,” Jack said.

“Well let’s do it a little differently,” Demetra said. “Favourite spell?”

Jack paused. “Hm,” he mumbled as his brow furled. “Alushiya’s Warden,” he said after some thought. “Always liked the pretty lights the shield creates.”

“I saw you using that under the tree,” Demetra said. “Galin’s Gale. I’d blow through your little shield if we had a duel. Favourite artifact in the school museum?”

“Valtier’s Robes,” Jack said. “What other artifact is there? It’s made out of liquefied sapphires. I’ve got a poster of it in my apartment.”

“Weak,” Demetra said. “You should have said Rook’s Lost Staff.”

“That was stolen years ago,” Jack said. “In any case all it did was pierce the heart of a dragon,” he said as Demetra glared. “What? It’s a giant hunk of pointy metal. Witches and wizard’s aren’t exactly known for our physiques,” he said.

“Favourite alchemical ingredient?” Demetra asked.

“Motherwort,” Jack said quickly. “I could make a healing salve that rivals anything found in stores around here. Yours?”

“Dangle weed,” Demetra said with a little smirk.

“Ugh,” Jack said repulsed. “Could never stand the stuff. What’d you use it for?”

“Hallucinogenic potions so powerful you’d be seeing colours for days,” Demetra said. “A little side gig I had running while at school, but one I’m not exactly proud of.”

“Wait,” Jack said. “The Juice?”

“The Juice,” Demetra said wryly.

“Oh man,” Jack said placing his hand on his forehead. “You’re a legend at Lasane! People have been trying to recreate it for years, but no one can get it right because of the dangle weed.”

“It takes a pretty strong stomach to work with the stuff,” Demetra said as she cleared her plate. “Thank you,” she said as the waiter took it away.

Jack sat back and grinned. “If you’re looking to convince me to join up, food is definitely the way to do it,” he said.

“I already know I can’t convince you,” Demetra said. “In any case, newbies don’t get paid,” she said.

“Why is that?” Jack asked.

Demetra sighed. “I’ve been with Rudolfo for little over three years now,” she said. “I’m not in the accounting department, but I get a general sense of the books and things aren’t looking great. Some new company is poaching our best field agents with promises of money and fancy towers.” She put her hand to the side of her face. “With fewer contracts, we don’t collect as much money and without money can’t afford to pay people like we used to.”

Jack sat in silence. “When I entered Lasane I dreamed of working at a place like Rudolfo’s,” he said despondently. “I’d expected everyone there even if you were junior was paid something.”

“As Rudolfo said, ‘Money isn’t everything,’,” Demetra said. “I’m required to listen into interviews,” she added.

“I didn’t study for years for only a chance at earning a living wage,” Jack said. “I also worked hard to graduate,” he said with a sigh. “Seems like a waste of time now if I can’t get paid work.”

“We can barely afford to keep the oil lamps burning most of the time with all the contractors we keep losing,” Demetra said. “We lose out on a lot of people like you. People with promise.”

“I have some,” Jack mumbled. “According to your boss.” Jack threw his arms up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just things have felt hopeless for a while.”

“I was a graduate from Lasane too,” Demetra said. “I thought this job would transform into something a bit more magical over time,” she said as he looked at the contract. “It didn’t and that was just life because you don’t always get what you want right away. You work your ass off in hopes of getting something more. I’ll admit that there were times I wanted to quit out of sheer frustration, but I’m glad I didn’t. You see, a year into my unpaid contract, I came down with a case of goblin pox.”

Jack recoiled slightly. “Oh,” he said. “Not many people survived that even people like us.”

“I did,” Demetra said solemnly. “At first, I tried to keep my illness a secret. The medical bills started piling up and I started getting worse. I thought it would go away if I just toughed it out, so I risked my life to keep working.”

“Then I was found at my desk unconscious and the next thing I knew I was at an expensive alchemical treatment facility,” Demetra said. “I was horrified. The cost of good medicine in this city is a joke. As I’d tried to leave, a nurse pulled me aside and told me that Rudolfo had covered my treatment,” she said. “A few days later, I returned to work. I stood in the doorway for a moment watching as he struggled to find his mail and pay off bills. It was the first time I saw him as anything but a master sorcerer,” she said.

Demetra pushed the contract over to Jack. “He gave me a real talking to about how stupid it was to hide my illness,” she said. “He also put me onto payroll knowing that the medical bills wouldn’t stop. I heard from accounting that he took a pay cut to do it.”

“He sounds like a good person,” Jack said looking down at the contract.

“He’s loyal to those who are loyal to him,” Demetra said. “I’m not telling you to reconsider the offer, but I wanted you to know the situation and why things are they way they are. In the off chance you do reconsider you’d better be ready to work you ass off with little to no reward.”

Jack sunk into the bench. “Still not very tempting,” he said. “I’ll think about it.”

Demetra smiled. “That’s all I ask.”

***

Jack stood outside of Rudolfo’s tower with the contract in hand. There were plenty of other places I could go to look for work, he thought. It doesn’t have to be here, I don’t have to settle, I can look elsewhere. There’s work in small towns outside of Lasane.

Except there isn’t, he thought.

If you went to a small town, you’d have to tussle with the local witch or wizard for the right to defend the town. It was something Rudolfo was infamous for, but everyone knew the wizards he put in place were a lot better than the self-trained warlocks who once dominated the countryside.

Jack’s stomach gurgled. Perhaps there were ways he could make money on the side at a job like this.

He craned his neck to look at the tower. It craned dangerously forward like a cat’s claw and shone in a thousand different colours when the sun hit it right. It was a perilous structure at night for owls being nearly transparent.

Jack stepped through the doors and stood still for a moment. The smell of burning candles and ink on parchment, fire singing the air and sudden gusts of icy wind, hair crisped by chemicals and eye brows burnt by a potion gone awry.

This is where he wanted to be, he knew it.

Jack walked up the winding staircase and took a moment outside of Rudolfo’s office to steel himself. Would he apologize? No, Jack thought. Set a defiant tone from the start, he reasoned. That shows he meant business.

Demetra better be right about this, Jack thought.

***

Jack froze as he opened the door.

“Ah,” the sorcerer said as if peering into Jack’s soul. “You have returned.” Rudolfo looked as if he was about to leave for the day.

“I have,” Jack said, a defiant tone entering into his voice. “Do you have time to talk about the job?”

“No,” Rudolfo said as he swept past.

The door slammed shut behind the sorcerer as he descended the steps. “I’ve closed the office for the day,” he said distantly. “Demetra took of sick and there are matters I must attend to in the city. Please leave your resume under the door and we will consider another interview.”

“Wait a minute,” Jack said trying to keep in step with the sorcerer.

“You had all the time I was willing to give to you yesterday,” Rudolfo said as he reached the tower’s lobby. He peered outside into the city and cursed. “Rain,” he muttered. Rudolfo raised his staff into the sky and a beam shot out. The sorcerer waited a few moments. “Where is everyone,” he mumbled.

The sorcerer stepped out under the grey skies, but no rain hit the brim of his hat. Jack stood beside the sorcerer. The shield above them shimmered as the raindrops hit it. “Did you just call for help?” Jack asked.

“Follow me,” Rudolfo said.

“I was looking at the contract,” Jack said as he kept pace. “There are several places where if we could make some small changes I’d be willing to work unpaid. For instance, the clause here about spell copyright.”

“That’s a fundamental part of the contract,” Rudolfo said as he crossed the unusually empty street. “Besides you’d be using our resources, so it’s only proper that we get the fruits of your labour should you leave.”

Jack turned to watch as several people stumbling past them. “It stipulates that all spell craft even those created outside of work hours are owned by you.”

Rudolfo grumbled. “If we… modified that to exclude the latter, would it be more to your liking?” he asked.

“Yes,” Jack said. “Progress.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” Jack said quickly.  “There’s also the matter of pay.”

“Not this again,” Rudolfo said as held his hat onto his head against the gale force winds buffeting them. “You know our policy.”

“What about a monthly stipend?” Jack yelled over the din. “We could also include a section on daily expenses! Just enough for a lunch!”

“Fine!” Rudolfo yelled. “You’ll get your lunches, but you’ll have to work through them! If we survive this,” he added.

Jack looked to his left and right as more laughing people were running the opposite direction they were walking. They looked strangely like the students who had taken too much of the Juice. “The, uh, section about liability insurance in the chance of injuries sustained in a wizarding duel…”

Rudolfo had stopped walking. “We’ll have talk about that later,” the sorcerer said.

Ahead of them stood a group of hooded figures, purple robes barely fluttering in the intense winds that rocketed down the avenue.

“Rudolfo,” a hollow voice called out.

Jack winced and covered his ears. It felt as if the voice had whispered the name right beside him.

“You keep that shield up,” Rudolfo said. “And stay behind me.”

“You’ve been a bad boy, Rudolfo,” the voice said in its unearthly way. “Sitting high upon your tower and not stopping by to say hello—”

Jack watched in awe as the world slowly froze in place. The robed figures were knocked to the ground by the expanding magical field that exploded from Rudolfo’s staff; a protective measure to save those who could not protect themselves from magic. The droplets of rain froze in place and contracted into spears of ice under the pressure. They shot down upon the stricken figures, but only to pin their clothes to the ground.

“Lesson number one,” Rudolfo said. “Always attack during the monologue.” The sorcerer motioned to the figures. “Check them.”

“The other candidates from before,” Jack said as he looked to the fallen figures.

“She was using my office to recruit them,” Rudolfo said. “It’s good thing you didn’t sign that contract after all.”

“So that’s why you tried to get me out of the office,” Jack said. “The unpaid contract and the way you acted. It was all to get me out of harm’s way.”

“What?” Rudolfo inquired, perplexed. “No, I wanted you out of my office and that’s the actual contract,” he said. “She must have put a hex on it to mind control the others.”

“She?” Jack asked.

“If you two are done” a disembodied voice said as one of the hooded figures rose to its feet. It’s hood fell to its shoulders and a mess of white hair spilled out. “Let’s see how you compare to my latest recruit,” Demetra said in a voice that was not her own.

Demetra’s hand disappeared into her robes.

***

Rudolfo’s hand shot out and the vial in Demetra’s hand whipped toward him, but it froze in midair. Beads of sweat appeared on the sorcerer’s forehead as he pulled on it with all his might. Demetra walked toward the floating vial seemingly unhindered by her tug of war with the sorcerer.

“You look confused, Jack,” the voice said deep within his mind.

Rudolfo pushed Jack back with his hand keeping him well away from Demetra. “Keep up your guard,” the sorcerer yelled. “Don’t let her play mind games with you.”

“She had hopes and dreams of accomplishing something significant while she was young,” the voice said. “She dreamed of changing the world, but Rudolfo took and took from her until she burned out and found herself at death’s doorstep.”

Jack shook his head as the voice ricocheted within his mind. The light of the world was fading and all he could see was Demetra’s inhuman face.

“All she had accomplished summed up in reading the mail of an ancient sorcerer of waning pow—”

An icicle plunged from the sky and pierced Demetra’s chest.

She paused a moment before pulling it out, examining it for a moment, and tossing it aside. The gaping wound filled itself in. Demetra clasped the vial and Rudolfo fell to his knees. “There was no magic left within her when I found her,” the voice said as Demetra kicked the sorcerer hard knocking the staff from his hand. “The pox had ravaged her body beyond repair. This could have been you, Jack. This is what happened to so many others who wanted experience.”

“Don’t let her drink it!” Rudolfo called out as reached for his staff. “Jack!”

Jack raised his hand and grasped the vial from afar. Demetra looked at him and smiled. Jack grunted as the world came back into view and he was dragged forward. It felt like he was being pulled by a horse-drawn carriage.

“Imbibe and you too can see the new power we’ve found,” the voice said. “It will show you the truth.”

Jack’s feet tried to find purchase on the wet cobbles, but he continued to inch forward. Black liquid spilled out from the lip of the vial. Darkness spread across the frozen raindrops like roots searching out water beneath the ground.

“Join us,” the voice said.

“I just started making headway on my contract,” Jack said as he watched the growing darkness snaked its way through the aether. The dark roots were coiling their way toward the buildings and eating through the magical field. If it escaped, who knew what damage it could cause.

They’re roots, Jack thought. That’s it.

Demetra’s eyes widened as the darkling liquid shuddered and was replaced by hues of earthly brown and green. Roots sprang out of thin air as Jack’s transfiguration spell warped the space between them. Demetra winced as barbed acorns fell from the newly-formed branches.

“Enough games,” the voice said as frenzied roots filled with magic and enraged by their sudden existence lashed out at Demetra. She swayed this way and that avoiding the evermore dangerous tendrils.

Jack clenched his hands as he attempted to slow the spell quickly growing out of his control. “Shit,” he cursed. He pushed out from his stomach, the well from which he drew his magic, but nothing came. A ghostly, empty feeling crept into his body as the spell was wrest from his control. He needed to contain it.

Demetra floated well above the growing tangle of roots and branches now spilling out into the side streets of Lasane.

Jack ran toward Rudolfo and grabbed up the sorcerer’s staff, which was heavy enough to make him bend double. “Rook’s staff,” Jack said in awe as he looked at the famous burn marks and ancient runes revealed by the worn paint.

“I’m going to need that back,” Rudolfo said weakly as he reached for the staff.

“Sorry,” Jack said as planted the base of the staff onto the ground and pushed whatever was left of his magic into the catalyst. A shimmering shield of light burst from the staff and surrounded the magical field still encasing the marauding roots.

Demetra pressed her hand against the barrier, but she couldn’t get through. There were holes in the light, but not in Rudolfo’s magical field.

Jack’s hands shook as he pressed his hands against the burning metal of the staff. Everything he had was going into this final command, this final spell. The shield lurched sickly as it contracted. The roots retracted as if burned by the shield. The magic field encased by the shield was shrinking by the moment.

“You’ll be crushed,” the voice roared.

Demetra watched as Jack and Rudolfo passed through one of the gaps in the shield. “We’re out of magic,” Jack said as he collapsed. “The shield thinks we’re civilians.” He reached for Rook’s staff, but it slipped through his fingers as it was dragged along.

Demetra slammed against the barrier growing more and more desperate as she neared the flailing roots. A black mist spilled from her mouth as the darkness attempted to escape its vessel, but it was trapped. Demetra’s body fell from the sky and through the barrier landing on the cobbles with a thud.

The thrashing ball of roots and dark magic shrunk to the size of a marble before evaporating into nothingness.

The wind stopped and all fell silent.

***

Jack crawled over to Demetra. “She’s gone,” he said.

“Don’t get too close,” Rudolfo said quietly.

Jack staggered backward as he saw the marks adorning her body. “Goblin pox,” he said. “Who was that?” he asked suddenly, anger rising in his voice.

“The reason why I needed that bloody staff,” Rudolfo said. He groaned weakly as if a great weight had been placed onto his body. “You must have heard the whispers about me, read the stories of my fading power.” The sorcerer looked to his hands and laughed. “I’m not long for this world and nor is this world long for us,” he said as he fell to the ground.

Jack crawled closer to the sorcerer who grabbed up his hand. “I’m sorry Jack,” Rudolfo said gripping Jack’s hand. “I really did see promise within you. I see promise in a lot of young witches and wizards, but they don’t know what lies out there waiting for them.”

“What is out there? Who is she?” Jack exclaimed. He shook the sorcerer. “What’s happening here? I need you to stay with me.” Jack gasped as the sorcerer’s hand turned to dust.

“We did something,” Rudolfo. “Jack, we did something and now that debt’s come due.”

Jack stammered as he watched the sorcerer disintegrate.

“I’m sorry Jack,” Rudolfo said. “You’re on your own.”

Jack scrabbled to keep the dust together, but a gust of wind carried away what was left.

In the distance, Jack could hear the footsteps of the town guard. The sound bounced around in his mind as he tried to calm the panic seizing his heart. Rudolfo’s tower shuddered as the magic within it rang out in agony. Its master had disappeared from the world as it would soon.

Jack ran. He ran until his feet could carry him no longer. He crumpled onto the grass on the outskirts of Lasane and listened as alarms were raised across the city. He turned to see the tower folded into itself and implode leaving a gash in the city where it had once stood.

A gust of frigid air blew in from the south.

Jack turned into the wind and closed his eyes.

Something was coming.

***

Stories of the fallen tower spread quickly throughout the other provinces. There were few firsthand accounts, but rumours were that one wizard had seen the events up close. Speculation dominated the local tabloids both the enchanted and regular print editions. Dark witches and wizards were being spotted left and right around the world, but few could deny that the magical community was disappearing.

Those in the tavern spoke in whispers about what they had heard and were wary of travelling folk, especially those who walked with a certain upright posture. They didn’t like how they acted as if they owned the place nor were they certain what side they were on. These were dangerous times, especially when you couldn’t even manage card tricks.

Few people had noticed when Jack entered into the tavern. His bedraggled robes and rucksack weren’t part of the typical magical look. He sat at a table in the far reaches of the darkened interior and pulled out a book. He drank from a dirty pint glass with a shaking hand. His palms still felt scalded from the magic that had spilled forth from them.

Years the sorcerer had used the power of the staff to keep himself alive. How had he handled that much power? Jack wondered, but tonight his mind was on something else. He’d received a message.

“Is this seat taken?” a young woman asked.

“No,” Jack said quietly. “Please.”

The young woman sat. The colour of her green robes had faded long ago and her chestnut brown hair was matted from too many months spent out in the wilderness, but a kindness looked out from her eyes and into Jack’s. She placed a dark vial in front of him.

“Tell me what you know about Magenta.”

***

This is a continuation of the short story The Roots of Magic.
Please stay tuned for more.

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