“Zachariah Khan!” one of the teachers called.
Selina Roth jumped a little in her chair as the name echoed through the auditorium.
Zach—one of her friends—was the first to be brought onto the stage. She and the rest of her class from the junior school were seated in rows in the centre of the auditorium, waiting for the teachers to call them—one at a time—to the stage to test their mana.
She glanced nervously past the other students and toward a line of chairs set up on the side of the audience hall. A long row of parents, older siblings and others watched the junior students. As her eyes found her towering brother, he gave her a crooked grin and a thumbs up. Theresa—right beside him—gave her a smile of encouragement, while Brutus lay at their feet quietly panting and watching her.
All had come out this morning to support her. Even their friendly neighbour Khalik was there, and he grinned through his black beard.
She smiled back at them and turned away, fidgeting in her chair.
“Hey, hey, look,” one of her close friends in the class—Abela—whispered from beside her. “I think they’re starting.”
Selina looked up at the stage again.
While they’d been getting seated, Selina noticed the teachers had gathered on the stage, waving their hands and muttering strange words like her brother and Khalik did when they were casting spells. Alex had said that the teachers would be casting spells too, but Selina hadn’t seen any glowing lights, moving tables or anything else magical going on.
Spells that didn’t do anything cool looking must have been boring spells, she’d thought. Or maybe she didn’t understand them yet.
Maybe she’d find out what the teachers were doing soon.
Mr. Powell—her homeroom teacher—held up his hands to quiet the class, then turned to Zach. “Alright, Zach, please stand in the middle of the stage. And we can begin.” He smiled like a kindly uncle. “Are you nervous?”
“N-no,” Zach muttered, as his eyes darted back and forth nervously.
“It’s alright to be nervous,” Mr. Powell said. “But, no worries. What we’ll be doing today will be safe, painless and fun. So, you go on and stand in the middle of the stage and you’ll see.”
Selina wondered how they were going to do the testing as Zach nervously edged toward the middle of the stage. Were they going to use a little box like Alex’s glyph boxes? Were they going to use bowls with water in them? Theresa had said that they did something like that in one of her classes.
Maybe they’d put a big hat on them, and it’d sort them into those that could use mana and those that couldn’t. Or maybe they’d give the students wands and ask if they could use them. If they could, then they’d have mana. She hoped it wasn’t that last one. Even if she did have mana, she didn’t know how to use wands, cast spells or use other magic stuff.
She might fail anyway.
And she didn’t want to fail.
She remembered the horrible bug monsters that Theresa, Brutus and Alex had fought in the cave. She’d been terrified but couldn't do anything to help. She remembered Alex and Theresa talking about something bad happening with that dungeon core and that people might come and take Alex away. Maybe they might come after all of them.
And all she’d be able to do is sit there and let Alex and Theresa protect her. She frowned, turning her head slightly away from her brother so that he wouldn’t see her face.
She wanted to help.
She wanted to be brave and be able to help.
If she found out she could use magic…
“We will now begin,” Mr. Powell said.
She was drawn from her own thoughts and began paying attention to the stage. Her teacher looked toward the others and nodded. Several of them raised their hands and began chanting quickly, and the air around them started to shimmer.
Tiny little creatures materialized.
Each was no bigger than a sparrow, but looked like a tiny glowing person with insect wings on their backs. There were dozens of them fluttering around the stage, and they all froze momentarily as they twinkled into being. Most were stark white, but some were light and dark blues, some solid greens, some were yellows, and some sparkling orange.
Mr. Powell looked at the creatures and said something to them in a funny-sounding language. The tiny things looked at each other, then broke out into giggles that sounded like tinkling bells.
They began to fly all around the stage, leaving little coloured sparkles behind them as they went, watching and pointing at the people seated. Some flew to the edge, appearing to be prepared to fly out among the crowd, but abruptly stopped as if there was an unseen wall separating them from the rest of the room.
Selina remembered the chanting the teachers had been doing.
“Maybe the magic’s keeping them on stage,” she wondered quietly.
She noticed some of the little creatures flying around Mr. Powell.
“These are sprites,” her teacher said. “Small faeries from this world and other planes, such as the elemental planes. They are highly attracted to places and people with strong mana. Today, you’ll sit in the middle of the stage and through them, we’ll learn which of you have a strong mana. Since we’ve summoned these sprites to help us with this, and they’ve graciously come to us, they’ve agreed to cooperate and follow my commands.”
He looked toward Zach. “I’m going to ask the sprites to inspect each of you. If you have strong mana, then one...or more, will land on you and use some of your mana along with their own to create a magical effect. If many are attracted to you, then that means your mana is very strong.”
He gestured to some of the sprites that glowed different colours. “Those that don’t glow white are from one of the elemental planes. If your mana has an affinity for an element, then those sprites will land on you while those from another element will not. But, that’s very, very rare in people: we might only see one or two during today’s test. Alright, Zach, are you ready?”
Zach nodded, his earlier nervousness giving way to wonder as he watched the sprites flit all around him—shedding their mystic light over his face.
Mr. Powell spoke another word in their language.
All at once, the fairies stopped, whirling toward Zach and swarming toward him like bees.
He cried out, half-rising in his chair as if preparing to run away, but the sprites weren’t coming to attack: instead, they giggled like naughty children who’d pulled a practical joke. They fluttered around Zach, examining the nervous boy closely. Now and then one would flit close to him, but then flit away.
Soon they began to lose interest in him, flitting off to gather around the teachers and chatter to each other.
Mr. Powell gave him a nod. “You can step down now, Zach. It doesn’t appear you have a lot of mana.”
Zach nodded, his face showing a mixture of disappointment and relief. Then he stepped off the stage.
Selina and Abela looked at each other.
One by one, Mr. Powell called more students to the stage. The sprites would examine each one with curiosity, but then lose interest and flit away. Some students looked relieved. Some looked disappointed. Others began to cry and ran to their family instead of returning to their seats.
With others, though…
Selina watched as a boy from another class was surrounded by the sprites. As they drew closer, they seemed to grow excited and soon many of them began landing on him as he giggled at their touch. Their bodies glowed brighter as they made contact with him, then they spread their hands out and shot tiny sparkles of white light into the air.
“Well,” the boy’s homeroom teacher said. “Looks like you have the mana necessary for wizardry, Chelios. Congratulations!”
Chelios let out a cheer, which startled the sprites and sent them fluttering around him while chattering and complaining in the language of fairies. He ran down the stairs to the cheers of his classmates, and the clapping of the line of spectators.
A staff member led him and his family to the side of the auditorium where they left through a narrow doorway. Selina wondered where they’d gone off to. She also wondered why the door was so narrow. Lots of little details about buildings fascinated her, and they always had.
One of the very first questions she’d asked her teacher when she was very little was how roofs stayed up when walls only held up their edges.
As she continued to think about buildings, more gasps and cheers brought her attention back to the stage. The sprites had come to land on another student, spraying sparkles through the air. That was two now.
She felt a little hope growing inside her, and she began to kick her legs in excitement.
‘Traveller? Uldar?’ she prayed in her mind. ‘It’s Selina. Please, please, please, please let me have mana. Please, please, please! I promise I’ll be good if I do and that I won’t do anything bad with it. Ever! Please, please, please let me have it.’
She kept hoping and praying as more and more students came and went. More students with mana. More without mana. Her heart beat faster as the last names got closer and closer to hers.
Then something wonderful happened on stage.
One of the students—a girl from another—class watched the fairies all around her as they examined her closely. The sprites that glowed white began to drift away, but the fairies that glowed different colours stayed close by. The green and yellow ones floated up to her, examining her closely, while she watched them in confusion. Then the green ones abruptly fluttered away and the yellow ones landed on the girl.
The tiny sprites cheered and raised their hands.
Tiny whirlwinds shot from their hands, crackling with little bolts of electricity. Selina gasped. Alex’s friend, Isolde, had shown her electricity magic one day when he hadn’t been looking. It took a lot of begging to get her to do it, but eventually, she’d agreed. It was amazing.
Seeing the fairies do it now was just as cool.
“Well, well, what a rare occurrence,” Mr. Powell said. “It looks like you have an affinity for wind magic.”
The young girl onstage was blinking in amazement. While Selina and most of the room had gasped at the lightning, the girl looked absolutely enraptured with it. “What…what does this mean?”
“It means that lightning magic will come easily to you. Your spells with lightning will be stronger, and you will learn them more quickly than most. …it does mean that you will have great difficulty with earth-based spells, though. That is if you can use them at all.”
The young girl seemed to be listening to Mr. Powell, but soon her eyes were drawn back to the little bolts of lightning. Selina stared at them too, blinking. She suddenly had a new hope.
She imagined herself with a big wizard’s hat and robes, wielding magic that spread water and ice over everything she could see. She could wash away bad monsters or freeze them. She could wet fields and make things grow.
She could make ice sculptures!
Another image floated through her mind: Alex had said that they didn’t get much snow this far south, but a Sigmus holiday with snow on the ground to play in was the most fun. She imagined herself conjuring snow so she and all her friends from school could have snowball fights, make snow forts, and snow people like she had with her friends and family in Alric.
She even imagined…
Fire erupted in her mind.
It was a vague memory, but she saw—as she had hundreds of times in her dreams—her mother and father’s alehouse burn while everyone screamed. She remembered watching it…and watching it…and watching the fire.
This time, in her mind, she imagined herself spreading water and ice over it to cool down the building. She imagined the fire going away as her water magic hit it, vanishing in a cloud of steam.
She remembered other fires, like the time a windmill had burned down in the next town. Her water magic would put that out too. There would be other fires she could wash away. Others she could freeze.
With a single-minded excitement, she knew she needed water affinity. She couldn’t think of anything she ever wanted more, like she sometimes got when it came time to ask for Sigmus presents.
Selina glanced at Alex and mouthed the word ‘water’ to him.
He mouthed ‘what?’ back to her.
She frowned and mouthed it again.
Selina yelped as her name was called.
Mr. Powell was looking at her from the stage, with his hand extended.
She swallowed and slid from her chair.
“Good luck,” Abela whispered.
She started toward the stage, trying to ignore the many eyes that watched her as she climbed the stairs. The sprites fluttered about as she entered the center area and watched her curiously without approaching; they had not been asked to yet.
Sitting down, her eyes drifted all around.
The sprites giggled and danced through the air, and Mr. Powell smiled at her. “Are you ready?”
He spoke the words to the sprites.
She watched them swarm toward her suddenly, but she didn’t stiffen or gasp; she’d seen their pranks, and—after seeing those horrible bug monsters—she was scared by a lot less things these days.
The glowing little creatures pouted when their prank failed and then fell quiet, examining her closely. She held her breath.
This was it.
As they got closer, she felt something strange. Like something inside of her chest was being tickled. Was that mana? Did it mean she had mana?
She nearly groaned in disappointment when the sprites that glowed white fluttered away from her, but her disappointment fell away when the ones that were glowing different colours stayed close by.
Mr. Powell looked at her with increased interest.
Excitement bloomed in Selina’s chest.
Was this it? Did she have an affinity?
An old memory came back to her all of a sudden.
That frost drake that charged and scared her at the beastarium. It was an ice monster, wasn’t it? Did it sense something? She didn’t know if that meant anything, but did it mean that she had ice or water affinity?
‘Please, please, please, Uldar,’ she prayed inwardly.
The blue glowing fairies drifted toward her. Her heart jumped. Were they water sprites? Was that what was going on-
The sprites’ faces twisted and they turned away quickly, fluttering to the side of the stage. Her eyes widened as she watched all the others fly away.
All save for one colour.
Every single orange-glowing fairy on the stage surrounded her like she was their queen. They made cooing noises in awe. Selina could only watch as they landed on her.
‘Mana!’ she thought. ‘I have mana!’
But what did orange mean?
Then her mind began to work. An orange light came back to her mind. Her heart wanted to stop.
She could only watch as the fairies raised their hands.
Then tiny streams of flame shot into the air.
Her thoughts stopped. Her eyes widened and she couldn’t pull them away. The tiny flames danced in front of her, mixing with the ones she’d seen in her mind.
She began to tremble.
A single thought rose up in her. One that she had been trying to stomp down ever since her parents’ alehouse had burned, and one that occurred to her every time she had seen flame:
“Pretty,” she mouthed silently. “It’s so pretty.”
The warmth of it. The light. The dance. All of it was so pret-
Then her mind finally caught up with her. The sadness. The fear. …the guiltthat she felt every time she’d been fascinated by the thing that had killed her parents.
Now that thing was a part of her.
No putting out fires. No making snow people.
Just fire, burning and death.
“Congratulations!” Mr. Powell said enthusiastically. “Selina Roth, you have attracted all the summoned fire sprites, you have a very strong fire affinit-”
Her teacher’s words died when Selina started to scream.