Hump buried the body beneath an ancient ash tree.
His master had taken an arrow to the shoulder—not too lethal for a wizard, most of the time. Hump cleaned the wound alright, and his potions did the job removing the goblin poison. He’d never been much good at healing magic yet managed to seal the wound shut. If that was all, his master might have made it. But the gods had dealt them bad luck as they so often did with wizards. Three days of hard riding through wind and rain had taken their toll. When the fever struck, Hump knew there was no recovering. Now the ground got to keep him.
“Looks like it’s going to rain again,” Hump said, staring up at the grey clouds through the canopy. They were nearing the edge of Brookwood Forest, another day or two and they’d have found a place to take shelter and rest. As it was, little but goblins and bandits dwelled within these trees, and travellers were few and far between.
Staying was dangerous. His master hadn’t woken in the morning, so Hump sat with him till he passed. It was well on its way to noon now, and he could be all but sure something would find their trail soon. By that point, Hump needed to be long gone or risk a similar fate. Despite knowing that, despite all the lectures on following wizard’s logic over emotions, he couldn’t leave. Not yet. He turned to his master’s stuff—well, his stuff now—looking everywhere but the grave. Only when there was nowhere left did he face his master for the last time.
He deserved better than to die to goblins. They’d been ambushed along the road. It was stupid really. Goblins were no real threat on an ordinary day, but an arrow from the bushes was deadly whether it came from a Chosen archer or goblin runt. If it had only been a little further from his heart, or the rains hadn’t come, or they’d found a wagon along the road, perhaps his master would have made it. Hump wanted to curse the gods for such bad luck, but they weren’t listening, nor did they care.
This was the life they led. Gutter rat or silver spoon, all were swallowed by the ground just the same. Not that his master would make a fuss. ‘Dead is dead,’ he’d say. ‘And the dead don’t care.’
The dead might not, Hump thought grimly, but the dying certainly do. He’d died in a feverish sleep, groaning and gasping until the end. Still, there were worse ways to go.
Hump licked his lips as he searched for words, but his mouth felt dry.
“I’m sorry I don’t know what to say.” His jaw trembled. He took a deep breath, fighting to keep himself composed. “If you’d not picked me up, I’d no doubt be dead in an alley somewhere. I’ll never forget that. I won’t forget what you taught me either. I’ll practice my spells every morning I can, give the staff a good polish more often than it needs, and keep my head out of trouble.”
It was hard to look away. Hard to do anything. He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for. It wasn’t like he hadn’t buried bodies before. It was part of the trade. Being one of his own though, it hit differently. For so many years it had been just the two of them. He knew the dangers of the job, that eventually it would catch up to them. Somehow, he’d always thought it was something way off in the future.
“You deserved a better death.” He choked out the words, unable to hold back tears. “But you know how the gods are, they never cared much for us wizards.” He sniffed and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “Look at me. I’m a mess.”
Prancer stamped his hoof and snorted, the grey horse a small reminder that Hump wasn’t alone. A sad smile came to his face. It was enough. “Prancer thinks so too. I’ll take good care of him. Give him an apple any time I’ve got a copper to spare.” He paused. “Guess that’s it. Just… well, rest easy, Master.”
It was much easier to fill in a hole than it was to dig one. From the odd glimpse of the sun he caught behind grey clouds, he guessed it was past noon when he finished. Plenty of time to find himself a new place to camp, but then what?
The thing he wanted most was sleep. It wasn’t just the sadness, he was empty, like a pit had opened inside of him. Where would he go next? How would he survive?
Hump’s eyes wandered to the well-oiled wizard’s staff leant up against the tree. It had a white gemstone focus embedded in its head; made from the heartstone of a calamitous clam, if his master were to be believed. Beside it, a pouch full of potions lay on the ground alongside a leatherbound spellbook that he’d set on his master’s cloak.
From the outside it wasn’t anything special. It just looked like any old leather journal, but it was the prize of his master’s possessions. The one thing he’d never let him study. Sure, Hump had seen a few pages—it was full of detailed spell formations and potion recipes—the ultimate collection of hedge wizard knowledge. Yet his master never let him flick through those pages. For years he’d craved to read all the knowledge passed down by their predecessors. ‘Too dangerous,’ his master had told him. ‘You’re not ready.’
Now that he had the chance, all he felt was doubt. How am I supposed to know when I’m ready?
Cautiously, he picked up the book and sat down against the ash tree, placing it in his lap. He had a vague understanding of how it worked. This was a soulbound artifact, a hand-me-down from all their predecessors. And now it was his. He pulled open the leather cover to find seven names listed on the first page, each with a line through them. Each of them dead. His master’s name was at the bottom, crossed out just the same, and at the top… Hump frowned. The name was blotched out, hidden beneath the blackest ink.
Hump tried to turn to the next page, when a sudden sliver of essence seeped out from the book and pricked the tip of his finger like a needle. He yelped, whipping his finger away and sucking it. A droplet of blood remained behind on the page. For a second, nothing happened, then all at once a wave of pressure pierced Hump’s soul and ripped his essence from him. Blood and ink swirled on the aged yellow paper, and his name took form beneath his master’s. The eighth on the list.
“The old man never mentioned that,” Hump grumbled to himself. He inspected his wounded finger, squeezed out blood from the tip, then sucked it again. “Just got done burying him and he’s still causing me trouble.”
The book abruptly changed pages, flipping through them as if stirred by a strong wind, coming to a stop on Transform Earth. The spell formation filled the lower half of the page in perfect detail.
Description: Create, shape, and manipulate earth beneath your touch.
Spell Tier: 0
1 – Basic shaping and manipulation capabilities.
2 – Your control of essence and affinity with earth allows you to extend the spell’s range beyond your physical body, enabling you to influence the earth within a six-foot range.
A perfect spell to practice three key elements of magic for any budding wizard. Master the art of intent, envision your goal with clarity, perfect your control over essence, and the secrets of magic shall be yours. Plus, an impromptu ditch can make for a fantastic emergency hiding hole. (Mind the worms, they speak in tongues)
Hump frowned. He picked up the book again and started to close it, but it shook violently, falling from his hand and landing on the ground where it flopped open to the same page again. Okay, now that’s weird.
He narrowed his eyes, half expecting it to jump up and do something. When it didn’t move, he felt like an idiot. The moment he reached toward it again, it shook. Hump sighed. “You’re not a normal book, are you?”
It shook again, vaguely shuffling toward the grave. Hump frowned. “You want me to use this spell…” He glanced from the book to the grave. “On the grave.” Then it dawned on him. “A tombstone.”
It shook again.
“Okay. Okay, I think I follow you. I’m going to pick you up now, so don’t bite me or anything.” Tentatively, he set the book back onto the spare cloak and stood. Taking his master’s staff from where it rested against the tree, he glanced once more at the book. Am I really going to follow instructions from a book? Stupid as it was, he didn’t like the idea of leaving the old man in an unmarked grave.
He took a stance at the head of the grave and planted the butt of the staff into the ground, gripping it tightly with both hands. Hump was short for sixteen, and the weapon extended well beyond his head. Still, holding it was a comfort, like a piece of his master remained with him.
He gathered his will, drawing upon the essence in the core of his soul. Transform Earth was one of the first spells he’d learnt—he’d always had a strong affinity with earth and his master had used the cantrip as a shaping exercise that Hump could practice on the road. He’d never been much good at that aspect of it; shaping was too finicky. He was more the brute force type. Most of the time he just used it to form stone shards that made good ammunition for Rockshot. What he was doing here wasn’t much harder.
He envisioned the shape of the tombstone in his mind. There was more to magic than merely being able to picture something, you had to fix the spell’s formational channels in your mind and have the conviction to make it happen. To believe indisputably that the world would move when you commanded. He could tell it was working when the essence within him began to stir and interact with that of the world around him. It washed through him from his heart to his hands in a wave of warmth, surging out of his fingertips and into his staff.
The runes along its shaft glowed with the essence of the earth, its bronze radiance smoking from them faintly. They were there to help control the essence, to give it power and guide it into the heartstone focus at the head of the staff, where it would be contained until the spell was ready. As essence flooded in, the crystal shone brightly, the surface bubbling with light as the power inside tried to break free. The earth awakened in response. Particles of dirt rose into the air around Hump, hovering a few inches from the ground as if drawn up by a magnet.
“Transform Earth,” Hump whispered, releasing the spell.
A chill swept through him, jutting out from his heart—the price of using essence. Thin tendrils of bronze light spiralled from the crystal like scraggly spiderwebs torn in the wind. They pierced the ground, seeking the stones below. He drew them to him, directing them with his will. At first, only the pebble sized ones came, rising from the dirt and clumping together in the air before him, then the larger, fist sized rocks. He shaped them into the tombstone, breaking and binding the stones together with an effort of will and essence.
When he was satisfied, he released it. The tombstone thumped to the ground. It was more oval than rectangle, and that was being generous. Where he’d bound the rocks together it had come out bumpy and rough, but crafting essence into intricate shapes had never been his strong point. Even straight edges were a challenge. Essence smoked out from faint cracks in the stone, bronze light still glowing inside in a way that reminded him of molten rock. It was also a sign that he’d used far more essence than he’d needed to. Master Sethril would have chided him for such inefficiency.
He grunted as he heaved the stone into place, positioning it over the head of the grave. It was a mishmash of grey and brown stone, but it was better than nothing. Using the butt of his staff and a bit of essence, he scraped into it the words, Sethril Woodrow. After a moment’s thought, he added, May the gods never catch him.
Hump smiled. His master would have liked that.
He walked back over to where he’d left the book. “Happy?”
The pages shuffled once more, opening to a page with only a single paragraph.
The Book of Infinite Pages
To whosoever holds this book, this is a record of all those that have come before you. Where we have failed, there is hope for you to succeed, so learn well from our lessons. Trust in this book to aid you on your path, for it knows you better than you know yourself. When you are ready, our secrets shall be revealed.
“You’re going to teach me?”
The book didn’t move.
Hump tapped it with his finger. “Hello? How are you going to guide me? What do you do?” Still, nothing happened. Hump sighed. “Fat lot of good you are.”
Again, he found himself without purpose. Staring out into the shadows of the forest, he felt a shiver run down his spine, thinking of all the bandits or goblins that might be lurking. He knew he was hungry. They’d been on their way to a new dungeon that opened in Bledsbury and there hadn’t been a chance to stop for a proper meal. Dungeons were always a good source of work for hedge wizards and being well within the kingdom’s territory it would be safer than most. If he waited there, another wizard was bound to show up eventually. Maybe he could find himself a new apprenticeship. Sure, it was a difficult life, wandering from dungeon to dungeon, quest to quest, never staying in one place for more than a week or two. But that was the life of a hedge wizard, and it was a free and honest one.
Or perhaps he should head to the capital. He’d heard good things about the Elenvine Academy. His master had gone there, even made a bit of a name for himself, if his stories were to be believed. Though Hump didn’t much like the idea of being stuck within walls, reading books day after day.
He slipped his hand into his pocket and felt the icy touch of his master’s wizard medallion; he’d taken it from around his neck before burying him. He stared at the silver trinket and the single stamped eye stared back. There’s another option, he realised. He had his master’s staff and his spellbook, and all the things a wizard needed.
After a moment, Hump hung the medallion around his neck, wincing against the cold—he would need to have the guild rebind it. He adjusted it so that it lay on top of his undershirt to keep the chill off his skin, then fitted the potion pouch to his belt, along with the spellbook, the weight of which made him feel off balance.
Standing there, he felt ridiculous, as if he were wearing somebody else’s clothes and they were all too big for him. Tentatively, he took up his master’s staff, the runes still glowing with the residual essence from the earlier spell. Where the light touched, his skin tingled with a pleasant warmth. He looked up at the sun, judging which way was east, then strode over to Prancer. It was only a few days ride to Bledsbury, and a new dungeon was a better place than most to earn some coin.