Yrith gave the box she was holding in her hand a pensive look. Urag gro-Shub would not accept anything less than this. It was carved in smooth larch wood, and coated in fine leather on its edges. Gilded corners held a series of thin glass panels, through which she could see numerous quills of various shapes and sizes. It glistened in the flickering candlelight, casting light upon the dimmed columns of the library. She carefully deposited it on the librarian’s desk and earned herself a heartwarming smile.
“Thank you, you’re a lifesaver,” the orc said. He snapped the book he’d been reading shut and admired the craftsmanship. “Three more copies for the sake of science, would you believe it? And the amount of paperwork to be completed for the new students! Erm, not that I’m blaming you, of course.”
She smiled and threw a glance at the pile of papers lining the desk. “If you need any help around here…”
“Nah, you go and study as you should. Speaking of which, can you believe the Arch-Mage wanted me to teach history?”
“Well, that would be a class I’d always attend, at least,” she quipped and patted one of the many books on the table. Its faded, once deep red cover had a hoarse texture, weathered by the many years of its existence and countless hands that had held it. There are two things that gain on value with age and raggedness, her mother had once told her. Teaware and books. Her mother had had a weakness for tea. Yrith had one for books.
“You silly, stubborn girl,” the librarian sighed. Then, he pointed at her hand and quirked a brow. “How did that happen?”
Yrith raised the limb to take a look and suppressed a gasp. Her sleeve was torn, the fraying edges wet with melting ice, most likely a remainder of the ice wraith attack. Water dripped on the lacquered desk, creating a tiny puddle. She met his inquisitive gaze and felt color retreating from her face. “I don’t know,” she stuttered. She knew.
He tilted his head to the side and his eyes narrowed, but he chose not to comment. Instead, he gripped his unfinished book and nodded toward the entrance. “It’s getting late. Hurry up and get some sleep. Don’t miss your classes tomorrow.” The last sentence was pronounced with the educational accent she knew from Lady Faralda. Yrith’s gaze wandered to the tall windows. A soft whine came from the outside, and the glass tablets quivered ever so slightly, but she could see nothing except for a veil of impenetrable darkness.
She opened her mouth to growl back, but her attention was swayed by the book he held so dearly. Two things rang the imaginary alarm bell inside her mind. First, her friend had not offered her any books, as was his habit. Second, the book in his hands was one she had never seen before. Thick and heavy, with pitch black cover and silver lining on its edges. Not once had the orc uttered a word of it.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing her finger at the tome. The sleeve hung over the table like the branch of a weeping willow. She instinctively tugged at it. A ripping sound informed her she had her work cut out for her. She let out a resigned sigh.
“This?” He lifted the thick volume. Yrith did not fail to notice he cautiously hid its title. “Some crappy piece of pulp fiction that someone had left here. Nothing for your delicate taste. At least I have something to keep me warm when I run out of firewood,” he added with a chuckle.
Her inner alarm screamed at her. If there was one person that would never harm a book, she would bet on Urag gro-Shub. She studied his face. His mask was carved with extraordinary care, revealing nothing of his thoughts. Knowing the orc’s nature, she decided to put the subject aside. For now.
“Well, have fun with it then,” a smile formed on her lips. Too wide, she criticized herself in thought. Too late. “I’m going to bed.” Her fingers reached for the ripped sleeve and touched the skin on the other hand. She shivered upon the cold touch.
“Good night, Yrith. Take care. And remember what I told you. Or you’ll turn into a grumpy hermit and grow grey hair before I kick the bucket.”
“Don’t talk about things like that so casually,” she said softly. “You’re the only one I have here.”
“And that’s the problem, you silly,” he grumbled.
Not knowing how to respond, she shook her head and left the Arcanaeum, slapping one hand with the other to prevent herself from tearing the robe entirely.
Upon entering the Hall of Attainment, she froze. Most of its occupants were gathered in the lowest level of the main hall, faces pale as the blue light from the magical fountain in its middle lit them. All of them were laughing and chattering, eyes turned to the tall figure standing on the low stone wall surrounding the azure pool. Yrith could not see very well against the light, and most of her view was blocked by the crowd, but the clear, accentless male voice coming from the center did not sound familiar. Curiously, she pressed herself to the wall by her side and listened.
“… and then I saw him walk out of the tent, and the kid repeated ‘He came out of the Elder’s backside!’ From then on, much to my father’s displeasure, everyone called the place ‘The Elder’s Backside’.” The figure bowed slightly and the fountain behind him flickered merrily, letting out a spray of glittering sparks as though it was trying to add to his mirth. The crowd roared with laughter. Then the stranger turned his head toward Yrith and she could feel his eyes on her, watching her over the heads of her classmates.
“We have a newcomer!” he exclaimed. The crowd turned to Yrith who immediately wished to disappear. A number of sighs echoed through the central hall. Leyna Travi, the blonde Altmeri girl who had so affectionately clung to Cain Aldaryn just a few hours before, stepped out of the crowd, elegantly shook her head to make her white-gold hair fly around her like a veil, and let out a scornful snort.
“Oh, her,” she said. “That’s just our midget. Don’t waste your time on her, Qassir. She’s useless, unbearable and there’s not a single good thing about her.”
“Now now, let’s not be too harsh.” The figure jumped down in a swift, elegant leap and walked straight to the motionless Breton girl. An aisle formed in the crowd almost automatically. Yrith watched him warily, measuring how quickly she would have to react lest he tried to lunge at her. Instinctively she clenched her fists, but his pace stayed calm and relaxed, treading through the hall with somewhat reassuring composure. As he approached, she used the time to study him.
The blue light revealed a tall Redguard boy, not much older than Yrith or her classmates, with long hair plaited in a great number of thin braids. In his unusually symmetric oval face shone a warm, welcoming smile aimed directly at her.
She frowned. A Redguard? Here at the College?
She looked him up and down. Her eyes stopped at the standard novice robes that he had apparently obtained in a rush as they were too short for him, revealing much of his slender arms and legs. He did not seem to mind, however, nor did he bother with putting on any shoes. Just the sight made Yrith shiver with cold.
He stopped a few feet from her, leaning against the cold wall. Yrith resisted the urge to wrap her arms around herself.
“So, you’re one of my new classmates, I take it?” he said in an overly friendly tone. “What’s your name, little urchin?”
She stared at him, quickly pressing the arm with torn sleeve to her hip. Back in Daggerfall, urchins were a very specific sort of people – one that no one envied and no one wanted to become. She frowned in apprehension.
“What’s my name? What’s your name?”
“Ahh, right,” he laughed and straightened his back. “Qassir Tahlrah. At your service.” In one graceful movement, he dropped a curtsy and his hair swept the ground. Yrith did not miss his left hand copying the curve of his back while the right hand was placed on his abdomen. His legs crossed for a split moment before aligning themselves in a parallel. He had perfect mastery over western High Rock manners. She blinked in surprise, freezing momentarily.
“Have I startled you? Would you rather prefer the style of Hammerfell, my homeland? Or the local fierce Nord greeting?”
“N-no, that’s… uh. Well. Yrith… Ravencroft. My name. Is Yrith Ravencroft.” She refrained from formalities, aware she was expressing superiority that she was not entitled to.
“Really,” he mused as he closed the distance between them. His face was inches from Yrith’s, studying her with keen interest. Strangely unable to turn away, she took the time to study him back. Their eyes met. His were almond-shaped with irises of unusual, deep blue color, as far as she could guess in the pale fountain light.
Finally, he pulled back. Yrith realized she had been holding her breath and exhaled deeply.
“Yrith has a nice elven ring to it,” he said. “I don’t want to ruin the sound. I think I’ll still call you urchin.” He winked mischievously at her and reached out to ruffle her hair. She stepped aside to avoid contact and contained a scowl.
“Why thank you,” she pointed sharply. “Now if you’ll excuse me…”
“Leaving already?” The Redguard looked genuinely saddened. Yrith had her own opinion on the genuineness of certain expressions in certain situations. “How about you join us? It’ll be fun!”
“I must decline.” Her lips widened in a mannered smile. “Thank you for the kind invitation.” She lowered her head with a hand on her chest, testing his knowledge of her homeland’s customs. He simply nodded.
“Looks like I won’t be able to convince you tonight. What a shame. But oh well, you know what they say. There’s always next time. See you tomorrow, little urchin!”
He danced past her and hopped back on the wall, balancing on it while maintaining his tempo. The crowd laughed again and his face widened with a silly grimace. Yrith stared at the strange classmate for a while before retreating to her room.
That night, Yrith had a strange dream. Before her lay a book with cover black as night, modest silver lining being its only decoration. It bore no title, nor the name of the author. She would stare at it for a long time. The faint, flickering candle light would fade before it touched its surface as though the tome was feeding on it. She was sitting in her room, but it was strangely quiet. No wind wailed from outside. No papers flew around and landed on the floor. No footsteps from the octagonal corridor.
Then, the book whispered to her. Quietly, almost inaudibly. She lowered her head to listen in, but could not discern any words. Yet she knew it was an invitation. With a hint of hesitation, her fingers touched the cover and lifted it.
Before her was the universe. Vast and deep, yet so small. It was in the palm of her hand. Suddenly, it surrounded her. She walked among the stars, silver and gold, some fading, some newly born, children of Mundus. Masser and Secunda greeted her with warm light. She saw the Sun, casting warmth onto Nirn. She saw lights of so many colors it made her eyes twitch. And then she saw life. She heard it and felt it. Innumerous beings, merging into a single, great entity. Plants and animals, creatures so small one could not see them at all, souls that were long lost, and those that were being born. They were all part of her. She felt every single one of them, mingling together as though none of them mattered. And yet, each of them did.
She felt small children of men playing by the sea shore and laughing. Two men clashed in fierce battle, pressing shield against shield in attempt to sneak a blade past the enemy’s defenses. An elven woman laughed while the Argonian slave at her feet whined and cowered in fear. A dragon roared in anger and excitement, his breath searing the thatch roofs beneath him. A burning villager cried in pain and begged the gods for mercy. A horde of skeevers scurried through the field, tiny minds filled with a single thought – to survive. A lone cliff racer was searching for its nest that had been put down along with the tree it had been sitting on, overcome with uneasiness.
Emotions flooded her and filled her heart. She could smell them. Breathe them. Happiness, torment, joy, pain, security, doubt, anger, peace, love, hatred, loyalty, envy, lust, and indifference. Everything was in her. They became a mountain she could not climb. They blinded her and made her lose her mind.
It was all a single moment. Time had stopped. The urge to laugh would not cease but she could not laugh yet. The pain stung in her limbs, heart and lungs. She wanted to scream but gasped for air. She felt the blade that had cut through her belly and made her want to pass out instantly. But it was frozen in that single split second. Nothing would move. Nothing would pass.
Then, she heard a whisper inside her mind. It was filled with bitterness of someone that had been betrayed and broken. Her hairs would stand on end, hearing the sour, spiteful, voiceless tone. It grasped her heart and paralyzed it.
“Thou shalt have the world thou desired. Thou shalt live the life thou created. Thou shalt cry tears of blood. And blood thou shalt drink.”
Everything went into motion. Yrith felt herself laugh and cry at the same time. She exploded in ecstasy and broke in terror. She could not recognize the emotions anymore. Her mind went blank.
She sat up, eyes cracking open at once, panting and shaking. Don’t cry, she repeated to herself. Don’t scream. It was a dream. Just a dream.
Breathless, she pulled herself to the window and took a peek outside. The College courtyard was still dark, lit only by the pale blue focal point in its middle. An occasional snowflake fluttered about it before landing by the imposing statue of Arch-Mage Shalidor. She pressed a hot cheek to the cold glass covered in a mosaic of silvery ice fractals. Her breath steadied and she finally felt calmness spreading through her body and mind.
She forced herself out of her bed and with a spark of magic so weak it could not harm a fly, she somehow managed to light a candle. An hourglass standing on one of the few shelves on the walls told her she still had a few hours until dawn. But she was now completely awake. Trying to take her mind off the strangely realistic and painful dream, she grabbed a book and dug into her blankets.
Frog Prince and the Lizard Witch, said the weathered title that had once been imprinted in gold. She instinctively opened it exactly at the page where she had last stopped, but before her eyes could settle on the soothingly curling script, she heard a knock on the door. Her eyebrows shot up. Who in Oblivion would disturb her at this hour?
She set the book aside and watched the old, studded door with caution. Another knock came, this time with urgency that had not been there before. Slowly, she slid into her slippers and trod to the door. Hand placed on the handle, she hesitated. There was a third knock. It was ruthless with no feigned politeness.
“I know you can hear me, midget, so open the door before I bust it!”
The hand sank to her hip. With a sour scowl, she resolutely returned to her bed, blew the candle out and buried herself deep under the blankets until not a hair stuck out.
The knocking continued. After a while, the Dunmer on the other side of the door lost patience. There was a humming sound as he called on his magic, a click, and the door flew open. Through the several layers of fabric, she could faintly discern approaching light. The blankets flew off in one swift movement.
“Morning, midget. Rise and shine!”
Cain Aldaryn loomed above her, fiery hair dark against the ball of light floating over his head. Cold air made her limbs numb and she shivered.
“I’ll show you shine,” she uttered dryly. “Has it ever occurred to you to check the clock before you go for a visit? Or do you not have those in Morrowind?”
“We do. And they welcome new day long before the barbarians from High Rock part with the old one. So get up before I make you. We’ve got work to do.”
Yrith jumped on her feet, fists clenched and eyes narrow in rage. Cain rewarded her with a sneer.
“Oooh, so you can do it if you want. Splendid. Let’s go.”
“I told you I’m not…”
“Oh you are. I still know something I shouldn’t. And the rest of the College still doesn’t. Yet.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, displaying a disturbingly innocent grin which, in fact, was not innocent at all. Yrith clasped her hands together, preventing herself from punching him.
“Get out,” she ordered.
“No book talk today? But no, I think I will stay here.”
“Get out!” she hissed. He opened his mouth but his eyes traced her hand, grabbing the rim of her night robe. For a moment, she thought his ebony skin turned the usual ashen color of his kinsmen. Then he turned around and marched from her room, slamming the door behind him.
“I’m giving you one minute!” he informed her.
From somewhere in the corridor, she could hear another person shout “Quiet down there! People are sleeping here!” She chuckled under her breath.
A minute later, he was dragging her through the courtyard. It was deserted save for a couple of crows that had decided to settle under one of the bushes lining the walls. She staggered as he pulled the collar of her ancient, worn coat, barely keeping her balance. Grabbing his hand, she thought of shaking him off, but then she smiled and let herself sink to the ground. The Dunmer stopped. At that moment, Yrith thought to herself that his incredulous stare, like a clueless horker, was worth the stinging of the cold snow.
“What in Oblivion are you…”
She shrugged without a word. He released her, turning on his heel.
“Whatever. Don’t stay behind.” And he paced ahead. She smirked and followed, still silent but content. For the whole trip through the city of Winterhold, down the ravine and back, they did not speak to one another. That is, until the obnoxious elf decided to open his mouth again.
They were a few ells from the city’s lowest house. Yrith, naturally, was the one carrying the bag full of fish. The moist froze immediately on its surface before it could soak through her cloak. The Dunmer was walking two steps behind her, making her look over her shoulder every now and then.
“What? Afraid I might kick you?”
She pressed her lips tightly together, refusing to react. They reached the houses. A young Nord boy with a mop of tousled chestnut hair, no more than ten years old, peeked out of a door, shooting them a suspicious look. Then she heard him hiss “Mages, pah!” And the door shut close. She gave it a pensive look. No one liked mages, especially now that there had been several murders all around the province, all apparently done by the means of magic. Yrith did not know what to think of it. She did not consider herself a mage, but the constant accusations did not put her in good spirits. She picked up her pace, eyes fixed on the bridge ahead.
“So, I was thinking,” Cain tried again. Yrith wished she knew a spell that would temporarily deafen her. “I’m not really feeling like doing our next conjuration assignment. What do you say…”
“Dream on,” she grunted.
“Well, apparently you’re not that worried about what might happen then.”
She turned to him abruptly, stopping at once and making him crash into her. He lost his balance and caught her robes. They both fell over to the ruffled snow, ending in a bundle of limbs and bodies, covered in white from top to bottom.
“You kids, what are you doing over there?!” a guard called to them. Yrith rose on her elbows, shaking her head wildly to get rid of the snow in her face. Then she noticed Cain leaning to her, much closer than she would have liked. Smirking, she kicked him in his shin and jumped back on her feet.
“Why you…” He brushed the frost off of his hair and shoulders. She concealed a grin, noticing how his previously well-groomed spikes of fiery hair had gone down limply, tiny drops of water on their ends.
“Quite right,” she said with a simple shrug. “I’m not worried. Not when it comes to you, at least.”
“Hah. And why not?”
“Because your pride couldn’t bear exposing someone who is better than you. Especially me.” She quickly checked the state of the fish bag and set out once more. The guard was still watching her and she gave him an innocent smile. He stood there motionlessly, making her wonder what his face looked like underneath that bucket-like helmet of his.
“My what?” she heard an exasperated cry somewhere behind her. “How dare you talk like you know me?”
“Right. Then you don’t pretend you know me. Unlike you, I didn’t come here on my own free will. I have no reason to even try to become a mage.”
Before she could say another word, he was at her, pushing her down into the snow again. His right hand was on her shoulder while the left one reached for her neck, grabbing it mercilessly until she gasped for air, his eyes gleaming furiously. She dropped the bag on the ground beside her. The spilling fish produced a squelching sound, strangely alien in the never-ending winter.
“You think it was my choice?” he breathed. His hands trembled. For the first time, Yrith looked right in his eyes. There was blind rage in them… and hurt. “You think I just packed my things one day and came here, determined to become a mage? You… you know what? You’re right. I shouldn’t waste my time with losers who can’t even grasp reality and do their best to make it their life.”
With that, he walked away, leaving her to her confused thoughts. She lay there in the snow, with small cloudlets of hot air coming out of her mouth, finding herself unable to move. What in Oblivion was that about? For the first time in history, Cain had seemed like a human, so to speak, but she was not sure if she liked it that way. She was used to being insulted by him, but this time, it actually stung.
“Are you all right?” she heard a voice above her. Her eyes met two dark holes in a steel bucket-like helmet as she cocked her head backwards to take a look at whomever had spoken to her. “That boy… did he try to do anything to you?”
She exhaled and sat up slowly, reaching for the bag and the spilled fish.
“Who knows,” she muttered absentmindedly. The guard stood there in silence, apparently not realizing that she could not see underneath the helmet. Finally, she forced herself on her feet and staggered to the College, bent under the weight of her load.
The College courtyard was swarming with people. Students rushing to their classes and seminars, teachers preparing for their courses, residents simply greeting the new morning. The statue of Shalidor was now holding two balls of light in his hands, one like pure fire, the other an orb of crystal clear ice. It meant that both Masser and Secunda would be in full moon that night.
Next to the statue stood a small group of people, surrounding a Redguard boy. She remembered the last night and hurried to the kitchen. Friendly as he was, she did not feel the desire to talk to him.
A few moments later, everyone was assembled around the blue fountain in the Hall of the Elements, waiting for the restoration class to start. Qassir was deep in conversation with their only Khajiit classmate, a gaunt, bronze-furred girl named Ha’risha. Yrith knew her to resent her own kind and refrain from speaking like the rest of the catfolk, always referring to herself in first person. But that didn’t stop her from twitching her pointy ears and whiskers or whipping the floor with her tail in excitement. Surprisingly enough, Cain stood aloof, glaring at his so-called friends who now devoted all their attention to the Redguard. He smiled angelically to everyone around, laughing at everything they said. Then he saw Yrith and sent her a wave. She earned herself a few glares and hisses and quickly turned away, cheeks flushing red.
An elder Breton woman entered the room. As always, Yrith stared enviously at the restoration teacher’s hairstyle. A complicated maze of straw-colored tails and braids ending in elegant thin tips that just barely touched her shoulders. Yrith could imagine that Master Colette Marence spent all of her morning working on her hair. That, or she invented a new spell for it. Either way, she was a beauty, even in her age. And despite that, men constantly failed to notice her. Perhaps they did not like her unusually high-pitched voice, reminiscent of the creaky hinges of the entrance door to the Hall of the Elements. Just as Yrith thought about it, its echo filled the octagonal room.
“Greetings, class,” she said as she walked through the small crowd. “As this is the first lesson of the day, I would like to welcome our new student who will be joining us for the first time. His name is Qassir Tahlrah. He came to us from Hammerfell. Everyone, please, be good to him.”
There was an applause. Yrith remembered several people joining them like this, but never before had her classmates cheered this loudly. She shot a glance at the Redguard. A soft smile played on his lips. One that revealed nothing of his thoughts. Colette Marence clapped her hands and the class went quiet.
“Thank you. Now that we are properly introduced, we can start the class. Pair up. Of course, having a new student also means that one of you will have to pair up with Yrith.”
Yrith sighed inaudibly. When it came to working in pairs, she was always the one to practice her magic with the teacher. That was about to change and she was certainly not looking forward to being teamed up with some spiteful classmate of hers. Her eyes wandered from one classmate to another. Tanya Verus, a slight Imperial girl with two adorable chestnut pigtails, was the only one who did not seem openly hostile. She was pinning her elvenly shaped eyes to the floor as usual. Nobody was pleased. Except…
Her new Redguard classmate stepped out of the crowd, the smile still curling on his lips. “I don’t mind pairing up with the urchin,” he said in a sweet voice.
Yrith suppressed a twitch in her eye at the sound of her nickname.
“Urch… I take it you are aware that she’s… not exactly known for her magical prowess then?” There was a clear hint of displeasure in Master Marence’s voice. Quiet chuckles filled the cold air. Yrith felt the urge to leave immediately.
“So I heard. But teaming with someone skilled would be boring, right?” Qassir laughed and gave Yrith a wink as he joined her. She pursed her lips, uncertain whether she should feel pleased or offended. Then she caught a glare directed at her person and her gaze met with the golden eyes of Leyna Travi. They stared at each other for a lengthy moment.
“Very well,” Colette Marence concluded and clapped her hands, causing both girls to snap back to reality. “Everyone sit down then. It’s meditation time.”
Qassir threw a glance down to his feet, now shod in soft, padded boots of a very much unidentifiable greyish color. “Do we…?” he suggested with raised eyebrows.
“Yes, we sit on this cold, inhospitable floor,” Yrith shrugged. With just a hint of mischief, she watched his expression out of the corner of her eye.
“Oh,” he said simply and gave an innocent smile. Yrith tried to hide her disappointment. “Strange that you take it so well. I thought it was warmer in Daggerfall.”
“How did you know I came from Daggerfall?”
“Heard it somewhere. I think it was one of your classmates?”
“I never talk to them. Especially not about myself.”
“Oh. Then maybe just a lucky guess.” He laughed, earning himself a reproachful look from Master Marence. Head bowing slightly in apology, he seated himself on one of the grey floor tiles. Yrith frowned. She did not like his smile. She did not like it at all.
They closed their eyes. The meditations they did before every restoration class included delving deep down into one’s soul and reaching for inner source of energy. “When healing or defending, you must have absolute control over your power and emotions,” Colette Marence reminded them. “Your magic is but an extension of yourself. It is one of the many ways you can interact with the world and communicate with it. Keep in mind that whatever you do with magic, people affected by it can feel every single bit of it. If your healing is inconsistent, you might, on the contrary, harm the person you are trying to heal. If your ward wavers, it might cost you your life. In restoration, simple mistakes may prove fatal.”
Yrith took a deep breath. Her mind was filled with mingling thoughts, mostly of her new conjuration teacher and the strange Redguard who knew more than he should. “Clear your mind.” It was easier said than done. Her soul felt like raging ocean in a storm. It was simple to conjure an atronach that came to her from an entirely different plane. To control her own soul, she would first have to confront it. And she was painfully aware of the fact that she kept running from her own feelings. Even more than that she was aware of the Redguard sitting next to her who, in spite of having his eyes shut tight, seemed to register her every movement. She opened one eye to take a peek. He followed immediately, lips quirking in amusement. His mouth moved.
“Can’t concentrate?” she deduced.
She replied with a shrug.
His hand reached for hers. She felt the urge to pull away but resisted reluctantly, curious what would follow. His fingers touched her and slid up toward her wrist. She took a deep breath, thinking of stopping him, but his hand suddenly ceased its movement. She threw a wary look around, but no one was watching. She caught an occasional sigh or hum, but all the eyes were shut tight. Colette Marence was sitting on the stone edge of the light fountain, taking deep breaths with the rest of them.
Qassir’s fingers wrapped around her wrist tightly. She jerked and turned to him abruptly. He shook his head, still wearing that strange smile of his. Her eyes closed on their own, as though some invisible force had made them. All of a sudden, a flush of energy flowed into her, clouding her mind into a soothing haze. She was slowly forgetting where she was and what she was doing. Silent force flowed around her, washing away her every thought like purifying water. No sooner did she open her eyes and gasp in surprise than another clap of Colette’s hands announced the end of the meditation.
She stared at her partner in confusion.
“What did you do?”
“Ah, just some harmless trick I learned at home,” he said. His smile stayed at its place. “I only directed your energy the right way.”
“Harmless? You just trifled with the energy of my soul. That can hardly be considered harmless! One step further and I could take you for a necromancer!”
“You’re not dead.”
“That’s not the point!”
Yrith could not imagine the Redguard’s smile getting any wider, but that is exactly what it did at that moment. He leaned to her and whispered in her ear.
“I hear you tend to seek refuge in the library. For someone who can’t cast spells, you’re quite knowledgeable. Good. That’ll make my job so much easier.”
Questions and more questions erupted in Yrith’s head. But no, she would not give him the pleasure.
“I don’t read books on magic,” she hissed.
The Redguard looked amused. She clenched her fists. How she hated it when people had fun at her expense. She looked away and silently prayed for salvation. As if answering her call, Colette Marence filled the room with the creaky sound of her voice.
Their next task was to practice ward spells. One person was supposed to shoot weak and harmless missiles while the other one had to block them with a ward. Yrith first took on the role of the attacker, enjoying that, for once, the strength of her magical missiles was not considered too weak. No one would scold her for not being able to cast a strong fire bolt. On the other hand, Cain had to apologize several times as Leyna Travi, his partner, stepped sideways to avoid getting hit by a brightly flaring fire bolt. It dissolved into a myriad of sparks when it collided with the protective barrier surrounding the whole Hall of the Elements.
Becoming the defender was not something Cain was looking forward to, and neither did Yrith – for a completely different reason. While Cain simply did not like to defend, Yrith couldn’t do it at all. She could see Qassir had perfect control over his magic. His sparks were harmless and consistent. When Yrith failed for the fourth time, the twinkling shower tingled her bare hands but did nothing more. She sighed. Qassir walked to her, wearing a look full of compassion. For some reason, she felt annoyed.
“Don’t worry,” he told her gently, “not everyone is good right from the start. Take it easy. You feel that clutch of energy around your heart?”
She nodded, having mastered that part when studying conjuration.
“Tug at it, pull some of it out and use it, as raw as you can. You don’t mix it with any other energy or substance when creating magical shields, and you don’t transform it. It’s just you and your own soul. Might be hard at first, but you’ll get the gist of it eventually.”
Another nod. She recalled someone telling her before, but she had never cared enough to use the knowledge. But now she was feeling something that was entirely new to her. Looking in her partner’s deep blue eyes and smiling face, she did not want to lose to him. He managed to mock and encourage her at the same time. Why would she let him do that?
She frowned and concentrated. She reached for her soul, feeling the stirred emotions inside. Her mind touched the dark edge of the subconscious she had always been scared to confront. From the depths of her very being, she could hear own voice. The blame is on you. You do not have the right to live.
She pulled away at once and felt color retreating from her face. For the first time, her teammate was not smiling, a deep wrinkle forming between his furrowed eyebrows.
“Are you all right? You look like you’ve just had one of those netchling elixirs… you know, the ones that Brelyna brought… heard quite some stories about ’em.”
Yrith gave him a weak smile and quickly concealed her fear.
“Let’s continue,” she said.
He nodded and a spray of cute tiny sparks was shot at her. Promptly, she reached for her soul and found the energy, but it stirred and bubbled, drowned in a flood of conflicting emotions, and she retreated, stepping back before the Redguard’s spell. He frowned, looking perhaps slightly disappointed. Or maybe deep in thought. She sighed and shook her head.
“Let’s try it once more,” he said, and there was a hint of something she could not identify in his voice, something that sent shivers down her spine. Was it excitement? No, that couldn’t be right…
He raised both of his hands and blazing flames enveloped his fingers. She winced at the sight, noticing that the spell looked much stronger than any she had ever seen anyone use on the College grounds. She hesitated, hypnotized by the fire. She should step away. Avoid getting hurt.
She could not move.
He hinted a smile. It was full of strange, non-hostile wickedness. She stared at him, holding her breath, and her hands instinctively shot upward in a defensive pose.
Then, a fireball shot from the tips of his fingers and charged at her at a blinding speed. She heard sudden screams around her, and for a moment, she saw death embracing her in its cold grip. Her mind went blank and she gasped. Time had stopped. She reached for the energy in her soul.
You do not have the right to live! Leave! Magic is not yours to command!
“No,” she breathed. “This is my soul. My magic. And I want to live!”
And she took a generous portion of what she had locked away herself.
Raw magicka spread into a round force field in front of her. It hummed and its edges flickered. A strong stable shield formed before her, absorbing the power of the fiery sphere at once. It dissolved into a blazing shower that slowly faded away. The shield followed. Yrith stared at her own hands incredulously, turning them as if she was looking for a hole that had let the magic out.
Then she fell down on her knees with a gasp, covering her mouth with her hands as her classmates gathered around her. Her heart was pounding so fiercely that Qassir’s voice sounded faint and distant.
“See? I knew you could do it!”
Raising her head, she saw him grinning at her until Colette stepped in her sight.
“This… this…” she stammered and Yrith could only imagine how shocked her teacher must have looked, standing with her back turned to her, trembling heavily. “Detention,” she whispered at last. “I will not see this kind of conduct here ever again, or you are out of here before you can say ‘netch’. Yrith may be… may have been incompetent, but she is still our student.”
“So… do I get to collect fish as well?” Qassir asked. Even in this situation, he managed to maintain his utmost innocent look.
“I believe two people are more than enough to take care of that,” came the stern reply.
“Awww,” he sighed as he picked up his backpack. “I was actually looking forward to joining you.” He winked at Yrith mischievously and walked away with grace, not a single movement of his revealing that he had just been given a detention. Just like the rest of her class, Yrith stared at him in disbelief, unsure of what to make of it all.