Slowly, the nineteen timid students entered the open-air classroom one-by-one, and each took a seat on comfortable pillows in front of a large semi-circular stage. Afternoon daylight streamed through the green curtains hanging from open skylights, and a warm breeze drifted through the windows, smelling slightly of lavender. Aeo decided to sit as far back as he could, choosing the pillow in the corner farthest from the door. He’d heard of the concept of ‘school’ before, but he had no idea it could be held in a such a luxurious place. Ariste would probably have a heart attack had she known the price of the pillow upon which Aeo now sat.
Aeo could differentiate between the Antielli boys and girls with short rounded ears, thick brown hair, and hazel eyes, and the Ashanti boys and girls with long and pointed ears, wispy white hair, and pale blue eyes. But no other student had Aeo’s bright red eyes and hair. He couldn’t help but feel as though some of his peers had very much noticed the obvious newcomer, with whispers between cupped hands already floating around. A few eyes were thrown his way, and he felt himself turn as red as his irises. After all, the academy year had started several months ago, and despite his best efforts to catch up to his class, he was quite behind. It was bad enough that the apprentice robes Leon had forced him to wear were terribly hot, itchy, and decidedly uncomfortable. Now he had to endure a very rigid schedule where everything was new.
Last to enter the chamber was a rather rotund fellow dressed in flowing tan-and-green Academy robes and adorned with a mighty white beard that fell to his chest. His aged grey eyes, rosy cheeks, big bushy eyebrows, and a crown of hair ringing a bald head made him look like a jolly grandfather. Fortunately, for the most part, his disposition reflected his image.
“Oy children!” he bellowed, stepping up to the stage. “Take a seat, take a seat, get comfortable! Today’s lesson is certainly one you’ve been waiting for. No more note-taking, no more hand-waving… that will come again later, of course. But today, it is time for the real thing!”
“Master Naal?” asked a young girl that sat up front. “Does that mean you’ll show us actual magick?”
“Better, my dear,” Master Edin’Rao Naal said, clapping his hands together. “Today you all will be performing magick.”
Eyes widened in joy and excited whispers increased. Aeo felt a pit form in his stomach.
“Now, now, everyone, remain calm,” Master Naal said, lowering hands to hush the children. It didn’t help very much. “I know that some of you are already very skilled at simple focus magicks and some of you still have yet to demonstrate them. Hopefully the tools I’m about to show you will put us all on a level playing field and help us all improve.”
Master Naal turned and moved to the table at back of the stage. He produced a pair of bright-red leather items from a wooden crate, and revealed them to the class. Curved to fit the arm, the items were beautiful pieces of sturdy leather adorned with metal rivets, decorative steel ornaments, and silver buckles.
“These, children,” he said, lifting an item in each hand. “Are enmap bracers. Now, what are enmap bracers? I’m very glad you asked. Would one of you like to come up and help me demonstrate what they can… oh, Jhote, yes, come right up, my boy.”
An Antielli boy from the front row rose without even raising his hand, and stood before Master Naal excited and a bit sheepish.
“If you would hold one of these on my arm, my boy,” Master Naal said, rolling up his sleeve. “Yes, that’s perfect.” Then, with a flick of his opposite wrist, the three leather straps tightened simultaneously and the whole bracer seem to latch to his arm. “Ha, you’ll get used to doing that, it’s quite a simple trick. Here, Jhote, hold out your arm, I’ll attach the other one like so.”
Jhote did so, and performing the same trick, Master Naal slid the other enmap bracer onto the boy’s forearm and buckled it. The Antielli boy looked at the bracer on his arm in wonder.
“Comfortable? Perfect. Now, as to their function. ‘Enmap’ is short for ‘energy manipulation’, as that is what these bracers allow the user to do: better control the weave and flow of energy in focus magick. And what is focus magick, everyone?”
Several hands went up. Master Naal pointed.
“Master,” said an ashanti boy in the back with a thick accent. “It’s magick you have to concentrate to keep up.”
“Yes, concentration, and…? What’s the second important part of focus magick? Remember, it’s in the title itself…”
“A focus!” chimed several staggered voices.
“Marvelous, that’s right,” Master Naal said. “It requires concentration and a focus. Enmap bracers offer you just that: a brilliant focus created just for that purpose. There’s very little focus magick that can’t be improved by practicing with enmap bracers. Now, unfortunately, crafting enmap bracers takes many months of hard work and expensive materials to produce, so the Academy doesn’t own enough bracers even for the senior classes. For today, a single pair will suffice. One at a time, I want you all to come up to the stage, tell me your animis, and we will see the effects a single bracer can produce. I’ll be wearing the other one, just to keep everyone safe. I expect quite the lightshow!”
The nervous whispers turned into enthusiastic chattering. Aeo did not chatter. He simply hid his hands in his lap and looked down at the floor.
Jhote started the presentation. With an animis of abjuration, the Antielli boy focused and a sphere of bright sapphire light appeared in his hand. It looked like one of the luspheres that floated above the refectory.
“Very good, feel the ease with which the energy flows through the bracer. Isn’t it brilliant? Who’s next?”
The next student, an Antielli girl with curly hair in the front row, went up while Master Naal removed all three buckles of the bracer from Jhote’s arm with a quick gesture. Jhote sat down, and Master Naal placed the bracer on the girl’s forearm. As her animis was liquid thaumaturgy, Master Naal produced a small vial of water from the table on the stage. The girl must have been a star pupil, as the water seemed to leap from the vial into the palm of her hand. It then snaked around the bracer like a serpent, even weaving itself in between her fingers before stopping itself back into the vial.
“Brilliant, Bevelli! Fun, no? It makes it seem as though all your practice has finally paid off. Next!”
One by one, each student in the class rose and took to the stage. Some created arcs of electricity between their fingers, some illuminated the already brilliantly-lit classroom in blinding flashes, and the ashanti boy that had answered Master Naal’s question earlier healed a small abrasion that had happened to another boy’s knee. One student even transmuted a small glass marble into a cube shape, then into a pyramid. The student right next to Aeo, a white-haired ashanti girl whose hair fell to her waist, took the stage and created exactly what Master Naal had anticipated: a literal fireworks display that she described as an “emergency flare” her parents had taught her in case she ever got lost in the forest. It very nearly showered the front row in sparks. Needless to say, the students cheered.
“Excellent, everyone, excellent work! You all have mastered your animi with such ease! Isn’t it exciting? With practice, performing magick can become as simple as these bracers make it seem.”
The whispered escalated as the students marveled at their experiences. For a brief moment, as Master Naal removed the bracer from the white-haired girl’s arm, it seemed as though he would forget about the Edian boy in the far corner of the classroom. He even seemed to turn around the place the bracers back on the table.
“And, our final student,” Master Naal said without turning around. “Our brand new arrival from Antiell. Have you all introduced yourselves to young Aeo yet?”
Aeo turned ashanti-beetroot red as all eyes in the classroom turned to look at him. The boy without a last name. The Edian slave. The whispering increased, and some of the other boys laughed, with three in particular sitting nearest to the classroom door. If Aeo knew the spell for turning invisible, he would have cast the enchantment immediately. Unfortunately, he did not, impressive as it might have been. Unable to look up at the stage or at anyone else, he stared at the window beside him instead.
“Well, Aeo?” asked Master Naal. Aeo forced himself to look past everyone. Master Naal had turned towards the class and now wore a peculiar pair of thin black gloves. “Would you care to practice with the bracer?”
The student’s laughter increased when Aeo didn’t respond. But he couldn’t simply say nothing and ignore everyone. Reluctant, Aeo felt his body lift from his seated position and take steps to the front of the classroom. His knees wobbled as he climbed the stage steps, and his bottom lip was already trembling. There was no way he could remember his incantations.
At last, he stood before Master Naal, the scrawniest student in the class before the most imposing ashanti he’d ever met.
“Very good, my boy,” Master Naal said, clapping a hand on Aeo’s shoulder. Aeo thought he might tumble forwards from such a gesture, and giggling rose from a pair of Antielli girls at the sight of it. “Now, as Master Sirelu advised me, you have quite the animis for fire thaumaturgy, is that right?”
Aeo nodded in the slightest way possible, his gaze transfixed on the ground.
“Here, Aeo, your arm,” Master Naal said, offering the bracer to the Edian boy. Aeo looked upon it; it really was quite a work of art. The buckles and decorations gleamed in the sunlight, the sienna ayvasilk weaving around the edges spun perfect patterns, and the beautiful red leather seemed aged and refined like polished oak. Aeo rolled up his sleeve and lifted his left arm to Master Naal, and the old teacher slid the bracer on. With a flick of his hand, the bracer’s straps tightened and buckled around Aeo’s arm, slightly cutting off the blood supply to his hand. “There we are. Now, stand about an arm’s length back, lift your arm, and cup your hand, just as Master Sirelu taught you.”
Aeo closed his eyes for a moment and obeyed, his hand cupped upwards. Nothing felt inherently different. But, just as he had practiced, he imagined all the heat from his toes rising to his legs, then up his waist and stomach, through his chest and down his arm towards his waiting hand. For a moment, he thought he felt something.
Nothing happened. Not a single spark. Everything fell terribly quiet.
“Need assistance, my boy?” asked Master Naal. The same three boys that had laughed before began whispering to each other and smiling unfriendly smiles. The powerful heat that should have been descending down Aeo’s arm was now ascending to his head. Aeo strained again to produce even a candle’s worth of flame on his fingertips, but he might as well have been holding his hand out to Master Naal for a piece of candy.
Aeo’s eyes darted over to the three boys. They weren’t stopping. At this point, they knew they were distracting him. It made them laugh all the more, and the class followed along.
Their commotion was not lost on Master Naal.
“Come now, everyone,” he said, not pointing to anyone in particular. “Let’s not be rude. Give Aeo a moment, the bracers can take a moment to get used to…”
Nothing was working. Perhaps he should have gracefully bowed out. He should have taken the bracer off and returned to his pillow.
But he didn’t. He was looking directly at the three boys. All three were Antielli.
Somewhere inside his brain, their eyes, their laughter, and their gestures struck a deeply-rooted nerve, a nerve Aeo had never before explored. The words ‘Edian bastard’ floated through his head as plainly as if one of the boys had said it aloud. A horrifying thought arose, or at least one that should have been horrifying: everything about the three Antielli boys deserved to be eradicated. Their twisted grins. Their manic eyes. Their very bodies should be incinerated in the heart of the sun and refused existence for one day more. Aeo’s vision of the gentle sun turned bloodthirsty in his imagination as he watched them continue to enjoy his discomfort.
Aeo’s hearing faded; his vision blurred. Aeo focused so powerfully upon the three boy’s warped glee that he didn’t realize that their faces were slowly turning into looks of horror.
Someone yelled from across the room.
Something bright had enveloped his left arm.
Aeo broke his concentration on the three boys and looked. His entire forearm, enmap bracer and all, burned with ferocious ruby-red flames as bright as the surface of a star. His eyes tracked the formation of the terrific bonfire upward and calmly noticed they were consuming the green curtains above the stage.
Someone again yelled from across the room. Aeo lazily gazed off the stage towards the classroom door. It was Master Naal. What was he saying? He heard his name.
“Aeo! Stop! Please!”
Stop. What a funny concept. Stop.
Aeo’s gaze turned back to the ruby-red flames now engulfing the sleeve of his Academy robes. This felt right. For the first time in many years, he couldn’t imagine anything more satisfying than the primal animis that raged from his hand. With this power, he could do anything. He could stop the staring and the whispers. He could make people stop laughing. He could make them disappear. What if he wore both bracers? How much more powerful could he become? Perhaps he could annihilate in two directions.
Someone was still yelling at him.
Then several voices.
A strange sensation took control of his left hand. Some unseen force was trying to close his hand.
But… but that would make the fire go away.
He resisted it. Nothing would make this end. He would let it consume him first. He would burn down the entire Academy. He would end his life before letting the fire die. He would-
With a delightful bloop, a violet sphere absorbed his hand like a playful bubble. The entire ruby-red conflagration died. As if all his weight had been held by a molten string now vanished, Aeo collapsed to the ground, his Academy robes still quite on fire.
Aeo’s hearing returned. All sound hadn’t died; the roar of the flames had deafened him. The room was, in fact, quite loud, filled with the cries of frightened children and the shouts of other Masters attempting to calm them. For some reason he felt… raindrops on his face. Aeo’s eyes couldn’t focus. His energy had been consumed in the flames, and he barely had the power to turn his head towards where Master Naal had been standing.
Leon now raced towards him from the door of the classroom, looking quite haggard. Somehow, he had taken Master Naal’s bracer and put it on his own arm in no time at all. Wait, his office was on the other side of the Academy. Had he been watching the class the whole time?
“Aeo!” he cried, crouching and smothering the flames that grew on Aeo’s robes. He then lifted the boy in his arms. With a flick of his wrist, the enmap bracer released from Aeo’s arm, falling to the stage floor, apparently quite unharmed from the flames. “Aeo, can you hear me? Speak to me, Aeo, say something! Can you see me? Blink if you can see me!”
Aeo attempted to blink. It was more of an eyelash flutter.
“Master Naal, call the Sanareum! How long was his outburst? What caused this?!”
“About fifteen minutes, and I have no idea! I couldn’t approach him to ward his hands, even with a bracer on!” shouted Master Naal from across the room, who seemed to be directing fellow thaumaturgists in extinguishing the flames that licked the ceiling. “But it was exciting to say the least! I daresay we have a master flame thamaturgist on our hands!”
“Not now, Edin!” Leon shouted angrily.
No. It couldn’t have been that long.
Leon turned to Aeo, patting out the last remaining flames and placing a hand on the boy’s head. “This is my fault, Aeo… Had I known this was your lesson today, I would have made you skip class…”
Aeo couldn’t even unconsciously look guilty.