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Chapter II - The Young Transmuter

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After living in the Great Library of Zairn for more than a year, Oswynn was still impressed with its size. It took him more than half a day to visit each of the building’s rooms during his weekly chores, time wasted when he could have been practicing his spells. At least this library was far more organized than his former master’s random collection of tomes and scrolls. When he used to study with fellow student Thulin under the elementalist Minaras, he was forced to search hundreds of books to find the one he needed. Those days were now a distant memory.
He slung a burlap sack over his shoulder and opened the door to one of the private chambers, startling the occupant.
“Oswynn,” said the older priest, roused from his meditative trance. “I didn’t hear you knock.”
“Do you need any candles?” asked the young transmuter.
He didn’t have time to knock on every door and wait for a response. Many of the priests were so absorbed in their meditation that he could finish his work without them knowing he’d ever been in their room. Unfortunately, this priest wasn’t one of them.
“You’ve come just in time.” The priest nodded at the stub of a candle burning brightly on his desk.
Oswynn reached into his sack, grabbed a pair of new candles, and tossed them onto the desk. Every room on this floor looked the same to him, cluttered with parchments, pens, inkwells, and old books. A bed in the corner and a window overlooking either the central courtyard or the city streets completed the chamber.
“Would you mind taking the old one with you?” asked the priest. “We can use the melted wax to make new candles.”
With a groan, Oswynn scraped globs of hardened wax off the desk and shoved them into his pocket. He already knew more about candle making than he cared to. Before leaving the room, he tossed a third candle onto the desk so he wouldn’t have to come back until next week.
“Thank you, young man,” said the priest. “Please shut my door when you leave.”
Oswynn rushed to the next room, the last one on the third floor. Only two floors remained, and with no interruptions, this might be the fastest he’d ever completed his rounds.
An hour later, Oswynn burst into his bedroom, tossed the burlap sack into the corner, and opened a large tome on his desk. He skimmed through the pages to a spell that had been frustrating him for the past two weeks. Studying the incantation, he wondered why he was unable to follow the instructions. Transforming wood into metal shouldn’t have been so difficult. He’d almost succeeded with a lantern several months ago when he, Minaras, and Kuril had traveled beneath the mountains on their way to the northern coast. They were trying to stop Halia and the others from uncovering a set of cursed weapons hidden beneath the sea for several centuries. At the time, he hadn’t even begun to study transmutation. His finger went up to his forehead, tracing a scar that went from one side to the other, just below his hairline.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts.
“Come in, Sigmus,” he said. “The door isn’t locked.”
An old wizard shuffled into the room, aided by an elm walking stick. His flowing orange robe dusted the floor as he walked.
“How did you know it was me?” asked Sigmus.
With matted white hair, wrinkled skin, and a severely hunched posture, he appeared to be the oldest living human in the world.
“Nobody else visits my room,” said Oswynn. “I think they’re afraid of me.”
Sigmus reached for an empty chair.
“You’ve yet to make an effort to befriend anyone in the library. When you keep to your room all the time, the others respect your privacy and leave you alone. Would you like me to introduce you to some of the newest members of our staff?”
“No, thank you.”
Oswynn wondered if the priests had complained about him entering their rooms without knocking. Even if they did, it wouldn’t matter. He shouldn’t have to do any daily chores. Such menial tasks were beneath him. There were enough young acolytes to change a few candles and melt some old wax. He stood to help his master into the chair.
“You’ve grown so much, both in height and maturity,” said the old wizard, tapping the open book with his cane. “A year ago you never would have studied without constant reminders from me. I’m proud of you.”
“This isn’t study. I’m trying to figure out why one of my spells never works properly.”
“Call it what you wish.”
Sigmus ran his fingers across the open page. “Converting one material to another is one of the most difficult incantations across all eight schools of magic. I’ve met a few master transmuters who couldn’t perform such advanced spells competently.”
“I don’t care what others can or can’t do.”
“Every day you impress me with your skill,” said Sigmus, “but transforming wood into metal is far beyond your ability now.”
“You’re wrong.” Oswynn slammed the book shut. “I only need a bit more practice.”
“I agree with your comment about more practice,” said Sigmus, “but I doubt my definition of ‘a bit’ is the same as yours. You’ll master this type of incantation one day, possibly sooner than I expect, but for now, you should have more patience. Why don’t you try changing the shape of a small object instead?”
“Why don’t you assign my candle duty to one of the recruits? I’d have more time to spend with these books if I didn’t have to play with wax all day. What did you do before I lived here? Run through these chores yourself?”
“Again, we’re in agreement.” Sigmus reached into a deep pocket and pulled out a fancy quill and a vial of black ink. “I wish to teach you my archiving skills. There are more books in this library than I’ll be able to preserve in my lifetime.”
Oswynn shied away from the gifts. “This library is full of priests who’d gladly help you transcribe every single word. Practically everyone in this building handles old tomes daily. The only exceptions are the cooks, the maids, and the gardeners, and I’d be surprised if they wouldn’t be interested in helping you as well.”
“Even so,” said Sigmus, “I’m the only one allowed near the most delicate works, and not many priests are familiar with dead languages. As my apprentice, you’re already learning much of what would be needed. You’d make a fine archivist.”
“I’ve changed my mind about the chores,” said Oswynn. “Teach one of the recruits to preserve these old tomes with you. It’ll take too much time away from my wizardry.”
“I thought you hated running about the library and dealing with the priests.”
Oswynn glared at him. “There seem to be far worse tasks that might be assigned to me if I give up candle making.”
Sigmus placed the quill and ink on the desk and stood with some difficulty.
“Take some time to consider my offer,” he said. “You never know what interesting bits of information you might find when digging through ancient writing. It’s more rewarding than you can imagine.”
“Yes, yes, patience is so rewarding.” Oswynn helped the old wizard to the door. “But it would be better if I had more time to practice my spells. I’m so close to succeeding.”
When Sigmus was gone, Oswynn frowned at his desk, which was becoming similar to every other one in the library. All he needed was a pile of blank parchment and he could have swapped rooms with anyone on the floor. Unwilling to let such an atrocity happen, he swept the pen and ink into an empty drawer and returned to his transmutation spell.
The night sky was just beginning to brighten, and Oswynn had already been awake for more than an hour, practicing what should have been a simple incantation.
Hiw bridd astyrian holt.”
He repeated the mystical phrase, raising and lowering his voice, changing his tone, and trying several different tempos. The quill on his desk, however, refused to respond. No matter what he did, the pen wouldn’t turn into a piece of wood. He tossed it out of his window into the flower-lined courtyard below.
“Did someone lose a quill?” a distant voice called out.
Oswynn’s face turned red. He didn’t think anyone would be in the garden this early. Below the window, one of the priests was sitting on a bench with an old tome in his lap.
“I’m sorry,” said Oswynn. “The pen must have slipped from my fingers.”
“That seems unlikely,” a voice came from above, “unless you were playing with writing utensils near your window instead of studying at your desk.”
Sigmus poked his head out of a window on the fifth floor.
“It was an accident,” said Oswynn. “It won’t happen again.”
“Please go downstairs, retrieve the quill, and apologize,” said his master. “And take better care of your belongings in the future.”
“Were you awake all night, waiting for me to misbehave?” asked Oswynn.
Somehow, the old transmuter was always monitoring him. If Sigmus wasn’t reminding him to complete his chores, he was telling him how to sit at the dinner table or ordering him to bed at night.
Sigmus took a deep breath. “I was only enjoying the fresh morning air. Luckily, my room is directly above yours.”
“I’d like some privacy every so often,” said Oswynn. “I’m no longer a child who needs constant attention. Didn’t you just remark at how much I’ve grown this past year?”
“Of course,” said Sigmus. “After you apologize, I promise to leave you alone until this evening.”
Oswynn tromped toward his chamber door but stopped after two steps. An odd scratching came from behind him. The sunlight slowly disappeared, as bricks from the edges of the window grew larger and merged with one another. Seconds later, the opening was covered, and only a dim glow could be seen along the line of missing mortar.
His master must have sealed the window as a punishment. Oswynn returned to his desk and thumbed through the thick tome, searching for an incantation to put a hole through the wall. He found a promising page in one of the early chapters. The spell was supposed to work on stone, but brick might be a similar enough material.
He chanted, “Hieran stan maete,” and concentrated on the spot where his window used to be.
The wall creaked and the middle two bricks released their grip on each other, allowing a tiny ray of light to shine through. Oswynn continued the spell, resting his voice after an irregularly shaped opening the size of his old window graced his wall.
With a quick grin, he darted downstairs to retrieve his pen, thinking of ways to avoid future interruptions. Unfortunately, the old wizard would find him if he hid somewhere in the library. Sigmus was sure to know every tiny nook in the building. It would be better to give his master a reminder that he was serious about his privacy.
After an insincere apology to the priest in the courtyard, Oswynn bounded to the fifth floor and waited around the corner from Sigmus’s room. When the old transmuter left for the dining hall downstairs, Oswynn checked that nobody was watching him, tiptoed into the study, and locked the door. He’d have a little time while his master ate breakfast.
Books, scrolls, and parchments were stacked everywhere. Sigmus was always in the middle of transcribing a dozen texts or more. How could he enjoy such a repetitive task when he was a master transmuter? If he spent his time researching powerful spells, there was no limit to what he might accomplish.
Oswynn stepped around the clutter, placed his hands on the back wall near the window, and chanted, “Aweaxan stan lang.”
The bricks expanded haphazardly, scraping harshly against one another. He kept chanting until the window had closed in a disorganized mass of brick and mortar. Now his master might allow him to practice in peace.
Satisfied but not pleased with his work, he patted the newly formed closure. The brick beneath his fingers crumbled into fine powder, leaving behind a tiny hole. He tapped a second brick, which fell apart at his light touch. A single frustrated punch let in a blast of sunlight. Every brick his magic had affected disintegrated as easily as the first two. His spell had done nothing but enlarge Sigmus’s window. He wondered if his own window was ready to fall apart as well. Perhaps the whole building was in danger of collapsing because of him.
He dragged his feet toward the door but stopped at Sigmus’s desk. Since he was already going to be punished for destroying the window, he might as well try one more spell. He reached for one of the numerous quills and recalled the pages he’d been studying the past few days. Transforming the pen from a feather to a leaf should be much easier than converting it to wood. They were almost the same material.
Hiw bridd astyrian,” he chanted.
The feather’s barbs grew thinner and the shaft elongated until the quill looked like a blackened pine branch. The results were close to what he wanted, but an elm leaf would have been better. He repeated the spell on a second quill. The barbs flattened and merged, although the resulting object could easily have been mistaken for a piece of charred parchment. To complete the spell properly, he’d have to change the color of the feather as well as its shape.
He’d destroyed two pens already, but there were many more in the drawers. The spell was bound to work on one of them. For his next few attempts, he altered the incantation by raising and lowering his voice. He was excited when he changed the next quill into a nondescript green leaf, his best attempt ever. One after another, he threw pens onto the desk, formed an image of a majestic elm in his mind, and focused on his magic.
Finally, he was rewarded with a perfectly shaped elm leaf. Oswynn placed the transformed quill on his master’s chair and left the study with a spring in his step. Sigmus would be upset that he’d destroyed every pen in the room, but the added chores would be worth it. He had mastered another transmutation spell, bringing him ever closer to the power he desired.
Oswynn awoke from a deep sleep but couldn’t move his arms or legs. Something was holding him firmly to his bed. He glanced at the back wall. The window was still letting in faint trickles of starlight. In the darkness he was just able to detect the outline of his bed, no longer a rectangular platform but the shape of a clenched fist.
He struggled beneath his blanket, wriggling his upper body until he grew tired. Evidently, his master wanted him to use a transmutation spell to return the bed to its proper form, but he couldn’t think of anything appropriate.
If he waited until morning, the bright sunshine wouldn’t be of any help. His spell books were out of reach, sitting on his desk or scattered about the floor on the other side of the room. An elemental spell could set fire to the bed, but he might not survive the flames. His former master, Minaras, would have been able to focus the fire on a specific spot, but Oswynn had never completed his elemental training.
With acceptance of his fate or a successful transmutation the only options, Oswynn chanted every transformation spell that came to mind. None of them helped. Altering the wooden frame required its own set of incantations, probably described on one of the upcoming pages in his book. What was the point of forcing him to try something he hadn’t yet learnt?
“You trapped me,” he shouted, straining his voice. “And I don’t know how to escape. Are you happy?”
There was no response.
“You’ve won, Sigmus. You can release me now.”
He waited a moment, but his master neither appeared in his doorway nor answered his calls. What was Sigmus trying to prove by trapping him in his bed? That people were helpless while asleep? The old transmuter should have assigned him a few extra chores if he were angry. Didn’t he know sleep was important to a growing young man?
Oswynn’s eyes wandered from the dark ceiling, down the wall, and back to his window, where the irregular pattern of crumbling bricks inspired him. He’d never been successful at converting one material to another. Each time, the resulting object was much weaker than it should have been. Perhaps transforming his bed into another material would help.
Maete bedd stan hiw,” he repeated until his bed hardened.
The frame, the pillow, and the fingers around his body all turned to stone. He pushed his arms and legs outward, but he was still trapped. Why did the spell have to work properly this time? He pushed once more, and the bed’s fingers crumbled under the pressure, releasing him from their rocky grip.
He rolled out of his broken bed, free but frustrated. There was no reason why his magic should be so weak all the time. He kicked the remaining fingers, each one falling apart with little force. The only solution would be to refine his spells and draw upon more power, but for this he’d have to find a secret room of more advanced spell books, similar to Minaras’s private collection.
With a grin, Oswynn stretched out on his floor and closed his eyes. Sigmus was sure to assign him more chores this week, which would offer the perfect opportunity to perform an exhaustive search of the library.
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