The idea that she would face no punishment for her journey beneath the sea had never crossed Tiane’s mind. However, when Lytha simply scowled and told her to find something to do, she seized upon the opportunity. Fleeing into the depths of the Lorinthian Magic Academy, she left her two would-be instructors to debate what she needed. Lytha, she was sure, would argue that she needed more structure. As for Garyl, she wasn’t sure if he had any intention of teaching her or if he was just showing off.
With no classes to keep her busy and with the other students in lessons, Tiane decided to venture out into the grounds. One large building formed the bulk of the academy, but the grounds left lots of room to explore. A fountain depicting a sword-wielding, bald-headed woman fighting some long-limbed troll gave way to a series of gardens and a hedge maze which Tiane had spent the past year working up the courage to explore. She didn’t fear getting lost, but a part of her had always assumed that some monster lay at the heart of the maze, just waiting to get her into trouble.
As per her usual routine, Tiane circled the perimeter of the maze, pausing on occasion so her eyes could follow a wayward bird or sniffing the air to catch a hint of what might be going on in the city at large. A tall stone wall circled the academy grounds, leaving it insular in a city that consisted of tens of thousands of people. Tiane’s earliest memories came from the streets beyond the school’s walls. While very few of those memories gave her any sense of pleasure, a part of her wanted to find the old gang of thieves she once knew and let them know that she now lived inside a building that they would all sell their thumbs to infiltrate. Then again, such bragging would probably come to an end with her at a dagger’s edge and forced to do the dirty work of some thief with more ambition than sense.
The sound of the double doors that served as the academy’s main entrance closing brought her away from fantasies and back to the here and now. Two figures strode down the marble steps, and Tiane recognized them instantly. Lytha wore a gray shawl around her shoulders, her shock of white hair and rigid posture making her instantly identifiable. Standing almost a full head shorter than her and wearing his usual threadbare red cloak, Garyl walked directly at her side. Without thinking, Tiane darted into the entrance of the hedge maze. She stuck to the outer wall, listening carefully as they approached.
“Absolutely not,” came the first words from Lytha that Tiane’s ears detected—apparently in response to a question Garyl had asked.
“Why not? You’ve offered me the position before.”
“That was before I found somebody who proved herself an excellent instructor in the subject of arcane history,” Lytha stated. “In addition to Professor Kalen’s excellent teaching acumen, I know I can rely on her to stay in one place for the duration of a semester.”
“What, and you think I’m just going to pop off and disappear the moment I find something more interesting?”
“That’s insulting,” Garyl said, although Tiane could tell that his wounded tone was more of an act than something he seriously believed. “I can stay focused on a subject if I want to.”
“Yes, but we both know that arcane history wouldn’t remain your focus.”
“Why not? It’s a fascinating subject!”
“And do you think you could draw up a lesson plan that would keep students engaged for a full semester, or would you run off to look at a myrrin festival at the bottom of the ocean?”
“Myrrin,” whispered Tiane to herself. “So that’s what they call themselves.”
The conversation lagged for a moment, and Tiane worried that the two might have heard her. But then she heard footsteps as they walked parallel with the hedge maze. Tiane took a step, then winced as the soul of her shoe made an audible tap against the stone floor of the maze. As the conversation continued, she slipped off her shoes and tiptoed after the speakers.
“That’s not fair,” Garyl said. “That was a homework assignment.”
“Oh yes,” Lytha said with a dry voice, “very educational. And what would her grade have been if you had lost concentration and the sphere broke? How much would she have learned from drowning?”
“First, I don’t think she would have drowned,” Garyl retorted. “Second, I trust myself when the pressure is on. Third…well, I suppose I would have learned something if it had all gone awry.”
“Don’t,” Tiane said. “Don’t even start. You brought her to me with your foolish dragon blood theory—a theory for which you provided no evidence, by the way. I have studied her and pressed her for almost a full year, and we have gotten nowhere. And no, before you ask, I am not going to throw a dagger at her and see how she reacts.”
Tiane furrowed her brow. Did she need to start practicing dodging knives? How would one even go about learning that type of skill?
“So you already have arcane history,” Garyl said, apparently in verbal retreat. “That’s fine—I’m versatile. How about alchemy?”
“That’s not real magic,” Lytha retorted.
“Excuse me, but I think the ability to create lightning in a bottle is magical enough for most people.”
“First of all, you’re not even describing alchemy. I don’t know what you’re describing, in fact. Second of all, can you create lightning in a bottle?”
“I could probably learn.”
Lytha apparently remained unimpressed. Garyl sighed, and the conversation moved further down the wall of the hedge maze.
“What subjects are open, then?”
“None!” Lytha snapped. “We’re mid-semester. Unless one of the professors has a family emergency or gets kicked out by the city council, there are no subjects for which you to teach! And even if one of those things happens, I will absolutely find somebody else to fill the role instead of you. I need somebody who can stay focused on an entire class of students, not just one person about whom he has some very faulty theories.”
“So, no Professor Garyl, then.”
“That’s right,” Lytha confirmed. “No Professor Garyl.”
“But Tiane doesn’t face punishment for my little outing with her?”
“Correct,” Lytha said. Tiane pumped her arm in silent celebration. “I hold you accountable as an instigator.”
“And what’s my punishment?” Garyl asked.
“I haven’t considered something severe enough yet. What were you trying to accomplish, anyway?”
They walked in silence for a while, and Tiane worried that she might run out of hedge maze before she heard Garyl’s answer. But the green wall kept going, and Garyl eventually spoke again.
“Wonder,” he said.
“Wonder?” Lytha asked, apparently not following his train of thought.
“What was the girl’s first look at magic?” Garyl asked rhetorically. “It was her breathing fire and scaring people away with her eyes. Her second? Me using a bolt of lightning to kill a man. I wanted her to see the wonder a spell can bring. If she had been a student here from the beginning—really chosen, and not forced on you by me, what would she have learned?”
“History, literature, magical theory…” Lytha began.
“Yes, yes…she would have been well-read, but what sort of spells would you have taught here?”
“Levitation, transmogrification, limited teleportation…”
“Exactly,” Garyl said. Tiane heard a scrape of gravel that suggested Garyl had hopped suddenly and turned to face Lytha directly. The headmistress’ footsteps stopped, and Tiane relaxed as she realized that she could stand still while also continuing her eavesdropping.
“She would learn the things that make magic magical,” Garyl continued. “Your students learn some basic combat spells as well, I presume?”
“Yes,” Lytha confirmed. “In their final year. The ability to create a shield of force, a puff of fire, things like that.”
“Final year.” Garyl seemed unusually excited. “A good time for that. A very good time. Oh, what might have been if I had learned those things last instead of first. But you teach them in the right order, you see? You show them things of wonder. You teach them how to create and bring joy before they start to learn chaos and mayhem. But Tiane, she’s like me. She started off all backwards. I don’t want her to have to wait a hundred years before she gets to see the beautiful side of this magical world.”
“You’re forgetting that not everybody shares your lifespan again,” Lytha said. “I doubt Tiane will see one hundred, let alone have her mind on magic at the time…why are you looking at me like that?”
The footsteps resumed and Tiane began following them again.
“Gods, I forget how young you all are,” Garyl said.
“Even me?” Lytha asked. “I’ll have you know that nobody’s mistaken me for a young woman in a very long time.”
“Yes, even you,” Garyl insisted. “You’ve known her for less than a year and you’ve already locked yourself into a theory—she received some sort of blessing to protect her from Falden, and that magic’s gone.”
“You’ve known her for almost the same amount of time, and you’re just as locked in on your theory.”
“But I’ve been out there!” Garyl said, his voice rising. “I watched Derrezen die in the Dragonlands. He didn’t leave behind a body—his corpse just ignited in fire and then disappeared once he had slain the heroes. Do you think that burning, screaming soul just disappeared? Do you think the tyrants in Hell would risk bringing such a creature through their gates? But if he stayed in our world, the world of Niiran, he’d be weakened. And if he’s weakened, it’s going to take time for him to build that power back up.”
Tiane stopped dead as she reached a bend in the hedge maze. Perplexed, she turned around and looked back the way she came? Hadn’t she stayed close to the entrance, even while following Garyl and Lytha?
“I don’t follow,” Lytha said, her voice growing more distant as the conversation moved beyond the maze.
“Blackwood dealt with a Dragon-God who was at his strongest,” Garyl said. “One hundred fifty years of war—a long time for us, but only a blink of an eye for him. He had been building up for conquest for centuries. Now, after an initial setback, do you really think he’s going to be back where he was after only fourteen years? No, don’t give me that look. Listen and just assume for a moment—”
The conversation moved beyond Tiane’s earshot. She stood at the corner of the hedge maze, trying to guess at where she made a turn that took her away from the entrance. But even as one side of her mind worked on that solution, another part of her felt numb. The words Garyl had spoken sat in her mind, trying to find purchase. At first, she didn’t even recognize them as having any meaning—they were simply syllables, noise that had come out of the night folk’s mouth and somehow found their way into Tiane’s mind. But slowly, the part of her that had gone numb began pondering Garyl’s words, and she felt like a fire had suddenly ignited in her mind.
The moment passed slowly, but eventually she did return to normal. She could think again, and she remembered the way out now. The outer wall of the maze had followed a slight slope, branching away from the exit and trying to trick her. But she had taken notice of it even as she focused on the conversation between Garyl and Lytha. After all, she had no desire to get lost in this maze.
Everything seemed to take on a reddish hue as she returned to the opening of the hedge maze. She looked upward to see if she had stayed longer than she expected, but the sun sat high in a clear sky. Shaking her head, she continued toward the exit.
Yes, the exit—she saw it now, even as sweat formed on her skin and the smell of smoke filled her nostrils. Was something burning nearby?
A figure appeared suddenly at the entrance, although it looked like he had been standing there for some time. He was a bald-headed man whose hands were tucked into the oversized sleeves of his red robes. One of the instructors, she assumed, although she had never met him before.
“You know he’s right,” said the man with a scratchy voice that seemed older than his relatively young frame. “The one in black, I mean.”
“Garyl? I assume he’s right about most things…or likes to think he is, anyway.” Tiane cleared her throat and continued to approach the man. “Look, I’m sorry if I wasn’t supposed to be in the maze. I couldn’t help myself—I was just curious.”
The man walked toward Tiane, meeting her halfway between where she had first seen him and the exit. He stood just close enough that Tiane felt uneasy, but not so close that she felt the need to back away.
“Did you listen, or did you only hear?” he said, his voice growing hard with impatience. “He. Was. Right.”
Tiane replayed the conversation between Garyl and Lytha in her mind. She swallowed, and this time she did take a step back. “Right about what?” she asked.
“About everything.” The man followed her deeper into the maze, matching her step for step. “About who you are, about the fact that it will take time for you to realize your power. The only thing he was wrong about was the order of the lessons.”
“The order—?” Tiane glanced over her shoulder, trying to navigate deeper into the maze without turning her back on the red-robed man. “Right,” she said. “First wonder, then combat.”
“A stupid sentiment,” the man said. “Where would wonder have left you? While Garyl scrambled away to look up answers in a book, you protected yourself. You made Falden pay. And now you need to protect yourself again. If not, you’ll never realize your true potential.”
For the first time, Tiane met the stranger’s eyes. They were crimson, like hers. More than that, they seemed to be hers almost exactly, right down to the shape and the small brown fleck around the edge of her right iris. Locking eyes with the man seemed to paralyze her. She stopped moving and stood stiff as the stranger closed to within arm’s reach again.
“You can protect yourself,” he said, “but you need to be stronger first. We’ve seen what this Garyl can do. You’re not ready to face him, but you will be soon. When the time comes, you will kill him, and then nobody will know the full truth.”
“I…I don’t want to kill Garyl.”
The man tilted his head quizzically. “Do you care about him?”
“I mean…I don’t necessarily like him, but he’s not terrible to be around.”
“But you heard him,” the man said. “He just told Lytha that you’re a monster. He implied that you were Derrezen the Dragon-God, reborn and waiting for a chance to rise again.”
Sweat continued to form on Tiane’s brow. Her throat felt parched and her nostrils stung when she breathed in. She shuddered as she considered her next words, but she felt that she had to say them.
“He was right, wasn’t he?” she asked.
The man removed his hands from his sleeves, revealing long dragon-like claws. He placed one claw on each of Tiane’s temples and leaned in close, speaking to her in a whisper.
Tiane didn’t ask any more questions. The world erupted into a haze of fire a