1 Chapter 1

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Driz knew he’d received all the formal schooling he could expect. He was, after all, eldest of the three children of a hedge-witch single mother in the ancient realm of Melcovia. After he had completed the mandatory four years of public school, deemed adequate for the average working class child of the realm, Mum had struggled to get him through the Mystik Magick Academy Charter School—ten long and costly years. Now her strength and determination were both exhausted. She also had to consider the two younger children next. Although nothing had actually been said, she clearly expected Driz to do well enough to assist his siblings. Right now, however, he had little to offer.

Graduation behind him, he cursed the excesses of his last two years in school, an error that had seen his previously stellar marks plummet far below the scholarship level. He’d discovered sex, alcohol, and recreational drugs, which played hell with his studies. It began to look like his remaining choices were down to two. He either had to find a normal, mundane job—the word sat on his tongue like an obscenity—or locate a freelance practitioner of magick who would take him on as an apprentice. The school, he’d found, didn’t teach nearly enough to make him the top-flight mage he aspired to become.

So far, his search for a master had not been fruitful. Was there no wizard, sorcerer or magician left who could take Driscoll Darnell under a protective wing and help him develop the talents he felt sure would prove exceptional?

Life was no longer good in Melcovia, especially for the magick community. The latest incarnation of the government seemed to have lost traditional respect for the magickal arts. What few mages were left either found employment at one of the remaining schools of wizardry, which retained a bit of the old cachet, or went into hiding to escape hassling by the personal police force of Premier-for-Life, Monsante Congerson.

His Excellence had no use for magick. Everyone said he called it an anachronistic folly beneath his notice, although a minor nuisance at times. Thus the police hazing of any stray gifted citizen was clearly condoned, if not encouraged. Every minor blip on the smooth road of the ruler’s life he attributed to bad magick and sent his enforcers out to discipline any likely candidate. Such discipline could be harsh. Anyone with a whiff of magick soon learned to keep a low profile or seek protection within the ancient and sacred strongholds far from the capital city of Melcorth.

Driz and his family resided in a suburb of that city, where Mum could work legitimately as a midwife and a nurse practitioner. Those professions were still acceptable if one kept the magickal aspects beneath the notice of the officials. Someone had to deliver babies and deal with the cuts, bruises and breaks of juvenile escapades and the routine complaints of the elderly. Mistress Darnell did this very well.

To get Driz through school, she had also moonlighted as a waitress in a local pub and beer garden, although she was getting a bit too old for that now. Customers favored the youthful, buxom, and flirtatious with their tips and gifts, not a middle-aged mother showing the signs of her struggles. When her gratuities dropped below the pitiful wages the tavern owner doled out, she quit. Even that small bit of added income was missed. The family had not a penny to spare these days

Out of school now for three fortnights, Driz had begun to grow desperate. His hands did not fit a shovel handle, he loathed the idea of carrying weapons with the military or the guard unit to enforce the dictator’s edicts, and clerical work bored him to tears. He did not know one single magician to reach by possible methods except his old teachers, none of whom would do for his needs. Carrier pigeons had to have a known destination and hand-scribed letters a place to be delivered.

What else was there to do? He decided to send out an urgent telepathic call for a master. Surely, somewhere in the realm, someone would hear and respond to him.

Summoning all the magickal lore he’d gained in school, and with an urgent prayer to the Powers-That-Be, he lit a candle. He then stood it in a low vessel of water taken from a running stream and focused his sight on the reflection of the flickering yellow flame. He sent out his frantic mental call three times and then waited for a reply.

* * * *

Corydon Callipsich Cremonis rinsed his bowl after cleaning the last of the soup from its rough sides. Although his life had come to this sad pass, he knew he was better off than many of his brother mages and sorcerers. Dom Tanguich, who held to his ancestors’ traditional respect for magickal folk, allowed Cory a comfortable cottage on the grounds of the Tanguich mountain stronghold in eastern Melcovia and generally kept him supplied with such necessities as wood for his fire and food for his table. This might not make for a luxurious life such as magedom had once enjoyed. Still, it was more than adequate. Of course, one could always conjure up a few pretties, but that just wasn’t the same. Gifts and offerings were much sweeter!

In exchange for the support, Cory shielded the estate from the notice of the premier and his minions and turned the feet of any who wandered their direction to other paths, unless they brought good fortune rather than trouble. Beyond that duty, the dom made few demands on him. Yes, he was fortunate—although lonely. Living here, cut off from others of his kind, made for an austere and empty existence.

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