David struggled to focus on the maze Samuel had set before him. Moving the snowball with his thoughts as quickly as he dared, he struggled to avoid the flames that constituted the walls. Its size had already been noticeably reduced.
“You are trying to force it.” Samuel’s voice came from behind him. “Magic is not a tool. It is an extension of the self. It is you. You are it.”
David knew this lesson by heart. However, knowing the words and putting them into practice were very different things. Samuel’s presence added a level of pressure that annoyed him. After being a searcher for several years, he thought he should be immune to such anxiety.
“Stop.” Samuel tried to hide his disappointment, but David knew him too well. “You have come very far, but you still have work to do. You cannot let yourself become distracted so easily. And you still need to learn to see the magic as a part of you, rather than a separate thing.” Samuel’s voice softened. “You did make it further than you ever have before. You should be proud of your progress.”
That was typical of Samuel. Chastise and then encourage. Still, David did feel a little better. Samuel had been his guide since the beginning, and there must be some hope if he was still willing to train David.
* * *
Years later, after David had mastered the maze, the two sat down together.
“You are nearly ready.”
David had waited a long time to hear those words, but he kept his excitement in check lest he give Samuel a reason to doubt his own judgment.
After seeing no reaction in his searcher, Samuel continued. “It’s time for you to consider what is next.”
This was not the conversation he had been expecting. “Would I not simply stay here? Help you carry on your work?”
Samuel shook his head. “You have learned much here, yet there is much I cannot teach you. To continue to grow, you must go elsewhere. You must find your own way.”
“I thought you wanted me here. To take over for you eventually.”
The smile on Samuel’s face was big and genuine. “Perhaps someday. You need experience. You need to learn things I do not know. Then, if… when… you do come back, you will bring skills you cannot get here. You will be a better mage.”
David’s mind reeled. “Where will I go?”
“I have a… an old acquaintance. He has a house and has asked after you. He wanted to send you an invitation, but I asked that he let me speak with you. In certain circles, he is well respected. This is a good opportunity for you.”
“So I must leave?”
“Everyone must leave at some time. You have been given a choice, however, and not everyone gets that.”
“But you want me to go.”
“It’s not a question of want. Being around Thomas, the other members of his house, will expose you to other ways of thinking about magic. It will give you experiences that can only deepen your understanding of our art.”
“Good. Resume your studies. We can talk more about this at dinner.”
* * *
At first, the voice sounded far away, and then became almost unbearably loud. It took several moments for his vision to clear. When it finally did, he saw Rebecca standing over him. She seemed much larger than he remembered.
“Good. You made it.”
He tried to ask what happened, but his mouth wouldn’t move.
“Don’t try to speak. Just think what you want to say. Clearly. I’ll be able to hear you.”
It took him a minute to figure out how to think the words without saying them aloud. What’s going on?
“You were attacked by a mana worm. Do you remember?”
“Long story. You were attacked. Nearly died.”
You saved me?
“After a fashion. I managed to trap your spirit before the worm completely devoured it. Unfortunately, your body was seriously damaged, so…”
Her voice trailing off sent a chill down his back. He raised his head a bit to look down at himself. Where his body should have been there was only the body of a stuffed animal.