Flight is easy. A rock can fly, with a bit of help. A man on a clifftop can fly. It's at the other end, during the transition from airborne to earthbound, where bones break and iife ends. Getting airborne is easy. The magic is in surviving the experience. --Xart Oglevert, "Flight"
I saw something move in front of me, and unveiled my brighter light for a better look. The rat girl looked me right in the eye, and froze; I shouted, "Run, or die!" She remained frozen.
I was supposed to kill rats-- or ratlings, or vermites, or skaven, or rat goblins, or whatever you wanted to call them-- out of hand. That's what the snakes who paid the academy where I was trading unsavory tasks for credentials wanted. But they were still PEOPLE, and I wasn't willing to kill them without a warning. And the warning usually got them to either run or charge, and if they charged, I could kill them with a mostly clear conscience. But not this girl; she just stood there, staring at me. I stared back.
She was pretty, for a rat. She was clean, and her clothes were clean and in good repair, and she had a sort of domesticated animal charm. And she just stood there.
Something made me glance over my shoulder, and I realised I had been had; three rats were coming up behind me with spears leveled. I threw a Mage Blast at the rat to my right; there was a blue flash, and my target collapsed in a clatter of charcoal. I drew my knife underhanded with my left hand, and put my back to the wall.
The center rat should have pulled back so that he and his surviving ally could attack me simultaneously, but he didn't see that, and charged. I parried his thrust with the knife against my forearm, pivoted left, and grabbed the spear with my right hand. I kept turning and stabbed backward with the knife. It was a flash move, something I didn't really have the skill to try, but I was desperate, and it almost worked. It would have disembowelled a human sized opponent, but against this rat, it caught him in the throat and the blade stuck.
I probably would have tried to free my knife, and gotten killed for it, but my turn had given me a clear view of Pretty Girl, who was about to heave a javelin at me. I fired a Blast at her, and realised as I did so that I didn't have the energy for it; I felt the spell pull the addtional needed energy out of my blood. I didn't quite scream. I didn't quite faint.
Fortunely my last opponent had been sufficiently startled by Pretty Girl's fate that he didn't skewer me while I was distracted. I had dropped the knife to cast the spell, but still had a grip on Second Rat's spear. I brought it up to ready as smartly as I could, and faced Third Rat.
It occurred to me that Third Rat had no idea how hurt I was, or that I was hurt at all. He had just seen me reduce two of his friends to charcoal, and fatally stab another. And I DID outweigh him by two to one...
"Run. Or. Die." I growled. He ran. I managed to stay on my feet until he was out of sight.
I didn't start out to be a rat hunter, or a sorcerer at all. The first goal I had in life was to have webbed feet. All of my friends had webbed feet, and it seemed like a reasonable aspiration. It wasn't, but it seemed so to a small child.
I have no idea how my infant self ended up nearly dead in the bottom of a troll's lunch sack. The part of my story that I know began when the troll came upon my foster mother's village, and offered to trade me for some multiple of my weight in fresh fish. I am not sure of the multiplier; it varied with Kolchan's mood. If she was angry with me, it was two, and she had been cheated; if she was proud of me, it was four or five, and the best deal she had ever made.
Kolchan named me Zhanhtar, which quickly got shortened to "Zhanh", which translates, more or less, to "Pinky". When you are an elf living among frog-goblins, the color of your skin is your most obvious characteristic. Well, that and the lack of digital webbing, but they called me "Klytohn", "Webless", too.
My childhood was... Well, it was. I had a foster mother who liked me well enough, most of the time, and plenty of playmates who were only moderately abusive in response to my ineptitude. I have since learned that I was, by most standards, an exceptional swimmer, but I lived among goblins who could literally swim like fish.
I was not yet an adolescent when my life among the frogs came to an end. Grezhakh, an orcish sorcerer, had heard a rumor of an elvish child who lived among the frogs, and came looking for me. He must have liked something he saw, because he offered Kolchan an ounce of gold for me, and she took it. It was more money than she, or anyone else in the village had ever seen before.
When you cast a spell, you pull a small amount of energy out our your aura, initiate the spell, and then let it go. The spell then pulls the energy it needs. ALL of the energy it needs. If there isn't enough in your aura, it pulls it out of your blood. Blood that is robbed of magic dies. Having dead blood in your veins HURTS. If you have enough dead blood in your veins, you die too.
It had taken me about five hours to walk out to the place where Pretty Girl and her friends had ambushed me; it took more than three days to get back to the third rate sorcerer's school that housed my bed. The other senior apprentices had already gone to bed before I dragged myself in. I was hurt, exhausted, hungry, and filthy. I dealt with the filth, then collapsed into my bed.
I staggered into the school's dining room for the midday meal, and settled down with a bear-sized serving of beef stew. Someone sat down across the table from me, and I looked up to see Chelloc, one of the two friends I had at the school. He looked sad, and he was staring at the fresh burn scars on my left wrist. I swallowed my current mouthful and grinned.
"I cast a Blast on deficit; it turns out when you cast a deficit through a focus, you don't pass out, but the focus goes incandescent. The bracelet was wood, and disintegrated. If it had been bone or ivory, I might have lost the hand." I shrugged. "Grezhakh never told me about that." I took another mouthful of stew.
Chelloc stared into my eyes; he stilled looked sad. "Thalla's dead, Zhanh. The second night you were gone, Pelosh cornered her, and after a while she slapped him in the face, and he challenged her to a duel, and you weren't around to champion her. We didn't know where you were, or even if you would ever be back. So they fought, and he killed her."
I stared at Chelloc and kept eating my stew. Thalla was my other friend at the school; she and Chelloc had broken into First Circle and been promoted to Senior Apprentice at about the same time that I entered the school. I was already Second Circle, but needed the journeyman's credential, so I was officially a Senior Apprentice, too. This meant that we were all in the same duelling class, and the school heartily approved of student duels. I hated them, so I made it known that I was willing to champion anyone who was challenged unfairly. That pretty much ended Apprentice level duels, and might have saved a few lives, since duels were occasionally fatal.
Pelosh was the most senior of the apprentices, and an aspiring rake. Thalla was pretty and inexperienced. Pelosh tried to bully her into his bed, and she slapped him. He challenged, I stood as her champion, and he stood down. And now it had happened again, and I hadn't been there, and Thalla was dead. Duelling deaths were usually accidental, but I knew Pelosh; he had enough of an edge in skill over Thalla that her death could only have been deliberate.
Chelloc continued to stare at me. I finished my stew, wiped the bowl with a piece of bread, and looked back at Chelloc. "Let's go talk to Pelosh." I got up, he got up, and we went hunting. It wasn't hard; Pelosh was loud. I assumed that expected me to challenge him, and that he had some maneuver planned that would put me up against someone who could take me out. So I didn't challenge him.
Pelosh was a full time student from a rich family; I had spent most of the last dozen years on the deck of a ship, and had learned the art of insult from the sailors of many nations. I lit into him verbally. I insulted his intelligence, his virility, his parentage, and his hygiene. Once I got Pelosh's friends laughing at him, it was only a matter of time. I told him repeatedly all he needed to do to shut me up was to challenge me, and eventually he did. I smiled, thanked him, and said, "Accepted. No rules, right now." And then I blasted him to ash and went off to have another bowl of stew.
Years later, Grezhakh described the impulse that led him to purchase me as insanity engendered as vengeance from a lifetime of unadopted cats. But he found that I was intelligent and obedient, and the challenge of turning me into something useful appealed to him.
For my part, Grezhakh terrified me. He outweighed the two largest goblins in my village together, had large, sharp tusks, and a deep, gravelly voice that seemed to have come right out of my nightmares. And that was BEFORE I knew that he could call fire from thin air. I spent the first few days in a sort of trance, too lost and frightened to do anything more than do exactly what I was told.
Grezhakh dragged me to the nearest town and poured civilization into me. Over the course of the first year he managed to turn a near feral and profoundly ignorant adolescent whose only possession was a tattered loincloth into a tolerable valet who not only wore shoes and clothing, but knew how to clean and repair them. Gradually my fear metamorphosed into respect and, even more gradually, affection.
Once I was useful, Grezhakh began to wonder just HOW useful I might become, and he started teaching me to read. That went well, so he started me on algebra, and THAT went so well that he decided to teach me Draconic, which was miserable. Grezhakh assured me that the first lessons in Draconic are ALWAYS miserable, even for dragons who are raised to it, but that was small comfort for what seemed like pointless torture.
And then one day he gave me a crystal about the size of my thumb. It was shaped like a thick-waisted sand timer with rounded ends. He had me hold it in an open palm, touched it, muttered something, and it began to glow brightly. My eyes went wide.
"Master," I stammered, "Are you going to teach me spells?"
Grezhakh didn't quite growl. "Hedge wizards learn spells," he said. "Sorcerors learn magic. You have the language; make your own spell. Or don't you want to be a sorcerer?"
The School of the Clever Monkeys is the premier sorcerer's academy in the city of Spajve, if you're a mammal. The name was forced on the school by the city's reptilian overlords; among the snakes, "clever monkey" is a deadly insult, implying social and intellectual inferiority, bad hygience, and poor taste. In the larger world, "Clever Monkeys" is regarded as a third-rate school with a first-rate library, which was fine with me. Also, it was where it needed to be when I needed it to be there. I had agreed to provide the school with two years of miscellaneous service in exchange for a journeyman's credential, room and board, and access to the library. I did not suspect that "miscellaneous service" would consist of roaming the city's sewers and catacombs in search of rat-goblins to kill.
I had 26 days to go on my contract when my tally reached 1000 rats, and I decided that enough was enough and stopped hunting. I made the most of my library privileges during those last few days, and also said my goodbyes to Grezhakh's books. There weren't that many of them, but a fifty pound library was still far too large for a single impoverished person on foot. Still, I couldn't bring myself to sell then, and left the ones I didn't keep as a long term loan to the Clever Monkeys.
I held onto the Draconic Grammar that had been my companion through a decade of magic study, as well as an horrific necromancy text that happened to have more information on anatomy, disease, and poison than any other single volume I had seen. And then there was "Flight", which I simply couldn't leave behind, even though it I never expected to get any use from it. Fortunately, it was a fairly small book.
The day came, and I met with the head monkeys: The head master of the school, and the two lead instructors. They thanked me for my "exemplary efforts" as a rat catcher, and then started to argue amongst themselves as to whether or not I actually deserved the credential they had promised me, the credential I had earned before I had ever set foot in their school. It took me a moment to realize what they were up to, which saved me from reacting in any obvious way. I listened attentively to the discussion in front of me, and played absently with the focusing bracelet on my left wrist; the burn scar under it itched occasionally.
They were planning to try to hold onto me for another year or two. They liked my service, or had made enough money from it, that they didn't want to let me go, now that I had acquired so much skill at the job. I considered reacting in anger, but thought better of it; each of them was far out of my class, magically.
I looked up and watched them babble, and realized that, before me, rat catching had always been a punishment detail. These three had been good students; they probably had less tunnel time among them than I had logged in the first month. They thought of me as their pet monster; maybe I needed to convince them that I wasn't domesticated. I kept my eyes on them, and worked the bracelet off my wrist, then set my arm on the table in front of me so that the scar was clearly visible.
The discussion stopped as each of them in turn noticed the scar. "That's quite a burn," the headmaster said.
"It's a focus burn."
"From a duel?"
I shook my head. "Rat fight."
"And you made your way back to the school after that?"
I shrugged. "First I dealt with one more rat, and THEN I came back here." I put the bracelet back on.
He nodded. "It has been our pleasure to have you as a student here. If you will give me your token, I will update it."
I nodded back, and gave him the token. "The pleasure has been mine."