“Pleeease?” Nethyn whined for the hundredth time in two days, “It’s a once in a lifetime chance, and you owe me for helping you pass your navy exams.”
Cade looked up at the ceiling of the Devil’s Crown, Brastlewark’s most popular pub and the only thing in the city that hadn’t changed face in the six months since he’d received his commission, and prayed to Asmodeus for patience. Asmodeus wasn’t listening.
Grabbing his friend by the tunic he hauled Nethyn across the table until they were nose to nose and hissed, “Use your head, man. I’m an officer in the imperial navy, my brother’s a Hellknight and you’re inviting me to the secret apprenticeship ritual for one of the empire’s most wanted terrorists. Are you off your nut? I should arrest you just for knowing about it.”
With a wary glance around him, Nethyn muttered, “I know. That’s why I need your help. After last month’s little… prank I was put under restrictions not to leave the city, but no one’ll think twice about it if I’m with two of the empire’s most faithful young servants.”
Cade blinked, “You convinced Juno to go? What’d you do, drug him?”
“Better.” Nethyn grinned, “I called in a favor. He’s even agreed to be on his ah, least infernal behaviour…. So, are you coming or not?”
“I don’t know.” Cade frowned, “Seems risky… and treasonous.”
“You sound like Juno.” Nethyn pouted, “All glory to the empire, blah, blah, blah.” He shook his head, “Uncle Ellippios would be so disappointed.”
Cade shrugged, “I can deal with that.”
“Please?” Nethyn begged again, “You know I’ve wanted this my whole life and this is my only shot at it. Adronus Thistleclip only takes a new apprentice once every hundred years.”
“I know. And he’s never taken a human apprentice, remember?”
“Ah.” His friend grinned, “But how many humans have the training I do? It’s my destiny to be a great sorcerer Cade; why else would I be named after the god of magic? Look, I’ve learned as much as I can in this backwater town. Apprenticing to the great Adronus is the next logical step.”
Trying not to gag at the star-struck expression in his friend’s dark eyes Cade sighed, “Well, I suppose it is kind of a once in a lifetime experience… Fine, I’ll go.” He cut off Nethyn’s triumphant grin, “But I have one condition; if we get caught you have to say you dominated me. I won’t lose my commission over this. Understand?”
“Of course!” Nethyn breezed, patting Cade’s cheek, “I promise you won’t regret this! I’ll meet you outside the North Gate at sundown.” He stood to leave, paused and said, “Oh, and Cade? No weapons tonight… and try to find a cloak or something to cover that uniform, okay? Imperial officers aren’t particularly welcome in Adronus’ Glade.”
Cade opened his mouth to deliver a snappy retort but Nethyn had already vanished.
Cade was nervous. He’d managed to scrounge a cloak that hid his uniform and most of his features but he still felt exposed – and vulnerable. He was certain that every member of the no doubt armed rebel crowd could read ‘unarmed property of her Imperial Majestrix’ written across his forehead.
“I thought you said Juno was coming.” He growled through his teeth at Nethyn who stood beside him, practicing his magical parlour tricks.
His friend didn’t even glance up from the tiny magical bonfire he’d coaxed into dancing on his palm, “Oh, get with it. That was a joke.” He smirked, “You know I couldn’t tell him about this. He’d just want to crash the party with all his Hellknight friends.”
Cade clenched his fists and resisted the urge to strangle his cheeky best friend. That sort of violent outburst would surely draw unwanted attention. “But I only –“
“Shh.” Nethyn interrupted, holding up his now-empty hand, “Adronus is here.”
Cade grumbled but fell obediently silent.
An awed hush settled over the crowd. Across the clearing, a white gold light appeared behind the trees, turning them into gnarled silhouettes. It grew and spread steadily, curving around the inner row of trees like water flowing against an invisible shield. In spite of himself Cade was impressed by the show. In a heartbeat the light had completely enclosed the glade and the small gathering of gnomes and humans within.
All eyes snapped to the far side of the clearing where an amethyst-haired gnome was stepping out from between two particularly misshapen trees. He was shorter than average but that didn’t diminish the air of otherworldly power and intelligence that pulsed all around him. His keen amber eyes scanned the crowd, catching for a moment on each face as though he were searching for someone he wouldn’t quite recognize. When his gaze reached Cade those eyes narrowed, their gem-like depths lighting with the same look Uncle Ellippios’ eyes had held every time something new had caught his interest. Cade started to wonder if he’d been recognized and tensed, ready for anything, but the moment ended abruptly and just like that the gnome’s eyes moved on, his gaze slipping over Nethyn and grazing across the rest of the crowd.
Once he’d studied each of the seventy or so candidates in turn, Adronus raised his twisted wooden staff high in the air, the gems and metal trinkets tied to it clinking ominously as he slammed the butt of the stick back into the earth with a tooth-jarring rumble.
After a breath he spoke in a voice much too large for such a small creature, “The Selection has been made. You may disperse.”
Cade was confused and, truth be told, a little disappointed. He glanced at Nethyn, “What just happened? Who did he pick?”
Nethyn tossed a glance up at Cade, the hurt in his black eyes almost palpable, “It’s simple. If you’re able to leave you weren’t chosen. Come on, I think it’s gonna take an all-night visit to the Devil’s Crown to get the taste of this defeat out of my mouth.”
All around them the clearing was emptying quickly, gnomes and humans slipping between the trees in every direction, passing through the lingering barrier of golden light to disappear instantly into the fading haze of lavender twilight beyond. Cade patted Nethyn on the shoulder, “All right let’s go, I’ll buy.”
Flashing him a brief, half-hearted smile Nethyn turned and passed effortlessly through the golden light. Cade tossed a final wary glance at the mysterious amber-eyed gnome who stood, fixed and waiting, on the other side of the clearing, and turned to follow his friend.
He walked straight into a wall.
With a surprised yelp he bounced off the golden light, stumbling backwards and landing firmly on his rump and panicked. Leaping back to his feet he rushed to the deceptively translucent wall of light, pushing at it; desperate to find a way through. On the other side he could still barely make out his friend’s shadowy form as it moved through the woods. Breathless with a fear he’d never felt before he shouted, “Nethyn! Wait!”
A small hand fell on his arm, calm emanating from the touch, “He can’t hear you.”
Cade threw off his cloak, fear making him reckless as he rounded on the gnome, “What’s the meaning of this?” he demanded, “I should warn you, I’m a lieutenant in her Infernal Majestrix’s imperial navy. If you harm me your punishment will be swift and merciless.”
The gnome laughed, clearly surprised and delighted by Cade’s outburst, “Oh yes, you’re perfect… and such a sense of humour too!”
Doing his best to intimidate the giggling little man Cade boomed, “I command you to stop laughing and tell me what’s going on here.”
With a startling quickness the gnome’s hand shot out and snatched a fistful of Cade’s tunic, yanking him down until they were eye-to-eye, “You’re my new apprentice.” He said, all hint of mirth gone from his countenance, “And you’re going to learn everything I have to teach – whether you like it or not.”
“Your apprentice?” Cade frowned, “But… No. You’ve made a mistake. Nethyn’s the one who wanted this honor. I gave up sorcery a long time ago.” The gnome’s eyes glinted with mischief and Cade groaned, “Oh… Nethyn’ll be livid when he finds out.”
Adronus grinned wickedly, “Of course he will… and won’t that be fun!” He started tugging Cade back across the clearing, “Now come along.”
“But –“ Cade mumbled.
The gnome stopped, “Of course, where are my manners? My name is Adronus Thistleclip and you’re Cade son of Armyn, student of Ellippios, but you can call me master and I’ll call you apprentice. Yes, that has a nice ring to it… suitably official… You humans like things official don’t you? I can never remember….”
With a confused nod Cade gave up his struggles and fell into a numb acceptance as he was dragged towards a destiny he never expected.