Wren & Hess
They came from across the country for a shot at the magic academy. Mostly kids with a smattering of mystic talents who thought they had what it took to make it to the top of the Wizard’s League. Most didn’t. Being able to conjure a rabbit out of a hat or turn invisible for six seconds might impress folks down at the village, but it took more than that to win entry into the academy.
Most went home disappointed.
Some stuck around, believing they’d get in the next time. Or the time after that. Or the time after that. If they studied on their own, if they applied themselves, they’d prove themselves worthy. And some were right.
And some ended up dead.
The five failed wizards lay in a circle. Their bodies had been reduced to husks, drained of all their life and innate magic. These desiccated corpses were all that was left, and there were whispers that the circle even destroyed souls.
Constable Hess didn’t know, nor did he care. Lizardmen didn’t worry about souls, but constables did worry about murder. There was a gap in the circle, the place the lone survivor had been standing. The one who had walked away with the stolen power of the five others. Hess could smell the twisted magic in the air. It smelled like burning hair, a scent he’d never been fond of. He didn’t like hair in general, but he lived among mammals, so he’d gotten used to it.
Wren knelt down to take a closer look at one of the corpses. She reached out and almost touched the long gray hair of the body.
A sorcerers’ circle was a dangerous game. A bunch of low level magicians and conjurers gathering together, completing a ritual that would kill one of them and empower the rest. Every participant played the odds that they weren’t the one to end up dead. It was risky, but people did stupid things in the pursuit of power. Especially those who played with magic. This time, the ritual had gone wrong. Five dead. One inheritor. The only question was whether it had been intentional or if the idiots had simply screwed up the ritual.
“Accident or murder?” asked Wren.
“Is there a difference?” said Hess. “They all knew someone was going to die tonight. They all showed up.”
“Stupid kids,” said Wren. Although they might not have been kids. It was hard to tell. Older desperate wizards with waning power weren’t immune to the temptation of the circle.
They left the scene to the alchemists and thaumaturgists, and hit the streets. If an inheritor was smart, they’d lay low for a few weeks. Then they’d slowly reveal their new levels of power, making it seem natural and earned. Wizards who did that were almost never caught. But the power of the circle was heady, enthralling stuff, and anyone who participated was usually dumb enough not to do that.
They checked Enchantment Alley, a whimsical name for a rotten place where struggling wizards waited to be hired for whatever jobs they could find, not all of them legal. Forbidden love spells, dangerous rites, and curses-for hire happened here. As Wren and Hess walked the darkened street, customers shuffled quietly away, wizards retreated to the corners.
They found Turnbuckle the troll magician in his usual spot. Trolls didn’t tend toward much magical talent, but Turnbuckle was better than your average street sorcerer.
“Oh, hell,” he said.
He waved his hands and disappeared in puff of colorful smoke.
“He can’t have teleported far,” said Wren as she darted one direction. “I’ll cover this way.”
“I’ll cover the roofs.” Hess slithered up a wall and found Turnbuckle waiting for him in a quiet corner. “Thought you’d maybe run for real for a moment.”
Turnbuckle frowned, took a tug of his flask. Hess could smell the horrible stuff from here. Trolls drank acid that’d burn a hole straight through any other creature’s gut.
“Thought about it. You know I don’t like you coming to my place of business. I’m happy to throw some information the Tower’s way now and then, but if you do that too often, nobody is going to trust me. Won’t do me or you any good. So let me guess. You’re looking for the new kid. The one who had a big jump in power.”
Hess nodded. “He’s already showing it off?”
“She. And of course she is. She’s an idiot. They all are.” Turnbuckle took another swig. “We’ve all thought about the circle. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. You don’t know what it’s like. It’s like being bound your whole life, of sensing this greatness in you that you can’t quite reach. You think just because I can do a few tricks that it should be enough, but that’s all it is. Tricks. Real power, it’s just out there if you’re willing to take it.”
He wiggled his fingers and conjured a handful of bright blue butterfly. They flew into the air and vanished into mist. “I’d give almost anything to have those last a full minute.” He smiled ruefully. “Almost anything.
“Her name is Bean. Although she’s calling herself Bianca the Bold now, I think. You’ll find her in the slums. You won’t have to look hard.”
“Thanks,” said Hess.
Turnbuckle shrugged. “Don’t mention it.” He transformed into a patch of shadow and slithered away.
They had no trouble finding Bianca the Bold. She was putting on a show at a broken down tavern. When she spotted the constables, Bianca tried vanishing. The thaumaturgists had already thrown up containment wards. Cornered, she tried throwing fireballs and lightning bolts. The spells fizzled against the countermagic of the more experienced constable team. Power mattered, but experience mattered more.
Hess threw the anti-magic manacles around Bean’s wrists. She didn’t fight it.
“I didn’t do it,” she said. “It was Cull. He rigged the circle to kill everyone but one. He told me, but I didn’t believe him.”
“You stepped into the circle,” said Hess.
“I was taking the same risk as anyone.”
“But you’re alive. They’re dead.”
She lowered her head. “They were my friends. You understand, don’t you?”
She mumbled to herself as the constables led her away.
“Hell of a waste,” said Wren. “You all right, partner?”
Hess had little sympathy for those who stepped into the circle. Until he saw them and was reminded how the city might beat a person down until all they had was their desperate, hungry hope for a better tomorrow.
“Come on, Hess,” said Wren. “I’ll buy you a beer. You look like you could use one.”
He nodded as they stepped up to the bar and ordered the strongest drink available to cleanse the stink of rotten magic from his nose.