The fist collided with my jaw, knocking my head back a split second before I knew what was happening. Pain blossomed in my mouth, and warm, coppery tasting blood flowed over my tongue as my teeth sank into my lower lip. I gripped the edge of the wooden healing table in front of me – the table the man was supposed to be tied to – and forced my body to straighten, ignoring the ringing in my ears.
When the fist came at me again, I blocked it with a quickly raised forearm, but the sheer strength of the blow sent me stumbling. My back hit the windowless wall behind me and all the air left my lungs at once. Sinking to the cold ground, I braced myself against the wall with one hand and coughed violently.
Keagan, the Healer to whom I was apprenticed, grabbed the man's wrist and slammed it down against the table. "Restrain him before he tries that again," he ordered with a growl.
Blinking hard, I shakily forced myself to my feet and wiped my bloodied lip on the linen band wrapped tightly around my left wrist. The cloth was already stained brown with dried blood, most of it not my own. I grimaced, but ignored the shiver of revulsion and forced myself to focus on the man writhing on the table instead. There was work to be done.
I mumbled an apology and quickly cast a binding spell, brow furrowed in concentration as the golden magic streamed from my fingertips in wispy strands before joining together to form a tight knit rope. The spell flowed quickly along the struggling limbs of our patient, then shot down, rooting themselves directly into the hard packed earthen floor.
Rose, a fire mage and the only non-Healer of our working trio, grabbed a cord of rope from the lower cabinets on the far wall, then tied the man down correctly. "Are you alright, Esti?"
I flicked my tongue against the cut on my lower lip and fought a grimace. "More embarrassed than anything." When I nodded at Rose, she winked in return. "Thank you."
"Ready to get started?" Keagan's stern voice immediately demanded my attention. When I nodded, my master lay his hands against the struggling man's chest, his fingers locked, palms flat.
I mirrored his pose, my smaller hands steady against the man's sweat soaked forehead, then immediately jerked back as the man's teeth clicked together, dangerously close.
When the thrashing man jerked his head again in another attempt to bite me, Rose gagged him in one well practiced move.
"Thanks again," I said, replacing my hands on the man's forehead, studiously ignoring the way his teeth were visible against the gag. Drool was already pooling out the corners of his mouth. "What's his name?"
"Samuel," Rose answered, gathering the used and bloodied linens around the room. She pointedly looked at Keagan before tossing the rags into a basket in the corner to be cleaned later.
I turned to meet Keagan's eyes for a moment, then dropped them immediately.
"No. I'm sorry, I'm ready."
Keagan didn't reply, but his stern gaze didn't need interpreting.
"Yes. I'm sorry." I was stalling. I was nervous. Keagan expected me to cure Samuel and I knew it, but this would be no ordinary training exercise.
The curse, incendiamentem, could not be cured by anyone other than the most skilled of Healers, and even then they couldn't always manage it. Incendiamentem was dangerous, even to a Healer. Especially to a Healer. Unlike most curses tossed around the eastern section of the city, it had intelligence crafted into it. If found, it would burrow deeper, sending out roots and spreading like poisonous vines.
Even if I managed to located and trap the curse, I also had to find the heart of it before it broke from my grasp, or worse, before it invaded my own body. My own mind.
"I will be with you," Keagan said, placing on large, warm hand on my shoulder. "I will not tell you there is nothing to fear, only that caution makes you wise. We will find success on this day." He replaced his hand on the man's chest, and gave what I knew to be his version of a reassuring smile before closing his eyes.
I watched Keagan's golden power flow from the center of his wide chest and down through his arms to course through his fingers into the man on the table. He'd taken me on as an apprentice when none of the other Guilded Healers would look past my age. He'd given me the opportunity to do what I knew I was called to do. I wouldn't let him down now just because I was afraid.
Taking a deep breath, I pretended my fingers weren't shaking and let my own power flow out of my body and into Samuel, who shivered under our touch.
"Do you remember what you're looking for?" Keagan asked as we both wound our way deeper and deeper into the man's soul where the curse would no doubt be hidden. It was tricky, difficult work, but like all curses, we knew the spell would have anchored itself to the man's soul. It was the only way to change how a person would normally behave or think.
"Darkness," I mumbled, so focused it was almost painful. "A pulsing red center. Grasping tendrils."
We worked together in silence for many long minutes, slowly weaving through the powdery essence of our patient, searching for the poison within.
"Everything okay?" Rose sounded casual, but I heard the underlying sharpness and the way her voice was just a bit too breathy. My friend was nervous.
"Just be ready in case things go south," Keagan replied.
I felt the heat of Rose's fire to my right, and knew she was standing between us, ready for the worst. "I always am."
I fought the urge to step away from the heat. "Let's hope it's not needed."
"I always do."
Through the inner fog, I caught a glimpse of black. Of bubbling fire. Of anger. My shoulders twitched and my heart leapt into my throat, refusing to settle back where it belonged. "I see it."
At once, one of Keagan's large hands wrapped itself around my still linked fingers. His power seemed to burst out of him, wrapping around my own strands to link into and through my power. "I'm here."
I opened myself up to him and felt his power course through my veins. My body practically vibrated with energy, fizzled like I'd just drunk a full bottle of the best wine. The move was incredibly intimate and required the strongest of bonds, but after serving as master and apprentice for three years, it came naturally now.
Remaining where I was, I felt Keagan's power move down along my own until he reached where my consciousness hovered, watching the oily blackness bubble and froth, the crimson center just barely visible within.
"I see it too. Well spotted."
I went practically pink with pride.
"I'll watch this time, but remember, curses are slippery things. It'll seek any escape, even if that means latching on to a new host."
My pride left in a rush, replaced by cold fear. My heart thundered in my chest, and my fingers went cold. "Alone?"
"I'm here," he said. I almost thought he would assure me further, tell me there wasn't anything to fear, but I knew he didn't indulge in soothing lies. "Are you ready?"
Silence. I swallowed hard, shifted my feet, and felt Rose nudge my shoulder. We always had each other's back. I took another deep breath, and pushed my fear away. "Yes."
"Let's get started."
My power flared, no longer slinking around searching for a hidden curse while trying to keep my presence secret. The golden tendrils of magic blazed, then tightened into a tight shining net.
Hovering just behind my power, Keagan readied his own, wider net, ever ready to help if I began to lose control. This was dangerous territory for me, and although I didn't relish the thought, I knew he would gladly lose the man on the table if it meant keeping his me safe.
I shook my head and forced my wayward thoughts back to the now. I would catch it, destroy it, and save our patient. This is what I trained for, every day.
I flung my power forward, causing it to expand like a net thrown over a school of fish. It glowed, flattened, and streaked towards the black and blood red mass that was the incendiamentem curse.
The mass that was the body of the curse pulsed with anger and surged directly at my oncoming power, tentacles stretched towards my. Oily bubbles dripped behind it as it raced to meet me head on.
My heart beat loud in my ears, and every bit of me ached to pull away from Samuel's body, away from the danger. Instead, I pursed my lips together, drew my shoulders in on myself, and maintained course, letting my power spread ever further, ever wider. If the curse wanted to run straight into the cage I was building, then I would let it.
Apparently realizing I wasn't going to back down, the curse dove straight down in an attempt to escape the golden trap streaking towards it. In its blind focus, it didn't see Keagan's own net rising up from below, but I didn't need his help.
I moved quickly, adjusting course to angle downwards and overtook the curse in one smooth, well-practiced motion. My body sang with excited adrenaline even as the edges of my power came forward, then together, forming an unbreakable barrier around the furious mass caught within.
As the golden edges of my power closed and bound together, I felt Keagan bind himself to me again, buoying the cage with his own power as he observed my work.
Within, I came to a standstill. I knew the curse would never escape the walls I'd built around it, but at the same time, the idea of actually trying to remove it made my insides tremble in a decidedly uncomfortable way. The only way to free Samuel from the curse was to destroy the heart of the curse, the red node hidden behind waves of black hatred and grasping tendrils.
"It moves blindly. Set a secondary trap behind it," Keagan whispered.
I focused and formed a golden spike of power within the cage I'd built. Eying the blood red center, I thrust forward.
I lashed out again, and sliced through a lunging tendril.
I attacked again. Another miss.
Every time I created a golden spike of my own, the curse moved away, sacrificing a twisting limb, sometimes even allowing me to strike at part of the bulging mass, but always avoiding a killing blow.
Frustrated, I created four spikes, all coming from different sides and flung them at the curse.
The bubbling core seemed to sink down, condensing upon itself, avoiding three of the four golden spikes. The fourth sank to the center, reaching, pushing towards the heart of the curse.
I grinned, showing all my teeth and pushed down, willing the tip of the spike just a bit further. It was all I needed. Sweat beaded on my brow. Dripped down the edge of my nose.
"Pull back." Keagan's voice was harsh, and he pulled lightly on my hands to reinforce his command.
"Just a bit further." I pushed back against my master's grip, determined to prove I could save our patient. This was my chance. I would be the hero. I would save the man, destroy the curse, doing what even Guilded Healers sometimes couldn't.
Bearing down with all my might, I pushed hard against the sticky blackness… then audibly gasped, my eyes bursting open in shock.
Embedded within the body of the curse, but unable to pierce the heart, my power was trapped. Black tentacles wrapped themselves around the golden rod, squeezing hard enough to crack my defenses.
Bubbling blackness oozed into the cracks, and as it pushed the cracks ever wider, I writhed in pain. My very blood seared within me. My skin was on fire. My breath came in gasps, each more shallow than the last and I shook until my knees gave out.
As I fell, my chin collided with the corner of the table, but still, I couldn't pull my hands away. Couldn't escape from the grasp of the curse.
A wail, so high pitched it was nearly inhuman filled my ears, and I didn't recognize it as my own. My throat went raw with the strain of it, and even still, I couldn't pull away.
"Back!" Keagan's roar could barely be heard over my screams. His own power struck at the oily mass – unrelenting quick strikes from all directions – until at last, the darkness released me from its hold.
I sank to the floor and folded my arms around myself, muffling the remainders of my cries with sheer force of will. I shivered uncontrollably and fought to get control of my breath. My skin was still too hot and my blood still pounded too quickly, but the fire was ebbing away.
"Is she still herself?" Keagan demanded.
"Look at me." Rose shook me by the shoulder and forcefully lifted my chin until it was even with hers. "Open your eyes and look at me. Do it now."
I shuddered again, violently, but found the strength to do as ordered. "I'm still me," I rasped, blinking away the tears that threatened to escape.
"Stop blinking so much and look at me." After a long look, our brown eyes focused on each other, Rose released my chin and pulled my into a rib cracking embrace. "She's fine."
I hugged her back and let the sobs break free again, ignoring the tickle of Rose's silvery hair against my skin. I shut my eyes and let the world disappear, still too full of lingering fear to do anything else.
"I've still got it contained." Keagan's voice cut through my misery and relief.
I swallowed the ball of tears down. "Master?" I hardly ever called him by his title unless another Healer was around.
"The curse did not escape. You may try again." Although his tone was soft, almost apologetic, his words left no room for debate. "Your final examination will be soon. You must be prepared."
"Keagan!" Rose was on her feet in a moment, rushing to my defense. "We nearly lost her this night. She isn't ready!"
A crushing wall of doubt hit me, hard enough to keep me rooted to the floor. Rose didn't think I was ready.
But I had to be ready. My apprenticeship was nearly at its end, and next time, I might not have him there to protect me.
"Yes I am," I said, forcing the words out my raw throat. "Or I will be. I won't fail again."
Rose hesitated, then reached down and pulled me to my feet. After a long look, she pulled me into another hug. "I am always proud of you."
"Thank you. Now let me give you another reason to be." I shot her what was supposed to be a sure-fire grin, but it came off too wobbly to be convincing, so I turned back to Samuel before she could respond. His eyes were bloodshot and too wide. When was the last time he'd blinked?
When my fingers were laced and placed on his forehead for the second time that night, I called my power to me once again and let it flow slowly through me into his body, moving slowly, like honey flowing downhill.
Keagan reached over and placed one hand over my own again, and this time I linked into him, following his trail of consciousness until I came face to face with the frothing darkness of the curse.
"What are you going to do differently this time, apprentice?"
Keagan was rarely so formal with me, and the cause, my own inability to succeed, left me more than downtrodden. Anger bubbled up within me. I snarled as I eyed the curse. I embraced the way my throat ached. The way the slight breeze that came through the only door felt like ice on my too hot skin. The way the blood dribbled out of my lip from where I'd bitten it again when I fell to the floor.
"I'm going to crush it."
A pause. "Crush it?" Keagan's voice was confused. Perplexed even.
"Yes. Crush it. Smash it. Crack it like it cracked me." I built my own cage again, flush against the one my master had held together even as I'd failed so miserably. Then I began to pull my power together, shrinking the walls a little at a time, taking care to ensure there were no holes. No cracks.
"This is not the accepted way, apprentice."
"I can't do it the accepted way," I gritted out. Pulled the walls in on themselves. Bared my teeth at the way the curse struck at me. Grinned at the way it failed to knock me down.
I felt Keagan's power weave through mine, watching my progress and I slowly closed in on the thrashing blackness. "We all have strengths and weaknesses," he said after a moment. "I am proud to know that you will not be held back by yours. A new solution could be invaluable to the Guild Healers who have the same trouble."
"I will not be a weakness." My voice was rough as I clamped down as hard as possible. The squirming oiliness of the curse slid along the walls of my shrinking prison, and yet, I didn't stop until at last, no matter how hard I pushed against the heated hatred of it, I could condense no longer.
"Now what, young Esti?"
"Now I destroy it."
Outside the walls of the prison, I created a large, golden spike, similar to the one I'd used earlier. The one the curse had managed to crack. The one the curse turned against me.
I created a second. Then a third. A fourth. A fifth. I formed more and more golden spikes until the outer walls of the cage was surrounded by them. Until no matter what happened, there was no way I could miss.
I bared my teeth and thrust every single shining spike through the walls, piercing the bubbling mass before it had a chance to react. Three of the spikes found the pulsing heart, and they tore through it.
The curse frothed and shook, pushing ever harder against the walls of the prison I'd placed around it, but I did not relent. I stabbed at it again and again, striking from beyond the walls where it couldn't see me coming.
With one last pulse, the incendiamentem curse imploded, darkness and hatred converging in upon itself until at last, all trace of it was gone.
Beneath my fingers, Samuel stopped thrashing. I opened my eyes and pulled my power back into me, removing my hands from his now clammy forehead.
Keagan clapped me on the shoulder. "Well done, Esti. Most impressive."