Cillian was hunched over in the common room nook, nose deep in the Gnæus Codex again while Vivian and Blarney sat by the bay window, watching the finches and linnets chirruping against the twilight sky.
“He’ll keel over like the Vermillion Mage, that one,” Blarney snickered, glancing over his shoulder at Cillian. “Right at his desk by candlelight, yeah.”
Cillian overheard him and shifted uneasily. His eyes darted for an exit. Being around Blarney made Cillian uncomfortable, never mind the rare times when Blarney gave him unwanted, extra attention. He often wondered why he bothered to study here. There were twenty four other rooms in the mansion. He supposed being around his fellow apprentices, despite never talking to them, nor them to him, gave him strange comfort.
“Oh hush,” Vivian scolded Blarney, then turned to Cillian, “don’t listen to him. It’s all rumours and rabbits, I say. That nasty business with the Vermillion Mage. There’s no official confirmation on the ley network. I checked again this morning.”
Cillian liked Vivian. She wasn’t necessarily kind to him, but she didn’t go out of her way to be mean to him either. For Cillian, that was all he could ask of most people in his life.
“But it is possible, isn’t it…” Cillian stated more than asked. And if it were a question, it was thrown into the invisible sands of existence, fleeting and inscrutable.
“Well,” Vivian said earnestly, “I suppose anything is possible, especially in the realm of Magick. I guess you could die from exhaustion… but, it can’t possibly happen to us, can it? We’re apprentices after all. Our masters would stop us if we went too far, wouldn’t they?”
Unlike Cillian, Vivian asked rhetorical questions that answered themselves. She was sure about her words, judgments and beliefs.
“That’s what they want you to believe,” Blarney interrupted again, not helping to settle Cillian’s nerves. “You think the guild would publicize the death of an apprentice if any one of us little fuckers died under their ward? Hell no. We’re expendables. Another forty hundred aspiring warlocks and witches on their list, ready to go the moment one of us dropped off, yeah? I knew exactly what I signed up for when I got this gig. You two should know better too. It’s mage up or die tryin’.”
Cillian watched Vivian clam up. It was true. Any one of them could be gone in a month, next week or even tomorrow. The three of them had gotten into the most prestigious guild in the realm. Out of thousands of hopefuls, only three were selected at any given time.
It also had a high attrition rate. Many entered, few left unscarred and unbroken. A lot of failed apprentices went home diseased, disabled or even physically disfigured for life.
And in it’s 1,024 year history, only a-hundred-and-seven apprentices attained the venerable status of True Mage. Their portraits, painted by mimetic magick, forever framed in the long hallways of Exeter House. It was the most hallowed status a magician could ever achieve in their nearly immortal lives. Those who did went on to become the greatest in the world. Pioneering. Breaking new ground. Reaching new heights and delving into depths previously thought impossible. Ennis the Explorer. Wyn the Warrior. Izumi the Innovator. The Great General Godiva. Whyll the Wildwalker.
And the Vermillion Mage.
The Vermillion Mage, nee Nobu Tsukuda, born in Kanagawa in 1991 was one of the most unique, if not the strangest student to be accepted inside the gilded halls of Exeter House. He received the letter at age eight, the youngest the guild had ever extended an invitation to, passed all seven deadly trials with eschewing ease and went on to a decade of dedicate study under headmaster Gurloës, surviving over twenty students who dropped out or simply vanished.
And although long forgotten by the fickle ley network, amongst the much more rigorous magick community, what Nobu and Gurloës actually studied during their decade together is still a subject of debate to this day.
Had they unlocked gates to new planes? Solved the Poincaré conjecture several years before Perelman? Patented a new diagnostic tool for ancient witchcraft ingredients?
What is know for a fact is Gurloës resigned from his position as headmaster at Exeter House shortly after Nobu attained True Mage. Both became secretly wealthy, but well hidden behind an accretive wall of blind trusts, corporations and foundations. And Nobu went on further to become the stuff of legends, so to speak, as the Vermillion Mage.
The Vermillion Mage was our Steve Jobs, Cillian thought. That’s the best and perhaps the only way to put it. He disrupted how the ley network, formerly thousands of fragmented clusters, and turned it into a global one. He converted the entire community of mages to a currency we could call our own, the æthercoin. He changed how we used portals to get around by standardizing warren lines.
Like his human counterpart, the Vermillion Mage had a fascist, totalitarian vision of how things should be and forced the rest of the world into its narrow ideal. But the real magic in all this was the fact that he could and actually did it.
Large swathes of the community complained, no doubt. But when your only argument is that magick is supposed to be organic, chaotic and random… and the Vermillion Mage was making everything formulaic, efficient and frankly, reliable, well, mages can’t have that.
Cillian was ashamed to admit it, but the only reason he was at the Exeter House, in spite of his stuttering fear was because of the Vermillion Mage. He had decided long ago that he’d rather live a life one-hundredth as interesting as his hero than to wisp through a quiet unknown life.
Mage up or die tryin’, as Blarney says.
The sound of glittering falling stars broke the silence. It was Vivian’s notebook. A news update from the ley network.
Vivian picked up her cerulean-dyed leather-bound notebook, opened it to the first flyleaf and read the transforming ink. The color drained from her face. Cillian saw this and knew right away what she had read. The Vermillion Mage was truly dead.
“Oy. Go on, Miss Vivian Marie. Tell us the news,” Blarney said. “We want to know, yeah?”
“The Vermillion Mage was found dead this morning in his private study,” Vivian began. “It appears to have been death by exsanguination, as he was found bleeding out of all nine holes…”
“Ugh. That is nasty,” Blarney grimaced.
“The floor, desk and the codex he was studying,” Vivian continued. “was covered in his blood. The actual cause of death is known at this time reports the investigators.”
“What was he studying?” Cillian asked. “Does it say?”
“Hold on. He is survived by his parents Kenzuo and Sachi Tsukuda… sisters Nariko and Nozomi… he founded the Ichijiku corporation, co-founded the Gurloës-Tsukuda foundation… blah blah blah… built the infrastructure for today’s global ley network… has 58 patents to his name… blah blah blah… OK… here we go…
“It is believed that at the time of his death, he was studying the Gnæus Codex for a new project.”
Vivian set her bug-eyes on me, her jaws slackened in fear.
Blarney chortled. “Isn’t that what Master Alcaeus has you working on?”
Cillian looked down at the pages in his tome and saw a drop of blood blossoming in the forest of text. He felt another one coming. ☣