Dawn of Darkness - Chapter Three
“No, stop trying so hard. It’ll come to you, you just have to let it. Tessa, you look exhausted. Why don’t you take a break?” Danil kept his voice even, relying on his many years of meditation to keep from losing his cool.
The three women in his class bowed politely, then left the room quickly. This was only their fourth lesson, but Danil was starting to feel the pressure. This wasn’t the mystic Temple, where students had all the time they needed to hone their skills.
It was no more than a tiny, abandoned cottage, repurposed as a small magic school where the village inhabitants came for weekly lessons on how to shield, and where those with a talent for mental magic could learn to hone their skills.
If the New Dawn returned, the simple shields now known by most of the residents wouldn’t be enough to stop them being brainwashed and enslaved again, so Danil pushed them hard.
The teachings of Ezekiel, the Founder who had taught the very first magic in the land, said that everyone possessed a spark of magic. Not everyone could harness it, though, and even those who could had no guarantee of being any good at it.
This meant that much of his efforts would be wasted trying to teach those with no skill, or who would never progress enough to shield with any degree of usefulness. Still, every person he could help was one that might be saved if the New Dawn launched another attack.
That is, if they could convince the villagers that what they were doing was important. So far, none had refused to come, but the effort they were putting in was more to humor the mystics than because they saw the importance of it.
“You’re frustrated,” Bastian commented.
“Well, that’s stating the obvious,” Danil snorted in return. “They’re trying, I know that, but they’re trying too damned hard.”
“You don’t think that has anything to do with the fact that they’re shitting their pants waiting for another attack, and exhausted from trying to run the farms and look after their loved ones?” Bastian kept his face bland, turning so he didn’t have to look Danil quite in the eye while he asked.
Danil might be blind, but it didn’t make him any less intimidating when he was mad as a cut snake. It didn’t help that he was Bastian’s superior.
“What did you say, Bastian?” Danil asked.
Confused, Bastian shook his head. “I didn’t say anything.”
“How kind of you to offer!” Danil exclaimed, a grin spreading over his face.
“Offer? I didn’t—”
“Oh? I could have sworn you just offered to take the next class, show off that sage wisdom a bit. Bloody good idea, my friend. I’ll be down at the watering hole if you need me, eh?” Danil clapped Bastian on the shoulder and walked off, ignoring Bastian’s curses. “Don’t let anything interesting happen while I’m gone!” he shouted over his shoulder.
“Sly bastard,” Bastian grumped to himself when Danil was gone. “I can’t believe I fell for that.” He set about tidying the room, trying to ignore the butterflies in his stomach. He hadn’t taught a class before—hell, he was only a student himself a few short months ago.
“Hello? Master Danil?” Bastian looked up to see Lilly at the door.
The little nature magician was barely twelve, but three months spent hiding in the city streets as she watched her town fall apart had aged her beyond her years.
“Sorry, Lilly, you just missed him. I think he’s gone off to find some lunch.” Bastian pulled two more chairs into the circle, hoping that the five men Danil had pissed off last week would all return.
“Oh. I came to see if he still needed any help with the class. Is it not on, Master Bastian?”
Bastian frowned. “Lilly, please. Julianne is our only Master, and she’s told you that you don’t even have to call her that. We’re not your masters, none of us are.”
She ducked her head and turned to go.
“Wait! I mean… I’m taking the class.” Bastian wiped sweaty palms on his robe, cursing his bad luck that it was this class Danil had stranded him with. “I’m taking the class today. You can go play for a bit if you like.”
Despite her young age, Lilly had often acted as a mediator between the newcomers and the townspeople. Despite the role of the mystics in liberating the villagers, they still viewed mental magic with suspicion.
“Of course, Ma— err, Bastian.”
He gave her a grateful smile as footsteps alerted him to the student’s arrival.
“Master Bastian, Tollin is birthing one of his sheep, so he said to tell you he can’t make it today.” Francis twisted his hat in his hands as if expecting to be yelled at.
Bastian couldn’t blame him. Last time, Danil had become so frustrated during their lesson he had nearly snapped the man’s head of. He had a suspicion the sheep was more excuse than anything, but didn’t push the issue.
“It’s fine, Francis. You’re all here by choice, you don’t owe us an explanation if you miss a lesson.” Bastian gesture to the seats. “And please, don’t call me Master.”
The men filed in and sat, looking around nervously. “Where’s Danil?” Jarv asked gruffly.
“Couldn’t make it,” Bastian said without explaining.
“Got sick of us, did he? I don’t blame him. We can’t shield for shit.” Mack leaned back in his chair, unworried. “If I were him, I wouldn’t waste the time either.”
“Then why are you here?” Bastian asked mildly.
“S’pose even a slim chance is better than none. If those bastards come back, I don’t want to be licking their boots again. Rather kill myself first.”
Bastian nodded. “Danil isn’t sick of you; he’s sick of himself. Back at the Temple, we go through these exercises over years, slowly coaxing the power out of people. It took me a whole season just to learn how to shut my bloody head up long enough for a basic meditation, and I was dying to learn.”
“But you’re an expert now, aren’t you?” Mack asked. “I mean, you helped fight off those bastard Dawners.” Dawners was the name given to those of the New Dawn.
“Barely,” Bastian laughed. “I passed the last of my tests just before winter. I’m just a baby compared to Danil, and a worm next to Julianne.” He left the honorific off her name, knowing she wanted the town folk to call her by name, not her title.
“So, he left the baby to teach us?” Jarv looked skeptical.
Bastian nodded, trying to act confident. “He’s low on sleep, and mad as a bear. He knows his teaching skills are out of date because he hasn’t held a class in over two years. And he knows that his failure is putting you at risk.” Bastian met each man’s eyes, one by one. “He’s trying. Trying and failing. That’s why he’s so frustrated.”
“He’s a good man; we know that.” Lewis spoke quietly. “Our heads might be broken, but we can see his heart is in the right place. Maybe that’s why some of us snap back at him. We see him trying, and we just can’t keep up.”
Bastian pressed his lips together, breathing deeply. This was the most conversation either of the mystics had gotten out of any of the men, except maybe Francis. “Maybe we all need to take a step back. This isn’t the kind of thing you can force.”
Then, he narrowed his gaze on Lewis. “But you’re not broken. Danil has examined all of you, cleared you for learning. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. You four were the first to get that ok. You know what that means?”
The four men exchanged confused glances.
“You’re strong. You had an entire group of psycho mind fuckers get in your heads, rummage around and screw things up in there. They did it for months! And despite that, you’re still ok. Guys, that’s incredible!” Bastian’s voice rose as he let his excitement show.
Lewis frowned. “You sure you’re not just saying that to make us feel less shitty about all this?”
Bastian raised his eyebrows and spread his hands, as if inviting Lewis to examine the proof himself.
“Boy has a point,” Mack said. “Either way, I got a field what needs some work. We gonna do this or what?” He leaned forwards in his seat, face creasing as he tried to slip into a meditation.
Bastian bit his tongue, then cursed at himself. If Danil wants me to run this class, I’ll damn well run it my way.
“Not like that,” he said. Mack sat up, startled. “You’re trying too hard. It’s… it’s like a pretty girl. You go in with a glower and start demanding she dance with you, you’re gonna go home alone. You have to ease in, gently.”
“Last time Mack eased into a girl she threw him off a building,” Jarv snorted. “What, you never wondered why he was so ugly? She rearranged his face!”
Mack did have an unusually asymmetrical face. Bastian let out a chuckle, but stopped at Mack’s sad look of defeat. “Wait. You mean he wasn’t joking?”
“Oh, it weren’t like that! Her pa came home early, and she was so eager to hide me, she weren’t still in the downstairs bedroom.” He grimaced as Bastian laughed even harder. “Broke my nose and half my jaw on some stupid statue her Ma had on the front lawn.”
Bastian’s lungs heaved, trying to catch his breath. “Bitch’s britches, Mack. That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!”
Mack turned up one corner of his mouth, a smile that had just a hint of pride to it. “I dare say so, Bastian. I dare say so.”
“Old papa Jefferson felt so bad he paid the surgeon to fix it up and didn’t even cut his balls off for diddling his daughter,” Francis piped up. “Now, that’s an achievement to be proud of. When Jefferson caught young Hannity in her room, the kid came out with one bean halfway to his throat and the other one in his left boot, and I don’t think he ate sausages for a year after.”
With that, the whole room fell into loud, raucous laughter. “Oh, hell, I’m glad Lilly wasn’t here for that one,” Bastian whimpered as he wiped the tears from his face.
By the time they had themselves under control, their lesson time was half over.
“So, we just ease into it, right?” Lewis asked.
“Sounds easy. Or it would if I knew what the fuck that meant,” Jarv grumbled.
Bastian sighed. Danil had been driving most of the students, but these men especially. As victims of the mind control spell the New Dawn had mastered, they were the most vulnerable if it happened again. After a forced period of rest, they had been deemed strong enough to try using the magic that was innate to all.
However, their eagerness and Danil’s impatience both worked against the magic itself. Mental magic required a calm mind, an inner stillness that was more elusive the harder it was fought for.
“Let’s try something different,” Bastian said. He thought back to the very first time he used mental magic.
It had been after class. A month of training, trying as hard as these men to force his will over something elusive and intangible. Finally, one afternoon it had happened, and not at all how he had expected.
Tired, crabby and sick of the press of people that always seemed to be around, he had snuck off up the mountain. He hadn’t gone far, just enough that the air didn’t smell like bread and the view over the Temple made it look like another world.
He had made himself comfortable in the crook of a tree branch and almost fell asleep, listening to the birds and letting his mind drift. That’s when it had happened—a sense of oneness had crept over him as his breathing settled and the universe became just an extension of his fingertips.
Bastian blinked, clearing his suddenly-white eyes and letting go of his magic.
“Let’s try it with whiskey,” Mack suggested.
Bastian grinned. “Actually…” He walked over to Annie’s liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle of amber liquid. “I’m not getting you drunk, just loosening things up a bit.”
He poured a shot for each of them and watched each man down it with pleasure. Francis had told him a few days ago that the New Dawn had destroyed most of the alcohol in the village, probably because it could make the effects of mind control unpredictable.
“Now, instead of trying to make the magic happen, let’s take a few minutes to meditate. You’ve been practicing every day, haven’t you?” He eyed the men.
Mack looked away, pretending to examine the drapes. Lewis shrugged. Jarv grinned and nodded eagerly and Francis stayed quiet, knowing as well as Bastian did that he hadn’t practiced once.
“That’s fine,” Bastian said easily.
Mack, Lewis, and Francis let out sighs of relief, glad to be spared the tongue lashing Danil was prone to giving when they admitted they hadn’t been putting any extra effort into learning to shield.
They settled back in their chairs, eyes closed, hands limp in their laps. One minute passed, then another as Bastian skimmed their minds.
It was no surprise they had trouble letting go of their thoughts. Each man had been through so much pain and loss over the previous months. Bastian withdrew from Jarv’s mind, which was surprisingly clear and right on the edge of expanding into a true meditation. He didn’t want to inadvertently distract him at the critical moment.
He pushed his mind out to Francis, whose face was pulled into a slight frown as he tried to force his mind blank. Bastian watched him push thoughts of his wife away over and over again.
Danielle had been mind-controlled into thinking the growth in her throat was cured by the New Dawn. Bastian knew that wasn’t possible, not for someone with mental magic. Healing was the realm of the druids.
She had died just a few days after Julianne and her people had liberated the town, the growth now so large it strangled her. Francis had laid her body, thin and frail after two weeks of being unable to swallow, to rest in the small family graveyard. He had vowed to destroy the New Dawn if it killed him to do it.
I will burn them for what they did, Francis thought, unaware that Bastian was listening in.
Uncomfortable eavesdropping, Bastian pulled away just as Francis’s fingers twitched. As Bastian turned back to Mack, something sparked in the corner of his sight. He looked back to see a tiny flame flickering in Francis’s upturned palm.
“Fuck!” Francis snatched his hand up and shook it, his eyes wide with panic. Bastian missed the telltale change in color that happened when someone used physical magic like that. “What the fuck was that?”
The others jumped and when Bastian, bemused at the turn of events, looked to Mack, his heart gave an excited thump. The man’s eyes glowed white.
“Uh, Mack? You feeling ok there, bud? You look a bit…” Jarv’s face was almost as white as Mack’s eyes, which cleared as he focused on his friend.
“What?” Mack asked, seemingly unaware of what he’d just done.
It was too much for Bastian, who felt a bubble of laughter rise from his belly. His four students looked on as their teacher dissolved into hysterical laughter.
“Danil…” he gasped, wiping tears from his eyes. “Danil will never believe I got two of you to cast magic!”