“Focus, Mulin,” the voice whispered. His mother’s voice. “Feel the fire within. You have brought fire to wood; there is more of earth in this rock, but there is more of fire as well. Coax it forth; bind it to your will.”

Mulin stared into the brazier. The soot-blackened metal was home to a small lump of lignite, brown coal. For the past two hours, that coal had sat there, stubbornly cold, with not so much as a flicker of flame.

He was sore from sitting in one place, his head ached with the strain of concentration, and his hands holding the brazier were shaking, craving a rest.

He growled. His brother had breezed through this exercise without a moment’s difficulty; he himself, however, had taken a week to even ignite a piece of wood. Everyone said he was supposed to be magically gifted, but at the moment he was finding it difficult to believe.

But losing his temper wouldn’t help. He swallowed, and took a deep breath.

To his surprise, his mother crooned, “No, no. Fire rages, Mulin. Fire is the angriest of the elements. Perhaps anger will bring you into better harmony with it. Let it come; let it flow through you…”

Well, nothing else had worked. It was worth a try.

He remembered the frustration of that first week. Kralin had cycled all the elements through one another on his second day; Mulin hadn’t even brought a spark to a bit of dry wood. Everyone had been sympathetic. It might have been better if they had been scornful.

He remembered the joy in Kralin’s eyes as his twin – junior by a few minutes; Mulin’s hand had been the one to puncture their egg – had tapped the flow of raw magic and felt it buoy him. He remembered seeing that joy falter, when Kralin had realized just how much difficulty Mulin was having.

All the rest was vexing. But by all the frigid hells, he would not allow this… this rock to mar his brother’s happiness for even a moment.

He snarled, staring down into the bowl of the brazier. But the waver in his vision was anger, not heat distortion. Still it sat there, ignoring him.

Mocking him. Spurning his every effort.

He shifted his grip again, balancing the brazier in one hand like a bowl, clenching the other into a fist until his claws dug into his palms. Rage put a red cast of blood over his vision. “Burn, curse you!” he shrieked, and with the full force of his wrath, he commanded again, “Burn!”

As though his yell were fanning an ember, it did.

A puff of flame at last awoke in the brazier, leaching out of the ruddy rock. It did not falter, as the flame which he had brought to the kindling; it billowed, gaining life of its own, coiling in the air completely apart from what should have been its fuel. Astonishment tugged at his mind; he swept it aside, muzzle still curled in a snarl. Too long this thing had defied him; now he clung to an anger that verged on hate, lifting his fist, and the fire rose as well, drifting away from the brazier to coil around his arm like a living serpent, crackling with searing heat.

“Yes,” his mother’s voice husked, tense with excitement. “Good, good. Now command it – will it to do as you wish.”

He did not give up his anger, but he brought it into focus. So too did the flame coalesce, gathering again into a flickering ball, balanced very nearly atop the point of one extended finger. He stared at it, at the fruit of his labours, at the thing that had taken him so much time to achieve.

And he cast out his arm with a yell, fingers spread.

The flame shrieked out to the centre of the workroom, and there it detonated, an expanding wash of flame that dissipated and vanished, leaving only a wash of hot air to pass over him, and an echoing thunderclap.

He stared at the place it had been, white-hot in its final moment, the afterimage still shimmering in his eyes, and panted, his anger finally subsiding.

When both the image and the ire had faded, he looked down into the brazier.

All that was left of the coal was a scattering of ash, and that sparser by far than mere burning would have left it.

“Very good,” his mother said, moving into the light with a grin and a sweep of her spade-tipped tail. “I know you’ve been frustrated by your pace, Mulin, but Kralin didn’t manage so thorough a burn on his first success with the coal; he ignited it within the brazier and that was that.”

“What use,” he sighed, putting the brazier down and leaning back at last, “if I can’t summon it readily?”

“I think I understand.” She sat on the other side of the small table from him, taking up the flask and pouring the contents into two chalices. “He will do well with the more studied disciplines; your own gift seems more instinctive. This would serve you very well indeed as a battlemage, but there are other fields as well where such clarity of response will be useful. We’ve been teaching you to rule the magic directly; that is what many find effective, and Kralin is quite successful with it. For you, what may work better is to rule your emotions first, and let the magic follow. I do hope you find meditation less tedious than your brother, though…”

Mulin winced. “It’s not my favourite activity. But maybe with practise…” What? He might come to like it? He might get to parts that were simply more likable? He took up the chalice on his side, and sipped at the tea.

“On the other hand,” his mother went on, “perhaps you would be well-served with a catalyst.”

He looked over. “A catalyst?”

She dipped her muzzle, crimson eyes focused on nothing in particular. “It’s not uncommon, for the greater talents, that much of their potential is locked away. In the old days, they would have been dismissed as simply untalented; now, we know better how to tell that the potential is there. If you are exposed to a strong flow of mana – like that through the Nexus in the mana font – your own store of power might resonate with it, and break free of its prison.”

“The mana font?” In spite of himself, a thrill of excitement went through him. He’d heard of it, of course; every child learnt in school of the great device which tapped the power of the living rock and excited magic from the very air, pouring it out for the city to tap – both mages and mage-crafted devices took advantage of that flow.

He’d been curious enough to read about its workings, about the steam turbines that fed the great wheels. Those wheels had spell-forms on them that might have been used to turn them, except that the forms were inverted; the turbines spun them, and forced power through those spell-forms – backwards.

She smiled. “Come; rest a while, let your mind regain its focus. I’ll make arrangements, and we can go there this afternoon.”

Mulin barely noticed his lunch. Kralin was envious; he’d had no need for that exposure for his own sake, and wasn’t doing any great crafts that needed such intensity, and wouldn’t for quite some years. He would be along in the gallery, certainly, and visitors were freely invited to tap the flow there; but it wouldn’t be the same as being right in the Nexus, the very source from which all the power flowed.

“You must tell me what it’s like,” he urged with a breathless grin. “You should be well paid back for my head start, at least!”

Mulin couldn’t help but grin back. His frustrations seemed to have all dropped away since their mother had raised the idea.

And then the time came. They trekked to the fine districts at the centre of Druumat, and from there they went down to the deepest levels. Magelights gave way to torches – so close to the font, the raw power tingled in the air, enough to overwhelm such simple devices and to quicken Mulin’s heart. How he must have goggled when they came to the deepest chamber and saw the great structure spread out before them, lit from below by the gloomy glare of magma.

They went in. Kralin and their father stayed at the inner gallery; their mother brought Mulin on from there, led by a robed, black-skinned Nightkin into the heart of the font, with the thrum of power intensifying with each step.

They finally came to a spherical chamber. A metal grate bisected it and served as a floor, very slightly below the equator of the room; from below, a quartz cylinder rose to hold a globe at the midpoint of the sphere. Around that sphere, a chain barrier had been set; another ran around the room near its edge, and it was here that the small gathering stood.

“I will be here to monitor you,” the Nightkin said, “and to intervene if anything goes awry. But barring that, you go from here alone. Tap the power; bind it to your will. Do what you will – anything you throw will be caught by the wards and siphoned back into the flow. Draw as much as you dare, and unleash whatever workings your imagination gives life. Experience the greatest power at our disposal, and let it set you free.” Such excitement filled his voice, one might almost think he was the one about to step into the Nexus.

“You live for this, don’t you?” Mulin asked.

The Nightkin took his hands, obsidian eyes shining in the gloom. “Child, every time I see someone commune with the Nexus, and see the joy in their eyes as they leave… oh, you have no idea how amazing it is to be a part of that, however distantly. Perhaps, in time, you will understand.” Those hands squeezed his own. “This is a time for your triumph. Seize it. Exult in it.”

He glanced over to his mother; she smiled, and nodded. “This moment is for you, son. Enjoy it.”

The Nightkin released his hands, and unhooked one of the chains. It was time.

He stepped past the stanchion, the unseen wards tingling over his skin. From the moment the chain was hooked back into place, he felt a curious resonance in the air, the sense of potential redoubling. With each step he took toward the Nexus proper, that faceted globe that glimmered with pulsing white light, the feeling grew stronger.

By the time he stood by the stone, he felt dizzy, almost drunk.

“Touch it,” the warden called, his voice distorted by distance and strange accoustics.

He raised his hands, saw them trembling, and swallowed; he reached over the chain; and then, finally, he laid his hands against the crystal.

Power – raw magical force – coursed through him. It sang in his ears, it hummed in his veins, it cast sparks over his vision. He felt… something like an overfull cup, its contents barely held in place by their own cohesion, threatening to spill over with even the slightest disturbance.

If he couldn’t make things happen here, he’d never be able to. And with so much power filling him, the thought was not frightening, it was laughable. Preposterous.

He thought of his lessons, of how the elements were linked together. Earth fuelled Fire. Fire joined with Air. But as the fire dispersed, it gave rise to its own bane – Water – and fell again to Earth to join the cycle anew.

In everything, there was an echo of all the elements. In this place, he could make water burn.

He stepped back, but a thread of power still linked him to the Nexus, still coursed through him. At his gesture, the cycle of elements reversed itself; from the very air, fire gathered around his hand. It was as simple as a thought; he willed it to happen, and it did.

The band of fire that he had brought before was as nothing; this was much longer, much fiercer, a mass of fire larger than himself, stretched out into a serpent that coiled around his arms and his shoulders. It flowed past him, its heat giving him a shockingly erotic caress.

And still there was power to spare – power he wasn’t even tapping; it flowed through the Nexus and through the air, and out into the wards.

He seized more, and more still. The cord of power connecting him to the stone became so intense, it spilt over into the physical world, a crackling bolt of electricity. It glided over his skin, arcing between his horns and his fingers, racing from one wingtip to the other as his wings spread, almost of their own accord.

He drew more, and drew it closer. The grate dropped away from his feet; gravity no longer held meaning. The power filled him, drove the beating of his heart and the cycle of his breath. Every fibre of his being seethed with energy.

He whipped a hand aside, and a streak of flame followed his gesture, white-hot, too bright for normal eyes to look upon; but his eyes were not normal, not now. Not with so much power at their command. He could see every last flicker of the flame, could see the waves of heat haze twist in the air around the brilliant fireball as it whipped about at his command.

This was power – intoxicating power.

And, perhaps, dangerous. It could rule him, if he let it.

He would not. He would be its master.

He took a breath, and started to disentangle himself from the flow.

And then… there was nothing but cold emptiness.

Fire boiled a mere finger’s width from his skin. The flow of power had fed it; now, denied that sustenance, it sought the nearest fuel – and that was he.

Fear started to gather, fear that quickly became terror as another realization struck. His body had become dependent on the flow of mana; now, in its sudden absence, his heart skipped a beat. And another, and another. With his perception still boosted by the last vestiges of mana, he could feel the blood starting to slow in his veins, even as the force holding the fire at bay faded.


All his lessons raced through his mind. He had two weaves to form, and they had to build in unison and at once, and he had to use only the power still in his body to do it, a pale candle next to the sun that had suddenly gone dark. Most imminent and simplest: the fire. He needed it away from him.

Gentler, but more complex by far… in an instant, his perception focused deep within himself, on the mechanisms of his body. On the trigger of his heart. The muscle itself was quiescent, but ready; it awaited only the command to beat.

He shaped the weaves, and he poured his power into them. The fire roared away from him, screaming, like a live thing, frustrated at being denied its prey, but dissipating into stray sparks.

His heart clenched, forcing blood through his body; it relaxed, gathering it from his veins. Again he triggered it, and again it beat; again, and again. And then it spasmed on its own, lurching into frenzied action.

Need began to subside, and in its place he knew… agony.

He fell to his knees beside the bulk of the crystal, a scream ripping from his throat. Distantly, he was aware of two figures rushing toward him.

And then the stone flickered again, and lit, showing them clearly.

“Mulin!” His mother seized him, pulling him into a close embrace of arms and wings, her snout against his neck. “Mulin… are you – what’s wrong, what happened?”

He swallowed. He’d felt so close to success, and then all at once, it had slipped away from him. “It… died, Mother,” he whispered. “There was so much power, and then… then there was nothing. It just died!”

Another hand’s claw touched the base of his neck, and he felt the tingle of a magical probe chasing down his spine. “It seems to have done you no lasting harm,” the warden said. “But you should come to the Halls of Healing, just to be sure. In the meantime… the archwizards will need to know about this.”

Mighty gods. He hadn’t just screwed up, he’d outright botched it.

Whimpering, he clung to his mother and buried his face against her shoulder.