It turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Once Sonea saw my magical ability forming, she put me to work on reading books and learning methodologies. Things stayed mostly the same, but with a lot less exploring. When I was craving adventure, Appoleon and I would head into the Udirian sewers or dream about breaking into the Academy of Magical Studies, but I found studying to be intriguing, so I found my way back to those ancient tomes whenever I had a moment to spare.
Lady Sonea also had young Evanor begin to teach me the basics of magical energy and how we interacted with this strange phenomenon. Evanor explained that our world kinda existed on top of another reality, one that was simply referred to as the twisting aether. The earliest of our magic users tapped into this realm much by accident, and through it we began to harness the power to alter own realm using energy pulled directly from the aether. For example, the teleportation spell I had performed so long ago had required me to step out of our realm, move through the aether beyond, and emerge in my own room. All of our power as magical students was drawn from the twisting aether, and it was also this magical realm that had put us in our terrible situation with the Yunai.
Those dark monsters, like the energy of the twisting aether, existed outside of our own realm. They traveled into our physical space through some unknown means, but most of the higher echelons believed we had drawn them in by pulling the aether in to perform our feats. I asked Evanor why we continued to practice magic if that was true, but she shrugged. In truth, most magic users in Udiria had been naturally gifted with the ability to reach the twisting aether. If we had not capitalized on that strength, the Yunai would have destroyed us. By extension, continuing to harness that power would be instrumental in keeping the Yunai away from our realm.
It seemed a good enough explanation at the time.
Meanwhile, when magic wasn’t the main topic of study, I was also put to task on understanding the scientific elements of Azirin, the unique power of Alchemy, growing and collecting medicinal herbs… it was more than I really understood, but I drank in the knowledge as best as I could. I felt like I was being prepared for a test that I could never hope to pass, but my young heart ached to pass it anyway.
What I hadn’t considered, and what was truly unfolding, was that Lady Sonea was preparing me for my admission to the Udirian Academy of Magical Studies. The admission age for this branch of the military was thirteen, assuming you had demonstrated magical skills, or had a mage in your family that could vouch for your first year enrollment. My grandfather couldn’t vouch for me, but Sonea had already fought tooth and nail to have me put on the list.
She worked me day and night, molding me into the student I would need to be if I planned to survive the first year of the Academy.
The trouble with the age requirement was that no one actually knew my real birthday. All records of my family had been destroyed in either the First or Second Invasion, so we mostly just had my looks to go on. Sonea picked the first day of spring as my actual birth date and that is what we went with from then on.
I woke on the morning of my supposed thirteenth birthday without any residual sleepiness that generally kept me in bed for a good half hour or so after waking. Birthdays were generally exciting days for young ones, but this day was far more important to me. I had made my first level potions and I knew how to craft a quick bandage to help with burn wounds. I could conjure up a small gust of cold wind, and I was working on manipulating water, both first year tasks, and I felt so ready to take it all on.
I hit the bar of the inn and was surprised to find that Appoleon was already waiting for me. The sun had barely started to come up over the horizon.
“Hey there!” he shouted when he saw me. “Happy Birthday Sionis!”
“Hi,” I replied, happy to see my friend waiting. “What brings you here this early? I thought you would wait for the sun to come out before you did any birthday wishing.”
“Well today is a big day for us,” Appoleon said very sternly.
“How so?” I asked. “Are you planning to go for admission into the Academy?”
Appoleon laughed. He laughed harder than I would have liked.
“No,” he said through the chuckles. “I get a horse today.”
“Oh, that’s cool.”
Appoleon rolled his eyes. “Yeah. You get one too, you dummy! Happy Birthday!”
Feeling overjoyed, I nearly bounced my way out of the inn and down the street to the stables. There were all sorts of horses in the famous stables of Udiria, but I didn’t care if they gave me an old plow horse with a broken face. It would be my horse.
We went inside and Appoleon made his way down the stalls until he found the number he was looking for. Once he had it, he pulled the doorway open. The smell of dried grass and fresh manure poured into the stable hallway. Appoleon gave a quick tug on a lead and a beautiful chestnut mare stepped out of the stall and into the hallway. It followed Appoleon’s lead without question and I could tell that he’d already been training with the animal.
“This is Butternut,” he said proudly. “She’s a champion breed.”
“That’s your horse?” I asked.
“That’s right. Isn’t she beautiful? Come here and pet her.”
I did as I was told, stepping over and gently raising a hand toward the animal. The horse stepped over to me and rested its nose against my palm. It let out a deep breath and the warm air made the hairs on my arm stand up.
It was amazing.
“The stable master is going to help you pick out your horse,” Appoleon added, gently pulling Butternut back. “I’m excited to see who you get!”
By now, I was at the limits of how much excitement a boy could handle. I had barely been awake for an hour and already I was gifted with a horse. I didn’t know anything about riding the creatures, but I knew that I wanted to learn.
Appoleon let me ride Butternut so that I could learn the basics, as taught by a fellow child. It wasn’t overly-complicated, but I knew I’d have to let the stable master run me through the ropes so that I could learn the things that Appoleon had forgotten.
Meanwhile, I was already scouting the stalls for the horse I might get to claim as my own. The older the animals got, the cheaper they were. I assumed that I would be getting an old beast that could barely trot, but I didn’t care. I’d be more than happy to call it my own.
When the stable master finally appeared, he went straight to the stalls and found a young black stallion. I rushed over with all my boyish glee, but the master saw me coming and stepped between me and the animal.
“Oh no,” he said firmly. “This one isn’t suitable for riding.”
“It’s not?” I asked.
“No, it has a bad leg. We’ll probably have to put it down if we can’t do anything to fix it. It is such a shame too. He would be a beautiful stallion.”
I couldn’t have agreed more. The horse didn’t look sick or crazy, but the stable master tossed him some oats and then moved down to where a gray and white mare was poking her head over the wall.
“I call this girl, Ghost,” the stable master said as he opened the stall and let her come out. “She’s mighty kind and easy to ride. You and she should get along just fine.”
He was absolutely right.
Ghost was a beautiful animal, and she trotted right over to me. Within three minutes I had completely forgotten about the little black stallion. It was me and Ghost, all the way.