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       The Hollow, p.3

           Andrew Day
 
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fire with nothing but a thought and a big stick. This is exactly where you belong.”

  Still staring at the ground, Edgar took his place beside Serrel in line.

  “What a shambles,” Holland shook his head. “Still, I suppose no one lost an eyebrow and no one ended up dead, which I must say comes as a complete surprise. There’s usually at least one fatality on the first day. But I suppose the day’s not over yet... You lot look terrible, though. Tired are you?” he added sarcastically.

  The group was looking rather ragged. Despite her earlier enthusiasm, Kaitlin looked ready to fall over, and Serrel’s feeling of emptiness had grown more oppressive. He felt like lying down and never getting up again, not just from fatigue. He felt despondent, like his very spirit was sapped.

  “Most of you just used up all your energy on this simple task,” Holland explained. “Most of you didn’t even weave, you released the energy and let it dissipate. You wasted it. We are going to have to work on that. You completely emptied yourselves for nothing. It’s normal to feel tired. I doubt any of you have ever exhausted your reserves like that in your lives. And it’s not just exhaustion, you’re all feeling is it?” His expression turned grim. “You feel this way when you overexert yourself. Especially when you weave for the first time. The sensation is something we call the Hollow. It is a feeling of emptiness, of having nothing within but a complete void. That you used up something else inside you, your spirit, maybe even your soul. It will most likely scare the ever loving shit out of you. Don’t worry, it will pass. In very little time you will feel the power of the ether trickling in, filling you up all over again. The Hollow can only kill you if you let it.”

  Feeling as he did, Serrel did not find that last part terribly reassuring.

  “Perhaps we’ll break now before we do any lasting damage. Get something to eat, then return at the next bell. Caster Paum, refill these buckets first. And the next time you set fire to something without my permission, it had better be yourself...”

  Meals were served in the fort’s huge mess hall. It was full of tired and hungry recruits just back from morning exercises, but none were as tired or as hungry as Pond Scum.

  “Never been this tired in my life,” Kaitlin complained.

  “Give me a chance,” Justin leered. “Bet I could wear you out.”

  “Listening to you flap your oversized mouth wears me out, fancy pants,” Kaitlin yawned.

  The eight of them clustered around the cook and his assistant and their huge bubbling pot of thick porridge. Serrel could say this for Fort Amell: for the last three days, he had eaten well. Recruits needed their strength, after all.

  The cook looked over the group with amusement.

  “Wellee, wellee,” he chortled. “It’s ol’ Holland’s newest whipping boys. And girls, pardon your ladyships.”

  “Just ladle the slop, chuckles,” Kaitlin replied.

  “Oh, many pardons, your ladyship,” the cook cackled sarcastically. He had an unpleasant cackle, like an old hag’s. It grated. He ladled a dollop of porridge into a bowl and pushed it into Kaitlin’s hands. “Enjoy, your ladyship.”

  Kaitlin didn’t move.

  “What yer want, a side dish? Maybe a nice choice of cereals and goose livers? Move girl, yer blockin’ the line.”

  “We’re the apprentice mages,” Kaitlin told him.

  “Ask if I care.”

  “That’s right,” Serrel remembered. “Mages get double ration.”

  The cook blew through his lips rudely. “Bloody mages. Think yer bloody lords or somethin’. You get what everyone else gets, and bloody well like it. Now bugger off, girl, afore I get the sergeant to deal with you.”

  A shadow loomed over the cook. He looked up at Bull’s red face.

  “Mages get double rations,” Bull rumbled.

  “You don’t scare me, boy,” the cook lied. “What’re you gonna do?”

  Bull’s brow furrowed. He cracked his huge knuckles in thought, then said, slowly and carefully, “Tell Holland.”

  “Yer gonna tattle on me, boy?”

  “Well,” Victor joined in. “I’m sure that Sergeant Holland will understand why you’re refusing to give us our proper rations. He seems like such an understanding person.”

  “Him and his bloody stick,” Justin muttered.

  “In fact,” said Victor nastily, “we should tell him about this anyway. Greasy Tim, run off and find the sergeant...”

  “Alright, alright, there’s no need for that,” the cook said quickly. “You can have yer bloody double rations. Pfft. Bloody mages. When everyone else is starving for lack of food, I’ll tell ‘em, sorry lads, but our precious mages wanted double rations.” He splattered another serving into Kaitlin’s bowl. “Happy, your ladyship?”

  “Ecstatic,” she replied coldly.

  The cook served them, muttering under his breath. Eventually he asked, “So what’s ol’ Holland monikered you lot with then?”

  “Moniker-ed?” Serrel asked.

  “You know, called. Last lot was Dead Maggots.”

  “No that was the lot before,” his assistant pointed out.

  “That’s right. Them was Dead Maggots. Last lot was Wet Turds. They were a right load of tosspots. So what’re you?”

  “Pond Scum,” Justin said with an eye roll.

  The cook cackled again. “That Holland! He gets it every time. HA!”

  “Oh yes,” Justin sneered. “Ha, bloody, ha.”

  The recruits took their seats at one table. No one ate for a moment, they just glanced up and down at each other. Except for Mouse, who stared at her porridge and refused to make eye contact with anyone. Serrel realised he had not actually properly spoken with any of the group before.

  “Well,” he started. “Did anyone else think life in the Legion would be this exciting?”

  Justin shrugged. “Pretty much what I was expecting.”

  “It’s bloody awful,” piped Greasy Tim. “But the chow’s brilliant. I ‘aven’t eaten this good in years.” He started on his porridge with gusto.

  “I suppose when your main diet consists of stray cat and whatever you can find floating in the gutters, slop’s a step up,” Justin said.

  “Stray cat? Bloody ‘ell, it was a good day when someone got their ‘ands on stray cat. Can eat for a week on a cat, matey.”

  “I’ll have to remember that,” said Justin. “Or not.”

  “Not all of us could eat liver pate off a silver spoon, fancy pants,” Kaitlin told him. “And the food here isn’t that bad. You can hardly taste the spittle.”

  “I’m sure you’re well used to spittle,” said Justin. “And stop calling me fancy pants, tavern wench.”

  “Yes, be fair to Justin, Astral,” Victor joined in. “Everyone knows the Tremmel’s had to sell all of their silver years ago. I doubt young Justin’s even seen a real silver spoon in his life.”

  Justin shot him a hateful look.

  “So I’ve been meaning to ask,” Serrel said loudly, before the mood could sour further. “Your name isn’t really Kaitlin Astral, is it?”

  “Course it is!” Kaitlin said with feeling. “It says so on my recruitment scroll and everything.”

  “But your parents didn’t actually name you Kaitlin Astral. Like at your naming ceremony?”

  Kaitlin sniffed in irritation. “Well if you must know, Astral was my mother’s maiden name. But there was no chance in hell I was going to put Katey Marta Moss on my recruitment scroll. That would just be ridiculous. Imagine, years from now when I’m a great wizard: “Behold, the great and powerful Katey of Muck!” That really inspires awe, doesn’t it?”

  “Muck?”

  “Oh, it’s just a town on one of the main trading routes. My father owns a tavern there. The Sorceress and The Serpent it’s called.”

  “So you are a tavern wench,” Justin gloated.

  “I bloody am not! I use to work the bar, clean the tables, cook the food. Beat off the drunken merchants with a broom. I wasn’t going to spend the
rest of my life doing that. I knew the moment I inherited my mother’s gift for magic I was going to be something great. Someone great. She was a famous sorceress you know. You’ve probably heard so many stories about her. Celia Astral was her name.”

  She looked expectantly at the others, but got only blank looks in return.

  “Never heard of her,” Justin replied.

  “You must have. She’s dead famous.”

  “She killed the Serpent King,” said Bull without looking up from his food. They looked at him for elaboration, but he just went on eating.

  “Anyway,” Kaitlin went on. “As soon as I was old enough, I decided I’d join the Legion. Obviously they would see my skill at weaving and give me the proper training. And then at the end of my two years service, I’d join the College of Arcania in Northlok. With all my military training and experience I’m sure they’d just be dying to take me as an apprentice.”

  “I rather doubt it,” Justin told her haughtily. “The school doesn’t take just anyone. They do have standards.”

  “Of course they do. Isn’t that why they kicked you out?”

  “They didn’t kick me out,” Justin snapped. “I’m merely deferring my first year of study for military service.”

  “Because they kicked you out.”

  “My family has a long and illustrious history with the college, wench. We have an understanding. Obviously my experience in the arcane means I don’t require the same, slow, hand-holding lessons as the other dullard initiates. I need a special, unique education, where my talent is allowed to grow and prosper at its own rate. The school council understood this, so they allowed me a period off for my own
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