Eleanor sat by candlelight in the dim library, memorizing the spells that she would be tested on the following morning. Despite being a wizard apprentice in a wizard library, her candle was in no way magical. While the other apprentices read by the light of floating jars of glowing plasma or studied by the light of embers scraped from the back of their Brimstone Tortoises, she had to keep a pack of matches and a candle in her satchel. The head librarian had forbid her from attempting any methods of magical illumination because she had once burnt down half of the Thick and Dusty Tomes wing. She would've been in more trouble if the library didn't keep a duplicate in a pocket dimension.
The other apprentices, as they rested their bleary eyes from their texts, would glance in her direction and giggle to one another, many of them witnesses to her often-spectacular blunders over the years that she'd been at school.
Now and again she'd be put on probation by the Committee of Archmages and be forced to practice in the magic-proofed dungeons beneath the school.
It was hopeless, Eleanor knew, to even attempt to take the final test tomorrow. In all of her semesters at the Wick University for Magic, Illusion and Horsecart Repair, she'd never done well in a class. Only her deceased father's spectacular endowment to the Gibbering Chair in the Psychic Sciences department kept the tutors from turning her out into the street.
Eleanor sighed. She was fine when reading a spell out of a book, but the words never stuck in her mind. She "-ished" when she should have "-tcored." Her hand gestures were all wrong, and once had to sit through an awkward conversation with the dean because a dwarven student took great offense at what she had inadvertantly signaled during a recitation.
Time to sleep, she thought. I'm not going to pass the tests, I may as well get a good night's sleep.
She stood up and cracked her back, then tucked the massive Principles of Modern Thaumatography into her satchel that already bulged with books. With a grunt, she slung it onto her back. Two lesser satchels had already given up from the weight of her books and she'd had to convince her mother to send her a dragonskin bag. Dragonskin was rare and expensive, usually reserved for the blacksmiths in the firestorm of the Wickwood Forges, but the sheer strain of holding Eleanor's books had worn it thin on the bottom.
She trudged back to her apartment, a garret in the top of an old Humphreite pile. She set her books next to the broken desk that had taught her to keep them on the floor. After a quick check on her alarm, she fell asleep.
Eleanor probably should've spent more time checking her alarm, because she awoke with the sun already streaming through her window. She was downstairs before she'd finished waking up and already most of the way to the Archmage's Hall when she realized she'd left her satchel in her apartment. She cursed at her memory for forgetting them but figured that she was far too late to cram.
Once inside the Archmage's Hall she found the thick lead doors that led into the Test Chamber. She read the sign: Test In Progress, Do Not Disturb If You Value Your Eyebrows. Then an apprentice emerged, looking shaken, scorched and frost-bitten but exultant. He wobbled down the hallway.
An archmage wearing the thick velvet robes reserved for promotion tests had followed the apprentice out.
"Ah, Eleanor. Just in time, we were just about to wrap up. Please, come in."
He ushered her into a grand chamber. Delicate frescoes covered the ceiling and interwove themselves with gilt ornaments that ran down towards the gigantic pillars that helped support the vaulted roof. Pieces of pulverized stone and bone crunched beneath her feet. Thick piles of ash were strewn against pillars, which also bore the black scars of explosions. Water dripped from rapidly-warming patches of ice. The carcasses of summoned monsters rotted on the floor. At one end of the room sat the Committee of Archmages behind a thick, crystal barrier.
The archmage whispered "good luck" out of the side of his mouth before he disappeared down a side corridor and re-appeared behind the blast shield to take his seat.
"Eleanor Catherine Ugsbad of Lofrotwall, you have completed all of the coursework necessary to be allowed to take the commencement test. It is dangerous, terrifying and not all will survive nor advance. Do you wish to continue?" said one of the archmages, reading from the speech that had been given to apprentices about to begin the test for a thousand years.
Eleanor gulped, the spells in her mind already a mishmash of broken syllables and half-remembered gestures. She'd never get another shot at it. Her mother had already said that if she failed the test then she'd have to switch to an honest career for a girl, like Clockwork Engineering.
"Yes," Eleanor said, visions of sprockets dancing in her head.
"Then let the test commence."
A plinth raised out of the floor in front of her and a bright blue bird chirped began to chirp its song at the sudden light.
"You must get the bird out of the cage in one piece."
Eleanor attempted to remember her teleportation spell.
"Lofram eckbist floon?" she said, unsure of herself.
A low whistle sounded behind her. The bird stopped in mid-chirp and looked past Eleanor, its eyes bulging. She heard the archmages release a collective gasp.
She turned. She'd summoned a moartauk. Nobody had done that in two hundred years. Nobody could do it on purpose, since the wizard who utters the words to summon a moartauk isn't around long enough to repeat it. Their existence was part of the reason that the research mages were such a high-strung and unpleasant bunch.
It was twice as tall as Eleanor, with long arms that reached the floor. One of the arms ended in a hand with fingers as thick around as saplings. The other arm didn't end in a hand, but the skin gave way to raw, yellow bone that was fused into a brutal, scythe-like blade. It had a head but no face. Where its face would've been was a dark void with a point of burning red light that shone from within and made Eleanor's eyes feel like she was staring at the sun.
Eleanor uttered a word of exclamation so so foul that one of the archmages, stalwart enough to handle the appearance of one of the most cursed creatures in the entire Expanse, fainted off of his chair.
The moartauk's eye blazed red and grew bright as it focused on Eleanor with a hatred fueled by realms unknown.
Eleanor spun on her heel, seized the bird's cage, and ripped it open with muscles used to lugging around her satchel of spell books.
"Fly away! Out of those windows!" Eleanor said. The bird did as it was told as Eleanor dashed towards the pillars. The moartauk swung its scythe-arm in a long arc that clove through the stone plinth.
The Committee of Archmages began squabbling, bringing their bureaucracy to bear on the moartauk. The only archmage who wasn't arguing was the holder of the Gibbering Chair, who had a broad grin on his face as he played with a rubber band. The moartauk, however, had brought its scythe-arm to bear on the pillar that Eleanor cowered behind. The scythe went through halfway and embedded itself in the stone. The red light in its face flared even brighter, hurting Eleanor's eyes as she watched it try to get itself free.
She knew that she had to move fast. With a wild dash, she sprinted for the door that led to the dias with the archmages and found it locked. One of the archmages looked at her and shook his head sadly.
The rules said that the door couldn't be opened until the test was completed or the apprentice was finished. But damn the rules!
Fear burnt away under the scorching heat of her rage. Eleanor knew that the wizards summoned monsters for the apprentices to fight, but she also saw through the bluster of the speech at the beginning of the test. Nobody had died in this chamber for hundreds of years. Too many angry parents with fireball dancing on their tongues. No, their children might be banged up a bit but even a simple broken bone sent lightning crackling across the fingers of the men and women who wrote checks to the University, and the archmages could see that lightning turning the checks into ash.
The entire world seemed to shake as the moartauk ripped its scythe-arm free of the pillar. A crack ran up the outside of the pillar and then it collapsed, burying the moartauk. The ceiling sagged and flakes of paint drifted down from the frescoes like snow.
The hall was still for a moment. Eleanor couldn't believe her luck. The moartauk was buried under tons of stone rubble. Surely nothing could survive that!
Except for a moartauk. A block of stone bigger than Eleanor went spinning across the battle-torn floor and thudded against the wall. Then the moartauk's head and shoulders emerged as it pushed away the rest of the debris.
Eleanor began screaming at the archmages to let her in. The Gibbering Chair locked eyes with Eleanor and she was transfixed. She heard the moartauk erupting from the rubble behind her but it sounded distant and irrelevant. Something thudded right behind her and she leapt into the air in fright. She glanced down to find her satchel of books! She looked back at the Gibbering Chair, who was crying because his rubber band had broken.
The moartauk had freed itself and stormed towards her, smashing rubble as it came.
Eleanor flipped open her satchel and scrambled to read the spines of the old tomes. She needed to find Demolition Spells vol 2: How To Keep Your Fingers. The moartauk was upon her and already swinging his scythe arm.
Too late! No time! Clenching her eyes shut and giving a yell that made all of the archmages stop bickering, she swung her satchel in an arc towards the moartauk.
It collided with its stomach moments before his scythe arm would have cut her in two. The magical energy of all the spells in all the books that Eleanor could never memorize erupted like a jet and the exhausted dragon hide on the bottom of her satchel surrendered to its force. A beam of magical energy punched through the bag, the moartauk, the wall, and stretched all the way to the edge of the universe, making a hole between it and the next universe in the Expanse and admitting several million gallons of liquid marshmallow, which froze instantly and sealed the hole.
The Gibbering Chair discovered a new rubber band in his pocket and smiled.
The Moral: never take anything out of your bag because you might need it to repel a beast from the foulest, most corrupt corners of the Expanse.