This was a piece written for a writing game. It was written in about 15 minutes and hasn’t been edited, but I was quite pleased with the end result. The prompt was the very first sentence of the story, that’s said by the master.
“Now you see the difference between the two paths,” the master said.
He pulled down the sheet to reveal the body, the face pale and strangely shiny, the eyes staring unseeing up at the vaulted ceiling, the bleached-white roots of the hair. Prittan wanted to look away, to turn aside and empty his stomach in revulsion, but the master was staring each of the boys down. If Prittan ran from the room as he wanted, would the master take that as a sign of guilt? Would he know that Carcy hadn’t been the only one to stray down the path of easy power.
“Every year, we explain the dangers of impatience,” the master said. “We worn each class of the risks involved in snatching for power beyond what you are ready for, but far too often we have examples like this. This boy wasn’t content to follow the path of caution, to study the craft as he was advised at the pace set by his teachers. He delved into the rituals of power exchange, grasping for magic he was not ready for, trying to get stronger the easy way, instead of through the gradual development of careful skill, and he paid the price for it.”
Prittan remembered the way it had felt, that ritual cast behind the library building, drawing in the power of the flame from their small candle. He remembered the rush of heat, the exhilaration of ability as the power filled him. He remembered the way that spells came easier over the following days, classes that had been impossibly difficult passing with ease as he used his new-found strength. He remembered how hard the lessons had been once that influx of foreign power had worn off.
It had been sorely tempting to try the ritual again, to find another source of power to enhance his gift. He could understand why Carcy had delved into these rituals.
Magic was difficult and draining, the simplest spells exhausting. To use power from elsewhere made them so much easier, enabled the caster to perform feats they would never be able to achieve otherwise. Some of the greatest acts of magic in history had been performed in such a manner.
But this was the risk of the situation. This was the danger. When a student pulled in external powers, they didn’t build up their own endurance. Their own abilities remained weak, propped up by ritual tools instead of standing on their own. Then there came a moment when they were asked to do something harder than they could manage, when they drew in too much power and it overwhelmed them. Carcy had tried to manipulate power far beyond his own and he had been burned out from the inside because of it.
And Prittan could so easily have done the same.
“I hope,” the master continued, “that you will remember what you’ve seen here today. I hope that you will tell next year’s students of it. Perhaps they will listen to your warnings as your classmate did not listen to ours. There is the path of easy power and it leads to death. There is the path of patient effort and that will lead to life. Choose the latter path.”
He raised the sheet to cover the body once again. He looked each of the boys in the eye and added simply, “Please.”