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James McLeod is an Australian fantasy author who wants to bring minty freshness to a genre saturated in dragon-breath. Reveling in the exotic locale, McLeod’s stories fuse darkness, comedy, and satire to hurl characters into transformative personal journeys — with a sprinkling of social commentary, along the way.

 

Three years. Three, long years of waiting until I finally found myself confronting darkness, himself. And every muscle in my body was tense.

“Sana. Your first task is this,” the old man told me, nodding towards the two, small tables, set apart from each other in the middle of the room. Each was set with a candle but only one was alight.

“You must light the unlit wick.”

I hid my sneer. Of course, he wouldn’t just allow me to demonstrate my Gifts without trying to temper me. To control me. That’s what this ruler did best. Didn’t listen for a protest or a wheeze but held things tight until they asphyxiated.

Still, I had expected as much.

“Too simple.” I turned back to meet his eyes. “I can do much more.”

That annoyed him. I could tell as the old tyrant cleared his throat.

“You are talented, they say,” he admitted. “I was told that rarely do we see one with a Gift like yours. Still, the tasks are what they are. I do not create them. I simply lead the Called through the process. I ask them to show me their potential.”

“But you are the Presiding Light,” I pointed out, “the authority in Avakal. You make the law, itself. Can you not bend the rules, too?”

He shook his head, gesturing to the tables, again. “Sana. You are here to prove yourself. Doing so, you might be chosen for my position, and if that happened, you would quickly realise that I am not the last word in any matter, by any means.”

Oh, no you don’t. Trying to weasel out of the responsibility was not going to work, here.

You…are not in charge of things?”

He raised his hands before him. A gesture of helplessness, apparently. But that only made that fire inside me burn brighter.

“It wasn’t you, then, who stood idly as my village was dying of starvation, two years ago?” He cocked his head, at that. My heartbeat quickened. “It wasn’t you, who denied water and supplies to us when my parents were wasting away…unable to chew from the plague which swelled their tongues? When I, their only daughter, tried everything to save them. When I begged. Scrounged. Ran the district road all the way to the city, feet bleeding, hungry, weak, only to be turned away at locked gates. To be told ‘go home’ by a stranger. When I was alone…”

There. At last, that drew a clenched jaw from the old bastard…

“I am truly sorry that you experienced such pain, Sana—”

“-don’t use my name!” I said through my teeth. “You have not earned that right. You say you’re sorry? Now? Sorry that you killed them? That you failed in your supposed charge? To protect the people. To ‘build a future for all’.”

In his silence, my beating heart sounded deafening.

“So, the truth of the Presiding Light, revealed, at last. You and the line before you — all liars.”

Taking a deep breath, this weasel put his arms behind his back and eyed me over his nose, probably trying to find an excuse. Some way he could wiggle out of the accusation.

“I’m afraid I have to ask you to perform the task, or leave,” he said. “You are but one of many Called here, today. Each must be given an opportunity to be assessed. Please, demonstrate what you are capable of, or I must declare this assessment over.”

Disgusting…

But sure. Why not?

With a snort, I turned back to the candles and raised my hands. I could feel the twirling of the energy in my veins at the very gesture. Sivonic energy, they called it. A Gift which was given to many — but not like it was given to me.

Though it was still new, it felt familiar and flexing my fingers, it was as if my body knew what I was about to do. As if the movement alone was enough to stir that energy to readiness.

With a subtle thought, I guided it through the air. Unseeable but tangible. An extension of myself. I willed it to stretch out towards that flickering little flame. To wrap around it. To merge with it. And the energy changed, then. It became an extension of the flame, as well. Now, we were both linked.

Drawing the flame upwards, I stretched it through the dead air. A ribbon of glowing destruction at my command.

Then, I turned towards my oppressor. The one who strangled my heart each and every day as I’d worked the fields my father had tilled, or cooked over the fire like my mother had taught me. The one who had ignored my loneliness and pain.

“Why do I have to prove to you what I am capable of?” I asked him. “What makes you the decider of my worthiness? I’m clearly stronger than you and all the others. The official who chose me said so, herself.”

I then watched his eyes widen as I drew the cord of flame towards him. Stepping backwards, he bumped against another table, clearly set up for the next task.

“That is enough, young one. Stop this,” he said

Trying to control me, again. Demeaning me. So condescending…

With a casual flick of the wrist, I made the cord snap at him and retreat.

Aged legs not quick enough to allow him to dodge the strike, he stumbled and collapsed to the ground.

I let a breath escape at the helplessness of our great leader. It was pathetic. Clearly, he’d never come up against real potential, before. Too protected in his bastion of strength. Too used to wielding his might over those below, whom he kept at a nice, safe distance.

“Stop this, now,” he said, again, pained, his eyes like pools. Pools, reflecting the power I now held over him, and by the Sacreds, this felt good…

Lowering the flame’s tip towards his face, I smelled the hairs on his beard as they curled and smoked.

“How many years have you and your predecessors presided, unchallenged?” I asked. “How many lives have you ruined? Well. Perhaps, finally, someone truly worthy has come to set things right…”

“Do you…” The old man squirmed, trying to back away from the heat. “Do you think strength…violence…will give you the solutions to Avakal’s problems? That anger will make you a just-ugh!…ruler?” He winced as a spark pealed off the tongue and hit one nostril.

“You think such questions will distract me from your crimes,” I muttered back. “I know what is just. And what is unjust. And I know that anyone holding power as long as you — anyone like you — deserves to be removed from that position…”

This. It was the chance I’d waited for. Which I had thirsted for, ever since my mother’s dying gasp. Since I’d watched the light in her bloodshot eyes go out. Since my father’s emaciated hand had let go of mine…

Coiling the flame into a tightly wound spring, I growled. “Avakal deserves better and it will have better-…”

FPSSSS! –

Coldness.

I felt the connection die. The energy running through my arms, my hands, and my fingers left me. For a moment, I thought I’d done it. But the old man was alive and eyeing me, still. His eyes disbelieving. Betrayed.

“You’d be surprised how many think that way,” a new voice said.

I turned to see a woman standing between the two tables, her eyes calm. Searching.

“We see them every year. Every time there is a Call.”

From the dark walls, I now began to see other figures. They appeared like spectres from the gloom as sconces on the walls burst aflame and flooded the chamber with light. Twelve of them. Standing there. Watching me.

“What is this?” I held a hand up to block brightness my eyes weren’t used to, my heart still pounding in anger, but now also in fear…

“It is a Call,” the woman reiterated, taking a small tablet from a young boy, who retreated to join the others, again. “As you are aware. We have assembled those with potential, to select a new member of the Presiding Light.”

“A new…member,” I uttered, glancing at the odd smattering of people. There was no coherence…

“Young, old. Men and women. Gifted and not-Gifted. Wealthy and poor,” the woman explained, a hand motioning around the room. “We are the Presiding Light.”

“But…” my brain was spinning. “There is only one Presiding Light. One ruler of Avakal…”

“We reveal only one,” the woman said. “A public face. Easier to manage. But I assure you, the leadership of Avakal is and always has been a council.”

Suddenly, a feeling gripped my stomach. A coldness. “A council…”

“Yes.”

“So…” This made no sense. “You have all — you are all murderers…”

A young girl stepped over to take the old man’s hand and help him to his feet.

“Thank you, Idina,” he muttered, leaning against the table to steady himself.

“You accuse us of murder, based on a pestilence?” The woman studied me, still, her eyes flicking between my own. “A pestilence which forced us to close the city gates lest tens of thousands more die? A little unfair, wouldn’t you say?”

“It condemned us. You cut off our food supplies…”

“The food supplies we sent out were stolen on the road, by brigands we could not fend off. They took advantage, knowing we couldn’t risk escort soldiers. It would have exposed them to the plague and was not a tenable solution. A tragedy, yes, but through this tragedy, many were saved,” this woman said as I gasped, trying to wrap my mind around the consequences of all this.

“Then…you threw our lives away to save your own!”

“Save our own?” the old man spoke up, again. “I had family who lived in your village. They fell to this sickness, too…”

The faint, rhythmic drumming of the midday march echoed into the space for a moment.

“None of that is relevant, now,” the woman said, handing the tablet to the old man. “I am afraid to inform you that this assessment is over. You are free to go, Sana.”

I looked around the room, at the silent figures, watching me. Judging me. Who had so quickly cast me out — and that, based on deception!

“No…this isn’t fair,” I told them. “This test was unfair. I demand another attempt.”

“Demand?” the old man asked, brushing his robe down. From this robe, he then removed a small, metal stamp and pressed it into the tablet, before handing it back to the woman. “I’m afraid you are in no position to demand anything. However, if you wish to register a grievance, you can visit the town hall any day of the span…”

“Thank you for coming,” the woman prompted again, taking the tablet back and sealing it in a small box.

Such audacity!

“I thought Calls gave all a chance! I thought they were tests to see who was worthy of leadership of this city!”

“And you believe you fit that description?” a new voice piped up from the sidelines. A young man, almost my own age. “You have shown your character, today, in all its colours. We have seen enough.”

How dare…I rounded on him. “You have no idea what I can do–”

“-it’s not about what you can do!” the woman cut me off, rubbing her forehead. “Goodness, girl, do you truly not understand? Callings are not designed as demonstrations of power! They are designed to find those with values!” Once again, she gestured to those two candles. “Four tasks you were assigned and you failed to complete even one! And the way you failed… I suppose it never occurred to you simply to pick one candle up and use it to light the other? Mmm? No. Instead, you wished to awe. To flaunt your Gift. To threaten and subdue. And had we not stopped you, you seemed ready to go a step further, still…” Quiet mumbles of agreement met my ears while she allowed herself a breath. “As Kasvil said, you have showed your character.”

Stepping forward, I raised a finger to her face. “Had you explained to me that this man was not in charge of the city — that he was not responsible for…everything! Perhaps things would have been different!”

“Oh? What difference would it have made, then?” The woman looked past my finger, voice still calm. “In your eyes, I can see it…you are desperate. Desperate to blame. For blood. You want someone to pay for your loss and hardships, it is as clear as the sun-shard’s reflection.”

Desperate to blame…for blood…

Opening my mouth to reply, I found that nothing came out. It shocked me but there were words I could not, in honesty, rebuff.

“But you can’t…take my magick,” I said, looking at my hands. “It’s all I have, now. Please…”

Stepping forward, the woman gave a quiet sigh and offered her hands.

I don’t know why. But despite so many conflicting emotions swirling inside me, I took them. And the touch caused me to start. For…that feeling. I was reminded of my mother’s hands. Warm. Safe.

Standing there, I felt the weight of years rising to fill me with despair.

“It is far from all you have,” this woman told me, her eyes, determined. “Magick does not define you, Sana. Power does not define you.” As she spoke, the door behind her opened, and light streamed in from the hall, outside. “And anger, least of all. How we define ourselves…that must be through our decisions.” Her look plead for understanding.

“But your decisions…”

“This council is not perfect. I can admit that, we all can. We make mistakes. No decision meets everyones needs or desires. Still, we try to do the best we can. Together. For that is the only way forwards. Is it not?”

Releasing my hands, this woman stepped aside, freeing the way to the door, and I realised what I had almost done…

Breathing in through my nose, I swallowed my pain, for now. It was not the time.

“Your magick will return, soon enough,” the woman assured me. “And even your pain will fade — if you let it. You are capable of healing. Manage that, and you are free to return next year to be assessed, again. But I urge you to take one thing from today, Sana: Hate is poison. Be careful where you direct it, for it is more powerful than any magick…”

Silently, I nodded. Then, glancing at the old man with a look I hoped might express my regret, I began walking towards the door.

The threshold came but before I crossed it, I felt a lightness touch my thoughts. For the briefest moment, there was whiteness, all around me. I then found myself at the front gates of the great citadel. Right where I had stood, that morning.

“Sana!” A young man stood from a nearby planter and jogged over, a nervous smile on his face. “You’re done! Tell me, how was it?”

“Alerting…” I answered, casting a final look back through the gates.

Isuran frowned. “So I suppose you, erm-…didn’t get picked?”

“No.”

“Hmm. But you were at least polite, I hope? You looked all kinds of angry when you left, this morning. I can always tell. You go all quiet and mumbly and your cheeks flush. And you never say please or thank you…”

I gave a grunt as he handed my pack over. “Oh, I was angry. I was very angry.”

“Right…so, speak on. How was he?”

“Who?” I asked. “Oh, you mean he?”

Odd. The word I had wanted to say was, ’they’. But for some reason, it hadn’t come out.

He…” I tried again. No luck.

“Right…” Isuran said with an uncertain tone, and we began to walk. “The Presiding Light. How was he?”

I gave a small huff of disbelief, realising that the promise I’d given before the assessment, to ‘keep details of the process to myself’ was being enforced, magickally.

Was that fair?

Well, if it was the price to pay for almost killing someone…

“Actually, not what I’d expected,” I replied. “He was kind of…just a normal man. Old. Boring. You know the type.”

Isuran’s face flashed disappointment. “That’s it? Old and boring?”

“Mmm.”

I left him to ruminate as I allowed my own thoughts to circle through the fading, dusky light, the streets warm and quiet as stallkeeps packed up their wares and we made for the city gates.

It was only after we paid the guard for watching over our wagon that I wondered. I wondered if it was time to move out of the family home I’d filled with stale, bitter memories after my parents had passed. If I could still take up that metalworking apprenticeship I’d passed up, in my grief…

It would be difficult. I had been alone, so long…

Or had I?

Watching Isuran as he loaded our packs, I realised that what I had said during the assessment wasn’t true.

No…I wasn’t alone, and I never had been. Isuran had always been by my side, just as he was right now. I just hadn’t seen him.

As we left Avakal, I turned to find his eyes. Always so hopeful, those green eyes, still sparkling despite all the misery they had witnessed.

Could mine learn to sparkle like that, again?

“Is?” I began, trying something new. “Thank you. For everything.”

He smiled. “Ah, see? When you’re not angry, you’re actually pleasant to be around.”

That brought a faint smile to my lips, too.

The road ahead was long. But perhaps I would attend the Call again, next year. And perhaps when that time came, I’d be a different person.

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