6. Last Lesson
"Did you know, in three days, your ‘apprenticeship’ ends?"
Devon gave a start of surprise. "Aah! Professor! Will you never stop sneaking up on me like that?" he protested. And then, "Oh! ... Truly, only three days? Are you sure?"
His hand went to the braided grass collar encircling his throat, and then he resumed his work. The collar officially symbolized the seven-year contract of indentured servitude which he had proposed and to which he and the stallion had agreed. That the collar was of grass, not iron, signified his free will in adhering to the agreement. The collar frequently wore out, to be replaced with a new one, which he always had at the ready.
Ferras, in centaur-form as usual when around Devon, tossed his long, silver hair scornfully. "Ah you humans, so dependent on your little gadgets and papers and marking things. In three days, the blood debt will be paid in full, per the terms of our agreement. And … of course I'm sure! How could I be wrong? Just as I'm sure that, in three days, the Sorcerer's Guild finally promotes their star pupil, a prodigy the likes of whom hasn't been seen for over a century." Ferras glanced at the young man slyly. "He'll be a full mage, you know. And he’s done it in only ten years. Can you imagine?"
The hammer in Devon's hand had stilled at the mention of the Sorcerer's Guild. His face flushed as he realized that Ferras was once again teasing him with the latest news of his long-ago beloved.
Early on, Devon had dreamed of his reunion with Cyrran. He had hoped that, once the magician's education was complete, they could ignore his parents' demands. He planned to renew their relationship, and then work however many years were necessary to repay any debt that his father might lay at his doorstep.
As time had passed, however, Devon realized that for Cyrran, his betrayal must have been, if not unforgivable, then at least the end of any trust they had shared. He hesitated to contact the man who had been his closest friend, and his first and only love. Instead, he had decided to settle the blood debt with the demon horses first, lest he be haunted for the rest of his life by the injustice he felt they had suffered.
At Ferras's announcement about the Guild ceremony, Devon thrilled for a split second at the idea of actually attending it, and perhaps seeing Cyrran for the first time in a decade. In the next moment, however, he realized that his apprenticeship wouldn't actually be over until the day of the event. Ferras was such an old slave-driver, that his servitude might even last until midnight, on the stroke of twelve. At any rate, it would be impossible for him to make it in time. He braced himself against the wave of disappointment that rolled over him and dissipated.
"Ah, well, Master Ferras,” he responded, “what would a fancy mage like that have to do with a humble blacksmith like myself?"
"Hah! You call yourself a smith? Look at this shoddy work! No, on second thought, don't waste my time. You're hopeless. Hurry and meet me in the meadow in about an hour. I have one last lesson to beat through your thick skull. Oh, and be certain to bathe first!"
- - -
Surrounded by swaying grasses and scattered pockets of yellow and white wildflowers, Devon stared, wide-eyed, at his master. Were the past seven years of toil to end in his death, after all?
"S-Sir? Surely, you don't ... Oh, please," stammered Devon in confusion, "tell me this is only a jest?"
Ferras's scarlet eyes flashed. "You find this a fit subject for merriment, then?" he demanded.
Devon's shoulders slumped in defeat. Apparently, the demon really did expect him to commit this suicidal act. If he refused to obey, then his term of indentured servitude was nullified. Yet to follow this order -!
Nobody would ever question the demon stallion's response to what Devon was about to attempt. He groaned. Most assuredly, he was a dead man.
He cast an assessing eye over his professor's half-horse body. "I am a full-grown man -"
"You are but a boy," Ferras snorted.
"I'm nearly twenty-eight! At any rate, the top of my head doesn't even reach as high as your back! You're much larger than any norm- er, larger than any horse that I - or any man, for that matter - have ever ridden."
"And your point is?"
Devon gritted his teeth. "Never mind. Are you at least going to change to horse form?"
Ferras looked insulted. "Since you apparently have no further pertinent questions to ask me, then, yes -" His man-shaped torso, head, and arms shimmered in a haze, and the long muzzle and neck of the horse replaced them. The creature whinnied and shook its silvery mane, rolling its eyes at him.
Very well, Devon decided, he would make the attempt. Even if he died trying. He walked, stiff-legged, over to the side of the demon horse, and reached up. One hand hovered at the mane, his other stretched over the withers, at the base of the neck.
He trembled, centimeters from death, as he contemplated grabbing hair and muscle and hauling himself up. Droplets of sweat trickled down his back. How could he climb up to this monster's back, when he couldn't bring himself to place a finger on it? He lowered his shaking arms.
Perhaps a jump -? Yes, with a running start. It would be like jumping over a hurdle - albeit a giant hurdle, taller than himself. Devon jogged back several meters, took a deep breath, and sprinted towards the stallion. Three strides to go, then two, now one - At the last second, he twisted aside in panic, and tumbled into the grass. He sat up, panting and slightly dizzy. The demon horse snickered and stamped its foreleg impatiently.
Devon cursed under his breath and brushed himself off, ready to try again. Once more, he raced at the huge equine. As he reached the last few steps, he shut his eyes tight and gathered his courage. At the critical moment, he leapt in the air, arms out, fingers splayed to grab on.
His fingers met air. His body crashed down and slammed into the ground, knocking the breath out of him. Stunned, he lay quiet for a moment before turning to see what had happened. The demon horse munched calmly on a mouthful of tender grass, a couple of meters from where it had been standing previously.
"What did you - Why did you move?" Devon demanded, trying to get up despite being winded and bruised. The creature puffed air noisily through its lips at him. Devon raised his voice. "Stay there, if you are really planning to honor our agreement!" At that, the horse’s head turned his way briefly, displaying lips pulled back in a snarl, exposing large teeth. Devon swallowed. "I mean, Please, sir!" Then he ran forward, determined to get on the demon horse's back this time.
He was within one pace of his goal, when the enormous stallion whipped around suddenly to face him, teeth bared. Devon's eyes widened in shock, but before he could react, the demon struck. Faster than he could see, it leaned over him and nipped his ear. Before the pain could register, Devon’s shirt was caught at the back of the neck, and it pulled up tightly around his throat as he was lifted off his feet. With a powerful twist of its neck, the demon flipped him up and over its head, sending him spinning like a top.
By the time Devon landed, he was completely disoriented. He fell forward and realized, as he scrabbled for a hand-hold, that his fingers were wrapped in the long hair of the demon horse's mane; he was resting on its neck and withers. Without warning, the creature's form phased again, and he found himself tightly grasping his master's long hair in a fist. His other arm was wrapped tightly around a well-muscled chest. With the transition from horse to half-human, the demon's posture changed, and Devon slid downwards, his arm slipping from chest to lower abdomen.
Shock and horror had frozen him, but now he dropped his arm from the half-human torso as if he'd been burned. Words caught in his throat with an unintelligible gurgle. He slid off, dropping to the ground heavily. Immediately, he threw himself face-down, flat on the grass.
The demon horses were wild, powerful, uncontrollable creatures of magic. Only carefully-crafted treaties kept the balance of peace between their species and Devon’s own. For many offenses against either species, there was no leniency, no negotiation.
The young man spread-eagled in the middle of the clearing was well aware of the standard penalty for the multiple infractions he had just committed. Apologies, excuses, and pleas for mercy flooded his mind, but he gasped out the only thing that seemed right. "I'm so sorry, Ferras. Please make it quick, as I'm a coward at heart."
Suddenly the demon was in its least-adopted, most human manifestation. It folded itself into a sitting position among some wildflowers behind Devon's left shoulder, beside his ribs. The young man shuddered. He always felt most alienated from the fiend in this man-like, yet inhuman form. It was easier to connect with the warm-blooded centaur version, or even the out-sized horse.
“A coward, you say?” It brushed ash-grey fingertips along the muscles outlined in his servant's upper arm. A tremor rocked Devon's frame. The demon slid its unusually warm hands to the human’s shoulders and neck. Blood turned to ice in the young man’s veins. If the fiend snapped his neck mercifully, there would be no pain. It was better than facing those razor-sharp hooves.
His cheek pressed down against the crushed grass, Devon inhaled the mingled, rich scents of the warm earth. He memorized the pure white clouds in the azure sky. Delicate pink blossoms spread in a sweet-smelling patch of flowers just a finger's length away from his outflung arm. The vibrant green of the meadow stretching away from him filled his vision, and suddenly Cyrran’s emerald gaze pierced his soul. In despair and regret, Devon bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Stupid, perhaps. I’ll grant you that,” mused the demon. Its fingertips touched the base of his throat, then drew back over his collarbone, pulling the skin slightly.
YAWN - THINK I'LL GO TAKE A NAP...
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