The red-haired magister had left him again. Evelos realized a few moments later that he couldn’t see because he had closed his eyes, but he didn’t remember doing so. Still, he opened them again, and found he was lying in a bed chamber. The furniture was simple but elegant, like one would put in a guest room or an infirmary. He sat up. His father was sitting on a chair beside him, bent over with his fingers laced together as his hands dangled between his legs. He looked up hopefully as Evelos stirred.
Evelos sat up on his elbows, avoiding his father’s gaze. He didn’t understand it, but he suddenly felt ashamed. Heat rose his cheeks, and remembering the clawmarks, Evelos touched his fingers to them.
The skin was whole. The whole thing had just been an illusion.
“Are the Trials over?” he asked his father tentatively.
Keelath’s expression was unreadable. “For you, yes.”
Evelos sighed in relief, but he still hesitated. He wouldn’t have called it easy, but the short Tiral hadn’t seemed necessary either. Beyond inflicting on him a lot of pain and uncertainty, what had been the point?
“So what happens now?” Evelos asked his father.
“We go home.” There was something chilly edging into his father’s tone as Keelath watched him.
Evelos looked up. Had he failed? Could you even fail such a thing that was supposed to awaken your latent magical powers, guide you on your life’s path? As he thought about it, he realized he never had heard the names of those elves who had supposedly lost their honor in the Trials. Maybe they didn’t even exist. Maybe that was a part of the Trials—all artificial problems put together by the magisters, with little bearing on his life at all.
Yet still his father sat there, looking disappointed in him, and Evelos realized, even if the Trials themselves were a farce, that fact alone still bothered him a lot.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
“Why couldn’t you just choose something?” Keelath’s face colored as he finally let his frustration through. “You have always been so indecisive, and look now where it’s gotten you!”
A part of Evelos quailed. Another part–one he hadn’t really noticed before–perked its head up and snorted like an indignant charger. “But this was my Trial,” he told his father quietly. “I made the choices that made sense to me.”
“Running? Refusing to choose?” said Keelath scornfully. “You are a Sunwalker. Sunwalkers are paladins. It was right there in front of your nose the whole time. I tried to make it easier for you, by making the weapons training the first thing you would come across, yet you blithely stumbled right on past it!”
“You altered the Trial?” A curl of resentment twisted in Evelos’ gut, even as disbelief fluttered in his chest. “Is that even legal? Why would you do that?”
“I would do everything in my power if it was in my son’s best interests,” Keelath snapped, “but clearly you don’t appreciate that, or you would do the same for me!”
Evelos shivered. His internal indignant charger was doing more than just snorting now; it stamped and let out a whinnying protest in his head. Evelos took a deep breath, trying to calm the mental image as he would a real horse, asking it to let him know what the problem was without all the acting up. It fell back to snorting, turning its ire on his father.
Evelos looked up at Keelath, swallowing hard. Then he frowned. Something wasn’t right. He knew his father was stern and harsh sometimes, but he was never…petty. He never brought up his personal feelings to Evelos, unless it was his feelings of love: compassionate concern or unselfish pride in him. Evelos squinted at the other elf. Was he even real? Or had he just fallen into another part of the Trial?
Keelath continued to rant, so unlike himself—and yet not. Evelos realized, with a start, that his resentment, squirming inside him like an unpleasant meal, had been building for years, chafing under Keelath’s attempts to shepherd him in one direction—to the profession of a paladin. Evelos also recognized his own shame and uncertainty in the mix, a boiling sea just under the surface of all his waking thoughts.
Did it matter if this was all an illusion? The feelings were real enough.
“Then let’s go home,” he told Keelath tiredly. “And you can stop that shouting, now. I know you’re disappointed, but you–” Evelos voice cracked despite his best efforts. He shook himself. “You’re just going to have to accept it. I’m not going to be a paladin, Dad. I love you, and I think it’s really wonderful what you do, but i-it’s just not for me.”
Keelath stopped to stare at him, but before he could respond, the illusion broke again, just like that.
Evelos appeared again in the hall. Behind him were the five gates, looking as he had seen them from the other side of the courtyard. Evelos squinted at them, and they blurred and shifted like a mirage, blending together until they were just the one. In front of him stretched the same hallway he had met the succubus, the bullies, and the thousands of magisters, but this time it had an end and only a few doors, each one closed and marked with the names of the magisters who kept their studies behind them.
The red-haired magister was standing in the middle of it, clearly waiting for him.
Evelos didn’t immediately spring to mind her this time. He felt shaky and a little bit empty inside. So the angry father had been an illusion, and he had just spent all his energy telling off a fleeting figment of magic. He wondered if his real father had been watching, and he felt tears sting his eyes at the thought.
Yet, he wouldn’t have taken back what he had said, now that he knew. The Trials were said to help a person find their true purpose, and it had done that for him, a little. It had gotten him over the hump of accepting that being a paladin was not in his destiny—along with not being much good in a fight or on horseback—even though these things had meant ever so much to his father.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Evelos whispered, just in case Keelath was watching. “I hope you can still be proud of me…”
“You have finished one portion of the Trials,” said the redhead magister when Evelos finally approached. She mercifully said nothing about his encounter with his father’s illusion.
“Is there more?” Evelos asked tiredly.
“For you, maybe.” She studied him with a thoughtful air.
“I think I’d like to go home now.”
“Why?” Her question was blunt, with none of the coy questioning she had done before
“I’m not much cut out for confrontations or making snap decisions that could affect the rest of my life,” Evelos answered honestly. “I’d much rather go home and figure it out the slow, normal way.”
“Do you know why we offer these Trials?” the magister asked, her tone becoming sharp and impatient again.
Evelos shrugged. “To test our magical abilities, I thought. You don’t have to do that with me, though. If I have any magic, it’ll be of the Light, like my mother and father.”
“There is more to it than that,” said the magister. “Our kingdom is forever threatened by the Amani trolls, and our magic is the best weapon we have against them. Yet magic does not come to our beck and call if we are anything besides strong-willed and clear in our purpose. Anything less is to be a danger to the people around you: when the magic misfires and you end up dead, or worse.”
Evelos shivered. “But my father never took the Trials. His magic—“
“—is strong because he is.” She paused to consider him. “I see I may have been handling the whole thing wrong in your case.”
Evelos nodded, relieved. “That’s what I’ve been trying to say. If you would just allow me to–“
“There is not much grit in you, but I can think of ways to bring it out,” the magister continued as if she hadn’t even heard him.
Evelos’ mouth went dry. “I don’t need grit,” he said softly. “If not I’m going to be a paladin–and I’m not–it would just be better for me to go home.”
The magister frowned at him but then, with an aggravated groan, shooed him off. Evelos caught his sigh of relief before he could embarrass himself. “Oh, very well. Your father is waiting at the entrance. Go home then, if that’s what you really wish!”
It was strange, walking back out the single gate, not passing a courtyard or even a line of students waiting to take their Trials on his way outside of the magisters’ abode. Evelos was suddenly standing up front of the inn he and his father had been staying at. When he turned around, only an empty street greeted him.
Evelos could barely believe it, but he didn’t question it. He was so glad to be on the way to his home.
He turned and pushed his way into the inn’s common room, or tried to. The door was stuck. Uncomfortably mirroring the Trials, he had to pull instead of push it.
His father was waiting inside. Evelos froze in sudden memory of the angry rants, but Keelath only jumped to his feet and gave Evelos a hug as soon as he saw him. “You are back! That was fast. Tell me everything! How did it go?”
“You weren’t watching? They said you might.”
Keelath’s eyes were pained. “For some of it, yes, I was watching.”
Evelos looked at him, then looked down. He wouldn’t apologize, but he wouldn’t take back what he had said, either.
“Remember what I told you,” said Keelath, as if he has read Evelos’ thoughts. “I will love you no matter what path in this life you take. I’m sorry for making you believe otherwise.”
Evelos shyly glanced up at him, and Keelath put on a smile. He could still see the pain in his father’s eyes, but Keelath was ready to forgive him. Evelos thankfully leaned into him for another hug. Keelath mussed his hair affectionately.
“Let’s go home,” he said. “We’ll figure the rest out in due time…”