Johnny likes counting things. One, two… fifty-six, fifty-seven… one hundred thirty, one hundred thirty-one. There are on average two hundred and forty steps up the mountain walkway to the castle where Johnny learns and trains. Two hundred and forty back down to the township at the base of the mountain where he lives with his uncle. That makes it on average, four hundred and eighty steps a day, every day.
Johnny's made this trek practically every day for six years and he never gets the same number from one day to the next. So many times he gets tripped up or grows lazy. There are some bits of stone so worn away Johnny doesn’t know if they even count. Some bits of the way are more of a gentle incline in the dirt than actual stone slats. Still, he tries. Every day he counts. Each morning adds to his physical and mental routine, a necessary stimulation to prepare him for the exertions of the day.
Somehow, someone in the College learned of his routine. Now, when he arrives at the base gate of the castle, there’s always a student, or two or three, who will ask him how many he got today.
“What’s the count, Johnny!?”
Today it’s Jaemin. The young Illusion apprentice stands beside the wall of the castle, auburn hair floating with the breeze, with a parcel of his friends, most of whom Johnny knows. Two of them are Illusion students like he is, though they don’t always share the same lectures or projects of study.
“One hundred and forty-three,” says Johnny cheerfully.
Jaemin makes a face. Beside him, Renjun grins triumphantly. “That’s two more than yesterday’s count! I win! Jaemin, you owe me two hours of scroll translation, and don’t think you can get out of it! I know where you keep your quills~”
Johnny waves to the boys and keeps on walking without encouragement or rebuke. Theirs is a harmless game. Others’ are not so.
He gives a cursory, wary glance around the inner courtyard on his way to the Masters’ Hall. If Johnny can keep his step count to within five counts of variance from the day before, and if he can keep out of the way of a certain group of students, he calls himself fortunate.
Today, evidently, is not that day.
“Hey, it’s Johnny,” says one kid that trio now, and the way he frames his question is entirely different from Jaemin’s. “What’s the count today? One hundred twenty? One thousand thirty-five?”
“Good morning, Dongyoung,” he replies instead because Johnny’s uncle Kun says he should always be polite to people who are rude.
What Uncle Kun doesn’t know is that this particular student hates his given name.
“It’s Doyoung! Do-young ! Are you deaf, dumb, or just an asshole?”
Johnny smiles and keeps on walking. Unfortunately, he still has to walk past the trio to enter the hall. Doyoung is easily riled and therefore too mad to make a more hateful retort. Jungwoo is much to sly and would likelier hex Johnny when no one's looking than attack him head-on. Jaehyun, on the other hand—Johnny finds the path in front of him suddenly blocked by a set of broad shoulders, a hard, handsome face, and dark, dark hair. Johnny has several inches over Jaehyun, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t intimidated. All three train primarily under the School of Destruction, and in a perfect world that wouldn’t mean a lot. Johnny’s a mage apprentice and he also can make sparks fly, or freeze running water. The difference is that he isn’t likely to attack another living thing with this kind of magic. They, on the other hand, are trained to.
“Excuse me,” he says to Jaehyun politely, still with that smile plastered stupidly on his face.
Jaehyun stares him down, refusing to budge. It’s a game they play sometimes. Johnny likes it least of all. If he attempts to go around, Jaehyun moves with him. If Johnny goes the other way, Jaehyun does too. Johnny had learned the hard way to just wait for the game to become boring and let Jaehyun move first. He does, and Johnny continues on his way.
As he’s about to enter the Masters’ Hall though, Johnny gets a strange impression that someone is still watching him. He turns around in the doorway. Jaehyun is watching him long after his friends have moved on to other forms of entertainment. And oddly enough, this time there’s no hint of animosity. He just stares.
There are two kinds of students who train at the College: those who can afford to live there, and those who can’t. Johnny has always belonged to the second tribe. Since he was a boy of thirteen, he’s lived with his uncle in the shadow of the castle. He hasn’t seen his parents in two years. The College only accepts students gifted with the art of magic. Most mages present their skills between the ages of seven and ten, but only those who can prove to be in control of their powers are eligible for full-time enrollment. And by the time a student begins his training, he’s usually already shown to have an affinity with one school of magic over another. For Johnny, it was Illusion.
Johnny finds his Illusions Master Moon Taeil deep in concentration over a tabletop aviary. Two minuscule baby chicks coo softly from inside a nest Taeil seems to have constructed himself from the torn book pages. Johnny spies a mangled copy of Thaumaturgical Theory for the Student of Restoration, Vol IV. For the master’s sake, if no one else’s, Johnny hopes the Keeper of the Arcanaeum never finds out what became of his book.
“Master?” Johnny addresses him softly.
It takes another two minutes before the master acknowledges him. “Ah, yes. Good morning, Johnny. Here, meet my new birds.”
“Carrier pigeons for the Master Wizard. These two are now in a restive Calming trance. Johnny, how would you like to learn how to train birds!”
This is usually about the jist of Johnny’s days at the College. The School of Illusion was once one of the College’s most nefarious branches of study. Illusion magic covers a wide range of spells dedicated to the manipulation of the mind, primarily in others, either man or beast. Spells to elicit fear or a sense of calm dance hand in toe with the ability to project courage, or mayhem. Illusion casters of the past under the guise of the College frequently directed their talents to the more deceptive arts, like swindling or thieving. It doesn’t help that the Illusion practitioner’s crowning glory is the spell of invisibility.
Today’s students are heavily scrutinized and highly monitored. Johnny doesn’t understand the bias against Illusion casters when there’s the entire School of Destruction to consider. Still, he doesn’t make the rules. Which is how he ends spending a full day playing nursemaid to a pair of baby chicks, manipulating his limited magic to the subtle training of the Master Wizard’s future generation of carrier pigeons.
The sun hangs low in the sky when Johnny begins his descent down the mountain. He meets various students and other residents of the college on the way down, most in little groups of twos and threes as they discuss their daily assignments or complain about the masters.
It’s not until Johnny reenters the township below that he meets his friends outside the tavern for their usual evening wind down.
“Johnny, you made it! How was bird watching?”
“Thrilling. What did you expect?”
Taeyong practices under the School of Restoration, and when he and Johnny first met, he couldn’t imagine anyone less suitable to the art. Then he began studying it as a secondary focus and realized Restoration was more than just healing spells. Taeyong, though sweet to his friends, has always been a fit fiery and defensive, kind of like his hair which is flame red and wiry. He holds a lot of bluster within his tiny frame and apparently grew up being bullied by the kids in his town who, scared of his magic, and probably also his looks, would use him for target practice. Then they learned how adept Taeyong was at producing defensive wards which not only protected himself, but frequently deflected and returned all the things they threw at him, including and not limited to dirty boots, tomatoes, rocks, and arrows. Here within the confines of the College now, nobody messes with Taeyong.
“You’re too nice for this place, Johnny. If Master Jongin had me staring at birds all day long I would have told him what for.” Taeyong throws an arm over his shoulder as they waltz through the doors of the tavern.
“You’re full of lies, Taeyong, but I love you anyway.”
The two approach their usual corner table where Yuta and Sicheng already sit. The tavern is a place not just for the locals, but where many students come for food and board. Second only to the governor’s manor, it’s easily the next biggest building in town with three floors and a basement. The rooms above are where Yuta and Sicheng live when they’re not scouring local caverns for the undead or locked in a castle dungeon with the Master Conjurer.
Johnny is envious of their relationship. The two boys grew up together in a village to the north and are terribly close. They’re blond as can be but also intensely scary. Johnny supposes it comes with the territory. When you study under the tutelage of the College’s only vampire master, and you practice necromancy, it’s only right half the student population gives them a wide berth. Not Johnny though, and definitely not Taeyong.
“I see you two are out and about during daylight hours. How rare is that?” says Johnny.
“Master Yangyang is away on a trip starting today,” Yuta replies. He actually looks bummed about it. Normally Yuta would be happy for a short reprieve.
“Why’s that a problem?” Taeyong asks.
Sicheng answers. “Because he assigned so much busy work, and it’s not even fun, and half of it we have to do alongside the Destruction students.”
“Oooof, that sounds fun.” Johnny clicks his tongue sympathetically.
“Yeah. How about you spend hours and hours reconstructing skeletal anatomy just for the Destruction kids to practicing blasting apart.” Yuta groans so loud he frightens off the tiny server boy there to deliver their dinner. Johnny laughs but Taeyong tuts disapprovingly.
“I hope one is these days Jisung develops some magic and hexes all of you out of spite.”
Sicheng smirks. “Him? No way, he’s too sweet for that.”
“So you were as a kid,” Yuta asserts, “and look at you now.”
“I am an angel,” Sicheng insists.
“You raise the bodies of tiny dead bunnies just for fun and parade them across the tavern porch, what version of you is an angel?” Taeyong raises his chin, taunting.
Johnny pushes the trays of their dinner closer to each person in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Holding a mug of ale in his hand he says, “and I remember you , Taeyong, enjoyed the show that day as much as me,” before knocking it back and swallowing deeply.
The door opens and another round of students enter the room. Johnny spies them curiously because he always likes to be aware of his surroundings. Most of the time it’s just the usual crowd, but tonight Johnny nearly chokes on his ale.
There are two kinds of students who train at the College: those who can afford to live there, and those who can’t. And the ones who live in the College dormitory rarely come down the mountain to mingle with the rest.
Johnny turns around fast, putting his back to the door. If he’s not mistaken he just saw Doyoung, Jungwoo, and Jaehyun enter with a group of younger Destruction students.
Taeyong looks at him funny. “What’s that face for– ohh .”
Sicheng whistles, giving away Johnny’s undercover attempt. Yuta actually says, “Well well, look who fell off the mountain tonight. Hope their bums are alright, it’s a long slide down.”
Aside from a few long scowls, the students mostly ignore them.
For whatever reason Johnny hasn’t uncovered, the majority of Destruction practitioners come from wealthier families. Johnny has yet to meet a caster of either Illusion or Conjuration who could afford the steep fees of the College’s tuition and board, and there are only a few students of Restoration, Enchanting, or Alteration who can claim to do so too. Maybe Taeyong could afford it. His family comes from a line of prosperous merchants, but Taeyong says he prefers to save his money for clothes, trinkets, and the various odds and ends, rather than put it all into the College.
So maybe there’s a reason Johnny bands together with the three most fearsome apprentices not studying Destruction: it means he usually gets left alone. Johnny just so happened to get on the wrong side of the Destruction kids his first year here, a mistake he’d gladly go back in time and redo (being young and naive, and misunderstanding the damage a few fire spells could to his wardrobe is no excuse), but since he can’t, he prefers to lay low. Like tonight.
“What sucks more,” Yuta is saying under his breath, “is that Jaehyun is stuck with us for most of the week.”
Taeyong hums. “I forgot he studies Conjuration.”
“Jaehyun’s not so bad,” says Sicheng.
“To you maybe,” Johnny whispers, pouting. He finishes the last of his ale and pokes at his food, pushing it around the plate. When he looks up again, Sicheng is smirking. “What?” says Johnny.
“You really don’t know, do you?”
“Leave him alone, Sicheng. You’ll give him nightmares if you tell him.”
“Tell me what?”
Sicheng leans forward conspiratorially but Yuta smacks his arm. “Don’t do it.”
Taeyong’s eyes flick between all three in confusion.
In the end, Sicheng sits back and just smiles, lips sealed, and Johnny gets this funny feeling in his gut like he always does when something involves Jaehyun. Going by his friends’ silence, he’s either got a death warrant hanging over his head or something more nefarious.
“I’ll find out someday. You just watch.” Johnny's threat feels hollow even to his ears. He steals a glance across the room again, grateful at least that Jaehyun and crew are seated well out of hearing range. He does, however, notice with a jolt that even at that distance, Jaehyun sits facing their direction. For a few perilous seconds, their eyes meet. Johnny can’t hold it for long and he turns back to the table, flustered for some reason he can’t entirely fathom.
“Well,” says Taeyong as they clean their plates, “‘bout time to get out of here. Johnny, can I follow you back to the shop? I wanna try to borrow Ten for the evening.”
“You can try.” Johnny smiles. “But good luck getting him out of my uncle’s laboratory.”
“Nah, I just heard he was researching some new ingredients to make wards last longer.”
“Hmm,” says Johnny, already bored. “Let’s go then.”
They say their goodbyes to Yuta and Sicheng and head out, and Johnny makes zero attempts to look at Jaehyun again. The township isn’t very large. It’s barely even three streets width and several blocks long. Johnny’s uncle lives in a two-story house near the end of the main street. Johnny spots the lantern hung over the door illuminating a sign which reads Kun’s Apothecary, Potions & Ailments for all Thou’s Needs. A little bell tinkles as they step inside.
“Uncle?” Johnny calls out. There’s no direct answer other than the sound of a loud cauldron falling off its pit in the next room over, followed by the sound of two men cursing. “There you are.” Johnny points Taeyong the way. His friend disappears into the room with a chuckle.
Uncle Kun isn’t in fact very much older than Johnny, just eight years to be exact. He, unlike Johnny, hasn’t a drop of magic in him, but he does have an affinity for alchemy which Johnny frankly does not. Kun was the former apprentice to a potions master who served the town before he decided to return to his home country. While the College employs a set of real wizards who are experts in the art, for many locals, making the trip up the mountain is too great a hassle. Kun remains to supply their needs. He also gets a number of students interested in his work and who are also too poor to visit the College Apothecary.
Johnny hears Taeyong’s greeting as he sets down his knapsack. Various books and artifacts on the training of carrier pigeons fall out of the bag along with Johnny’s collection of blank scrolls, quills, and ink. He notes with bemusement that one of his ink bottles spilled a little. Johnny points at the black stain leaking through the fabric of the bag, whispers a short spell, and feels the magic tingle down his arm, emitting a soft light out from the tip of his finger. The stain disappears. He tightens the ink bottle so it won’t happen again.
“Johnny, you’re back.” Kun’s merry voice rings through the small room.
“Uncle,” he replies cheerfully. All around them are shelves upon shelves displaying colorful rare, magical, and medicinal ingredients all tucked into glass phials and bowls. The cheaper of Kun’s potions are displayed along countertops, the more potent ones along the back wall behind. Johnny knows there are even more dangerous materials hidden in locked trunks in the lab and under Kun’s bed. He doesn’t ask what they are or how much they’re worth. The shop looks like an easy target for vandals but locals know not to mess with it. There are enough intruder spells to alert and bring down the whole college if necessary, were someone to try and rob it. Living in the shadow of the ninety percent of the realm’s brightest mages does have its perks.
“How was your day? Wait! Don’t tell me! Illusion magic is so exciting, you know I’ll be too jealous.”
Johnny scoffs. “Yes, and I’d much rather spend my day cataloging seventeen types of dead butterfly wings.”
“That was last week, get with the times, nephew. Today, Ten and I unloaded twenty-one boxes of rare mushrooms and packed them into cold storage.”
“Exhilarating. And don’t call me ‘nephew’. I’m barely younger than you.”
“Don’t call me ‘uncle’ then.”
“Are you kidding? My mother would kill me if I disrespected her dear, dear baby brother.”
“Hmm,” says Kun. “Looks like we are at an impasse. What’s Taeyong up to tonight?”
Johnny shrugs. “Something about one of Ten’s pet projects?”
Kun looks thoughtful for a moment. “Oh, must be the potion for more longer endurance wards.”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“What makes you sound so bored? You study Restoration magic too.”
“Yeah, but I know nothing about potions. You got a dud with me for a nephew.”
Kun laughs. “As if I need your help. That’s what I pay Ten for.”
Ten showed up three years ago with zero training in anything related to magic or alchemy. Kun hired him anyway, said there was something tenacious about him. Kun’s always had a good eye for people. In this case, he was right. Ten works twice as hard as he does and could definitely become a master someday. Not even Kun is a licensed master. He claims it’s not worth the trouble and the expense of appearing before the Master Wizard to become certified. He has greater hopes for Ten though.
Ten is just two years older than Johnny. They share a little room opposite Kun’s on the second floor. And more than that, they use each other as a soundboard for all the neighborhood gossip, stories, and other more personal woes. So Ten knows all about Johnny’s disdain for the School of Destruction, and Johnny knows all about Ten’s abundant admiration for Kun, an admiration bordering on love. Too bad he’s sworn to strict secrecy. He has an inkling that is these feelings were known, his uncle wouldn’t be terribly adverse to them.
In the meantime, he lets Ten and Taeyong do their potions thing, and Kun pats him on the back before asking Johnny to mind the shop for a minute. It’s almost closing time, so there’s little chance of anyone coming in. Johnny reorganizes his books and mentally prepares himself for the next day of bird training. Really he’s just craving the sweet warmth of sleep.
He practically scowls when the door opens behind him and the little bell tinkles again. Instead, he plasters a smile to his face, turns around, and drops it immediately.
“We’re closed,” he says into Jaehyun’s hopeful face.
That expression too is wiped clean to be replaced by an amused frown. “Closed? But it’s not 8 o’clock? Your sign still says Open. Unless I am mistaken and your uncle is being selective with his patronage these days?”
That pisses Johnny off. Insult him, sure, but no one goes after his uncle. Before he can dig up an insult, he forces himself to calm down. It requires even the tiniest bit of his own magic.
“Perhaps I was mistaken. There are still a few minutes left. How may I help you?”
Jaehyun looks incredibly pleased. “How nice of you to ask. Now, I was curious if your uncle carries a special type of giants toe?”
Johnny steps behind the counter and affects a bored expression. “Giants toe, giants toe. Now would be that be a cave giant, frost giant, mountain giant, valley giant, wood giant or–“
Jaehyun looks confused. “There are that many kinds of giants?”
“To be honest I don’t know a thing about giants or their toes, but please, have a look around while you wait to ask my uncle.”
Jaehyun huffs. “Fine, fine.”
He turns away and Johnny stares at an interesting spec of wood grain on the counter. He traces it with his finger for a while before examining his cuticles. Eventually, he scratches his nose. Jaehyun does as instructed and begins perusing the wares. Every so often they overhear the sounds of an elevated, indistinct argument between Ten and Taeyong in the next room. Once, Jaehyun pierces him with a questioning stare. Johnny’s smile is all lips.
“My uncle went the other way. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”
Jaehyun just smiles. And eventually, Kun does return. Johnny takes off immediately for his little room upstairs. By the time he returns Jaehyun is wrapping his purchases in a small little box, laughing and smiling with Kun as he exits the shop.
“Traitor,” Johnny tells his uncle.
Kun sighs and smiles. “I don’t know what you have against them but Jaehyun is honestly pretty nice.”
“Now you just sound like Sicheng.”
Outside the sky is bright and cloudless. The moon casts long shadows of the town’s homes and shops, the castle illuminated high above. For once it hasn’t snowed this week, not that Johnny minds the cold. But he does like looking at the sky. Johnny likes counting things. One, two, forty-seven, forty-eight. He lays back on a bench outside his uncle’s shop, and with the lantern now blown out, he can see stars. Johnny never counts to the last star.
He stops around sixty tonight, just smiling to himself and enjoying the view. It’s how he winds down at night. It’s peaceful, enjoyable. Usually he’s alone. Taeyong walks out soon after Johnny gives up, waves and bids him goodnight. Ten sticks his head out the door to verify he’s there and then leaves him to it. Kun never looks for him. He knows this is Johnny’s time.
However, there is somebody else who doesn’t know the rules.
“You look comfortable, Johnny.”
Johnny visibly jolts at Jaehyun’s voice. He very nearly jumps off the bench when Jaehyun has the audacity to sit down next to him. His thigh lays inches from Johnny’s head and all the warning bells go off in his mind: Danger! Danger!
Like always though, he doesn’t dare show it.
“Did you need something else from the shop, Jaehyun? It’s officially closed now, in case you’re wondering.”
Jaehyun is silent so long Johnny tilts his head to see if he’s still there.
“No, I don’t need anything else.”
“How come you’re still down here though? Didn’t your buddies go back to the College yet?”
“They did. I didn’t feel like it yet.”
Johnny snorts. He readjusts his head, intertwining his hands to support himself, and pretending he’s suave and cool and not secretly terrified for his life. Was it a generation ago that some hapless unlucky Enchanter found himself in a feud with a Destruction caster? They found the poor apprentice’s body not terribly far from the town, lifeless but still zinging from static lightning. In the official College records, he was the victim of a freak electric storm. Everyone knows differently. The caster was never punished.
Perhaps he and Jaehyun are this generation’s dynamic feud. That doesn’t give Johnny comfort.
“It’s late. Who wants to be on the mountain this late? Shouldn’t you get going?”
“I don’t know?” Johnny is so confused. “Maybe if you’re that out of shape you should do it more often, like the rest of us.”
“Maybe I should.”
Okay, Johnny is really confused . He sits up and nonchalantly stretches. If Jaehyun wants to play mind games he’s going to need to give Johnny something better to work with.
“Well, some of us need our beauty sleep so, goodnight.”
As he enters the shop Jaehyun says one last thing. “Goodnight, Johnny.”