Four Apprentices – Robert remembers little of his life before Master Wizard Monteous Roarke rescued him and made Robert an apprentice wizard. Angela holds secrets about her life she fears to tell anyone, especially Robert. Gerard wants Angela for himself, and tires of finishing second. Wallace just wants to learn… everything.

A Work Gone Wrong – When an unknown assailant attacks Monteous as he steps through a portal, the portal collapses, cutting the apprentices off from their master.

A Desperate Search – The four must put differences aside and learn to work together to save Monteous, all while keeping his disappearance a secret.

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Chapter 1

Amidst an orange glow from the Weave-heated glass, Robert struggled to maintain his concentration.
Other activities around the lab kept picking at his attention. Gerard worked in one corner of the lab with a Weave designed to pull the heat out of water to create ice. Wallace sat at his bench, cutting and mixing ingredients for some future project. Angela, his most persistent distraction, was carefully pouring a reddish powder into a solution she was creating to fill the Focus Robert had already spent several hours preparing, for the third time. He wanted to catch her eye which hid behind a lock of raven hair, but she remained completely focused on her task.
Ignore her. You can’t let her see you fail again.
With some effort, Robert pulled his attention back to his work. He found he’d let the flow of energie he fed to the Weaves he’d created falter, allowing them to weaken. He gathered up the energie required from within himself and fed it to the Weaves until they regained their proper strength.
He maintained a Weave surrounding each hand, like a pair of gloves. Another Weave, shaped like a bowl, floated above his workbench, anchored by several thin Threads of energie. He used his Weave-gloved hands to form the molten glass around the floating Weave so that it would eventually become a bowl.
From behind him, Robert heard the clop of boots striking the stone floor. He nearly turned around to see who approached, but caught himself before he ruined the Focus.
Don’t look. It’s just Monteous. Concentrate.
Robert knew losing his concentration now would result in disaster, as this was his last chance to get it right. Monteous had stressed, more than once, the need to complete it correctly by the evening. An evening that was little more than an hour away.
All that remained was to complete shaping the glass around the Weave, tie it off, and let it cool.
A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead and into his left eye. The salt stung, but he couldn’t use his hands to wipe it away. He blinked the eye, shut it tight and even leaned his head off to the left to let the sweat drain, but none of his attempts worked. He resolved to try to ignore it. He was almost done. A minute at most.
His arms and hands shook with the ache of exhaustion as he kept rolling the glass up the Weave.
I’m almost there. Just need to roll it over the top and tie it off.
The molten glass finally reached the top of the form. He used his Weave covered hands to push it just a bit higher, then rolled that bit over the top to create a rounded lip that would hold the glass to the form while it cooled.
He tied the Threads off, one by one, and was about to tie the last when he caught movement out of the corner of his right eye and looked quickly in that direction. He looked back quickly when he realized what he’d done. Only a fraction of a second, but the damage was done. The form Weave began to unravel in front of him yet again.
To his surprise, it didn’t unravel far before the Weave was taken from his control and knotted back together.
“Finish tying it off, Robert.”
Robert heard the disappointment in Monteous’s voice, but followed the instructions and completed the Work, tying off the remaining thread. He brought his hands together and merged his Weave gloves into a single Weave, then wrapped it around the outside of the Focus to protect the glass while it cooled.
Once he tied that off, he reached into his workbench and pulled out a wrought iron stand created specifically to hold the Focus. He set the stand under the Focus, then nudged the glass down until it settled in place on the stand.
With the Focus resting in its stand, its glow fading, Robert could finally reach up and wipe at his eye. Then he stole a look to his right to see what distracted him. Only Wallace, putting phials away on a shelf. Robert clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned back, staring at the rough timber that comprised the frame of the roof.
A hand landed on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Much better that time.”
Robert didn’t want to look at his Master, didn’t want to see the disappointment he knew would be there. “I still lost it. You had to save me.”
“Yes, but you saved yourself on the first slip. Neither of your previous tries even came close to completion. You handled the four Weaves with little trouble. You didn’t overheat the glass this time. The metals are in the proper alignment. You had sweat in your eye, which I thought for sure would cause failure, but you persevered and ignored it.”
Robert glanced around the lab and found the other apprentices studiously not looking in his direction. He turned and faced his Master. “I still failed. You had to step in and help me at the end.”
And I see the disappointment in you.
“But you nearly succeeded. With a little more effort, a little more concentration on the task…”
“I didn’t succeed, though. It’s the same every time. I can’t shut out the world. I can’t shut off my brain. I should be taking the tests now.”
Monteous sighed. His shoulders slumped a little. “You’re right, of course, Robert. You have the ability. You should be taking your tests by now. But you insist on worrying about your failures, and with that, I can’t help you.”
Robert sat back against his workbench and searched Monteous’s stubble-encrusted face.
“I’ve tried everything I can think of to get you to see it another way. I can’t make you. Until you figure out inside your own head what you want, there’s nothing more I can teach you.”
Robert’s chest tightened. A sour lump formed in the pit of his stomach. There’s nothing more you can teach me?
He watched Monteous appraise the rapidly cooling Focus one more time. Monteous clapped a hand on his shoulder once, twice, then walked off across the lab, heading to Angela’s workbench. Robert wanted to shout, to question. What’s that mean? I’m still an apprentice, aren’t I? But he didn’t voice those questions aloud. He didn’t really want to hear the answer he feared.
* * *
Angela couldn’t believe what she’d heard, but didn’t look up from her work. The solution brewing in the apparatus in front of her bubbled and frothed as she fed more energie into the Weave that heated it. Each ingredient she added required bringing the solution to a specific temperature, and the solution was nearing the appropriate temperature for the wormroot extract. Looking up might cause her to overheat the solution and ruin all her work.
From what she heard, it sounded like Robert had already ruined the Focus. She couldn’t imagine why else Monteous would be so disappointed as to tell Robert he had nothing else to teach him. History played its part in her assessment, too. “You need to concentrate, Robert. You need to focus more,” was a constant refrain she heard throughout her time with Monteous.
She stirred in a pre-measured dollop of the wormroot extract with a glass rod, then released the heating Weave, allowing the solution to cool.
She looked up from her work, and gazed across the room at Robert’s bench. The Focus rested, to her eye, complete in its stand. Robert stood on the other side of it, his back to her. His shoulders hunched, his arms apparently crossed in front of him, he held his head with its close-cropped chocolate-colored hair bent forward and down, exposing his neck. Angela suppressed the urge to walk over and rub it.
“You’re finished?” Monteous’s voice intruded on her.
“Yes, yes I am, Master.”
Monteous bent down and peered into the solution, then sniffed it.
Let it be right. The first time he trusts me on a project of this nature. I don’t think I made any mistakes.
After a moment, he stood and faced her. “Good work, Angela. I can’t detect any flaws.”
She couldn’t keep the smile from her face. This was the first time Monteous had trusted her to participate in a Work of this magnitude for a patron. A portal. Generally agreed to be among the toughest Works to create, and she’d played a part. Though she didn’t yet have enough control over the elemental Weaves to create the Focus herself, crafting the solution satisfied her.
“Thank you. Is the Focus done? Are you going to open the portal tonight?”
Monteous glanced Robert’s way for a moment before answering. “It is finished and you both did a wonderful job. I couldn’t be happier.”
“What about…”
“Opening it? Patience, Angela. I have to prepare a few things, and the Focus still needs to cool for a while. I’ll open the portal tonight when I return.”
“You’re leaving?”
“Only to go to the market. I thought we ought to have some food before my work begins, and you four need time to clean this place up.”
Angela looked around, and indeed, because of the work they’d done, much of the laboratory was in disarray. Her bench was covered with an accumulation of phials and containers. Rods, tongs, flasks, phials, crystals, books and other items were out of place. Angela knew Monteous liked the lab free of clutter when he worked.
She nodded, and Monteous went to a coat rack near the door and pulled on a thick heavy cloak. Addressing the room, he said, “Clean up. I’ll be back soon. We’ll cook supper, eat, then get paid.”
He swung the door open, letting in a chilling breeze, and stepped out into the icy late-afternoon air. The door slammed shut.
As soon as the door shut, Angela heard Gerard. “Fouled it up again, Robert?”
“Go eat dung.” Robert didn’t even look around as he responded.
Gerard laughed.
Angela wanted to go over and hug Robert, tell him she believed in him. She couldn’t let herself do that though. He’d want more, expect more, and she couldn’t give it to him. Instead, she said, “Leave him alone, Gerard. The Focus is complete, so he obviously didn’t foul it up.”
“It took him three tries, though.”
“So? Could you have done it at all?”
He scowled at her, then looked away. She knew he couldn’t do it. She also knew he wouldn’t risk crossing her. As much as she wanted Robert, Gerard had an interest in her. He’d shown it in dozens of ways, small touches, hints, even direct questions, though never in public.
His pride can’t handle a public rejection.
Robert turned around, and faced her, his dark eyes deep pools she could fall into and drown. “Leave it. Angela’s right. The Focus is complete, which is all that matters. Let’s clean up.”
And that was what drew her to Robert, despite his failures. He never gave up. If only she could follow through on her desire.
* * *
Robert felt quite a bit better after he’d eaten the pork and bread Monteous had purchased at the market. The bread was fresh, and the roasted pork warmed and refreshed him with each bite. The food restored much of the energie drained from him while creating the Focus.
The five of them sat around a large, well used, dining table in the kitchen. Monteous commanded the table’s head, the rest of them arrayed along either side of its length. They talked as they always did. Despite a few glances from Monteous, the old wizard said nothing to him to indicate anything had irrevocably changed as a result of the incident with the Focus.
After the meal, Monteous sent them out to the lab again, directing them to retrieve their cloaks from the rack by the door on the way.
“Robert,” Monteous said when they had all gathered in the lab, “please place the Focus in the center of the stage.”
Robert went to his bench, picked up the Focus and its stand, and brought them to the far end of the lab. The “stage”, as Monteous called it, was a raised stone platform roughly a dozen feet in diameter. One circular slab of granite, larger than Robert could cross in two strides, marked the center of the stage. Surrounding it lay smaller stones in a pattern organized to direct energie to the wizard working on the stage. Monteous had chosen each stone in the pattern for the properties it possessed, and not necessarily for aesthetics.
He stepped onto the stage and placed the Focus in the center of the granite slab. Angela followed him onto the stage carrying the flask with the amplifying solution. Robert moved out of her way so she could pour the solution into the Focus. As the clear liquid met the formed glass, it appeared to change color, becoming a deep violet.
“It changed color,” Robert heard Wallace say.
“Correct, Wallace,” said Monteous. “The solution reacts with the metals embedded in the glass. If it doesn’t change color, you know you did something wrong.
“Now, off the stage, you two.” He made a shooing motion at Robert and Angela.
Robert quickly left the stage, stepping in between Angela and Gerard. He knew Gerard had an interest in her. After Gerard’s remarks earlier, Robert didn’t feel like making it easy for him.
“There are three keys to successfully opening a portal,” Monteous said. “The first is placing the matrix of metals into the Focus in the proper pattern so that you go where you want to go. The second is drawing enough energie from your body without completely draining yourself. You will still draw energie from other elements around you, but the primary component must be your own.”
Monteous’s gaze fell in turn upon each of the apprentices as he spoke, eventually coming to rest on Robert. “The last is that you must maintain your concentration and focus until the portal is open. Any slip, any at all, and the threads will unravel leaving you without a portal, and without the energie to make a second attempt.”
“Master,” Robert said. “If opening a portal drains so much energie from you, will you have enough left for any other Weaves once you’ve finished?”
“There’s the trick. You have to balance what you take from yourself with what you draw from around you so that you have enough of your body energie, but not so much that you can’t weave anything else. Also, remember that carrying a staff or a wand with you will allow you to create many Weaves that won’t require much of your personal energie.”
Monteous then went to the wall nearest the stage where he had an array of staves, and pulled down his personal staff. Monteous had created it from a six foot length of blackened wood, and adorned it with silver and gold filigree along its upper length. Emerald and sapphire stones were arrayed in a ring near the head. Robert knew an iron and copper core, twisted together, ran through its entire length. He could see many of the Weaves wrapped around and woven through the staff.
For a moment, Robert looked forward to making his own staff, the final test for entrance into the Guild, but a glance at the Focus reminded him of his earlier failure. I’ll never get my own staff.
Monteous didn’t leave him any time for dwelling on the thought. “Once I open the portal, the lab will be vulnerable to anything from the other side. I don’t expect anyone to be there, but you should be vigilant. Get your staves and wands.”
Robert went to get his staff, a plain, well-worn length of ash with an iron core. He returned to the stage first, as his bench was closest. Gerard had the farthest to go to get his staff. Angela came back with a wand before Gerard had started to return. Wallace never left. He’d been Monteous’s apprentice for less than a year, and only recently mastered some of the fundamental Weaves. Robert thought Wallace’s training with a wand would begin soon, but he knew it hadn’t started yet.
When Gerard returned, Monteous said, “Gerard, if anyone tries to get through the portal, and they are not me, use whatever Weaves you must to keep them on the other side. Robert, if Gerard can’t keep them from coming through, unravel the Weave.”
“With you on the other side?” Robert asked.
“Yes. I can find my way home. I do not want strangers in my lab.”
Robert nodded. He didn’t like it, but if that’s what Monteous wanted, it’s what he would do.
Monteous rapped the heel of his staff on the stone twice, and all the lamps in the room went out, plunging them into darkness. “All right. Everything is ready. While I’m working, pay close attention to the threads and how I weave them.”
They all nodded. Robert felt excitement race through his body. Watching Monteous work always held a thrill for him. His Master’s skill was obvious to any wizard, and to most who could not even see a thread.
Monteous stepped back off the center stone, and raised his staff a few inches off the floor.
Robert slipped quickly into the vew, a sort of trance, a way of seeing, that allowed him to perceive Weaves and the threads that made them. He could see the energie that flowed from Monteous’s staff, the draws from the stone in the floor and the air around him. But more than the energie from the environment, he saw what Monteous meant about the balance of energie from within.
The threads, in the vew, appeared as strands of light, different colors according to the energie source. Monteous folded them and wrapped them together, creating a thick, intricate rope that he fed to the Focus. The metals in the Focus reacted with the threads and spun them out into an upright elliptical field above the Focus.
Monteous put so much of his own energie into that rope that Robert could see how a mistake in gauging the necessary amounts could easily drain the wizard before he completed the portal. In that moment, he also understood why most wizards couldn’t open a portal. They’d drain themselves.
The portal continued to take form above the Focus, and it grew until it was a bit taller than the height of a man. At that point, Monteous started another thread and this time, used it to wrap the edges of the portal. When the edge was wrapped, Monteous tied the thread and released it and the rope.
Robert slipped out of the vew, and without the threads of the Weave superimposed, could see the portal as it appeared to a normal: a window pane, hanging in the air above the Focus. The edges were indistinct, but the view through it was clear.
And through it, he could see darkened trunks of trees, a forest at night. Frost covered the branches and the ground. Cold air slipped through the portal to chill the room, and Robert understood why they’d been told to don their cloaks.
“Where does it lead?” Wallace asked.
“Shh. Try not to say anything while I’m away,” Monteous admonished in a quiet voice, nearly a whisper.
Monteous peered through the portal for a moment, then turned to face them again. “The area looks clear. If it leads where it should, I should step through right outside the rear wall of an estate owned by a man who stole an artifact dear to our patron.”
Robert nodded, and saw the others do the same. He gripped his staff a little tighter.
A mischievous grin formed on Monteous’s face. “Here I go. Keep the room dark. We don’t want light spilling into the forest and announcing the existence of the portal.”
He turned and stepped through the portal, careful to step over the Focus and not disturb it.
Once he’d safely crossed to the other side, Robert saw him turn, enough to see Monteous’s face again. The mischievous grin fell flat, and his eyes grew wide. “What are you…”
Robert started to move toward the portal, not quite sure what to do, but it was too late.
The Weave maintaining the portal’s integrity unraveled. The portal snapped shut, shattering the Focus beneath it, leaving Monteous trapped on the other side.