Final Exam

What do you get for the guy who doesn’t like having a big deal made of his birthday? Well, when he’s an incorrigible teacher who enjoys stories, maybe you give him a story about teaching and learning. Well, I do anyway. No idea what you’re giving him.

Final Exam

As Serena approached the little wooden cottage on the edge of the school grounds where tests were always given, she saw Master Dominic sitting at a desk outside the door. He was scribbling something, as usual, with occasional pauses to tap his pen against his lips as he thought. Serena frowned and stopped humming her new tune.

She wished anyone but Dom-Dom were overseeing her final exam. She didn’t know why he didn’t like her, but he clearly didn’t. When he saw who was coming, his thick black brows drew close together. He slumped heavily into his chair, the wilting effect enhanced by his height. It didn’t make her nervous, exactly, but it didn’t improve her mood.

He sighed. “So, you think you’re ready for this?”

This was just too unfair. Worse than Dom-Dom’s dislike was his persistent belief that she was incompetent. No one else at the school seemed to think so. Her teachers consistently rated her highly, and other students often came to her for help. If she wasn’t ready, who was? She straightened her back. “I’ve always been one of the best students in this school, Master Dominic. I don’t see why that should change now.”

Master Dominic stared at her for a moment before grunting. “Perhaps.”

His admission was grudging. Serena knew she wouldn’t get a response if she asked him why. He’d just grunt again.

His long arm gestured toward the doorway beside him. “Instructions are on the table. Everything you need for the spell is there. Yell if you get into trouble.”

Serena walked past him into the cottage without a response. Trouble? She’d miss a lot about the school once she graduated. She would not miss Dom-Dom.

After closing the door, she leaned her back against it and tried to relax. He always had that effect on her.

Once the first burst of anger passed, she wondered whether it was part of the test. Spells required concentration, and her teachers had always warned her that once she left the school, there would be more distractions to deal with. Maybe they wanted to know she could handle them. Serena went to a window for one more look at the old school building while she gave her emotions a chance to settle. If everything went well, this was the last time she’d see it as a student.

It was a sturdy, sprawling thing, two stories of gray brick roofed with slate. The front, which she couldn’t see from here, held its only pretension to decoration, with sculpted stone pediments over the windows and door. The building was far too aware of its own dignity to be really inviting, but six years of happy memories made it beautiful to Serena.

The back consisted of two stark wings sheltering a large courtyard. Girls were in the wing closest to Serena and boys in the far wing. Serena thought the arrangement was intended to keep the students segregated after hours, but her theory wasn’t well supported by personal experience. If they wanted to keep students from sneaking around, they shouldn’t teach the spell of silence to third-years.

Smiling at memories of midnight parties that would have made her teachers shake their heads, Serena turned her back on the school. She calmly approached the broad blond wood table, the main feature in the cottage. It held a single large square of paper. There was no title, just a short list of ingredients and instructions roughly centered on the page. She read it through, stopping at the end to briefly decipher the key word.

Then she sat back and blinked in confusion. This was her final exam, the test that would determine her place in the world? Admittedly, from the length of the last word, it would require some power from her. She’d have to be precise and careful. But the spell seemed awfully simple.

She read it through again. It didn’t get any harder. Annoyed again despite her best intentions, she set herself to learning the key word. Even if the rest of the spell was simple, this could take some time.

It wasn’t that it was long, or even hard to pronounce. It contained at most six characters. (Serena carefully traced each character on the table, covering the rest with the fingers of her left hand as she worked. Yes, there were six.) But the language of magic contained more concentrated truth than most human brains could hold at once. It powered the spell and was liable to trip her up unless she treated it very cautiously.

Even here, the school had saved her some time. She wouldn’t have to write it out during the spell, since her instructions told her to use the paper it was written on. She’d only have to say it.

As she practiced under her breath, her mouth grew warm, as though she were eating the heavily gingered pears that were the specialty of the school’s cook. So she was right. The spell had to do with fire.

When Serena felt confident in the word, she memorized the rest of the spell. She suspected it would disturb a lot of the students to use the paper as part of the spell instead of having it next to them for reference, but she preferred to work from memory. The way she did it felt more magical, at least to her. And she could use her music.

Serena was a musician as well as a magician. She sang the old tunes and composed her own to share with friends. The choice between studying magic and music had been difficult. Left to herself, Serena might have chosen music. However, she’d only been thirteen when the time had come to choose, and her parents had considered magic the rarer and more valuable skill.

She hadn’t quite been able to abandon music, though. She practiced whenever she could spare time from her studies.

She sometimes wondered whether that was what irked Master Dominic. When she made her rare mistakes, he obviously relished telling her she’d chosen her field poorly. And he often railed against the school for allowing students to waste time on their “trifling hobbies” when they should be studying magic.

Still, if Dom-Dom was obsessed by magic to the exclusion of everything else, Serena didn’t see that she had to be. After all, she’d found a way for the music to help her learn the magic.

She assigned each ingredient of a spell a short line of melody based on her associations with it. The arrangement of the ingredients became simple harmonies. She turned every spell into a tune that would be complete only when all the elements were in their places. One piece flowed into another, making it nearly impossible for her to forget what came next.

Dominic was the only teacher who didn’t seem impressed by Serena’s memory. He was patient with other students who had to grope their way through remembering spells, but he seemed to resent her ready answers. He always asked her–and only her–questions from outside the lessons, and his criticism was harsh when she didn’t have answers.

It wasn’t just her studies where he held her to a ridiculous standard either. Just over a year ago, an hourglass she’d used in a spell had come apart in her hand as she was putting it away. It had, of course, happened under Dom-Dom’s ever-watchful eye. It had been the occasion of one of his periodic rants about taking care of materials and planning for adverse events. As though she could have planned for an hourglass nearly as old as the school itself choosing that exact time to disintegrate.

Serena shook her head and concentrated on converting the exam spell to music, setting aside her grievance with Dominic. The spell seemed simple, but the tune it suggested to her was unusual. Most of the spells she’d learned were very structural, balancing diverse elements to form something new.
The tunes she built from them tended to be lyrical and layered with complexity.

This spell was very straightforward. The tune had two main themes, repeated one after the other with slight variations when each new element came into play. It was almost a march. It definitely suggested a single purpose, building by repetition to the point where the key word would be inserted.

Serena didn’t know how the key word would fit into the music of the spell. She never did until she worked the spell. It was one of the things about the language of magic that still defied her understanding.

Curious now and eager to find out how her song would end, Serena moved away from the table. She turned her attention to the plain cupboards that lined the walls of the cottage. They contained nearly everything anyone could want for a spell. It was an embarrassment of riches for a student. She hummed her new tune as she collected what she would need.

She’d spent enough time here to know where some of the more common items were kept. The candle was easy to find, although she had to rummage for an orange one. It wasn’t a typical color for magic. The spices lined the bottom of a cupboard hung with bundles of dried herbs.

She let her hand linger over another drawer, this one a jumble of minerals, while she decided what size piece of copper seemed appropriate. The one she chose was already polished, suggesting she wasn’t the first student that day to think it looked promising. After pausing briefly to hope the first student had passed, she dug for a piece of pyrite about the same size.

Other items took more work. She had to take a knife to a log by the fireplace to get the bark she needed. She nearly cut herself trying to find the right piece of glass buried in the drawer full of cotton batting, although the batting that stuck to her hand in the process was enough for the spell.

She stopped to laugh over the neatly labeled bag of dandelion fluff, then carried a firmly clasped handful back to the table. She had everything. Reading the spell through one last time, she made sure she had the harmony fixed firmly in her mind. With a deep breath, she decided she was ready.

Serena knew which direction was which after six years at the school, but now was not the time to get overconfident. She sang out the magical word for east.

The word echoed back to her from the surfaces of the room, robbed in every case of one piece of its meaning or another. It lacked the nuances of unknown places, creeping shadow, or sun. From the direction she expected came no answer that she could comprehend, and she turned to face that way.

She hummed her song only in her mind now. Holding the tallow candle like a pen, blunt end to the paper, she drew a line from the magical word toward the east. Then she drew six more lines leading out from the word like rays, tracing the seventh line directly over the first.

The pyrite was the first piece she laid down, faceted gold at the end of the eastern ray. The bark went opposite, cut into thin strips and covering the length of the western ray.

She moved counterclockwise by one ray to prop three tiny orange dried peppers up on their bases. If she’d had any doubt that this spell was meant to draw fire, the sight would have convinced her otherwise. On their ends, even leaning, they already looked like flames, and she knew how they tasted.

She paired the dandelion fluff with the peppers, trying not to breathe on it. She arranged the bright chunk of copper and a line of batting. Then she set a lens, a beautiful, dark red piece of glass, carefully over the word. She stuck the remains of the candle to its center.

She was sweating now, whether from the spell or with concentration she didn’t know. It had been difficult to move slowly, to be as precise as she knew she needed to be. The simplicity of the spell and the compelling nature of the tune she’d created had tried to rush her along. Even now, as she was about to see the completion of her last spell at the school, she couldn’t pause to appreciate the moment.

She said the word. It rang in her mind like a bell and the candle blossomed into flame.

But there was a problem. The song didn’t end. Instead of dying off, the sound of the bell kept pulsing. Serena thought it was growing louder. She looked at the table.

The whole top of the candle was burning, not just the wick. As Serena watched, wax puddled at the base of the candle, split into three rivulets, and reached toward the edge of the lens. It was slow, but it showed no sign of stopping.

She didn’t want to think what would happen when it reached the edge of the paper. Spell paper was impervious to nearly anything, but as far as she knew, the table and the rest of the cottage were made of simple wood. It would burn beautifully.

She had to do something. She doubted that smothering the fire physically would work, not with the word still ringing in her head. She needed a counterspell.

Serena hesitated, knowing she didn’t have time for it. A counterspell meant asking Master Dominic for help and confirming his poor opinion of her. It might even mean failing, although she’d followed the spell exactly.

She’d never failed at a spell before, and the idea made her stomach ache. She couldn’t have rushed that badly, could she? She felt ill.

She bit her lip. The school had created the test. That meant there had to be something she could still do to pass. There had to be another choice besides getting Master Dominic’s help.

Wax continued to run down the candle as she thought. The bell continued to pulse in her mind’s ear. It was definitely louder.

She’d always built songs out of spells. Could she do the opposite? She had a fair grasp of what needed to happen musically to resolve this song. Could she create a spell from that? Creating spells wasn’t anything the school had taught them, but the teachers did keep telling them that real life was different from school. If nothing else, it gave her something to try before calling Master Dominic.

The first thing she needed was something to stop the belling from growing forever.

She remembered seeing dried lake weeds in her search for spell ingredients. They were the long rubbery weeds she hated when swimming. They felt so substantial wrapping around her legs, she was always afraid she’d be trapped. She hoped they could hold the spell she’d just performed.

She pulled the three most flexible leaves out of the cabinet where they hung next to the herbs and brought them back to the table. Tracing their fluted edges with her finger, she arranged them in a circle outside her diagram, the ends of the weeds overlapping.

That would give the fire something to do. The pulsing of the word should find an echo in the smaller rippling of the weed and should follow it around the circle. The march continued, but now it doubled back on itself. Its energy fed into moving rather than growing.

It would keep the fire from pressing on toward the edge of the paper, but how long would it hold? The wax was creeping down the three rays that she hadn’t covered. It had reached a third of the way, and the heat was already intense. She had to do something to make the weeds resist it.

She drummed her fingers on the table, impatient and frustrated.

She wanted something with a tie to the original spell. It would make a more pleasant song, and Serena often found that those indicated the most powerful spells. She’d found something green to counter the hot colors of the original spell, water to counter fire. What else did she need to counter?

Her eyes lit on the peppers. She headed back to the spice cabinet. She didn’t see anything obvious and she didn’t want to waste time digging. She moved to the next cabinet, which held bottled brews. There she found what she needed.

Back at the table, she poured a little peppermint
oil over her finger. She sniffed it, then touched it to her tongue. Bracingly cool, but not as strong as the peppers.

Again she traced the edges of the weeds, coating them liberally with the light green oil. She hoped quantity would make up for lack of intensity. In her mind, a cheerful little icy melody cut across the remaining sound of the word, competing with it, robbing it of its place of prominence.

That done, she looked at the remaining elements of the original spell. The wax was more than halfway out the rays. There was about a third of the candle left. She told herself to think faster.

The candle, bark, batting and fluff were all fuels. She could counter them with anything that wouldn’t burn.

How about the minerals? The pyrite would spark if struck with a knife. The copper conducted heat. The glass lens concentrated the light and heat of the sun.

So she wanted an opaque mineral, something that wouldn’t feed, create or transmit fire. Ideally, it would be something she could make a barrier from. Stopping the spell might not be enough if the fire kept burning on its own. If it had associations with water, all the better.

Serena grinned with relief and stepped away from the table. She was glad of Dom-Dom’s unfair lecture now. Without it, she might not have remembered. The black sand from the broken hourglass was just what she needed.

At the time, she’d swept the sand back into the hourglass and jammed the lid back on. She found it where she’d shoved it in the back of a cabinet, Dom-Dom’s words still ringing in her ears. The lid came off as easily as she remembered and she shot a dirty look at the cottage door in passing.

She poured the sand onto the table, circling the leaves and staying just inside the edge of the paper. Then she spread it out in an even layer. She pushed some of it under the leaves. Working quickly, she kept one eye on the shrinking candle. The sand created a variation on the theme of the other minerals, but this time the march shuffled its feet.

The bell was nearly buried in her new music. Now she just needed another key word to finish her counterspell. It needed to be something she knew. She didn’t have time to look something up and practice it. It should be the smallest change she could invoke. She didn’t have the energy to deal with more unintended consequences.

She thought of a word and traced it onto the bare table. She silently rehearsed the pronunciation, keeping one eye on the candle. Just before the flame reached the pooled wax on the lens, she wrote in the sand and said the word–hold.

It cut itself off in her mouth.

Then the last of the candle was gone. The flame covered the lens with a quiet whoosh and shot up into the air. It stopped just short of the ceiling. Then it raced down the six rays. When the fire reached the ends of the rays, it flared again. With a loud pop, the elements of the test spell that she had so carefully assembled had disappeared. There was only fire left, one large flame in the center and six hungry, reaching arms.

They quickly came to the weeds. There they paused. Tall flames lunged toward the leaves and retreated. Forward and back. Forward and back. Nearly dancing.

Then they turned. They followed the leaves, bobbing in synch with the rippled edges until there was a circle of dancing flames.

The song ended with a chord that resolved all the themes she had created.

Serena watched long enough to see that the fire was no longer growing, the weeds not blackening or shriveling. Then she closed her eyes in relief. Her legs shook.

She had told her spell to hold, using the word that meant to simply contain, embrace without smothering. It had held. She’d passed.

She opened the door to the cottage and walked around the desk. “Master Dominic, I’m done.”

Dom-Dom had been starting to get up, but he sat back down. He looked startled. “Already?”

Had it only felt like the test took forever? Serena nodded.

His expression was stern. “Fire properly started?”

“Quite.” Serena suppressed a smile.

He raised his eyebrows. “No damage to the cottage or the table?”

She blinked at his disbelief and reminded herself she wouldn’t have to deal with him again. She’d passed. She made her tone firm. “None.”

Master Dominic settled back into his chair, and it was Serena’s turn to be startled. He smiled at her for the first time in her six years at the school. “Congratulations.”

“I, uh,” Serena didn’t know what to say. “Thank you?”

He laughed and rubbed one earlobe. “I suppose I earned that.” He gestured at the chair next to her.

As much as she was in no condition to stand, she sat down gingerly. She wondered what was coming next. How many shocks could she handle in a day? She promptly got another.

“Serena, I owe you an apology.”

She blinked dumbly, and Dominic went on.

“You’re very bright but not the first bright student in this school.”

She frowned. “Of course not.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that. All too often, I meet students who think being bright makes them incredibly special. It’s their ticket out of working as hard as the other students.” He smiled ruefully. “I thought you were one of those students.”

Dominic stood up and paced behind the desk. “You were always singing instead of studying. You knew what I told you to learn and not one word more. It bothered me that you were willing to be just as good as everyone else when you could have been much better.”

She took a deep breath. She’d never looked at it that way, but there was some uncomfortable truth to his words. “I–“

He held up a hand. “I told you, I owe you an apology. I misjudged you. We teachers are human too, you know. That’s part of the reason for this test.”


“After six years of working with students, we know which of you can handle what level of magic. We see it every day.” Dominic sat back down.

“If that were all there was to magic, we could just send each of you out the door with a reasonably large spellbook of the right level. We want to know which of you have the capacity for more. That takes curiosity, which can’t be taught but can be learned. It’s also ridiculously difficult to measure in a classroom, when you’re all learning the basics.”

Serena didn’t understand. “The test measures curiosity?”

“In part. And a good thing, too.” Dominic ran one hand through his salted black hair. “If it had been up to me, I’d have said you’d never get curious enough to flip the paper over and read the counterspell on the back.”

The world wobbled a little. Serena clutched at the chair seat to steady herself. Her ears buzzed.

“Are you all right?”

She took a deep breath and looked at Master Dominic. “There’s a counterspell on the back?”

As the words sank in, Master Dominic was on his feet and in the cottage. It was several minutes before he came out. Serena had plenty of time to wonder what she could do with her life now.

“What did you do?” His words were very quiet.

I failed, she thought. It hurt as much as she’d thought it might. “I used another spell to hold the first one.”

“Where did you find it?”

“I made it up.” She might as well own up to the worst. “Master Dominic, you were right about me. I didn’t find it. I’ve never looked at a spellbook that wasn’t assigned. It never occurred to me to turn the paper over.” She bowed her head and waited for one of his famous lectures.

“You made it up?”

She nodded at the ground. He was being very gentle with her and she couldn’t stand it. “I’ve failed, haven’t I?”

“Well, I think we’d like you to stay at the school for a bit.”

Serena had never heard of a student being held back after a final exam. “You mean I’m not even ready to go out
and practice magic?”

“I don’t know that I’d say that.” Dominic sounded suspiciously cheerful.

Serena looked up to see him grinning. She wasn’t sure whether it was a good sign or a bad one. “What do you mean?”

“None of us know the spell you used in there.” He shook his head, his eyes wide, before focusing on Serena again. “And I think we’d all like to know how a student who,” he wagged his finger at her, but he was still grinning, “admittedly doesn’t study any harder than she has to managed to come up with such an elegant counterspell.”

She hadn’t failed? Serena let it sink in. She’d even done something Dominic wanted to analyze. She hadn’t failed. “I’ll stay if you think I have something to teach you.”

“And maybe something still to learn?” Dominic’s smile was softer now, more friendly.

Serena felt herself smiling back. She nodded.

They shook hands across the desk.

Final Exam

14 thoughts on “Final Exam

  1. 1

    Splendid. In fact, absolutely delightful! Cunning twist on that old test where you're expected to read the whole thing through, and at the last question it says to ignore all the rest of the questions and just put your name at the top and hand it in. I honestly wasn't expecting a counterspell to be on the reverse of the page, brilliant. And I especially love that Serena had a novel way of learning, with a sort of synesthesia of music and magic.There's an extraneous "she" in there — "although she the batting that stuck to her hand". Outside of that, I can't think of enough superlatives. This inspired me to search Amazon for your name — why isn't there anything on there except for a thank-you in the foreword of WebMage?

  2. 2

    Thanks, Jason. Typo fixed.There are actually three more books on Amazon where I'm thanked in the acknowledgments. But that's not what you're asking. There is a book written, YA SF, which needs to go looking for an agent. The next book in the same universe is outlined and just barely started. There are others planned.The big holdup right now is that I'm lousy at self-promotion. I've been letting the book sit with a busy friend, whose opinion on it I really do want, rather than jumping on the agent chase.

  3. 3

    By SF do you mean speculative fiction (e.g. sci-fi/fantasy catchall), or science fiction? There's a dearth of sci-fi aimed at kids… I'd buy such a book in a heartbeat.I sometimes lament that I never truly tried my hand at writing beyond the ramblings of a lonely geeky teenager in black ink on looseleaf. I don't think I've got the chops though, so I'm glad to have met someone that does. As far as you can meet someone over the intertubes.

  4. 5

    Jason, science fiction. And while I may be terrible at self-promotion, I do know a market niche when I see one. That's why I wrote that book instead of something else. :)Greg, really? Okay, now I need to hear that story.Oh, and thank you. I'm glad you liked it.

  5. 7

    Brilliant! I know the story wasn't for me but that was great, I loved it!I hope you tell us when your SF book finds an agent so we can buy it 🙂

  6. 8

    Excellent story. It's difficult to make an interesting story from something as simple as a test, even if it is a magical test. The novel solution helps, and the test not being what it appeared to be goes a long way, but it's the quality of writing that carries it, really.One small criticism, though. In this line: "She turned every spell into a tune that would only be complete only when all the elements were in their places." Your use of the word "only" twice in quick succession is a little jarring. I'd suggest dropping one or the other.Other that, it's a superb piece of writing, and I hope to read more in the future.

  7. 10

    Hey, Jodi. I missed your comment, sorry. I will absolutely tell the world when I land an agent. However, even looking at really excellent timing after that (and assuming success), we're talking well over a year between that and publication. The publishing world is not fast, but they've still got the best distribution and promotion system going.

  8. 11

    I, too, thoroughly enjoyed reading your story Stephanie. I look forward to reading more in the future.(And I'm delighted to see the main character shares my alias! I understand the name of your character was chosen long before I adopted my alias, but still, it was fun to read about Serena.)

  9. 12

    Thanks for the heads-up. I'm reading through some of those older stories now. They're much better than a ton of short-form work I've seen published. If I saw them compiled in a paperback at a store, I'd buy it.

  10. 14

    Serena, I was debating which of my stories Greg would likely appreciate–in a fairly light-hearted way–and settled on this one. Then I opened the file, read the first two words and laughed. I knew he was going to think of you as soon as he started reading. So I didn't add the name because of you, but I did keep it with you in mind. I'm glad you enjoyed it.Thanks, Kelly. Me too. There were some parts that just worked better than I had any reason to expect them to.

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