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Test Amongst The Shadows

By Todd Sullivan

The hardest working mage who ever lived glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes. Jin gazed down at his English exam. Only twenty minutes left to pass or fail the biggest test of his life. His scantron sheet was half empty. The clock’s ticking seconds in the silent classroom echoed in his mind, and made focusing on English vocabulary and grammar impossible. He had to do something if he intended to get in the top of his class.

Jin looked around at the other students, their heads low, their shoulders hunched as they picked off ovals in the long marching columns. Adjusting his glasses, he opened his senses in search for the right spell amidst the thin cracks that splinter reality. He released control of his hand and let it draw six stick-figure bandits on horses at the edges of the exam. Leaning close to the page, he whispered, “Thieving shadows, take shape and learn the secrets of my woes.”

(Image provided by Todd Sullivan)

The drawings shivered, and the bandits shook themselves awake. They clawed out of the exam, erupting off the page into the third dimension. The cloaked leader saluted, his face hidden in shades of gray. Jin pointed to the answer key tucked under a notebook on the teacher’s desk. The leader nodded, and motioned to the silent troupe behind him. The bandits yanked on their horses’ reins and leapt off the side of the table. Racing across the tiled floor, the horses skirted around chair legs and hopped over sneakers. Jin glanced at the exam answer key again. The sides of his mouth spread in a triumphant smile, but a purple boot suddenly crushed the horsemen right before they cleared the classroom’s tables. Jin inhaled in surprised. He followed the boot up to the leg, the skirt, the shirt, to finally meet the steady gaze of Sori, the top student in the school.

And his ex-girlfriend.

The two maintained eye contact for several moments, a silent challenge passing between them. Sori had broken up with him right before exams, informing him that she wasted too much time with him and wasn’t focusing enough on the upcoming finals. And now, here she sat, the only other mage in this room of humans, stopping him from reaching his goal.

So that’s how it was going to be.

Jin slowly took off his glasses in preparation for his next spell. Sori had managed to see his bandits. He didn’t know how, but he would need to take care of her sight before he tried for the test answers again.

Jin narrowed his eyes at the light reflected in the lenses of his glasses. He smiled. He held the glasses to his lips and misted the lenses by blowing on one, then the other. While he did this, he focused on the magic vibrating between the fissures of reality until he heard the words to the next spell.

“Site sighted, two to see, sea bog fog billowing…”

“John?”

Jin snapped his mouth shut at the teacher speaking his English name. He tried to still his heart now thumping fast in his chest, and met the teacher’s puzzled blue eyes.

“Are you speaking to someone?”

Now the other students’ heads lifted, and before he knew it, dozens of humans were all staring in his direction. With their attention focused on him, he couldn’t produce magic. No mage could. Human disbelief in magic narrowed the fissures running throughout reality, making the words necessary to bring spells to life impossible to hear. Jin had been told that no mage had been able to perform magic in front of a human in hundreds of years.

He glanced at Sori, who was smiling at him as he sweated under the spotlight of mankind. With a weak shrug, Jin said, “I was just,” and he paused as he scrambled for a good excuse, “reading a problem out loud to myself.” He tapped the exam. “Sometimes that helps.”

The English teacher nodded. “Everyone must remain silent so that the other students can concentrate. Sorry, John.”

“Won’t happen again,” Jin assured him. He caught Sori’s smug wink, and tore his eyes away from his ex-girlfriend’s pretty face.

These exams determined who would be allowed to apply for the International School in Hong Kong. Only the top two students would be recommended. Jin felt confident about math and science, but he worried over his English scores. One of his classmates had lived in San Francisco for years. Jin only managed to edge him out sometimes, while Sori beat them both in every subject every, single, time.

She was a studying machine.

Jin looked at the clock again. Ten minutes to finish the exam. He had to cast another spell, but when he raised his eyes, he noticed the teacher looking around the room. Whereas before he hadn’t been paying much attention, now the teacher was watching them closely, all because of Sori. Jin really wished he had been able to cast his spell and blind her. Not only because he would have been able to get the answers without her trying to counter him, but because it would have stopped her from taking the test, maybe even causing her to fail.

That would have been sweet.

Jin’s eyes narrowed as a new idea struck him. He looked at the dusty blackboard behind the teacher and slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, John?” The teacher said. “Is something wrong?”

“Can I ask you a question?” Jin assumed his most perplexed look, and mixed in a little pained exasperation to make himself seem even more pathetic.

The teacher sighed and waved him forward. Jin stood. Only briefly, a couple of students glanced up at the newest disturbance, but their focus quickly returned to their exams. All, that is, except Sori, who watched Jin with a penetrating gaze. He wanted to give her the finger, but since the teacher was staring at him, he refrained as he passed her.

He placed his exam on the teacher’s desk. “These directions.” He motioned with his right hand. “I don’t understand them.”

While the teacher followed the motion of his gesture, Jin quickly traced two eyes in the dust on the chalkboard. Sori took a sharp breath, and Jin gave her the middle finger a moment before the teacher looked at him again.

“I really think you should be able to understand these directions,” the teacher said. “We went over similar examples in class earlier this week.”

“Ah.” Jin bent closer to the exam. “I think you’re right.” He’d rested his test on the answer sheet, and now he pulled it a little further down on the teacher’s desk so that it was in plainer view of the board. When he got back to his seat, he waited until he teacher’s attention turned back to the computer screen. Now only Sori watched him like a hawk.

Lowering his head and covering his mouth with this hand, Jin listened closely to the magic in the cracks of reality.

“Vision born from dust, take note of the world before you.”

Jin touched his left eye.

“Blind amongst the shadows, see with other sight the world before you.”

The drawing on the board took on concrete shape, the pupils swirling up and down and left and right. The sight in Jin’s left eye dimmed into darkness, then light appeared again. He looked down upon the teacher’s desk, his left eye directly connected to the eyes traced on the board. The answer sheet was exposed beautifully before him.

Grinning, Jin began to fill in the correct ovals on the scantron, his hard work and perseverance finally paying off. With his vision split, he had a view of the entire class, and he paused a moment to swing the eyes towards Sori. He thought about the times they would walk home after school together, hand in hand. He would lead them on the longest path through the city streets so they could spend as much time together as possible. When it rained, he would hold his book bag over her head so that her hair wouldn’t get wet. In the cold, they’d press their bodies together, and he’d wrap his arm around her to stave off the chill.

They would stop in small parks dotting Seoul, and on the bench they’d play with each other’s fingers, conversing about their day and the difficulties that plagued them in low voices. They’d complain about parents burdening them with chores, and teachers who kept giving them homework, assignments, quizzes, reports, and tests without regard to how busy they already were. Sori’s hair smelled of apples, and her lips tasted like strawberries.

He gazed at her now, the smartest person in the class, perhaps in the whole world. He noticed with surprise her furiously erasing on her desk. That was totally unlike her. Normally, she completed tests confidently, being the first one to finish. There had to be less than ten minutes to the exam, so why did she even still have her paper on her desk?

Jin shook his head. Maybe it was because she’d been paying so much attention to him. He smiled. He would talk to her after class today. He’d explain that he wasn’t angry with her, especially now that he was getting what he wanted.

Sori scooped the eraser shredding into her hand so that they formed a little pile. She glanced around the classroom at the students bowed over their tests, and muttered words Jin could not hear. Then she inhaled, and blew upon the shredding in her palm. They exploded out in a whirlwind that hit the board behind the teacher and erased the eyes drawn from the dust.

Jin sat back in his seat in surprise, but he managed to keep his shock silent. This girl, he thought. This female mage!

Quickly, he drew a dozen projectiles on his desk, his heartbeat increasing in tempo as his anger grew. The fissures in reality picked up on his vengeance and supplied the words he quietly spoke.

“A horde of tiny pellets, to wound, to draw blood, to annoy like mosquitoes around the heart that I loved.”

With a harsh wave of his arm, he sent the pellets swarming from his desk at Sori. She recoiled in her seat and weaved a series of webbed signs in the air as she spoke. A faintly illuminated net appeared in front of her, caught the pellets, and ricocheted them back at Jin.

Jin ducked and raised his exam, but they tore tiny holes through the paper and ripped into his face so that tiny droplets of blood rained down on his desk. Before the pellets could turn to strike him again, he said, “Swarm, swatted, to lie, still,” and heard them break apart in the air to disperse as tiny columns of gray mist.

The pellets hadn’t caused much damage, as they were meant to annoy the victim with tiny, continuous bombardments. Still, Jin seethed as he glared at Sori. He licked at blood that dripped down the tiny cuts on his face onto his lips. Clutching his pencil tight, he said, “A spear, to fling with force to pierce the soul of the one I loved.”

He hurled it at Sori’s chest. A dark light surrounded it, enhancing the pencil into a massive, jagged javelin that raced at his ex-girlfriend with amazing force.

The teacher looked up and announced to the class, “Five minutes left.”

The javelin, under the sudden gaze of a human, immediately lost its magic, and the pencil hit Sori. She caught it before it clattered to the floor.

Jin gazed down at his half completed exam sheet, and his hope plunged into a pit. He tried to slow his quickened breathing as panic swelled inside of him. He’d never finish the test now. And it was all because of her.

Curses strained against his lips. Human curses, yes, but still words that he knew would hurt her. He inhaled and looked at his ex-girlfriend, ready to hurl them at her in rage. The curses stuck in his throat, and he sputtered at what he saw before him.

She stared down at her exam, a forlorn expression etched across her brow. Tears had formed in Sori’ eyes. They sparkled like diamonds at the edges of her lashes. The vehemence that had risen in Jin drained as realization dawned on him. Sori had been so preoccupied with him that she hadn’t had time to finish her exam either. Now neither of them would make it to Hong Kong. Now both of them would remain together at this school.

Jin sighed. If they were going to be together anyway, he thought, if they couldn’t escape this battle raging between them, then why not fight somewhere new and exciting? Somewhere away from the same old problems. Perhaps new issues would arrive, but at least it would be somewhere different.

And perhaps in Hong Kong, they could be different.

Sori suddenly looked at Jin as if she’d heard his thoughts. They stared at each other. Slowly, a smile spread across his face, and it was perfectly mirrored by the one forming on her lips. Do they still taste of strawberries? He hoped to find out again at their new school in Hong Kong.

Jin sat up straight in his seat. The hardest working mage in the world, coupled with the smartest and most beautiful female mage in the world. If they joined their powers, nothing would be able to stop them.

Jin released himself to the magic lacing reality, and he saw Sori doing the same as the humans around them focused their attention elsewhere.

Let the clock on the wall keep its watch. Time was no match for their greatness.

This story previously appeared in Witches vs Wizards Anthology (2018).
Edited by Marie Ginga

Todd Sullivan currently lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he teaches English as a Second Language. He has had more than two dozen short stories, poems, essays, and novelettes published across five countries. He currently has two book series available through Amazon. He writes for a web and play series in Taipei, founded the online magazine, Samjoko, in 2021, and hosts a YouTube Channel that interviews writers across the publishing spectrum.