Time’s thievish progress to eternity.”
— Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXVII
1 A New Home
After swallowing the bitter-tasting remedy that would suppress my force field, I gathered every scrap of my remaining bravado and painted it across my features like a mask. I hoped it would last until I was alone. The one thing that could make today worse would be stepping into the Dimension Cell having shown my audience how scared I really was. Xytovia only knew how it had come to this. I swallowed again, willing my heart to stop beating so fast. The sensation of my magic dissolving was like an icy fog swirling inside my head, so cold it made my teeth ache.
With a little more flourishing than was strictly necessary, Hilton Vierre, the senior magician, adjusted his cuffs and prepared to create the necessary spell. He was a pompous fool. The accuracy of the symbols was what mattered, not how stylish his hand movements looked while he drew them. There were no reporters here. Who was he trying to impress? I glanced at his deputy, Ava Pationne, a tall dark-haired magician with refined features. Surely not.
Hilton lowered his arms, and the symbols glowed purple and silver where they’d been engraved at chest height on the bark of the largest tree. A shimmering doorway rose up from the dark-blue earth. I averted my gaze. I knew what was on the other side. The doorway led to an empty square chamber, ten feet wide by ten feet tall, sustained by the living magic in the trees, and magically programmed to exist in a never-ending time loop. It was the doorway to my future.
At least my family had remained in Vayl City. I was glad they weren’t permitted to make the trip into the xyleander woods to see my sentence carried out. It was a lot easier to hide my feelings now that I was alone with the six officiating magicians. My mouth curled. Six. That was twice the number they needed. Even if I put my mind to it, I couldn’t overpower more than two of them. No, they wanted to dine out on the story of how they were here when I walked through that door.
I had no false modesty about anything, and certainly not my magical ability or my notoriety. This day, the day I was to be finally imprisoned, had been kept secret from the citizens of Vayl because public opinion regarding my guilt remained divided, and the vote to condemn me had been passed with a majority of just two. I’d spoken passionately in my own defence, arguing that I was a victim of circumstance and not a criminal. There had been calls for a recount. There had been a petition signed by some very well-known citizens, magicians and cotidians alike. My face and my name were everywhere: in newspapers, on flyers. I’d heard someone was planning to write my biography.
The only recent likeness of me had been produced by Vayl City College a few months earlier in readiness for my graduation. If I’d known what the likeness would eventually be used for and how many people would see it, I would never have posed that way. Even to my own eyes, I looked arrogant, but I’d received a lot of letters expressing support. There had even been a few declarations of love.
During the rare moments we’d succeeded in ignoring the ongoing trial to talk about more ordinary things, my brother had teased me about the love letters. I’d pretended to be flattered, but in fact, I was more than a little annoyed. I hated being judged on the basis of my looks and a few sensational newspaper articles.
Recalling yesterday’s editorial in the Vayl City Chronicle, a publication known for its exaggerated headlines, I scowled. The reporters were not something I would miss. Kellan Bavois, his dark eyes flashing with a defiance undiminished by the long legal process, continues to protest his innocence. It is this reporter’s understanding that no further interviews will be granted before his imprisonment, though the Board of Mages refuses to confirm the date. Dare we hope that the authorities might listen to reason and give this intriguing young man the benefit of the doubt? Watch this space!
I was all out of hope. According to the laws of the land, a majority was a majority, no matter how small, and the board was determined to uphold those laws. I was going to be made an example of. My sentencing had been intentionally postponed by a week. A week during which I’d turned seventeen years of age and become eligible for the maximum one-hundred-year Dimension Cell term.
I stood straighter and tried to ignore the disorientation inside my head. For the first time in almost five years, I had no magic. I’d always used magic instinctively, right from the day my spark had ignited, and its loss was jarring, impacting my senses as if the world had gone dark or silent. When I tried to project my force field, the stupid dizziness increased. I curled my toes inside my boots and gritted my teeth, staring at the ground until my vision cleared.
As expected, the symbols stitched onto my shirt collar and cuffs had stopped glowing. My mother had created a complicated and unique design made from all of the various symbols that signified protection, ignoring me when I told her there was no point. Without my magic, they were nothing more than embroidered shapes.
It was early morning. Fat drops of water glinted on the waxy surface of the xyleander leaves, evidence of the overnight rainfall. There was a chill in the air and a pale quality to the daylight. Autumn sunshine slanted through the trees’ branches, highlighting their distinctive purple colour. Winter was a few weeks away.
There would be no seasons inside the cell, no colours, and no change in temperature. Each day would be spent surrounded by four blank walls and only my thoughts for company. Every morning I would be returned to the same moment. Over and over. Physically unchanged. Whereas outside the cell, time would continue to pass. I looked at the wet leaves, wondering if I would forget what purple looked like, or the way my favourite drink tasted, or the crunch of frost underneath my boots on a cold morning. What about my sister’s smile? My best friend’s terrible jokes? I scowled again. Don’t get emotional. Sentiment won’t help anything.
“Open your shirt pocket,” said Hilton.
“I was searched before we left,” I said. I pushed my black hair off my forehead. It was too long. Scheduling a haircut hadn’t seemed important.
“You misunderstand me,” said Hilton. He extended his hand, opening his fingers to reveal a small polished crystal, round and flat and sparkling with magic. Layers of intricate symbols had been carved into its centre, too many for me to decipher. His voice softened in an imitation of sympathy, but his eyes remained cold. “This goes into your pocket. Had you forgotten?”
I had. I stared at the Death Charm with sudden loathing.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” added Hilton, meeting my gaze. The man’s anticipation was almost palpable. He expected my resolve to crumble at the reminder of what I was facing.
“I wouldn’t mind at all,” I said, holding out my hand. Hilton made a tiny magical cut in the centre of my palm—enough to release one dark red drop of blood. He pressed the crystal against it, and I watched with morbid fascination as the crystal changed colour, giving off a steady hum of energy only I could feel. It set my teeth on edge. It made my stomach clench.
After the drop of blood had been absorbed, I tucked the Death Charm into my pocket with careful fingers. To my relief, I didn’t fumble the buttons, even though inside I was quaking. When I spoke, I kept my voice level. “It’s not as if I ever plan to use it.”
“Oh, we’ll see about that,” said Hilton.
I was so annoyed, I barely heard Ava’s disapproving murmur. “Hilton.”
There was no way I was going to let him get the upper hand.
“Who’s ‘we’?” I said. I hid my anger behind a small smirk. “You won’t. Not unless you plan to live to the age of…” I paused. “One hundred and seventy? Seventy-five?”
A flush of red climbed from Hilton’s neck onto his cheeks. His iron-grey hair seemed to bristle with indignation. “I’m forty-six,” he said.
I pretended to be shocked. “Excuse me. My mistake. Perhaps you’ve been working too hard. The stress of the trial and all. You’ll still be dead long before you find out what happens to me.”
“I don’t care what happens to you!”
Arching an eyebrow, I refrained from answering, choosing to let the man’s red face and raised voice speak for him.
“Enough,” said Ava. “Kellan Bavois, in accordance with the laws of Vayl, you have been tried and found guilty of the murder of your grandmother, Opal Bavois, and you will serve one hundred years in this Dimension Cell as punishment. The board grants you mercy in the form of a Death Charm. You may use the aforementioned charm to escape the cell at any time.”
I just managed not to scoff. Mercy. Right. Whatever helps you sleep at night.
“Do you wish to make a final statement for the record?” she asked.
I shook my head. You’ll be dead long before you find out what happens to me seemed like a decent enough parting shot. I was tempted to tell them I was innocent, but I’d said it many times already. It would make no difference. I wanted it to be over. I wanted to escape the semicircle of magicians with their curious eyes. This would be the last moment for a very long time when I could still choose for myself. Suddenly, it seemed important that I enter the cell of my own accord rather than at the request of Hilton Vierre. I turned on my heel to face the shimmering doorway, and after barely a second of hesitation, I walked through.
The chamber on the other side was quiet, unnaturally so. I huffed a quick breath, reassured when the sound emerged as normal. My mouth lifted in a wry smile. At least I could talk to myself.
Cautiously, I took a couple of steps, looking left and right and up and down. The walls were uniformly beige except for a faint shadow indicating where they met the floor and the ceiling. My neck and shoulders prickled as if I’d been touched by a spell, and I spun around to find that the doorway had disappeared. They hadn’t wasted any time.
I reached out a hand. The wall was cool, smooth, and depressingly solid. It felt like stone. It wasn’t, of course. It was magical energy that had been made to resemble stone, and I wouldn’t have been able to punch my way out even if the wall had looked and felt like tissue paper. But the stone ensured I would never mistake it for anything but the prison it was. It was lucky I’d never been claustrophobic, but even so, the lack of any visible exit was unnerving.
When I checked, I discovered the entire cell was the same. The floor was just as solid as the walls. Sleeping was going to be uncomfortable. I was dressed in a dark green shirt and a pair of black trousers, and I had no coat or sweater I could use for a pillow. I supposed I could choose to stay awake. After all, each morning the time loop would reset to the moment I’d entered. I wouldn’t age. I wouldn’t die from lack of sleep, or from thirst or starvation. I wouldn’t run out of air. My punishment was complete isolation and the knowledge that everyone I cared about would carry on living without me.
Dimension Cells were a new kind of magic. I was the third prisoner to have earned the rather dubious honour of inhabiting one, and the youngest, and the one with the longest sentence. Never let it be said that Kellan Bavois does anything by halves. I shook my head and pushed the thought away. I sounded like one of the newspaper editorials I hated. I paced the cell, getting to know its dimensions while checking in vain for weak spots with an occasional kick. The buckles on my boots clinked together.
I told myself I could do this. One day at a time.