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The Scholomance Series

The Eleventh Doorkeeper
by shalott

I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his person
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison

T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

You came through the door because it was the only way to win, and that still mattered to you. The one who taught you that lesson had taught you others, more bitter ones, but a lifetime of training—even a short one—is difficult to shed. Perhaps if you had been given more time, perhaps if you had a chance to find something that made life a little bit sweet again, you might have turned away. You might never have passed through.

But there was no time.

So you came, pale as bone in these shadows, and took up the study of the Art. You had never been a scholar, particularly. Magic was your birthright, something to be done as casually as breathing. Talented but indifferent, you learned only when you cared to impress your friends, and never saw through to the mysteries beneath. You did not come because you were thirsty for knowledge, you did not come because you wanted to grow.

You thought you knew what you were doing. You were wrong, of course. The first understanding came to you as the unseen servants led you to your room and shut you in. The only light came from the blank pages of the one book lying on the one table, next to the one narrow bed. Trying to find the limits of your cell, you walked into the darkness a short way, but your courage failed before you found the walls, and when you turned back the door was gone. Only then did you begin to understand what you had sentenced yourself to.

Despair came first. But despair is the way in; it leads nowhere once you are here. Anger followed despair, its more fierce cousin, and you spent a few days screaming and throwing the food that appeared on your table at mealtimes. But both the food and your voice vanished quickly into the profound dark, and no one came in answer to your cries. The silence brewed your anger into hate.

You hate well, you always have. By the age of ten you could turn a minor quarrel into a feud for life, turn the neutral into poisonous enemies: transfiguration of the heart was a skill you learned without needing to be taught. But here you refined your gift.

You hated the easy targets first: your father and the dark lord he served, the ones who betrayed you and rejected the gift of your loyalty when it was at its freshest and best, unmarred by ulterior motive. Yourself, for not being worthy enough to make them want to keep you, for being stupid enough to walk through the door.

Then you hated the others, the ones who had let you come here. The old wise wizard who had protection and guidance for everyone else, but not for you, never for you, son of a hated enemy. Had he truly wanted to keep you from coming here? You realized how foolish you had been, thinking yourself clever to have overheard. After all, what better solution could have been found? Your death would have served his enemy; safely imprisoned beyond the dark lord's reach, you were a valuable safeguard. And why should he have cared for your misery?

And you hated him, of course: your worst enemy, your rival. He had kept you alive, held you back from the obliterating ocean that would have been infinitely preferable to this infinite prison. He had found the way in for you, all but held the door open. And the worst crime of all: he had given you something to live for, a glimpse of something other than victory that might be worth having, and then he had let you go through the door and trap yourself here, with no escape, where might-have-beens were nothing but torture.

But finally you exhausted the possibilites of hate, finished dreaming of torments for your enemies, and there was nothing else to do. So one day—or one night, time was meaningless to you now—you sat down at the table, and began your work.

You asked the same questions that everyone asks, at first. How do I get out? and How do I defeat the eleventh doorkeeper? The answers came in letters of fire in your book, appearing while you slept: defeat all of the doorkeepers, said the first line; it is impossible to defeat the eleventh doorkeeper, said the second. You would have thrown the book away after reading that, if it hadn't been your only light. Instead you asked the third question: If I die here, what happens to my soul? And the answer, the one you expected and dreaded: one of the doorkeepers will claim it.

You put aside despair then, finally, as useless. You could still have chosen madness, the easy way, a final surrender to the dark. But—and it surprised you, a little—you found that you were made of stronger metal. You began with small things, asking for spells to conjure light, spells to conjure rich meals, banquets. But by the time you asked, your eyes had become used to the dark and your stomach to the plain food, and you only made yourself sick and blurry-eyed.

Then you asked for the great spells, the ones that would make the earth and sky and sea obedient to your will, that would give you the power to summon deadly servants from the lower planes, that would let you rule the hearts and minds of mortals. And they came, but as pages and pages of strange, unfamiliar words that clawed at your brain when you tried to read them, and you had to turn to a blank page with your eyes squeezed shut.

After that, you started to reason a little. First you asked for things you had already learned but only half-remembered. You relearned the spells of protection against the minor demons, the simple charms for moving objects, all the little cantrips that were almost all you knew of magic. You toyed with them for a while, learning how to let the magic flow through you without your wand to focus it. Eventually you reached your former strength, and you spent a day in the dark, asking nothing, not knowing where to go next.

And then you asked the simple question, the one that so few ever think to ask: What is there to learn here?

You know now how rare that was. Those who came here came with a plan, at least in the days when there were only ten doorkeepers, before the old friar, last to leave, summoned the eleventh to bar the door. Older wizards, with years of power behind them, they thought they knew what to study, what questions to ask. And they learned what they came to learn, and never missed what they did not know to ask for.

But you, youngest and weakest to ever enter these halls, you knew so little that the question was not clever but desperate. And so the next time you opened your book, after a few hours of restless sleep, you found there the knowledge that few wizards ever came to on their own. You did not understand how priceless it was, that simple, short list of the four principal methods; it merely seemed a perfectly natural division to you. Which of course was all it was. You did not know how many wizards had wasted the best part of their powers trying to cross the lines, never reaching the strength they might have achieved if they had known to focus.

Of the four, you already knew you had no gift for divination, and you could not see a way to practice alchemy or inscription here, with none of the materials for brewing potions or illuminating scrolls. (You had not yet learned that what you required would be provided.) So you chose the fourth, perhaps the greatest: incantation, the power of the spoken word. It was not only necessity; your own voice was the only human sound left to you, and an excuse to use it was welcome.

You began with the charms and curses, almost infinite in number, quick to leap off your tongue. You recited them aloud to yourself for endless hours, walking back and forth in the small circle of light, until your mouth learned the shape, the flavor of the words, and you found that you could often guess new ones without asking.

You might have simply gone on, then, but you did not yet think of escape—you sought only a way to pass your days, to give your mind a track to run in. So you asked for information instead of spells and delved into the roots of the words of magic, slowly moving back through ancient languages long lost, and soon you could amend 'often' to 'always'. And then you went on to naming, learning the power that comes with knowing how to speak of a thing in the precise language of magic.

Illusion was the next step. With your knowledge of names, it only required a few hours of study before you could conjure up a memory of a summer's day, green green grass fresh beneath your feet, the sun hot and perfect on the back of your neck. And then you tore the page out of your book and studied no more, terrified of how easy it would be to lose yourself forever in a mirage.

Your sleep that night was broken with nightmares, and you woke twisted in the narrow sheets with your hair tangled around you—when had it grown long?—and you struggled up and wished aloud for a mirror. When you turned and saw one, you were unsure whether to be more surprised at its appearance or your own—paler even than you had been and thinner, honed like a blade to translucency, with the knowledge crowded behind your eyes gleaming out against the darkness that surrounded you. Your robes were too short, your hair too long, and your childhood had ended without your noticing.

In that moment, you knew you had to get out.

Your studies became more directed and more dangerous as you turned to summoning, the fatal art where knowledge and will combine and the least fault in either means death or worse. You began with the gentle spirits of the air, aimless wanderers as happy to come to your call as go about on their own. Then the lesser elementals, surly but obedient once you fed them with a little power, and the thin shadows who could be cowed by the threat of light spells.

You dared to try necromancy, and for months your cell was cold and misty with the spirits of the dead and the smell of the grave. One day, more out of idle curiosity than anything, you poured some of your own blood into a bowl and called for any of your kindred to answer the summons. And your mother came, bright and crisp-edged as the imagos of the newly-dead often are, begging you for peace with her mouth red. Sick with horror, you worked the spell of release you had not been intending to try for months more, and you watched her grateful eyes fade from your sight into whatever lay beyond the half-life of the spirit world.

You summoned no more of the dead.

The next day you raised your first demon, a minor imp, and when you had wrestled it into submission all you did was send it back so you could collapse into bed. You did nothing but rest and eat for two days, and then you forced yourself to call another one. It was easier, and the third time barely required any effort at all: the muscles of your will were hardening.

You worked your way through the list steadily, through lesser and greater demons, through the deadly afrits and wild djinni, through nightflyers and shadows and nameless things that could only be bound by raw power—you called them and brought them and mastered them, and you never even noticed your own lack of fear.

You were growing strong enough to know your own strength by then, strong enough to know that it was time to begin preparing. You put aside summoning and studied the combat spells: firebolts and icy blasts, the spells that could bring death and pain and sickness, the ones that could destroy iron and shatter stone. And shield spells and healing spells, spells to conceal you and to protect you.

Naturally you asked about the doorkeepers. You learned much about the ten: their names, their powers, their strengths and weaknesses. But of the eleventh doorkeeper you could learn nothing, nothing but what you already knew.

Many others had given up where you were then, preferring a slow dull creep towards the end, passing the rest of their days in the dark and silence and pretending they were still working towards escape. But you were too young to face that, too many blank days stretching out ahead of you.

So one day you closed your spellbook and placed it in a pocket of your robe (it was as small and light as the day you had walked into the room, though every spell you had ever called for was still within its pages). And then you asked for the way out. A door opened in a wall that had not been there before, and the first doorkeeper was waiting on the other side.

You remember very little of the battles. Your blood was singing with magic, with power, and so was the air, full of shadows and horror. You faced them one at a time, each one worse than the last, and your body twisted under all the variety of agonies they used. But you had studied well, and they fell before you, although slowly. The tenth doorkeeper took you to the limits of your strength, and you pushed yourself past them to find the power to defeat it, your voice a broken whisper as you finished the spell that wrapped it in unbreakable chains of light. You had to rest for a while before you could heal the worst of your injuries and drag yourself through the door.

You had no hope left. You had almost been defeated a half-dozen times already, with all the preparation that you could manage, and none of the answers your book had given you had proved untrue. You went on only because going back was no option. And you saw the door standing open, bright with ordinary daylight, and you stood there and wept because it was worth all the pain you had already been through just to see the sun again.

And then you looked at me and asked me to let you by.

And I did.

= End =

The Scholomance is an old folk legend, but the idea of the eleven doorkeepers is mine; in legend, the Scholomance is run by the Devil and the bargain is that ten students are allowed in at one time, and at the end of the term (5 or 7 years), the last one to the door loses his soul.

Many thanks to Cathryn for beta-reading!

All feedback much appreciated!
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The Scholomance Series

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