December 20, 2022

The Pine Lesson

by Ian Madison Keller

“When Espen finished reciting the words to the spell, the sprig fell back to the table, lifeless and looking no different, and Espen sat back with a frown, canting one ear back. He was sure he’d cast the spell properly.”

Espen approached the librarian with trepidation. His hooves clicked softly on the wooden floor, despite his best efforts to walk quietly. The squirrel librarian sat bent over a book behind her desk, her fluffy brown tail curled behind her head, but she looked up and smiled at him as he approached.

“How can I help you?”

Espen ran a hand through his forelock nervously. “I have a question about elementals.”

One of the librarian’s dark eyebrows rose, but she merely nodded her head for him to continue.

“We learned how to speak to them last week in class. I’ve been trying to practice on the elemental I found, but I can’t get it to respond.” With this Espen reached into his bag, pulled out his most prized possession, and set it on the desk in front of her. It was a small sprig of pine of a type not found in his southern homeland of Avoirdupois, which was why he had originally picked it up when he’d stumbled across it as a young colt. He’d immediately felt the magic radiating from it, although he hadn’t had a word for it at the time. In a way it had led him here, leaving home to study magic at Dunwasser College.

The librarian leaned over her desk to peer at the twig, her black nose twitching. After a moment, she sat back up and shook her head. “I’d wager to say it’s not talking to you because it’s not an elemental.”

“It’s not?” Espen stared down at the stick in shock. “Then what is it?”

Her tail jerked and twitched behind her as she thought for a moment. “I’m not sure,” the squirrel woman said finally, “but I have some ideas where you can start looking.” She stood up and gestured for Espen to follow her.

They wove their way through the stacks, only passing one other student, an upper-level fox student in red robes. She was studying fire magic, while Espen’s plain brown robes with the yellow bands indicated he was a first year studying earth magic. Eventually the librarian stopped in front of a large bookcase.

“Here you go,” the squirrel said, gesturing at the books.

Espen stared at the giant bookcase in despair. “All these?”

The librarian shrugged. “’Plant’ is a pretty broad thing to be searching for, without something else to narrow it down. Library closes at dusk. Good luck in your search, young horse.” With that she turned and left.

Espen scanned the titles on the shelves, shaking his head. This was going to take forever. He chose a book, mostly at random, and carried it over to the closest table. He gave up after three pages. The author assumed that the reader had a lot more magical knowledge than Espen had. He returned the book to the shelf and picked another one.

This time instead of picking at random, he carefully read the titles. He found a volume about how to use magic to better grow plants and took it over to the table.

The book’s title had given him a much better idea about how to figure out what his sprig was. He knew grapevines could be regrown from a cutting, so perhaps other plants could be as well. After it was regrown, it would be quicker than a tail snap to identify what it was. It was almost dusk by the time he was ready. He had found a spell in the book that did exactly what he needed, but with his limited knowledge of magic it had taken a while to untangle the spell. As a first-year student, he was only allowed to check out books from the front, beginner-level shelves, or else he would just take this book back to his room to try the spell there.

Espen took the stick out of his pocket and set it on the table. Then he held one hand over the stick, using the other to keep track of his place in the spell, and began repeating the words while channeling his magic out through his palm. The stick jumped, dancing as the magic hit it. When Espen finished reciting the words to the spell, the sprig fell back to the table, lifeless and looking no different, and Espen sat back with a frown, canting one ear back. He was sure he’d cast the spell properly.

Then the stick shivered and began to grow. And grow. Espen let out a little neigh of dismay, snatching the library book from the table and jumping backwards. His chair fell over with a loud clatter. He clutched the book to his chest as he watched the twig, grown enough that it now looked more like a branch. The branch twisted, and more branches began sprouting from it, curving and bending into knots. What looked like eyes made of tree sap formed inside the branches and stared at Espen.

A head-shape began to form from the branches around the eye sockets. The eyes widened and moved apart, and a horse’s long muzzle grew. Ears like his own sprouted from its head, made of leaves and wood. A mane of pine needles sprang up along a neck, stopping at a few inches long, identical to Espen’s short, flat-shaved roached mane. A body began to form from the mass, pushing out from the back of the fake horse head.

Ever so slowly, Espen managed to get his legs working and backed up, away from the branch thing, until his back hit a bookshelf. His nostrils flared and his tail swished, knocking books from the shelves behind him. His instinct was to run, but the branch thing was on the table between him and the only way out.

A moment later, the twisting branches had settled into a shape. A horse identical to Espen now sat on the edge of the table. The mane, tail, and fur of the creature were made of pine needles. Its eyes were amber tree sap. The creature had even made a crude replica of Espen’s school robes from bark. Espen and the creature were staring at each other in shock when the squirrel librarian appeared in the aisle behind the creature.

“What is this racket? This is a library! I’m going to have to ask you to—” The squirrel librarian’s words cut off as the wooden Espen turned its head to look at her. Her mouth dropped open into a gasping ‘O’ of surprise. With a chitter of fear, she turned tail and ran. Her long bushy tail waved like a flag of surrender as she fled back the way she’d come.

Espen’s eyes widened. He began to call out after her, but the creature’s form shuddered and the words died in his throat. The wood creaked softly as the long horse tail became bigger and bushier, and the long horse muzzle shrank away, turning into the shorter, thinner squirrel muzzle. All traces of Espen were gone, and now the thing looked exactly like the squirrel librarian, down to the style of robes, height, and fur-length, albeit made entirely of bark and pine needles.

The wooden monster looked at him with its amber eyes and jumped down from the table. It crouched and then sprang towards Espen with claws outstretched and mouth open to show wicked looking incisors.

Fear made all the spells he’d been learning fly from his head, and muscle memory took over. Still clutching the book to his chest, Espen turned his torso and lifted a leg sideways. He snapped his leg out in a kick, and his hoof caught the wooden squirrel square in the chest. The creature flew backwards, landing on its back, but it used the momentum to roll under the table before springing to its feet on the other side. It turned around and made a very squirrel-like leap to the top of the closest bookshelf. Then it was gone, running away across the top of the shelves.

This was it. He was going to get kicked out. He couldn’t go home; his parents had vehemently opposed him studying magic, and he’d had to run away in order to attend Dunwasser. He knew there was no way his parents would let him come back.

By the time Espen found the strength to move, the creature was long gone. He wandered the aisles for a few moments, trying to catch sight of it, but the spaces between the ceiling and the bookshelves was cast in shadow by the low table lamps. When he returned to the front lobby area, he realized he was still clutching the book about growing plants with magic. He ducked back behind a shelf, out of sight of the squirrel librarian who was frantically talking to a furred sumatran rhino professor. Espen stuffed the book in his school bag. He knew it was against the rules, but he needed to study the book and figure out what had gone wrong with his spell.

That done, he walked into the lobby. The squirrel’s little ears still swiveled in his direction before he’d made four steps into the room. She turned to face him, pointing at him with an accusatory finger. Espen stopped, hanging his head with guilt.

“That’s him,” the librarian chittered.

The rhino delicately adjusted his glasses with his giant hands and peered at Espen through the thick lenses. “He looks fine to me, Professor Donnell.”

“I’m telling you, I saw it.” Professor Donnell crossed her arms and glared at Espen, her tail twitching erratically behind her. “It was him, but he’d turned himself into living wood.” Espen glanced up, confused. Hadn’t she seen him behind the wooden creature? Perhaps not. If all her attention had been on the plant monster, it would have been easy to miss his dull brown robes and fur in the shadows.

“I’m not saying you didn’t see what you said you saw.” The rhino leaned down to pat the much smaller squirrel’s shoulder. “But from his robes, he is a student of earth magic. Maybe he was just practicing a spell?”

“Spell casting is forbidden in the library!” The squirrel rounded on the rhino, jamming her finger into his broad chest.

“We both know that students break that rule all the time.” The rhino gently pushed the squirrel’s arm away and then looked at Espen, giving him a sympathetic look. “It’s fine, colt, you aren’t in trouble.” This did make Espen relax, at least fractionally. “You just scared Professor Donnell a little. Can you please explain what happened, to put her at ease?”

Espen thought fast and decided it would be best to just go along with the rhino. An unauthorized spell was one thing, but unleashing a monster in the school was a different story. Best not to mention it. Besides, the wood thing was probably long gone by now. “Ah, yes, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for my spell practice to frighten you, Professor Donnell. It won’t happen again.”

Professor Donnell glared at him, still suspicious, but Espen’s apology seemed to satisfy the rhino, who nodded.

“There, see?” The rhino patted the squirrel’s shoulder again. “I’m sure the colt learned his lesson.”

“Humph.” The squirrel rounded on Espen. “Fine. But I’ll be keeping a very close eye on you from now on. Now, get out of my library. We’re closed.”

Espen nodded and trotted as fast as he dared out of the library, heading straight for his dorm room. He wished he’d tried to make friends with more of the other students so that he had someone to go to for help. But so many of them had given him a hard time about being a horse who wanted to be an Elementalist — one could only take so many jokes about not being able to punch through a written test — that he’d kept mostly to himself all semester.

It was dusk, and the hallways were almost empty. While there were classes for the nocturnal animals, they usually didn’t start until later in the evening, and it was late enough that most of the diurnal animals had already left for home or their dorm rooms.

Espen turned down the hall that led to the student dorms and stopped dead in his tracks. The wooden squirrel was there, marching back and forth across the hall as if patrolling. In the dim twilight it looked almost like a real squirrel, except for the wood grain on its nose and its bright amber eyes.

Professor Donnell or the rhino professor would tell someone about the incident in the library. It would be easy to put two and two together if a student reported this creature. He had to get rid of it, before anyone else saw it.

Espen settled his school bag against his side and tightened the straps. If there was one benefit to being a horse, it was being able to run fast. He set his legs and took off at a running start, sprinting at the wooden creature. The wooden squirrel saw him and dashed away. Unfortunately, squirrels were no slouches in the speed department either. It darted back and forth, forcing Espen to continually readjust his direction. Trying to keep footing on the slick floors was a challenge with hooves, and bit by bit, the wooden squirrel began to out pace him. But when it darted left, Espen knew he’d won. The doors down that hall were all kept locked. A dead end. He turned and slid on the slick wood, his hooves gouging the pristine hardwood floor.

The wooden squirrel was at the end of the hall, darting around and rattling locked door handles. Espen’s hooves thundered as he charged towards the squirrel. He had it. The squirrel’s unnatural amber eyes met his, and then it compressed, flattening itself out, and slithered — he had no other word for it, yet how could a plant slither? — through the thin gap between the door frame and the door at the far end of the hall. Espen was so startled that his legs lost the rhythm of the run, one hoof caught on his other leg and he went down in a tumble, crashing to the floor. His momentum rolled him into the door with a resounding thump that rattled the whole building. Doors popped open up and down the hall.

“What was that?”, “Sounded like a whole herd of horses ran through.”, “I’m trying to sleep here!”, and more shouts and jeers came at him as he crawled back to his hooves. Of course, one of the few doors that hadn’t opened was the one he’d crashed into. The one he needed open.

One of the professors, a black fox who taught air magic, appeared at the end of the hall. “What’s all this noise?”

“It’s that horse who thinks he’s a scholar,” a golden retriever dog said from a doorway, turning to point at Espen. “He was running in the halls and slipped on the floor.”

“Student Sverre, please come with me.” The fox crossed his arms, looked pointedly down at the gouge in the floor before looking back up and giving Espen a withering glare.

Espen ducked his head, his ears splaying back in embarrassment. “Yes, professor.”

* * *

Espen didn’t get back to his room until much later. The professor had given him a very stern lecture about proper conduct while in the halls of the college and then given Espen a disciplinary slip. He was to wash dishes in the kitchen after class for the next week.

With a flick of his hand, Espen sent magic into the lamp next to his bed. The orb inside sprang to life, filling the room with yellow light. Luckily, he didn’t have to worry about waking up a roommate. He’d been given a single room, since horses were significantly bigger than many of the other students.

Espen placed his school bag on the tiny desk while eyeing his bed with longing. He was exhausted and had class in the morning, but he needed to figure out what he’d accidentally revived.

Long hours of blurry-eyed reading later, he found his answer in a footnote attached to a word of warning.

“While using magic to grow plants, be careful not to magically alter the plant itself1.”

At the bottom of the page, he found the footnote:

“1. Look no farther than the infamous Pine Clone to see how disastrously wrong experiments like this can go.”

A Pine Clone? He’d never heard of such a thing, but the name described his weird transforming pine twig perfectly. Espen sat back, tapping one hoof on the floor with a rhythmic clip-clop as he thought. He had a name for the creature, but now what? He sat forward and flipped through the book, rapidly scanning the pages, but didn’t see Pine Clones mentioned anywhere else. He needed to go back to the library.

The square of his window was still totally dark. After closing for an hour at dusk, the library reopened for the nocturnal students. He’d never been there at night, but it was dark enough that it was probably still open.

Yawning, he repacked the stolen library book in his bag and headed off. The halls at night were filled with unfamiliar faces.

He was passing through a four-way intersection when he caught sight of a round, furry squirrel tail out of the corner of his eye down an otherwise empty hallway. He stopped and turned, recognizing Professor Donnell’s profile. She wouldn’t be up at this hour, since she worked days in the library. It had to be his wooden squirrel, the Pine Clone!

Espen wanted to charge down the hall and catch it but his hooves pounding on the hardwood would give him away immediately and he already knew it was faster than him. He had a better idea. He pressed himself against a wall out of sight of the hallway and risked a peak around the corner. The squirrel was trudging down the walkway towards him. Its head was down, so he couldn’t see the gold eyes. He couldn’t make out details in the dim light of the infrequent lamps, but it was definitely Professor Donnell’s shape. He crouched next to the door and waited.

“I’ve got you now,” Espen growled and tackled it to the floor as soon as it came through the door. They landed hard, Espen on top, and the wooden squirrel let out a squeak. Espen also let out a snort of surprise at feeling soft fur beneath him instead of scratchy pine needles.

“Let me up, now!” a female chittered from underneath Espen’s bulk.

Oh, no. Espen jumped to his hooves and was horrified to see the furious face of Professor Donnell turn to glare at him, her black eyes glinting with anger.

“Sorry, thought you were someone else,” Espen stammered out and then turned and sprinted away. His ears went flat. He’d done it now.

He ducked through a side door into the gardens. A path wound through the lawn. Espen ignored it, taking advantage of the wide-open space. His hooves tore up huge divots in the dew-soaked dirt as he galloped as fast as he could towards the library. Running like this out in the open, the wind in his mane, he felt a little homesick for the wide, flat plains of the Avoirdupois lands.

His breath came out in thick white clouds in the coolness of the night air, and by the time he reached the library, he was covered in a white lather. He slowed to a trot and wiped the worst of it from his face and neck before opening the outer door and heading inside.

* * *

Espen took a moment in a nearby water closet to splash his face and catch his breath before entering the library. The doors were unlocked.

The sight inside felt slightly surreal, like he’d walked into another time and place. Despite the magically lit lamps burning cheerily on every table, without sunlight streaming in through the skylights the room was wreathed in shadow. A white rat with red eyes sat at the front desk in Professor Donnell’s usual spot.

The rat hopped up from his chair and moved to intercept Espen as he crossed the lobby.

Espen stopped and turned to look down at him. “Are the daytime students not allowed to use the library at night?”

The rat held up a paw and wiggled it back and forth. “It’s discouraged, but not really against the rules. We want to make sure our students are well rested. Mainly it comes up around exams or when a big paper is due, but I don’t have anything like that showing on the schedule.” He looked at Espen expectantly.

Espen shuffled his hooves and flicked his ears. “It’s a little urgent. Well, I was here yesterday, or I guess earlier today? Anyway, I was reading ‘Gardening with Magike’ by Furaha Knaggs.”

The rat’s eyes widened. “Heavy reading for a first year student.”

“It’s a personal interest of mine. There was a magical plant mentioned in the book that I wanted to find out more about, a Pine Clone. Do you happen to know anything about it?”

The rat snorted with laughter. “That’s what brought you to the library in the middle of the night?”

“It’s kept me up all night.” Espen shrugged. It was true, in a fashion. “I figured as long as I wasn’t sleeping, I’d come to the library and see if I could find more out about it.”

“Fair enough. Must have some burning curiosity to make you run all the way here.” The rat nodded to the sweat stains on Espen’s robes. “I’m Professor Geels. If you’re this eager to learn about something not even in the curriculum, I’m sure I’ll be seeing more of you around.”

“Espen Sverre.” Espen’s ears went back and he ducked his head, but he held out his hand and shook the albino rat’s outstretched paw.

“Right this way, I know just the book.” Professor Geels led him through the library, talking the whole way. “Those plants are very interesting. Do you know we don’t know where they originally came from? They aren’t a natural plant. Scholars think they’re a magician’s experiment that escaped into the wild. They can copy almost any animal. Not exact, you know, but they can get eerily close.”

“How dangerous are they?” Espen asked as Geels stopped at a bookshelf close to where the squirrel librarian had taken him.

Geels waggled his hand again. “Depends on their orders, but usually not.” Espen frowned. That hadn’t been his experience. Espen was about to ask more questions when a female voice came from behind them.

“Professor Geels, there you are. I need to know about Pine Clones, and–”

Espen turned, his heart dropping into his chest, as Professor Donnell came around the corner of a bookshelf. She stopped talking and stared back at Espen, seemingly as shocked to see him as he was to see her.

“You! What are you doing here?” they both said at the same time.

Geels was looking back and forth at both of them in confusion before bursting out laughing. “Two people confused about what the other one is doing there, asking about Pine Clones? Don’t tell me, we have a clone loose on the campus.”

Both he and Professor Donnell nodded.

“I’m sorry about tackling you earlier. I thought you were the clone,” Espen admitted.

Professor Donnell gave him a sharp look. “We’ll discuss that later. For now, we need to find that thing before it hurts anyone.”

“How did you figure it out?” He’d seen the thing transform, the professor hadn’t.

“At first I didn’t,” she admitted. “Then I remembered that stick you’d shown me and how that thing had looked just like you. I was on my way here to do more research when you tackled me, mistaking me for someone — or something — else, which confirmed my theory.”

“So what do we do about it?” Espen asked, tensing up for what he knew was coming. “I understand I’m going to be expelled, but I believe in cleaning up my own messes.” Honor was everything for an Avoirdupois. Espen may have run away from his home and country, but he would always be an Avoirdupois at heart.

“As I said, we’ll discuss your fate at this college later.” She turned to Geels, who had been watching this exchange with his paws over his muzzle, not quite suppressing the fit of the giggles he was having. “Now, you were showing the colt books about the Pine Clone?”

“Yes, fascinating creature,” he said, and then repeated what he’d already told Espen. “This book has more information.” He picked up a thick volume off a shelf and held it out to Professor Donnell.

“That will help later, but we don’t have time for that now.” The squirrel nervously chewed on a claw and then looked at Espen. “Where did you see it last?”

“In the dorms. I chased it down a hall and thought I had it, but it somehow crawled through a crack in a door and I lost it.”

“I take it that the clone looked like me at the time?”

Espen nodded.

“Won’t stay that way, though,” Professor Geels piped up between giggles. “A wild one will change forms frequently.”

Espen frowned and put a hand on his chin, thinking. “It’s still a plant, right?”

Geels and Donnell both nodded.

“So it’ll need sunlight, water, and soil at some point. Maybe we should start our search in the garden?”

“That’s an idea.” Professor Donnell nodded, her bushy tail twitching.

“Also,” Espen’s mind was churning now that the adrenaline was wearing off, “could we use the clone’s magical signature to track it?” He couldn’t remember where he’d read about that tidbit, but it made sense. Like the way scent-oriented species could follow a person’s path using just their noses.

“We could,” the rat spoke up now, his giggles almost gone. “But we’d need to be familiar with the traces of that particular magic. I haven’t ever seen a Pine Clone in person.” He turned to the squirrel, who shook her head.

“I‘m familiar with it.  I’d had that sprig since I was a little colt, and I could feel magic emanating from it even then. It was my good luck charm,” Espen said.

Professor Geels was already shaking his head. “Not going to work. That tracking spell is far too advanced for a first year student.”

Professor Donnell gave Espen a thoughtful look. “I would have said that about the spells in the books I showed you earlier, Student Sverre. Yet, I’m taking it you cast ‘Regrowth’ and that accidentally revived the Pine Clone?”

Espen nodded, flicking one ear back in puzzlement. The squirrel almost sounded impressed.

“He can do it.”

“Are you sure?” Professor Geels’ black rat eyes were wide.

“I’m sure. Find the book with the spell and meet Espen and me in the garden.” Professor Donnell turned to Espen, smiling so wide she showed her incisors. “Let’s go.”

* * *

The sun was just peeking above the horizon, streaking the sky with pinks and golds as Espen and Professor Donnell entered the grassed commons outside of the garden. Dew still sparkled on the grass, steam rising as the sun began to burn it away. Fresh divots scarred the neatly-cut grass where Espen had run through just an hour earlier. The sight made him wince.

A fence enclosed the garden, and Professor Donnell stopped at the gate to survey the grounds. The garden was used for several classes. Espen had a beginning earth magics class here once a week, and he’d frequently seen another group of students at the other end tending to the plants and herbs, but he didn’t know if it was for a class or just a hobby. This early in the morning the garden looked empty.

Since it was used for teaching, it was divided into sections that each featured plants from different climates and environments. There was a large clump of various pine trees towards the far end, and it was there that the professor seemed to focus her attention.

“Should we wait for Professor Geels?” Espen asked as Professor Donnell opened the gate and headed inside.

“Only if we can’t find it visually.” She glanced up at him as she spoke, and the bags under her eyes made her whole face look drawn. She looked as tired as he felt.

The squirrel trudged off down the path and Espen headed off in the opposite direction. “It’ll be faster if we split up.”

“Good idea. Call out if you find anything.” The squirrel’s bushy tail disappeared around a bend in the path, hidden from behind by a big bush with thick green leaves bigger than Espen’s head.

It was slow going. Espen pushed aside branches and leaves, making sure he wouldn’t miss the clone hidden under low-hung branches or in thick bushes.

After he’d been at it a while, Professor Geels found him and handed him a thick book. The rat’s red eyes sparkled with excitement. “There you are. I found the spell. Page 109.”

“Thanks.” Espen settled down in the dirt cross-legged, spreading the book across his lap.

“I’m so excited to finally get to see a Pine Clone in person,” Professor Geels said, sitting down next to Espen. His long, hairless pink tail wagged behind him, brushing the leaves around.

“They’re pretty creepy,” Espen said absentmindedly as he began studying the tracking spell. It actually looked easier than the spell he’d used to revive the clone.

Geels prattled on about magical creatures while Espen did his best to memorize the spell. Espen never responded, but that didn’t seem to bother Geels.

Finally, Espen closed his eyes, held out his hand, concentrated on the feel of the clone’s magic as he remembered it, and cast the spell. He felt the magic dancing around him, and then he felt a tug on the left side of his muzzle. When he opened his eyes, he could see a glowing blue line trailing through the garden to his left. The path the clone had taken!

“It worked,” Espen said, shutting the book. Geels looked impressed. He stood up and took the book back from Espen’s lap. But as soon as Espen moved to stand up the blue glow faded away.

“Lead the way.” Professor Geels exclaimed.

“I can’t.” Espen hung his head. “The spell ended when I stood up.”

“Oh, yeah. You’ll need to concentrate on it to keep it going.”

Espen groaned and sunk back down to the ground, holding back out his hand for the book. Opening back up to the page with the spell, he began casting it again. But he was exhausted, and the magic wavered again as soon as he moved. He opened his eyes after the third failed try to find Professor Geels poking his arm.

“Professor Donnell found it, come on,” Geels said, taking back the book again.

Espen crawled back to his feet, yawning, and followed the white rat through the garden. A faint, “Over here!” reached his ears, and he was glad the rat had better hearing than him. He never would have heard the squirrel from this far away.

Professor Donnell waved at them from a bush as they came close. She was hiding behind the thicket, peering around it at something farther away. Espen and Geels tip-toed up and joined her.

Professor Geels gasped in surprise when he caught sight of the clone and Espen barely suppressed a groan. At some point it had taken the form of a tiger. In the bright sunlight, it was obvious that the thing was a plant, yet it was still eerie seeing a perfect copy of a tiger rendered in branches and pine needles. The clone was standing motionless in a big patch of ivy, facing towards the rising sun.

“What do we do now?” Espen whispered to the two professors.

Professor Donnell tapped one edge of her librarian’s robe sleeve to show Espen the red fire symbols embroidered there. “It’s a plant, so it should be afraid of fire. I’ll circle around and drive it back to you, then you use your magic to move the earth out from underneath it. Trap it in a hole.”

Espen nodded. “Got it.” The spell to move earth was one of the first ones an Earth Elementalist learned. So far he’d only practiced with flinging things off tables, but moving the ground from underneath the Pine Clone’s feet shouldn’t be too different.

“What about me?” Professor Geels squeaked, his red eyes wide. He was clearly terrified.

“You run to get help if things go wrong.”

Geels nodded.

Professor Donnell nodded back to him and crept away, keeping low to the ground. Slowly she made her way around the still clone. When she was in front of it, Espen lowered himself to a crouch and held out his hands, bringing the words of the spell to his mind. A small glowing golden ball appeared in his palms, ready to be thrown.

With a roaring battle-cry that impressed even Espen, Professor Donnell burst from the bushes directly in front of the clone. She held a ball of fire between her outstretched palms and she waved it at the wooden tiger.

The clone stumbled backwards, and Espen tossed the golden ball of his earth magic. It hit the ground at the wooden tiger’s feet and earth exploded up around it in a plume. The squirrel had been too close, and the earth plume hit her arms, knocking her backwards. She flailed, trying to keep her balance, and accidentally let go of the glowing ball of fire. It flew into the cloud of dust flying around the clone, whooshing as it hit something inside. Chunks of earth, plants, and rock began to rain down around them. Geels squealed and ducked, holding the library book above his head. Espen lifted his arm and covered his face, trying to keep the flying debris out of his eyes.

A moment later the deluge stopped and Espen dropped his arm, waving his hand in front of his nose to clear some of the dust away. He peered through the cloud, catching sight of a bright yellow glow.

The good news was his spell had worked perfectly. The clone was at the bottom of a hole about three paces around. The bad news was that it was only about three hands deep. Espen estimated that if he stood in it, it would only come up to his knees.

The even worse news was that the clone was on fire. It ran around the shallow hole, its pine needle fur burning merrily. Stopping, the clone shook its limbs to dislodge the burning needles. They went out as they fell into the dirt, leaving singed and smoldering branches bare.

Professor Donnell, hacking and coughing, was just getting to her feet on the other side of the hole. Being so close, she’d been hit with the worst of the debris. Her robes and fur were so covered in dirt that she looked made out of earth.

Her coughing drew the clones attention, and it turned its back on Espen, moving towards the squirrel. The professor’s eyes were glued shut with the dust, so she couldn’t see the danger.

“No!” Espen shouted, bursting from his hiding place behind the thicket. The wooden tiger had crouched with claws bared and was about to leap at the helpless squirrel. Espen charged, jumping at the edge of the shallow hole to tackle the clone from behind. They went down in a heap, landing with the clone face down on the ground underneath Espen. In the tiger shape, the clone was almost as big as him.

The clone’s limbs were still hot from the fire, burning Espen’s skin where it wasn’t protected by his school robes. The Pine Clone bucked and writhed under him, swiping at him with wooden tiger claws. Espen tried to hold on and pin the clone’s arms, but it was just too strong.

The fight was strangely silent except for Espen’s grunts as wrestled with the clone. For its part, the clone didn’t make a sound. The wooden tiger made an undulating motion with its back and cracked the end of Espen’s muzzle with the back of its head. Blood gushed from Espen’s nose as he reared back and let go of the thing’s arms. The clone twisted under him, slashing at his exposed chest with its wooden claws.

Blood welled from the cuts, and the pain was excruciating, like three lines of fire burning down his front. Espen’s scream was echoed by Professor Geels. The rat turned on his heels and dashed away, screaming for help. Ignoring the pain in his chest and nose, Espen made a fist and punched the wooden tiger’s face. The clone’s head snapped back and Espen grabbed the clone’s wrists and pushed them to the ground. They struggled against each other. Professor Donnell recovered and lifted her hands to do a spell but hesitated, clearly unsure how to blast the clone without hitting Espen as well.

His vision had narrowed to a pin prick by the time he heard a commotion to the side and heard Professor Geels yelling, “Over here!” Suddenly they were surrounded by mages. Someone cast a spell and the clone went limp. With the resistance gone, Espen collapsed on top of it.

“Is that blood?” “Get a healer!” “Stay steady.” Everyone was yelling at once around him.

Espen crawled off the clone and lay back in the grass, as far away from the chaos as he could get. As soon as he moved, a group of excited mages and scholars circled the still Pine Clone, chattering loudly.

An armadillo in the robes of a healer came up to him.

“May I heal your wounds, noble steed?” she asked quietly, kneeling at his side.

Espen nodded and the armadillo monk held her hands over his lacerated chest. A moment later energy flooded through him, washing away the pain. The cuts scabbed over and by the time she pulled her hands away, it looked like they were weeks old. Not the battle scars his father had expected him to get, but still Espen was proud of them.

“Thank you.” Espen said. The armadillo looked pleased, giving him a small bow before getting to her feet and wandering off to check that no one else needed her services.

Espen got up, intending to go back to his dorm and pack. He needed to figure out what to do with his life now that his dream of being a mage was shattered.

Professor Donnell ran up to him as he began to walk away. “Where are you going, Student Sverre?”

“To get my things…” he trailed off as she glared at him, her bushy tail snapping irritably.

“What makes you think you’re expelled?”

Espen merely waved a hand to the chaos going on around the fallen Pine Clone.

The squirrel shook her head. “You made a mistake. Students do. But you did your best to try to clean up your mess, even though you should have asked for help sooner. I trust you’ve learned your lesson about swallowing your pride, and asking for help when you need it?”

Espen nodded vigorously. “Yes, professor.”

Professor Donnell smiled. “I thought so. A hard lesson, but a good one to learn early.”

“What will happen to the clone?” Espen looked back at the chaos, still curious about the strange magical plant despite everything.

“It’s the perfect opportunity for the students to be able to study a rare plant,” the squirrel gave a wry smile. “The hardest part will be getting the thing to stay put.”

Espen laughed.


* * *

Originally published in Ironclaw: The Book of Legends

About the Author

Ian Madison Keller is a fantasy writer currently living in Oregon. Originally from Utah, he moved up to the Pacific Northwest on a whim a decade ago and never plans on leaving. Ian has been writing since 2013 with eight novels and more than a dozen published short stories out so far. Ian has also written under the name Madison Keller before transitioning in 2019 to Ian.

His novels include the Flower’s Fang trilogy and the four book award-winning Dragonsbane Saga self-published under Rainbow Dog Press, as well as an urban fantasy series with Fanged Fiction. His work has won a Cóyotl Award and two Leo Literary awards. He is also the new editor of ROAR starting in 2020 with ROAR 11.  More information can be found on his website,  He can also be found on Twitter: @maddiekellerr


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