The Divvil and Hercules Smith

There once was a feller—lived right in this here parish—name of Hercules Smith. He got that name afore he was ten years old, on account of all the wrasslin he did. You never saw such a wrassler in all your life. He’d sneak out at night to wrassle bears, and when his pappy caught him, why, he’d wrassle him too.

Now, one day, when Hercules Smith was near growed up, his pappy up and keeled over at the plow. Dead afore he hit the ground. His family was mighty sad, but he had a passel of sons who could take good care of their mama and sisters. Still, young Hercules Smith was a mite worried.

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Gregor Bock clasped his hands before him, held himself straight. The Ritual Room had felt small, when he snuck in on a dare one night last year. Now it seemed vast. Cavernous. The wizards who stood chanting at each point of the central pentagram were dwarfed by the Room, which seemed to expand even as it filled with the black smoke pouring off the brazier at the pentagram’s center. The brazier offered no warmth, and the chill of the bare stone floor seeped up Bock’s legs, through his thick winter boots and woolen socks.

He peered back at the high double doors, now shut. A choice, the man outside had said. A decision—through the double doors, and on to the path of the wizard, the path that led to solitude, to danger, to power. The path to the testing, that would take the lives of nearly half those who attempted it. Or the other path. The side path, the common path, the path that led away from the double doors and the testing, away from the chance of greatness, away from danger, to an ordinary life—Her Majesty’s Army, or the clergy, or the University. The path of his brothers.

No choice at all.

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