Calling it backstage would be generous. The area where Alex sat was hidden by little more than a black sheet, printed with the band’s logo, flung down over the wooden beam above. His mother had arranged it through her business; the factory-made fabric imported from Vailberg, along with the t-shirts Eira had ordered for what small fan base existed outside of their classmates.
It was proving to be an uncharacteristically hot summer, and the yellowed grass had not benefitted from the swarm of final year students descending upon the field at the edge of town. Alex’s clammy t-shirt clung uncomfortably to his tan skin, the usual waves of his dark hair flattened by sweat. He licked his chapped lips and reached for his magic, intending to at least dry off his clothes, but thought better of it. It wouldn’t cost a lot, but he didn’t want to risk the over-exertion, not after dumping so much of his power into his generator that morning.
Colourful lights flickered from above as the heavy bass reassumed, bright enough against the darkening sky to be visible through the cloth; but Eira was too skilled for him to sense any radiating magic. It hurt to miss the display; even after seeing countless practices, her routines were impressive.
He sat down, ignoring the dry grass spiking against his jeans, and put a hand on his machine. It could almost pass for a guitar amp; a metallic box with a panel of buttons and wires running out from it towards the stage. The cool metal hummed under his fingertips as the electric generator whirred inside, but Alex explored the device with his magic instead, probing the passive spell he had cast there.
The spell within the machine enabled the turbine to move, and Alex was disappointed to find its power running low. Even with all the magic he had stored inside it, the generator could only run for around three hours. Still, his framework of instruction was holding and it should last one more song.
It was perhaps an indication of his inexperience that he could sense the generator’s passive spell so readily. A more focussed will as he formed the spell would have meant less waste energy as it ran; less radiation for his senses to pick up. Alex knew the generator shouldn’t have required as much magic as it did. His father would have done better.
With a sigh, He pulled a crumpled envelope from the back pocket of his jeans. It was still sealed and his eyes passed over his name without reading it, drawn instead towards the logo printed at the top left.
Aedemeer City University. The letter had come from the capital that morning. It was the best place in Ardveld to study engineering; almost on par with the great universities in Vailberg. That’s if he’d made it in.
A sputtering from the machine behind him broke through his rumination. Shoving the letter back into his pocket, he spun around, sucking air through his teeth in frustration. The spell was dying.
It took only a thought for Alex to draw on his magic. The passive spell within the generator glowed in his mind, accepting the gush of his remaining power. He wasn’t sure how much it would need; there must be less than a minute of show time left. But the electric lights, the speakers… Alex cut his connection with the spell and hoped for the best.
Reality replaced the feeling of magic; sharp and loud, as though he had emerged from deep water. His ears rang over the sound of the music, and Alex couldn’t separate the thumping of the bass from the beating of his heart. Black dots danced across his vision when he tried to stand, and he sunk down into the dirt as quickly as he had risen, trying to quell the shaking in his limbs.
Deep breaths usually helped to sooth away the dizzy sensation of magic exertion. He leant against the metal casing of the generator and closed his eyes.
A cheer from the crowd startled him back. Blinking up, Alex saw letters shining in colourful sparks over the velvet sky, but it took a moment before he realised they were backwards, clearly directed at those looking at the stage: Thank you and goodnight!
Alex groaned as he forced himself to sit straight. A spot on his right shoulder ached where he had been leaning against the hard surface, and he rubbed at it while summoning the strength to stand. His generator had stopped its whirring, and he didn’t need to check to know that his passive spell had expired along with it. Stupid, really. If he’d bothered to add a fail-safe loop, he wouldn’t have to recast the framework. Again.
In the absence of what meagre light the electric lamps had provided, Alex saw the bobbing glow of magelights rising from the crowd to brighten the paths out of the field and illuminate those bothering to clean up. Wincing, he rotated his shoulder and pushed himself to his feet, leaning on the machine for support. This time, his vision mercifully stayed clear.
A rustle of fabric told him someone was approaching.
“Alex?” The dirty blonde of Eira’s hair was hidden as usual by one of her illusions, this time cycling through a rainbow of colours that cast a hypnotic glow over her pale face in the fading light. Like the magelights he’d seen earlier, it was an active spell, requiring constant focus even if it didn’t use much power. If it was distracting her, Alex couldn’t tell.
“Is it all right to unplug the stuff now? We’re packing up.”
“Sure.” Alex bent down and started pulling the wire connectors out of the generator, hoping the movement would disguise the weakness he felt.
“You had to shut it off in the end then? I thought you’d leave the lights on at least,” Eira said as she wound the cables up. Alex passed her another, but this time she paused as she took it. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine!” Alex shook his head and immediately regretted it, blinking away the woozy sensation that rushed back.
To his relief, Eira didn’t seem to notice. “You’ve been quiet all day.” She hesitated, then placed her hand on his shoulder. “Did you hear yet? About Aedemeer?”
“Oh.” Alex’s thoughts jumped to the crumpled paper in his pocket. “Sort of. Well… I mean, I got a letter. Here.” Standing up straight, he pulled the envelope from his pocket and held it out.
Eira just looked at him. “You haven’t opened it?”
He shrugged, not meeting her eyes.
“Want me to do it?”
“I guess someone’s got to.”
His weak smile faded under Eira’s scrutinising gaze. Then she took the letter, slid a thumb under the flap of the envelope, and tore it open. Alex watched her face out of the corner of his vision, trying not to guess from her expression what she was reading.
“Hmmm, Interesting.” He made a grab for the paper, but the wooziness from his magic exhaustion made him slow, and she danced back, laughing. “I thought you wanted me to tell you!”
“Hurry up then!” He couldn’t help a grin. Eira wouldn’t tease him if it was bad news.
Her own suppressed smile broke wide across her face. “You got in!” She pushed the letter into his hand, sweeping him into a hug that almost knocked him back off his feet. “You’ve got to let me be there when you tell your mum. I bet she’s gonna cry.”
“Happy tears, I hope!” Alex replied. The thought of how proud she’d be almost felt better than knowing he’d been accepted.
“You’re still coming to the pub, right? We should head back to yours afterwards. Maybe just stay for one drink, since we need to tell her. I can’t believe you had the letter on you all day and didn’t open it!”
Alex listened contentedly to Eira’s excited rambling as she collected up the last wire. “You said your dad’s got a phone, right? Wanna use mine to call him? Tell him the good news?”
The question broke him from his happy daze. “I—” Alex hesitated before continuing quickly. “I mean, he’s coming down at the weekend. For my birthday. We’ll tell him then.”
“Well, I guess you can do a double celebration.” Eira’s careful response told him she hadn’t missed his deliberate avoidance. She pulled him into another hug, the fruity smell from her clothes reminding him how much he needed a shower. “You should be really proud.”
“Thanks.” Now that the excitement was wearing off, Alex remembered how exhausted he was. “How about you?” He reached for the strap to lug the generator over his shoulder, but found his limbs shaking as he attempted to lift it. “Did you get anything back from Beriant?”
Eira flinched, and for a moment he wondered if he’d said something wrong. Then she reached across him, laying a hand on his machine. “The spell… You didn’t— Alex, I knew you weren’t okay. Do you think I can’t spot when you’re magic sick? Why didn’t you just let it die? Or ask someone for help?”
“I’m okay,” Alex replied. “And I didn’t have time to ask anyone; it only needed another minute. Anyway, I just sat down for a bit and now I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it,” Eira said. “Let’s get you home. You should rest.” She gently tugged the strap from Alex’s hand, but he snatched at it.
“I can carry it!”
“Yeah, if you want us to take half the night.” She laughed. “I know it’s your baby. Trust me, I’ll be very careful.”
Alex frowned, but stepped back, allowing her to hoist the generator off the ground, strap over her shoulder and both hands on the handle that stuck out from the top as she leant away from the weight.
Together, they shuffled down the path from the field, Eira’s magelight ahead of them. The few stragglers that remained waved as they passed, and Alex focussed on standing as straight as possible.
“They can’t tell, you know,” Eira whispered beside him. “It shouldn’t matter, anyway.”
“What about the pub?” Alex asked suddenly. “Karla’s going to be there, right?” He might not manage going tonight, but Eira shouldn’t have to miss out because of him.
“There’ll be other nights.” She took a hand off the generator to punch his arm, earning a disgruntled ‘ouch!’ in return. “Hopefully the guilt will stop you pulling this again.”
“It’ll probably be the last in a while.” He appreciated her words, but most of their peers would leave for a career soon; the rest heading off to university. Either way, it meant a long time until another event like this. That’s if the field would even be here when he came back. He’d heard it had been bought up, likely by one of those rich guys from Vailberg his mum was always complaining about. After so long dreaming of leaving, Alex was surprised by how sad the thought seemed.
“Your health is more important than a night out. You need to rest.”
As much as he hated to admit it, Eira was probably right. He did need to rest, and he didn’t want anyone to see him like this. At least if he slept in tomorrow, he’d be back to normal by the time his father arrived.