- The Magister shall face the darkness as the light and find illumination within it as within herself.
- Be then aware of the prospect of Death.
- This test is a Level 0 exercise.
- Failure to pass is automatically a postmortem regret.
- Successful passing liberates the Key.
- Graduate status confers responsibility.
- Honors confer more responsibility.
“Why does it say ‘herself,’ Magister?” Shaw asked Magister Ardent, holding a large leather-bound tome in his hands.
They stood in a small room with two doors, no windows, a tall silver mirror, two wooden benches, and a very high ceiling. One of the doors they had entered through, the other remained unopened, untried. There were no candles or torches. Instead, only the pale, anemic light of day fell from a domed skylight high above them. The air was dry and chilled. Shaw closed the book.
The man seemed to stir from a moment of revery. “Hmm… Does it? Well, if you were female it would have been ‘himself,’ I’d wager. And if you were other, it would have been something else again.” The magister took the book from him and in turn handed Shaw his ceremonial alb and chasuble to put over his cassock. “Get dressed and prepare yourself, young magister-elect. The door opens in 10 minutes.”
“Thank you,” he said, and watched Magister Ardent turn and leave the vestibule. He began to regulate his breathing, then, to tune his mind in on the spells he’d learned up to this point. As he dressed, putting on the alb and the chasuble, he reflected on his studies, knowing that it was likely he’d face something previously unknown to him. The truest test of any person, whether mage or sea captain, fighter or baker, archer or mother, was facing the unknown.
He looked into the mirror and studied the design on the ultramarine chasuble: a broken pentacle in white beneath the two moons, Still in goldenrod, Runner in violet. A black skull was in the pentagon and two slate dog skulls lay on either side of it. He meditated on this image in his final minutes, and when the door clicked open he opened his eyes. The design on the chasuble was gone, he saw, replaced by ancient silver runes of power. The test was ready. The gantlet charged. The crucible heated.
Through the door was a wide space. It took Shaw a moment to realize what he was seeing, for a sudden blast of bitterly cold wind washed over him. The room vanished. Snow and ice spread out around him where he stood. Ice tilted at odd angles under a black sky. Shafts of faint bluish light pierced down at differing, drifting angles here and there. He looked about, shielding his face from the wind as best he could, and then he saw some few ropes stretched upward into the void; heavy, thick ropes, thicker than his leg, rising up in bowing arcs into the sky and vanishing.
He walked forward slowly, testing the ground before him. He felt something odd underfoot and bent down to sift through the snow. It was a staff. Cold as ice, made of ironwood, inlaid with silver runes like those on his vestment, crowned with a single, large piece of clear feldspar, called Northers’ spar or sunstone. He lifted it and held it out before him. The tip glowed slightly, though not enough to light the space around him. He already knew that he’d be at a distinct disadvantage. Anything here might well see him perfectly clearly already, while he cast about in the dark. Yet to cast a spell of illumination would certainly attract attention here. More energy was required to do what needed to be done, which was to enhance his own vision, but there was no other viable option. He could sense a presence here, and it was malignant and strong and very close. He spoke the words to himself, a subvocal utterance that triggered the channeling of energy, and the world around him lit up in colors he could not normally see. And so, there, before him, a mere twenty paces away, he saw the strange entrance between dimensions, defined by the space between the ropes which, he now realized, were more like spiderwebs. Around this area, stretching away as far as he could see, was nothing else but icy wastes.
He walked forward. One pace. Five. Ten. Twenty. And he entered the other space and vanished from Tharia for a time.
The coldness immediately vanished, replaced by a sickly, humid warmth. His senses reeled from the instant change. He took a moment to adjust as he looked around. There were tall black trees here under an ochre sky where a crimson sun seemed to drift like a emberfly caught in an oily pool of poisonous water, and in the distance there rose a great, rectangular tower with countless windows and glowing sigils like fire embedded in the tower’s ebon sides.
Shaw knew that something was wrong with this world, and that it was not safe to even be here. The knowledge crept through his muscles and bones, a visceral understanding. He needed to survive this. He looked behind him. The passage back remained, though from this side it looked like a wound in the fabric of reality. Where snow drifted in it turned to ashes.
He knelt and dug three fingers into the black soil, channeling a homing mark into the ground there. The dirt burned beneath his short nails, discoloring their crescents, but he felt the spell work and was not afraid of losing this spot. He stood up straight and looked around. There was a path a little ways from where he stood. It was like pressed ashes and coal. All around, the grass was black, the bushes were black, the trees from bark to leaves were black. The air tasted of copper beneath the red sun, and wisps of sulfur singed his sinuses. And then there was the sound. Monotone, deep, gravelly chanting.
Shaw walked out onto the path and made his way in the direction of the tower. It was impossible to tell how far away it was. The proportions of this world were deceptive. What looked like a tree became a knotted bush no higher than his knee. What looked like dead, torn grass became a stand of tree trunks stripped of branches. Every few steps seemed to make this world’s measures shift. It even altered his sense of where his mark was. One moment, it felt close, and the next like it was hundreds of feet away. One moment unsettled him, when the mark felt like it was hundreds of miles away, though the sense of that distance lasted merest seconds. He thought it was as if this world was somehow shattered, cracked, dislocated.
He walked on for a while, and then in the uncertain distance he spied upon a figure walking toward him. Tall, human-like, robed in hooded, faded, colorless, charcoal-shaded garments. Walking with a vargur—like a large, hateful wolf, emaciated but yet more muscular than a wolf—on a leash like a silver, thorny vine that seemed to wrap about the figure’s large, skeletal right hand, while in its left hand it bore a long, slender sword. The figure’s eyes glowed a dead yellow as it walked slowly along the meandering path.
In that moment there was no other choice. To go back the way he’d come would not spare him this test, but leave him alone in the cold to freeze to death. To hide would only delay what was certain to come. But to face this thing…. And what was it? Could it be reasoned with? Was it sure to attack him or sic its beast on him? He could not tarry too long in indecision. He still had, it seemed, the advantage of surprise, for the thing had in no way betrayed any awareness of his presence.
Then Shaw put together the figure and the chanting, and for a moment he felt more frightened than he’d ever been. A desperate desire to run came over him. It wormed its way into his joints, tried to loose his guts. He nearly swooned and fell into panic. He fought to still himself. He forced his breath to maintain its rhythm. Through gritted teeth he raised his eyes and looked upon the figure. It knew he was here. It had all along. This was its first attack, an assault on his pysche, he realized, and he immediately threw up a shield to absorb the assault. The panic fear abated, and the thing’s eyes grew brighter, like sulfur flares, fueled by rage. Yet it did not loose the vargur on him. In the back of Shaw’s mind, this stuck. It reminded him of something, but he had no time to consider what it might be.
He cast forth three fireballs at the robed figure. Two hit the vargur as if pulled to it, and one hit the figure. Its howl was like a hundred enraged bears. Within the howl, words formed. “How dare you? Come! Come to me! Come into the fire yourself and burn!”
The thing seemed to reverse time around itself and the fireball leapt away from it and sped back at Shaw, hitting him in the chest and finishing off the last of his shield. He felt the air around him warp and crackle and suddenly he was pulled along the ground as if by hooks. He barely had enough time to roll away from the vargur’s snapping jaws, its maniacal eyes like orbs of spoiled mercury dancing in its head as its gray tongue lashed about in its mouth, slathering between its long, knife-like teeth. He gasped and channeled another spell, flipping out of the spot he was in and teleporting ten yards away, just in time to avoid the slender sword’s whiplike descent. He loosed three more fireballs at the figure and again two hit the beast instead and only one hit the figure. This time, its howl was different, and Shaw watched as the leash pulsed with a greenish light and the vargur, which had been felled, rose up again. The two monsters shrieked at him.
He cast a lightning ball at them both, which drifted away from him slowly, building charge, and then crackled into a storm against both creatures. As the figure raised its free hand to protect what lay hidden within the hood, the vargur fell again. Again, Shaw loosed three fireballs against the figure, and this time all three hit it, even as the lightning ball continued to crackle and strike it. He laughed in crazed relief as the hooded form began to smolder and burn, the vargur staying down. “I got you! I got you!” he yelled. “I got you!”
Then something bit into his hand.
Another vargur, which had slipped up behind him as he laid the other and its robed companion to rest, had sunk its long teeth deep into his hand. He cried out in pain as the beast tugged and tore at him, but more than that, he cried out in abject horror, for from the wound the beast was inflicting he could feel a cord pulling loose and stretching out, a burning leash of his own flesh. He could not pull away. The pain was too much. Then his vestments began to blacken, and from his left hand a piercing pain made his sight grow dim as a sword blade began to slip from his arm, piercing through and then lengthening from his bleeding palm. He became dizzy, and the chanting rose in his head. Words from beyond space and time, evil and all-consuming, pulling him into their thrall—forever. He would replace what he had taken. He would become one of them.
And he understood then what was expected. He summoned all his remaining strength and let go of his mortal senses, and the runes flashed and flew free of his vestments like a storm of nails, shredding the vargur at his hand. He collapsed as the evil magic dissipated, all his energy spent, and began to crawl back to the homing mark. Whatever he was supposed to accomplish, he could only hope he’d done it.
As he crawled through the strange passage, returning to Tharia, sick and burning with fever, he wondered if he had failed. Doubt curled him into a ball in the snow as the icy wind blew over him and quickly piled a drift against him.
When next he woke, it was in Chimera’s Landing. He knew this room. It was the infirmary. He’d seen more than one mage wind up here. They did not always leave it alive. But he felt whole again, though bone weary and thirsty. He’d survived, somehow. Now it was just for him to wait on the verdict. He supposed that it was rendered already.
From behind his left shoulder a familiar voice said softly, “You passed, Shaw Craetwyrtha. With honors.” Then he drifted off again, wondering what responsibility would be his now.
To be continued.
Tharia: Roads to Adventure by James Pomeroy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.