Short Story – Forged in Fire

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The constant sounds of water from the falls created a background ambiance for all those who resided in the city of Aldamoor. The natural northern wall of stone played host to many of these, which had been in turn harnessed to provide energy to its citizens, those who, because of this, called themselves the Water Folk or Water Elves. Their sounds even now filled Darius Silver’s ears as he sat upon one of the many benches which littered the ground of the Academy. An open book lay sprawled in his lap as he attempted to commit to memory the words he needed to learn for his next class, his dark eyes scanning the pages furiously. He wore traditional black student robes, which in the heat of the fading sun was proving to be a difficult task. The heat made him thankful for his decision of cutting his hair short.

Surrounding him on the cobblestoned grounds of the ancient building were other students like him, who were just as engaged in their studies. Despite the closeness of the other bodies, Darius felt a million miles away. It was not that he did not like being back at his studies, it was that he’d already had a chance to taste life outside the Academy, while they had not.

Unlike those around him, Darius had been hand-picked by Puc Thanestorm, a mage of great renown, to become his apprentice. It had meant leaving the Academy and not finishing his training there, but it had been an experience that Darius knew he would not get otherwise, and he had been right. This experience had, however, also placed a wedge between him and the other students he had found upon his return, making friends rather difficult. Jealousy, he found, was not only prominent in human circles. It was for this reason he had thrown himself into his studies in the fashion he had.

Feeling a glob of sweat pool on his temple and begin to make its way down, Darius swatted it back, running a hand through his short coarse black hair in an attempt to remain focused. What effort he had managed, however, disintegrated with the approach of footsteps in his direction. Looking over, Darius saw a thin elder man with a flowing black beard lined with grey strands dressed in dark green and brown robes. Shutting the book, he got up immediately to greet him.

“Master Guildwood.” He bowed.

“At ease Darius, there’s no need for formalities,” Guildwood replied and looked him up and down. “I can see you still haven’t removed the spell cast on your eyes to make them appear human.”

The one thing every Water Elf had in common with one another was the peculiar light shade of blue their eyes had. When Darius had come to apprentice under Puc, he had been forced to learn a spell to mask them for a special task he had been given. That task had been to spy upon Annetta Severio, the heir of Lord Orbeyus Severio, in order to make sure that she was kept safe along with her friend Jason Kinsman, the son of Arcanthur Kinsman. Both men had been key members of the Four Forces, an army comprised of four races that had created an alliance in order to stop any inter-universal threats which would and could occur, Mordred the Conqueror and his son, Mislantus the Threat having been prime examples.

“It feels wrong after so many years for them to be any different,” Darius said. “It feels like I’m staring at a stranger in the mirror if I don’t have the spell cast.”

Guildwood nodded thoughtfully before addressing him again. “Do you have some time to spare now for a walk?”

Darius nodded and tucking the book under his arm, began to follow his teacher. They made their way past the groups of students that sat along the grounds. The odd one would look in their direction, sometimes muttering something to their classmates, who snickered. Ignoring them as best as he could, Darius turned his attention to the grounds around them, the neatly trimmed hedges that never seemed to be in disarray and the ancient fountains that sprouted up sporadically, featuring mages in various spellcasting positions, their staves raised high as water spouted from their ends, many of their detailed features eroded from the constant exposure to moisture.

The continued to walk for some time more until Guildwood finally spoke. “The Council reviewed your reports of your time in Puc Thanestorm’s service as his apprentice. They have agreed to move up your final examination time to initiate you into full magehood.”

The youth froze in his tracks upon hearing this. “But I still have so much to learn. I’m nowhere near ready to even think about-”

Guildwood stopped and turning on his heel, he regarded Darius, stroking his beard to smooth it out. “That is not what the Council thinks. Kaian himself was present at the decision, though he not been seen of late at any other meetings. If the First Mage of Aldamoor deems you ready, then I don’t think there is anyone that can argue otherwise.”

A grimace formed on Darius’s face as he heard this. It was not that he did not wish to be initiated, but that he still felt like there was so much he was still missing due to having been taken from the Academy at a young age. For many he knew, it would take the full thirty years to achieve magehood, while he was not even twenty five years old himself. His experience in schooling felt incomplete, despite what he was being told. His mind then wandered back to the Visium he’d undergone back on the Yasur Plains when he had gone with Annetta and the others to convince to Ogaien to join them against Mislantus. His real reason for having returned to Aldamoor was the vision he had received and what it had meant. In it, the Council was unable to discern him from Puc, which in turn had given rise to Darius’s awareness that by having been Puc’s apprentice for so long, he had forfeited his own identity. He had hoped that by returning to his studies at the Academy, he would be able to make his own path, leaving the illusion of just being the apprentice of Puc Thanestorm behind.

“What if I don’t think I’m ready?” he reiterated his earlier point.

“Why would you think that?” Guildwood raised an eyebrow.

“Because of how little time I have spent studying at the Academy itself,” Darius replied. “Most of my life has been spent living with and studying under Puc Thanestorm. I can’t complain about it, but I feel as though my studies only were not as diverse as they could have been had I stayed here. I feel as though am I just a mere copy of him instead of someone of my own making.”

Hearing his words, the elder mage gave a slight bob of the head as he continued to walk beside Darius in silence. It was not until a few moments later after having collected his thoughts that he spoke. “My boy, all of us, no matter under whom we study or how much, are forged in the fires of our own selves. The Academy is admittedly a wonderful place to study and grow, but nothing can ever take the place of life’s raw experiences. You have already faced more than many of your peers here and you are ready for what is to come. Why stunt the process and wait?”

Darius listened to what Guildwood said, his eyes wandering to some of his classmates in the distance who sat under a bent great willow tree, laughing as they flipped through their books. The image made Darius think of Annetta, Jason, Link and Sarina doing the same thing when they had been forced to cram for their finals after the defeat of Mislantus. The more he gazed at the scene, the more realized how much he missed his friends and that he wanted to go back and see them. Maybe completing his studies was not such a bad idea after all.

“If I agree to this, then how do I prepare?” he asked.

“There is not much I can give you in terms of tips, for the examination process takes on various forms,” Guildwood informed him. “I do know that it will be a test of three components. It shall test your physical prowess as a warrior, your intellect as a mage and your spirit as one of the Water Folk.”

Before Darius could ask anything else, the mage was off and only once in the distance did he say anything again. “I shall make arrangements with the Council and inform you within a fortnight of when the examinations shall take place. Until then, adieu.”

*


Before Darius knew it, two weeks’ time had passed. Sitting on the four-post bed in his study at the Academy, he watched through his window as the sun crept lazily over the walls of Aldamoor in the west, where the airship harbour was located. He had not slept much that night, his nerves having gotten the best of him, and so he had taken to watching various zeppelins come and go in the early hours of the morning, their course unknown to him.

Unable to continue his vigil, Darius rose and looked around his room. It was not the largest, but neither was it the smallest. An antique carved dark wooden dresser occupied the far wall, guarded on either side by vast bookshelves lined with colourful spines of various tomes. A small wooden desk and armchair were located adjacent to this, his robes from the previous day thrown casually over the armrests. On top, the desk was completely covered in the chaos that was a mixture of books, parchment and writing materials. A brass oil lamp loomed over top of these in judgement, along with an intricate timepiece with a see-through casing, gears chugging along in a mechanical rhythm on the inside.

Dressing himself in a fresh set of black robes, piped in silver to mark him as a mage in training, Darius stood before a mirror which hung off the back of his door, adjusting his cuffs in order to make sure they were straight. He took a moment to take in his features, the way his short black hair made his face appear more angular than when he’d worn it longer. His dark brown eyes appeared almost black in the faded light of dawn and he almost debated removing the charm from them to return them to their natural Water Folk state. His hand hovered over his eyes for a split second as he recalled the incantation, but stopped yet again as he had on previous occasions. This time, however, it was because of his conversation with Guildwood he’d had a few weeks ago. The eyes were a part of who he was, why should he change them back?

His hand dropped when he heard a knock on his door. Deeming himself ready, he headed towards the door, where Guildwood awaited to accompany him to the tower where the Council would hold the test.

*


Approaching the steps towards their destination, Guildwood paused once he reached the top and waited for Darius to meet him. He was dressed in robes of a dark blue that were piped in gold, signifying his rank as a full mage. His right hand also gripped a staff made of silver and gold twisted together with another metal that was a shade of blue as would be seen in a crystalline lake, his mark of office as the one who was in charge of the Academy. Darius had learned early on in his studies that each full mage, upon having been inducted into his rank for a full year, was required to craft a staff that would represent them. The combinations of materials varied greatly and no two mages had the same staff. Some chose more traditional and organic designs, like Puc’s gnarled wooden staff with enchanted moss which never withered and died, while others preferred a more mechanical design like, Kaian’s staff with moving gears. Darius often wondered what route he would like to take one day, if he passed his training.

“I leave you here.” Guildwood informed him. “I cannot explain what you can expect upon entering the tower. The test, for all I know, will begin upon your entry through these doors. I have been given instruction, as with all my previous charges, not to enter, which can only indicate it as being so. Your goal is to reach the audience chamber, where you will find the Council awaiting you. Good luck, and may the Unknown guide you.”

Darius nodded upon hearing the instructions, feeling the anxiety finally sink in. He’d heard stories from others who had gone through the process, and the tales had been filled with such varied exploits that Darius truly had no idea what to expect. He only hoped that he’d memorized the spells he needed most. Hands pressed against the door, he pushed, hearing the wood creak beneath his palms from the pressure. Instantly, Darius felt the room around him go cold, despite the warmth of summer that had come in with him from outside. His breath visible on the air before him, he tried to make sense of his surroundings. The vast halls of the lower level of the tower seemed abandoned, in a sort of winter sleep from what he could tell. Frost decorated the various brass candle holders, their lights extinguished from the chill. Thankfully, the tower windows provided illumination enough and if needed, Darius had memorized a spell to enhance his night vision. Gaining his bearings, he then set off for the audience chamber.

The silence of the empty corridors brought further unease into Darius’s mind as his imagination began to weave together scenarios of what could happen, springing forth a paranoia of what could be to the forefront of his mind. The more the thoughts pounded through him, the more he found the chill greaten around him, and he could not discern if it was just his mind playing further tricks on him, or some environmental spell cast by those testing him. Guildwood had said there were to be three components to the test, had he not? Lost in these thoughts, Darius barely noticed out of the corner of his eye as something moved. Jumping back, a serrated blade in the shape of a gear swung from one end of the corridor to the next, having almost taken his nose clean off. Adrenaline pulsing through him anew, he regained his focus, measuring the time which it took the great lumbering pendulum to make its way from one end of the hall to the next a few times. His calculations complete, Darius waited and when the moment was ripe he leaped past the point of impact with little difficulty. If this was the physical part of the test, then perhaps he had little to worry about with the rest of it. Exhaling, he felt a great weight dissipate off his shoulders and continued towards his destination.

His ascent up the stairs proved to be more challenging than he thought, the sleek marble having frozen over with a layer of ice. It took every ounce of concentration for him not to slip as he clutched the railing in a vice grip. Even this failed him when he lost his balance and smashed his right kneecap into the edge of one of the steps. The pain exploded through it as though it had shattered into a million pieces, even though he knew this was not the case. Gritting his teeth, however, he got up and continued on his way despite the pain. Checking it quickly, he could see he had not torn skin, but he was certain that the knee would be blue and black the next day. When he nearly slipped a second-time Darius crouched down, searched his memory and brought forth into his mind the spell he wished to cast. He then placed his free hand on the steps before him.

“Regelo.” He spoke, the word escaping him with his visible breath.

It seemed to do nothing at first, and then the floor beneath his palm began to melt and the impact extended outwards until the rest of the stairs were only covered with conglomerated puddles of water.

Rising more confidently than when he had fallen, he continued to his destination. Ascending the rest of the steps, Darius paused, scanning the level with his peripherals, but saw nothing of note and kept walking in a brisk pace.

He then stood before them, the large twin doors leading into the audience chamber where the Council had presumably gathered to test him and decide if he was worth to attain the rank of a full mage. Taking one more deep breath, he pushed the doors open and strode in. To his surprise, the audience room was empty and the only light streaming into it came from the vast windows near the top of the chamber that were decorated in stained glass. Stepping further inside to get a better look, Darius heard the door slam shut, causing him to jump. His feet skidded across the fine marble floors and the air grew cold around him once more.

“Another test?” He thought.

Before he could contemplate further, he then heard it, or rather he saw it. A hooded figure dressed in black robes identical to his own came into the light from one the shadowy caverns in the far side of the room. “What on earth?” Darius raised an eyebrow.

Barely dodging in time, Darius moved out of the way as a quarterstaff swung directly at him. His legs tangled in his robes, causing him to stagger back a few paces in disorientation. Quickly collecting his wits, however, Darius tapped into his memory and shot green light energy from his hands in the shapes of small arrows. The attacker deflected these with relative ease and continued to move forward. Despite this, Darius’s goal was achieved, buying him time he needed to adjust his eyes to the dark. Seeing a second discarded quarterstaff on the ground, he grabbed hold of it and went into a defensive stance. His hands tightened around the wound leather on the grip that encircled the wood as he recalled his lessons in its use.

The figure, having recomposed itself, moved yet again to strike. Its blow was met with a parry from Darius, who pushed back and seeing an opening, countered ferociously. The wooden staves clacked against one another with a deafening echo in the chamber as the two adversaries continued their bout.

The entire fight, Darius did his best to keep a level head. Though this was not his first battle, the pressure of knowing he was potentially being watched by his superiors created a much deeper rooted anxiety and muddled his normally eloquent sparring prowess. Gaining his edge back after a few minutes, he struck hard and true at his foe’s gut, causing him to fall back.

Breathing heavily, Darius withdrew his staff into a neutral stance as he tried to get a better look at his opponent. “Who are you?”

Rising without a word, the figures hand reached up and grabbed hold of the cowl of its hood. Pulling it back, Darius’s face paled when he saw what he was faced with. It was himself, or at least it looked like him. The being’s hair was grown to shoulder length as his own once had been before he cut it, and the eyes which looked back into his own were the pale blue trademark Water Folk shade.

“Everything that you were meant to be.” It smiled, saying the words slowly and calmly.

It then took off towards him once more, staff read to assault. Darius braced himself for impact and shoving the blow back, he swung low in an attempt to trip his rival. His twin detected this, however, and moved back a pace.

“Give it up, Silver, you don’t stand a chance,” It spat. “I am the culmination of all of Puc Thanestorm’s training. You and I both know he’s even more skilled than the First Mage of Aldamoor.”

Redoubling its efforts, the twin attacked anew. Darius countered, but his efforts were now halfhearted as his mind wandered to the vision he had received during the Visium when he and his friends had gone to seek the aid of the Ogaien once more. He recalled now that what had bothered him most was that there had been no conclusion to it, that the vision had just cut off without a significant end. His distraction from the task on this cost him his footing and with a swoop of its staff, the twin had Darius on the ground.

Conscious of his predicament once more, Darius tried to use the staff in his hands as a shield as he searched his mind for a spell to use. The weapon flew out of his hands mere seconds later and the end of his opponents was pointed at his face.

“Yield.” It growled.

Finding what he was looking for, Darius let out a throaty snarl as he shot a blast of white light from his hand into his opponents face. The twin yelped in pain as it clutched its eyes and backed off. Darius took the opportunity to grab hold of the staff he’d dropped and readied himself anew for an encounter.

As an afterthought, he then said, “I’m Puc Thanestorm’s apprentice, but not Puc Thanestorm himself. I am a Water Elf who has lived most of his life outside of Aldamoor, on Earth. My friends are humans and at times I feel more human than Water Folk. I spent most of my time as one of them, my eyes concealed to look like one of their own. Maybe I won’t ever be as great of a mage as my master, but I know one thing for sure, and that is that I am my own person.”

As if on cue, the darkness of the chamber began to brighten. Darius watched as the figure facing him faded from sight and as if to counteract its leave, the seats on the elevated platforms that encircled the room were populated by mages that faded into existence. He recognized some of the faces from his previous visits to the city, but the only one that truly stood out was that of Guildwood himself, who rose and began to clap, followed by all the others gathered.

“Welcome, mage Darius Silver, into our fold!” he beamed.

*


His horse having been saddled and readied after having his official documents signed that declared him as a full-fledged mage, Darius did one more round to make sure everything was secure on his mount. He could not wait to leave and tell his friends back in Q-16 that he had passed his final examinations. He was even more excited for the prospect of telling Puc this, the culmination of all the years he had served under him having come into fruition.

As he bustled about in the stables at the Academy, Guildwood strode in.

“Might I have a moment of your time before you depart?” he asked.

Darius nodded, letting go of the saddle straps and turning his full attention to his now former teacher. For the first time ever, he saw the weight of his station in the mage’s eyes.

“Darius I…” he began, stopping himself before beginning anew. “Darius, I need to tell you something before you leave, as it may change the course of how things go in the future. There is a very important letter I need you to take to Puc and it is for his eyes only unless he deems it to be public knowledge. Do you understand?”

“Why? What’s happened?” Darius questioned.

Guildwood sighed as he ran a hand through his long beard, thinking of where to begin. “You were aware of the state of our First Mage, were you not?”

“Yeah, but what does that have to do with it?” the younger mage frowned.

“This: Kaian Chironson has been taken into the embrace of the Unknown.”