Title: Pedra's Prelude
Author: arcady
Summary: Prelude to a later work - a short fantasy piece about a
woman transitioning from apprentice to journeywoman mage in a hard
world.
Words: 5,133
Contact: arcady0 AT yahoo DOT com - Feedback highly desired.
Copyright: June 2004

Note: Does this belong in R, or PG-13? I wasn't sure so I chose
the more restrictive option - it really straddles the border after
all. I should have the full story that follows available soon.
This prelude was originally written in 2002, and has just been
revised and put online again in anticipation of future works.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Cornelius moved through the stalls before the auction, watching
the new arrivals with a trained eye. He was well known here and
the masters all made to win his attention, shouting out the
virtues of their latest catches. All eyes would follow his,
catching any pause and working to guess what notes he made.

 So it was that he saw her, with her ghostly skin like milk,
the only one of her kind. Her master was negotiating her virtues
with a woman obviously from the brothel guilds by the crest upon
her cloak. That sort always unnerved Cornelius; although he knew
he had no right to object, given his own profession. At least
those going to the brothels would live.

 The master held up a lock of fine, silky red hair. "As you
can see, she's quite the catch. Feel how smooth it is, even with
these curls."

 The woman ran her fingers through the lock, "Indeed, not at
all like an Arashani. It's a pity they're all shaved. I won't get
top pay for her until this returns, not unless the satyrs come
rushing out of the forests."

 "Such is custom; the gods demand she be reborn," the slave
master said. A small group began to gather, eyes casting hungrily
over the young maiden in question. Cornelius still stood a stall
away, pretending to go over his notes of the day's prospects.

 "Yes, I suppose she must. I wouldn't want the spirits of her
kinfolk after me. Such a pretty young thing though, wherever did
you come across her?" The girl in question huddled nude in the
straw covered floor of her cage, staring at the proceedings with a
look of incomprehension and fear. She truly was just a girl, only
beginning to come into her womanhood.

 "She's from the east, only twelve summers on her I'd wager -
but you can never be sure with them. My company trades in
Kleishdun; there's a war in the northern highlands," the master
said.

 The guildswoman rolled her eyes and stated, "Isn't there
always?"

 "Yes, yes, mercenary savages the lot of them... this one was
a war bounty, the last of her clan. But she's still virgin - a
lucky find." The master put emphasis in the last bit as he cast
his gaze about the gathering group. Still the others held back and
let the Guildswoman do the talking. But he'd get a good auction
price on this one.

 "Indeed?" she said, stepping forward with a careful stare
into the cage. "Do you have more like her?"

 "I'm afraid not," the master said. "They're hard to come by."

 "But you trade in Kleishdun?" the woman said, raising an
eyebrow.

 The master gave a weak smile and said, "well... we bought her
from a metal's trader in the islands. He got her from an Arashani,
and..."

 "I see..." the guildswoman said, "I've seen one of their
mercenary companies - she does match the look. Wherever you got
her, if she can fool me, she can fool my clients."

 "Perhaps a closer look? Girl!" The master banged against her
cage attempting to call her over. The girl just huddled deeper
into her straw.

 The guildswoman curled her lips in a predatory manner, taking
a step forward and saying, "She'll take some breaking I see, but
they always do..." In her hand, she began to roughly caress three
newly minted queen's crowns, moving them between fingers.

 Cornelius had had enough, it was time to be certain. He
stepped up and through the small crowd. On his approach they grew
silent. He ignored all but the girl in her cage, locking eyes with
her.

 The guildswoman failed to recognize Cornelius and made to
protest, but was silenced with a wave from the master who turned
to watch, the gears of prestige turning in his mind.

 "Yes." It was all he said. Cornelius handed a card to the
master and left, he still had hopes of finding a few more today.

 The master turned to the crowd. "I'm sorry, she's she won't
be auctioned. Let me show you my others."

 "What is the meaning of this?" the guildswoman demanded.

 "University business, they're taking her." The master made to
move on to his next prize.

 "That man?" She sighed, giving the girl a last look. "They
always take the best ones..."


She didn't understand any of what was happening to her. A year ago
she'd been happily running through snow covered fields with her
brothers. Then the war came. Papa said the princes had turned
against each other, shattering the kingdom. Her home was overrun,
she taken and sold to slavers from afar. Months of trading from
war-band to war-band, then weeks at sea and now she was lost in a
strange hot land - shivering in her cold cage - bereft of any
clothing, as she'd been for the past year.

 Mother had told her about rape during war, but the first
slaver - a Kleishdun clan mercenary - had sold her high for her
virginity. Something she was glad for now; some of the other
slaves hadn't been so lucky. Since that day she'd been passed from
place to place, trader to trader, all of them packing her up on
ship or cart to take her yet further from home until they could
pass her on once again. She'd been in this stall for days,
waiting, listening and trying to hear what was beyond the walls,
beyond the pens. When they'd entered that morning she'd felt her
turn must've finally come. The others in their cages went silent
as men and women held her down, but all they'd done was to chant
something and cut away all her hair.

 The slaver had kept a lock which he proudly displayed to all
who passed. The day had been an endless parade of people coming to
see her and the others. She'd been rudely examined in every way
imaginable. It was all highly indecent.

 After that man she'd been left alone. The one with the
strange stare... She'd felt something in that look, something
she'd only felt once before, as a little girl when she'd met a
fairy in the woods. A tag had been pinned to her cage, seemingly
the ward that left her at peace. By mid day all the girls but her
were taken out of their cages. For hours she heard loud shouts
outside, as of people in heated argument. Each time it ended with
a singular, gut-wrenching scream. Often from a voice she knew.
None of the girls returned.

 Evening came and a hunchback arrived. Standing before her he
briefly talked to the slaver and passed him a note of some kind.
Her cage was opened and she was taken out on a leash. The
hunchback brought her to an open square with a large stage. Around
the area were a series of small buildings. Stalls of other
slavers, it seemed. In the square stood two other girls and two
boys, all about her age, locals by their olive tanned tone, and
chained in a line to which she was added.

 The hunchback pulled them along, into an open-air sweltering
shop near the gate and she saw the reason for the earlier screams.
A man sat at a small forge heating an iron rod. When it was red
hot he pulled it forth and gave it to the hunchback. The little
man spoke a word she could not understand and the rod changed its
shape. The others looked on in terror and confusion. Having once
gone to market with Papa to buy sheep, she only had terror. She'd
done this before herself. Each of them was held by the forge-man
as the hunchback pressed the iron into their left shoulders. Water
was splashed over the wound and the iron returned to its place.
The brand was a cross inside a circle with a strange leaf to each
side. It hurt beyond all reason, but her chains kept her hands at
bay.

 They were led out into crowded streets. No one made a move to
cover her nakedness, and to her amazement none seemed to pay it
any mind.


After endless twisting streets, they arrived at what seemed a
large palace, entering through a side door. The hunchback led them
down a series of halls and through large double doors into an open
room with two small doors at the far end. It was cold and
unfurnished and built of the same white stone as everywhere else -
cracks in the floor spoke of age. Standing in the midst of the
room was the man who'd eyed her before, and a strange woman who
seemed to be half snake. From the waist up she looked human with
golden tanned skin. From her hips down she had a long green and
red serpent's tail coiled about the floor rather than legs - a
naga! But unlike fairies, they were only myth among her people,
nothing more than stories used to frighten children who believed
in dragons... Yet here one was before her. In the tales, the Naga
served dragons, keeping their lairs safe and sometimes taking the
form of man or woman to secretly commit unspeakable horrors on
children who misbehaved.

 She wondered what she'd done wrong.

 The hunchback removed their chains and left them standing
facing the pair. Had she seen reptilian slits in his eyes as he
cast a final glance? She wasn't sure, and he left through the
double doors before she could look again. Free from her chains,
she wanted to flee, but found herself unable to move. The others
held hands to the burns on their shoulders, but she knew better -
she fought the urge, remembering Papa's words from her farming
days, and the pride of her people. Don't make the wound any worse,
but above all, don't let these foreign pigs see her cry.

 She felt it - more like the fairy than the man, there was
something not right. She could see the others feel it as well, by
their sudden confused glances. It was like something watching
them, but without eyes, watching from the inside out.

 The Naga spoke in a language that was not speech, going
somehow deeper. "Welcome to the city of Coinic, heart of Lomyr.
Count yourselves lucky, for you may be slaves, but you are also
kin." It was then she noticed the scar on the naga's bare
shoulder, a brand much like her own. "I am Mistress Pentali; you
have already met Master Cornelius. You five have been chosen to
study as Mages under the University. We are a rare breed, and
finding so many born to magic in one day is quite exceptional."
The naga - Pentali - paused, turning to smile at Cornelius before
continuing, "If you survive you may one day join our ranks. Or
perhaps even go further. You may even win your freedom."

 Cornelius approached them, handing each a small bundle. Her
bundle had a small white gown, a book, pen, and inkbottle. "Put on
your robes." Cornelius addressed the group. "These will be your
sole possessions until you are Journeymen in the guild. Do not
lose them; they will not be replaced until you can manufacture
them yourselves."

 She gladly dressed, happy to have something covering her
indecency after a year, though a part of her regretted the change.
It was a simple cloth coming down to just above her knees and
leaving her shoulders bare. She hoped this strange land continued
to be warmer than home.

 "From this day forth you have freedom to wander the halls of
the University, but do not leave the grounds; Lomyr is not kind to
runaways. You must obey us, or any other master of the school. You
will learn the rest of our rules in time." Mistress Pentali waited
for them to finish dressing.

 "You three come with me." Pentali led the three girls through
one of the doors as Cornelius took the boys through the other.


Pedra sighed and dropped her head into the volume before her. The
ancient tongue just wasn't her thing. No matter how hard she
tried, her best efforts at translation still required access to
the library. She envied Skartaski, with his ability to just roll
the words off his tongue like he was born to it. Of course, one
might say the little draco was.

 Before coming here, that one fairy in the woods was the only
thing magical or even non-human she had ever witnessed. The idea
of a flightless dragon was unknown to her before him, but they
were almost common in Lomyr - prized as slaves for their
meticulous nature. If a leopard gecko stood up like a five foot
tall dinosaur but with semi-clawed hands and a big enough brain to
be smart, that would be an image of Skartaski's race. The boy'd
arrived almost a year after her and they'd been strong friends
ever since - mutual survivors. She was more or less the only
survivor from her group. Carek was still alive, though his
mindless misshapen state was hardly anything to envy.

 When she'd first come in off the markets and been told they
planned to make a mage out of her, she'd thought them utterly mad.
How could they ever trust a slave? And why? But now, eight years
later she knew. There really wasn't any other choice as so few of
them survived. No family would ever stand being told their prize
child had just been ripped apart by elemental forces and scattered
across the spirit world. Nor any of the other horrors she'd
witnessed from miscast magic. But it wasn't just that. There was a
bond, a kindred spirit. Slaves had no other ties. The survivors
became bonded closer than any family. They needed each other and
they knew it.

 The guild promised them much with success. Already as an
upper student she had more prestige in Coinic than most freemen.
She could go places, say things, and do things the citizens in
this land could never consider. Given her foreign ways and 'lack
of social graces' this was a godsend. There'd been many times were
she'd inadvertently insulted some noble or visiting official with
the lack of a proper curtsey, a misplaced word, or any number of
arcane rules she could never make out. Any other kind of slave
would've been dead three times over for her lack of etiquette.
Among the clans of her birth, you spoke your mind to kings and
princes; here you lost your tongue to them, if not worse.

 She went back to her book, brushing aside long red hair and
propping up her glasses to better read the page. Her only "other"
possession, she'd been given the spell to craft them after an
accident had taken her vision. Not like when she'd torn her gown
and had to run around nearly naked for three months before
figuring out the spell to mend it. She'd found out they'd been
deadly serious about that, it discouraged carelessness. Of course
she didn't teach the spell to Skartaski for another month...

 'There it was...' She noted the words in her journal as she
finished the translation. It was some dragon's poem about the
sound of gold veins in a mountain's core. Skartaski might like
this one.

 "Pedra?" a voice spoke from above her.

 She looked up to see Mistress Pentali looming in front of
her. Over the years she'd grown fond of the Lengoli woman, after
getting over the shock of learning myths were often true.

 "It's time," Pentali told her, patting the girl on the head
in the manner more of a mother than a taskmaster.

 Pedra's heart quickened. Could she mean what she thought?
"Time?" she closed her volume and stood, picking up her journal.
It was definitely not a good idea to lose that again.

 "The masters have chosen. You shall be reborn once more." The
bond between them was mutual. Pedra knew Pentali had grown to see
her as a daughter, and the mix of concern and motherly pride was
plain to see as she was grabbed up by the elder woman and wrapped
into a tight hug.

 Pentali let her down and took Pedra's hand, leading her out
into the halls. "Everything changes today," she said. Pedra was
elated. It always came suddenly and without preparation. The
masters would summon a pupil forth and test them. Those who passed
moved on as Journeymen and women - members of the Guild.

 She ran her hands through her hair, she would miss it. These
Lomyrians always shaved you in their rebirthing ceremonies. It
would grow back, but best to avoid any satyrs until it did.

 She couldn't hide her smile as she followed the naga woman
through the halls. Today she would become not just a woman, but a
Mage.


Pedra was led to the master's wing of the university, where she'd
never been before that day. Pentali brought her to a small foyer
then ordered her to disrobe, collecting her gown and journal and
following suit herself. She placed their possessions in a wooden
chest next to a fire pit in the middle of the room. Into the pit
she tossed Pedra's gown. "Today you cast off your apprenticeship.
When you leave here, you will have the sigil of a journeyman, and
be able to choose your own gowns."

 "If I pass," Pedra added uncertainly. She'd seen others pass,
but never any who failed return. As far as she knew, it was pass
or die.

 "I've no doubts in you child, this will be a proud day for us
both," Pentali said.

 Pedra was left standing there with only her glasses resting
upon her freckled face. Pentali carried only her Mage Staff, her
badge of office capped with a golden pentacle to denote her
allegiance to Earth. They were otherwise skyclad as they made
their way through a misted archway and into a large round chamber.

 They moved to the center of the room to stand above the
symbol of the elements, a cross in a circle etched into the stone
floor. Around them at the cardinal directions sat four groups of
three mages: the masters representing the elements. There were
women for Earth and Water, Men for Fire and Air. Nearly all were
human, though she did see three exceptions. There was a catlike
beastling among Air, one of Skartaski's kind among Water - though
how anyone could tell her sex was beyond Pedra - and finally an
old Fey sitting at the head of Earth. She had only seen a few of
their numbers over the years, and then only from a distance. Now
she stood before them to bear forth her knowledge and test her
skills.

 Pentali coiled her tail about Pedra then took her staff and
pounded into the ground facing each group. To each she repeated,
"I come before you as a petitioner, speaking for my apprentice.
She stands before you, ready to accept your judgment and be reborn
into the guild."

 Four Mages rose, one from each group. They spoke in unison,
"State your name child."

 "Pedra." Even if she'd had a clan name, it would no longer be
hers from this moment forth.

 "Whom do you serve?" They chanted.

 "I serve the elements, the spirits that bind them, and the
masters who have taught me." Pedra stood her ground, waiting for
the next question.

 "And what is your challenge?" they stated, already knowing
the answer. Ritual however, demanded the question.

 Pedra stepped forward, one step towards one of her elders. "I
challenge Earth; the school of my devotion." Three of the Mages
sat down, leaving the elderly Fey woman standing before her.

 Pedra was put through a long series of questions. She was
asked about her life. She was asked about Lomyr's history, its
ecology, and its politics. She was asked about the realms of
Spirit and Dream, the Elemental Lords, the Divine. She was tested
in her languages, and had to concede on the ancient tongue. But
she continued. She recited the theories on magic, the laws on
balance. She presented her knowledge of the specialties; Geomancy,
Tantric, Divination, Necromancy, Midwifery, even Skirmish and
Dueling, among many others. She was made to demonstrate her
knowledge of their theories - how the elements worked with each -
and admit to those she had a practical skill with, those she could
be tested in.

 There were points where she was corrected, but the criticism
was not severe. Some of the Mages seemed to take a personal
interest in her studies, perhaps sizing up a future pupil or coven
mate. How was she on dreams, did it fascinate her? She lacked the
talent, but could assist. Did she enjoy the Tantric Arts? She had
read much, but admitted with a blush to a lack of any practical
experience. Was she strong in ritual work? Had she made any
enchantments? She was proud to show off her glasses, but had to
admit to an inability to heal her eyesight.

 By day's end she had shown nearly her entire arsenal of
sorcery, and was fatigued and dizzy from the effort. Casting was
hard, dangerous work. Made even more so from her youth and still
only scholarly grasp on controlling the flows of energy. She'd
called and held the elements, shaped them to her will as best she
could, and shielded herself well enough to avoid serious harm when
that failed.

 Through the test she worked her way up from minor charms to
increasingly more complex craftwork - cycling through the
elements, but having to concede on anything beyond the most basic
with Air. All she could manage there was a simple whisper on the
wind, offering only minor intellectual insight barely even up to
the standards of a librarian's apprentice.

 She was marginal with Fire, but good for a woman, managing to
incite one of the masters into an aggressive impassioned speech on
absolutely nothing, as well as get a few candles lit. She flowed
through water like a dog in a lake, which is to say she stayed
afloat, but it was not graceful. Clearly not her element, she
could at least best any man among her peers. Love might not be
hers to command, but she could sooth and do some degree of
medicine. Additionally, much to the discomfort of the masters, she
could bring forth rain even indoors, but not quite control where
it fell...

 Earth however, was her strong point. It was to Earth that she
challenged, and within Earth that she worked most of her magic
through the trial. She summoned forth spirits of Earth to testify
to her power. From minor worms to true elementals, they all gave
her respect. She called upon Earth's wisdom, its motherly nature,
and was able to divine meaning and context from the many fables
and judgments put before her. Earth was hers to command, the
challenge well chosen.

 Spirit was the last element, the one that bound them all.
She'd managed to dismiss the daemons sent after her by the
masters. Even the crafty one that promised her unlimited power if
she would just free it long enough to slay the Fey woman who stood
for Earth. It was a trick she knew well. That same daemon had
ripped her senior classmate limb from limb only months after she'd
arrived, when the foolish girl had accepted its deal without
ensuring the terms. It had been the first of her fellows she'd
seen die horridly, but by far not the last.

 On the final spell of the test, a simple binding charm to
convince a small pebble that it did not want to roll off the end
of her staff - she was so exhausted, so drained, that she dropped
to her knees with the taste of blood in her throat, pushed up her
spectacles with bruised fingers, and merely stared at the poor
rock until she managed to embarrass it into submission.

 It had been exhausting, almost deadly, but after several
hours it came to an end. She and Pentali were dismissed through
another misted archway. Pentali carried her into a small bathhouse
were they relaxed in the warm waters and waited for her summons,
sipping tea and engaged in chatter. Pedra knew she was only held
up by a gift of energy from her headmistress. With the test over,
Pentali was free to help, free to heal her wounds.


Pentali's manner began to change towards her. She dropped much of
the formality Pedra had known over the years. It seemed as if she
was trying to go from adoptive mother to sister. Pedra was not
sure of the change. Pentali had long ago stopped being her stern
task master, but as mother she had been a lighthouse in a
confusing land among the hardships of enslavement to a cruel
education. It would take time to find peace in their new roles,
but she knew if she passed everything would have to change.

 "Do you think I did well?" Pedra asked over a sip of honeyed
tea.

 "You were wonderful. There's nothing to fear," Pentali said,
pouring water over the coals to make more steam.

 "But I couldn't recite any of the ancient tongue. And I was
helpless with those Air spells," Pedra said.

 "Pedra... Do you really think we each know everything?"
Pentali chuckled as her long tail reached over to tug on Pedra's
hair. "Try me with Fire magic someday... I'm utterly lost."

 "But your fluency with the ancient tongue..." Pedra began.

 Pentali chuckled. "Of course dear, I knew it before I left my
mother's womb. The naga were made to serve the dragons. I knew the
names of the dragon lords before I'd seen my first ray of
sunshine."

 "Why the last spell? Something so small after everything
else?" Pedra asked.

 "It's the little mistakes that kill us child. In running from
the dragon landing in their midst, many a mage will slip in a
puddle and die from the fall... Dismissing a daemon is an exercise
in power, but talking to a pebble; that takes skill, the very
thing you will lose control of when you are at the end of your
rope," Pentali said as she put a spoon of honey into her tea.

 "But that pebble, nothing would have happened if it fell,
there was no other magic at work, no other distraction, and it was
hardly a risk itself," Pedra said.

 "Perhaps, or perhaps not - a puddle is only a puddle unless
you slip in it," Pentali said.

 They drifted into idle chatter, Pedra learning of Pentali's
story. How she'd been taken from her mother as a babe by
Malfananahn, a Great Wyrm of Lengoli, and given to the University.
But Malfananahn had died on the end of a hunter's arrow, leaving
her to her own destiny.

 They considered her future. "Why did they ask so much about
my interests? About what styles I had tried?" Pedra asked.

 "Did you see Giovan? How carefully he studied you?" Pentali
said.

 "The Fire master?" Pedra asked.

 "The Tantric. He's Lomyr's foremost Tantric Mage. I think he
took an interest in you." Pentali said. "It's quite an
opportunity."

 Pedra blushed fiercely. "But I've never... I couldn't
possibly. I mean you know what that sort of magic involves..."

 Pentali broke out in laughter. "Pendra... there really aren't
many here compatible with my form, I've hardly 'sampled' that
style. But all I'm saying is they were each sizing you up as a
potential recruit. Once you've passed you'll find there's going to
be some competition over who gets you."

 "But like that...?" Pedra reached for her glasses, feeling a
sudden urge to hide behind something.

 "No not like 'that'..." Pentali began. "Well maybe in some
ways. But I mean in a professional sense. You won't just belong to
Earth. The Guild is very social and very political. You'll get
stuck in somebody's camp, even if you try your best to avoid it."
 "Maybe I can just stick with you," Pedra said, moving in to
hug her foster mother.

 "Pedra... you'll grow up soon enough. The nest is going to
get a bit cramped for you. I'll always be there for you, but the
time for mothering is over," Pentali said, though she did not
refuse the hug.

 All too soon the waiting came to an end. The head mistress to
Earth - the old Fey woman - came for her and Pedra was led to a
temple within the gardens of the master's wing. There her hair was
ritually shaved away and she was bathed in the temple waters.
Skyclad and bald, she was led back to the chamber where she'd had
her tests. Pedra found she couldn't stop rubbing her head and
wondering how long it would take for her hair to return. These
Lomyrians and their rebirthing could be annoying at times.

 In the chamber each of the twelve masters came up and kissed
her upon the cheeks, greeting her as "Journeywoman Pedra." A
cushion was provided for her to sit upon in the center of the
room. Pentali was not there for her during this ritual. Again they
asked her challenge, and again she chose Earth.

 She was lectured in the rules of the Journeymen. She was
still a slave to the university, but she could travel freely and
study as she chose. Her only duty was to be there when the masters
called. She could continue to live within the University, but to
do so would incur further duties.

 As the ritual came to a close she was presented with a sigil
of the Guild to wear and another to mount onto her staff. A sister
yes, but not yet a master - a pentacle to cap her staff would come
with future advancement, though the runes and colors of her
element would be placed before the next moon. At the last she was
given a simple gown with the guild's symbol embroidered upon the
breast, cuffs, and back. She was dressed by the head mistress to
Earth and welcomed by her two fellow Sisters to Earth among the
masters into her new path.

 After the ceremony broke she left through a third arch to
find Pentali and one of the Sisters to Earth sisters waiting for
her.

 Pentali hugged her tightly and gave her head a good rub.
"Welcome to the guild sister"

 "What happens now?" Pedra asked.

 "Well first tonight we celebrate, tomorrow you can start your
new life," Pentali said.

 "As one of us, as a true Mage," the other sister offered.

 And together they left.