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.