Trentioc shivered with a mix of apprehension and anticipation. The crowd shouted with barely disguised bloodlust. The man on the chopping block trembled with fear, knowing that today was his last day on earth. Trentioc felt an odd rush of pity. Did this man have a wife? Were his children waiting for a father who would never come?
Sinarex stood at his right shoulder, and laid a hand gently on his shoulder. She must be feeling the same thing. Curo crouched silently, glaring at the people of Vertalia with his usual, steely, unchanging gaze. Trentioc saw his companion's fingers twitch, and his eyebrow rise as he met the metal crafter's eye.
Trentioc nodded imperceptibly. All things had to end at some point. He held out his hand, and made an axe materialize. It was plain, having none of the workmanship of his sword, Maniac. A simple tool for a simple job. Trentioc glanced at the long line of shackled prisoners standing at the stairs of the platform. Men and women caught in the service of the Reversal. The Grand Pontiff sat on his palace's balcony, with some of his pet courtiers.
The Pontiff looked at Trentioc, raised a hand and brought it down in a chopping motion. Trentioc signaled that he understood, and raised his axe. There was the sound of cloven air as the axe came down at the exposed skin of the prisoner's neck. The man made no sound. The axe was a heartbeat away from serving its purpose.
And then it stopped.
Trentioc held the blade a mere centimeter above the man's flesh, and turned to the Pontiff's balcony. "I'm done!" he spat, in a voice he knew would carry.
A few of the courtiers got to their feet, and a murmur passed through the crowd. The Pontiff stood serenely and spread his arms. "Do you tire before beginning, Sir Trentioc?"
Curo rose to his full height, and Sinarex palmed her knife. Trentioc raised the axe a fraction. "When I give the signal, get out of here," he hissed to the man. The man nodded quickly. "Take the other prisoners. Run. Don't look back. Go to your homes, your families, and flee the continent."
Trentioc whirled on his heel and flung the axe through the air. It tumbled end over end to where the Pontiff stood, imbedding itself in the marble wall just above the dual-peaked hat Trentioc always thought was stupid and excessive. The axe quivered, and the plaza was held in utter silence for an instant.
"I'm done, your holiness," Trentioc spat. "My men and I are leaving your services, immediately. Consider us off your payroll. Not that you've paid us since Nurcroz's death anyway. And to settle that debt, I'm keeping the Behemoth." He clenched his fists and roared with a laughter he did not feel.
The screaming started then. People toppling over each other, trying to escape the fury of the decorated mercenary soldier, suddenly gone rogue. Trentioc waved his hand, opening the shackles on all the Church prisoners. "Go!" he hollered. "Leave this place!"
His band of two hundred mercenaries emerged like shadows from the alleys and doorways of the nearby buildings. They shepherded the prisoners towards the gates of Vertalia, even as soldiers and Knights massed in the streets.
Trentioc drew Maniac, and conjured armor on his arms, legs and torso. He turned to Curo. "Ready?" The giant nodded, and Trentioc leapt into the crowd of panicked bodies, shoving madly, trying to engage a Knight.
Nick woke in a cold sweat. Another dream about the world he left behind. A few nights ago, if they could even be called nights here, he dreamt of Seithios fighting three large, skilled manipulators in what appeared to be a coliseum. Before that, Anna and Lexa were running through the streets of an unknown, unfamiliar city, fleeing from an unseen adversary. Anna had made a wall of ice, and Lexa had shot a lighting bolt from her spear before the dream ended. Nick hoped they were all right.
Another strange dream showed High Lord Xande shouting at an assembly of middle-aged men, with High Lords Stefán and Ragnar, along with Lady Dorar standing behind him.
Not all the dreams were bad, of course. Not too long ago, he dreamt that the members of the caravan he and Anna were a part of were living happily, in what appeared to be a restaurant. About a week before that, he saw Retäv, a plant manipulating half-elf, and Sei, his fully elf brother, pouring over an old book in a bright, sunny courtyard, laughing quietly about an unheard joke. And just last night, he saw Necro chasing Kita through a grove of evergreen trees, both of them laughing happily.
But he was no longer a part of that world. He was here with Pyrrex to get stronger. Nick swung off his sleeping pallet and stretched. He glanced out the window of the small hut. The sun-like body in the sky was pale still, light blues and muted purples the dominant color in the sky. It was early morning, then. And yet, Pyrrex's bunk was empty, the blankets in perfect array, and no evidence it had been slept in. Nick privately wondered if his teacher ever slept.
"Good morning, sleepyhead!" Pyrrex called from outside. "Did you plan to sleep the day away, or did your stomach wake you up again?"
Now that he mentioned it, Nick's stomach was growling. He grabbed a banana from an earthenware bowl beside the door, and stepped outside.
Pyrrex was already at work, splitting logs they had gathered from the forest the day before. Nick picked up the second axe, and set a log on the stump he used for splitting. He fell into a rhythm easily. This was one of his favorite chores because, although the work was hard and his muscles would ache afterward, it was simple and straightforward, allowing him time to reflect on his thoughts.
Pyrrex finished his pile before Nick, so the older fire mage picked up the battered tin watering can and started to pump water up from their well. When Nick finished, he went back to the hut to get his satchel before making his way to the plot of cleared land they used to grow crops.
Nick started to pull up carrots, potatoes, yams and tomatoes. In the Void, there were no planting seasons, and vegetables were ready to harvest in the span of a few days. Pyrrex was moving among the rows of plants that were not quite ready yet, the drops from his watering can glistening in the early morning sun.
When the satchel was filled, Nick placed it back in the hut before wandering over to the orchard. According to Pyrrex, these trees were always in bloom, and the fruit always in season. Nick picked a handful of apples and a cluster of bananas. He deposited them in the nearly empty bowl in the hut before seeking out Pyrrex.
His tutor was waiting for him at the edge of the lush forest that made up the center of the island. "Are you ready to begin the day?" he asked.
Nick nodded. "The waterfall again?"
Pyrrex smiled. "Same as every day."
The two set off down a narrow path that wound through the trees. The forest was eerily silent, but Nick had long since come to terms with the fact that no animals lived on the island except for Pyrrex and himself.
The sound of rushing water permeated the air as they drew close to the center of the forest. In a large open clearing, there was a waterfall that plunged into a crystal clear pool, so calm that Nick could see the rounded river stones on the bottom. Nick and Pyrrex stripped down to their underclothes before climbing carefully out to the waterfall. They sat down on a large, flat slab of stone in the middle of the spray, allowing the cool water to wash over them.
They sat there until the sun had climbed slightly higher into the sky. Nick suppressed a shiver, knowing that if he did, Pyrrex would keep them there longer. He worked a subtle fire manipulation that Pyrrex had taught him in his first days here. Warmth blossomed inside of him, an inner fire that no water could quench.
He smiled inwardly, but looked up when he felt Pyrrex's eyes on him. "What?" Nick asked.
Pyrrex chuckled. "You overdid it." He pointed at the air around Nick. Nick had made his inner fire burn so hot that the waterfall wasn't even touching him anymore. It was evaporating before it even touched his skin!
Nick tried to check his power, but Pyrrex waved a hand. "That's enough meditation. Let's start on today's lesson." They stood up and made their way back to the shore of the pool. Pyrrex tossed him a towel, and they both dried off.
They put their clothes back on and sat facing each other at the water's edge. It was midday by now on Pyrrex's island, and the sun sparkled across the still water.
Pyrrex held out a hand, and made several sparks dance across his palm. "Today's lesson is getting the maximum output from minimum input. I'm going to teach you how to make these…" He made the sparks play between his fingers. "Have the same effect as this!" He held up his other hand and shot a massive jet of fire up into the air. Nick recoiled slightly from the heat.
"How?" the younger fire mage gasped.
"It's actually quite simple," Pyrrex said with a grin. "You've even done it before. Remember when you sucked all the heat out of an area, and made a really big fireball?" Nick nodded. "Well, it's the same concept. Bundling something really big into a small container. Try it."
Nick nodded and stared at the palms of his hands, willing fire to form. A small flare appeared, flickering in the gentle breeze. "Good, good!" Pyrrex said. "Now, add more power, but keep it that size."
Nick poured more power into the small fire, but using his fingers to trap the manipulation, restricting its growth. The flames grew brighter and brighter, until Nick could hold it no longer. "Where do I release it?"
"Up," Pyrrex replied. "Don't want to burn the forest down, do we?"
Nick threw his hands up to the sky and let the fireball go. It flew up as if launched from a cannon and exploded into a brilliant plume. Pyrrex waved his hand, and the falling sparks vanished before they could set the trees alight.
"A good first try!" the older fire mage grinned. "Now, try to do it with less preparation. When you can do this almost instantly, we'll call it a day." Pyrrex got to his feet. "Work on it. I'll try and find us some lunch."
Nick spent the rest of the day compressing his energy into smaller and smaller packages and shooting it into the sky. Each time, he worked on the previous day's lesson of dispelling fire. Though the forest was lush and green, it was very possible that a stray spark could spiral out of control.
Pyrrex emerged from the trees, holding a basket of fresh fruit and nuts. "Good job! I saw the last one from the hut!" Nick, startled by the sudden reappearance of his teacher, put far too much power into his fireball as he released it.
The fire roared upward, throwing Nick to the ground with its sheer force. Pyrrex calmly stretched out a hand, and the fire arched towards him. Before it struck him, he closed his fingers into a fist, compressing the conflagration into a ball the size of an orange. He snatched the ball in his left hand and crushed it.
Nick felt a rush of hot air, and then the fire was gone. Pyrrex seemed to have exerted almost no effort at all. The older fire mage smiled suddenly. "Amazing! I'm surprised you lasted this long!"
The confusion Nick felt must have been etched on his face. Pyrrex took mercy on his pupil and explained. "When fire mages learn this technique, they often overdo things and pack too much energy into one assault. The end result is… well, usually an inferno that consumes most of the surrounding area, unless there is a skilled teacher present."
Nick blushed a little. "I'm sorry. I nearly burned down your island."
"It wouldn't have mattered. Come on, training for the day is over. It's story time." Pyrrex tossed Nick an orange, and set off towards the rocky hill the waterfall sprang from. Nick followed him up the windy, narrow path to the summit.
When they reached the top, Pyrrex pointed to a rocky island a ways off the coast, something Nick had seen before, and always meant to ask about. "See that?" his tutor said. "When I first arrived here, that's all there was. That island is a volcano, by the way."
Nick looked at the lumpy, conical mountain. "There are volcanoes in the Void?"
"If you want one, then yes, there are," Pyrrex said in a tone that sounded as though he thought the answer was obvious. "Anyway, when I arrived, the gods granted me endless stamina. I could go for days without rest or food, manipulating as I saw fit."
"That's why you never seem to sleep!" Nick exclaimed.
"Exactly. Well, one day, I was experimenting, and I caused the volcano to erupt. I didn't want to get seared by the lava, so I directed it out into the water. The island is floating in real water by the way, if you ever fancy a swim." Pyrrex paused here for a moment, as if figuring out what to say next. "Well, the lava cooled, and formed this island. I swam over the next day, and found the soil was fertile, and much more hospitable than my volcano.
"The gods stepped in again, giving me some seeds, and making this spring. I've built this island up over the course of seven hundred years. I hope you've enjoyed being here. But tomorrow, your lessons will begin on the volcano island. It is time for you to face the Trials. Should you succeed, I will have nothing more to teach you. You can go home.
"But for now, take the rest of the day to relax. You'll need all your strength for tomorrow."
Nick slept fitfully that night. His dreams were broken fragments of visions, shifting between his friends at random. For a moment, he glimpsed Signalés, the centaur chieftain galloping across a plain with his herd. Then, he saw Kita, the shape shifter he adopted as his little sister prancing around with what could only have been unicorns.
After that, he saw Zephyr, the young wind rider who respected Nick like a brother, flitting through the trees of a forest, his green and silver sword flashing as he sliced through the undergrowth. That vision shattered as he watched Anna and Lexa trekked down a long, dusty road, leading a mule.
The last image Nick could remember from that night was Trentioc fleeing through the countryside, mercenaries and refugees hurrying along beside him.
He heard voices above him as he rose from slumber. "This is the boy?" one of them enquired, definitely not Pyrrex, but certainly masculine.
"Yes," his tutor replied. "This is the Chosen of Fire. Now go, he's waking up."
"Make sure nothing happens to him in the Trials," a feminine voice said soothingly. "I'd hate for something awful to happen."
"He'll be fine," Pyrrex said. Nick could almost hear the grin on his face. "I wouldn't make him do it if I didn't think he could succeed."
Nick heard the two unknown people leave the hut, and Pyrrex's light footsteps follow. Nick waited a few minutes before rising, and threw on his working clothes. He saw Pyrrex staring out at the water as he left the hut. The man turned. His eyes were moist, as though he had been crying. But Pyrrex never cried. Did he?
"Change out of those," he remarked when he saw Nick. "Put these on instead." He tossed Nick a black bundle tied in twine. Nick realized with a start that these were his Elven riding leathers. He hadn't seen them since his first day on the island, when he had been broken and battered from his fight with the archangel Nurcroz.
"I've kept them safe for you," Pyrrex said, almost sadly. "You're going to need them."
Nick hurried back into the hut and changed. The leathers fit perfectly, just as they had before the fateful battle in Casinoria, despite the layers of muscle he had put on since coming to Pyrrex's island home. Magic, obviously. Nick resolved that if, no when, he saw Sei he would repay the favor. The leathers had saved his life at least three times in the Battle of Casinoria.
He stepped out of the hut again, and saw Pyrrex had procured a rowboat. "Well, come on!" his teacher called. "I was up half the night making this! Unless you plan on swimming to the volcano, get in!"
Pyrrex rowed in silence, and took the time to gather his thoughts. He really had no idea what these Trials would be. But Pyrrex thought he could do it, and that was a small consolation. Then again, Pyrrex had thought he could make a construct with an independent will that didn't need Nick's energy to remain in the world. And that was nothing short of a disaster…
"What are the Trials?" Nick asked, trying to break the silence.
Pyrrex said nothing in reply for nearly a full minute. Then, he looked at Nick with old, weary eyes that had seen too much of the world. "The Trials, in my day, were the final test given to a young fire mage by his masters. The sheer difficulty of them improved the student's strength, and made him stronger. I am aware that the tradition has died off in your world, but if you complete them here, you will become one of the most powerful fire mages in the past seven centuries. You may even surpass me.
"And if you pass the Trials, I will make good on my bargain. I will send you home to your friends, to complete your task." The elder fire mage fell silent here, refusing to speak for the rest of the ride.
In about half an hour, the boat struck the smooth stones of the volcano's shore. "We'll wade to the shore from here," Pyrrex muttered. He pulled off his shoes, swung out of the small boat, and crunched through the rocks.
Nick removed his boots and followed. When his feet emerged from the gently lapping waves, he sat on the rough black sand, pulled his shoes back on and relaced them.
As he finished the final knot, Pyrrex spoke again. "Here, you will face four trials. I think you are ready to face all of them, but… well, I've been wrong before, haven't I?"
Nick smiled wanly. "I hope none of the tasks requires me to make a construct."
"None of them 'require' you to do anything besides reach a goal. How you achieve it is up to you," Pyrrex kicked a loose stone. "The first trial is the Trial of Fire."
Nick shrugged and got to his feet. "Okay. So… what is the Trial of Fire?"
Pyrrex dropped to a fighting stance. "Defeat me. That is the Trial. Do not pull any punches. I'll be fighting you at full force."
Nick barely had time to dodge as Pyrrex's fist flew through the air, aiming for his eye. He ducked, and lashed out with a kick at his tutor's legs. Pyrrex saw the telegraphed move, and shot into the air on a jet of flame, launching several fireballs in the arch.
Nick rolled out of the way, coming up facing the older fire mage. "The point of these trials is to test your manipulation," Pyrrex said evenly, betraying no emotion, no fatigue. "Remember your training. That is the only advice you shall get from me."
Nick nodded, and threw several knife-shaped flames. They whirled through the air, striking the black sand at Pyrrex's feet. The fires ignited the sand around him, blowing up large plumes of smoke.
In the distraction, Nick raced at Pyrrex, wrapping a funnel of flame around his hand. He knew from experience that fire mages, no matter how adept, could not turn away this technique, as he had not released the fire.
Pyrrex must have seen through the ruse, and grabbed Nick's fist an instant before it connected with his face, reaching through the fire. He threw his pupil to the ground several feet away, revealing centuries of conditioning his muscles through hard manual labor.
"If I recall," Pyrrex sighed, "you used a very similar technique against Nurcroz. Don't think I'll fall for the same tricks." He made fire appear in the palm of his outstretched hand. "Though if I recall, you used unmaking fire back then. Which, by the way, is cheating at the moment."
Nick grinned as he leapt to his feet. "I didn't plan on using it anyway. It just wouldn't be fair."
Pyrrex raised an eyebrow. "You think I'm not able to use the same technique?" He charged at Nick, and threw a punch that could shatter bone. Nick swerved out of the way, knowing better than to block. They exchanged a lightning fast series of blows, before Pyrrex disengaged, leaping nimbly back. "I too have the strange gift of 'unmaking'. Or, to use the proper term, I can manipulate entropy. Just as every other fire manipulator in the numerous Legendary Sevens over the millennia.
"Of course, we kept it a bit quieter than you did."
"There have been other Legendary Sevens?" Nick gasped. Pyrrex took the opportunity to lash out with a kick that was trailed by a scythe of fire. Nick dispelled the manipulation with a wave of his hand.
"Oh yes," Pyrrex said, laughing for the first time all day. "And if you pass the Trials… I may tell you about them."
Pyrrex thrust out his arm, shooting ten fireballs in quick succession. Nick copied Pyrrex's opening dodge, and shot into the air on a column of fire. He ignited the air around his right leg, and began the plummet to earth. Pyrrex poured fire from his mouth, like a dragon.
Nick's fire wavered, as he was struck with a sudden memory of his own dragon and partner, Flayme. In all his time here, he had not dreamed of Flayme once. His last contact with the dragon was Flayme refusing to break off their mental link. Since Nick had not perished at Casinoria, he wondered if Flayme had turned into a wyrm.
In his lapse in concentration, Pyrrex had disappeared. Nick landed on the ground, fire forming around his arms and legs. Where was his teacher? He was about to shout a challenge when the ground exploded.
A geyser of steam and magma erupted from the blackened sand. Pyrrex stood at the pinnacle, arms crossed and a smug expression on his face. He stretched out a hand, and a jet of magma shot at Nick.
The young fire mage rolled out of the way, his mind racing. How could he counter this? Then he remembered the previous day's lesson. He concentrated all of his fire into a tiny spark in his core, and began to absorb all of the energy in the air around him. As he watched, the magma began to cool, stone forming over what was just a moment before bubbling and red-hot molten lava.
When the pillar was completely solid, Nick materialized all the heat he had absorbed into a fireball no larger than a grapefruit in between his hands. He compressed the fire, until it was no bigger than a diminutive apple. But still, it must be smaller.
He forced his hands closer together, the effort becoming harder with each passing instant. Finally, the fireball was the size of a grape, but the power emanating from it nearly made Nick stagger.
He shoved his hands out towards where Pyrrex stood, his feet encased in stone. "No escape now," Nick muttered.
The fireball soared through the air, exploding in front of the older manipulator's face. The force of the blast was enough to crack the stone around Nick's teacher, while the fires themselves blew over the man's body.
Pyrrex fell to the ground in a heap, not moving, the color drained from his face. Nick knew that fire could not burn a fire mage, but it could still harm them. He ran to his master's side, and felt for a pulse.
But of course, there wasn't one to be found! Pyrrex had died seven hundred years ago! But then, Nick felt a murmur, a memory of a beat. It strengthened, and color returned to Pyrrex's face. He looked up at Nick, grinning broadly. "Nice job, my young apprentice!" He patted Nick on the back, his boundless strength and energy returned. "You just passed the Trial of Fire!"