Having trekked for hours through the dense island jungle, Kauzis' legs were somewhat shaky beneath him. The swaying canopy kept time with the clicking in his knees and Kauzis' knuckles were white against his oak staff as he leaned into it. He anticipated his trial would be difficult, but he expected something less physical and more of a magical manifestation. If others had faced similar dangers and perished, he could savor a moment of peace; an undead companion would be useful.
That was the old you, he scolded himself as he pulled a handkerchief from the deep pocket of his sweatshirt and dabbed his brow out of habit.
Kauzis settled his free hand over the lace, concentrating on the well soaked rag sewn with his initials. Thoughts melted, ebbing and flowing into the memorized words of a spell and he breathed them on a steady sigh. The darkened patches receded as clear beads formed on top of the cloth. He gave it a quick shake and stuffed the bone dry handkerchief back in his pocket. He didn't want to soil the gift his granddaughter made him.
A short distance ahead, Kauzis could hear the roaring of water drowning out distant animal rackets. He smiled despite the heat and the pebble that had worked its way into his sneaker. He reached the last marker on his way to the final arena according to his mentor, Senso.
Kauzis broke through the tree line, careful of the encroaching roots tripping him. Distinct cold lined the edge of a hundred foot diameter pool filled by a massive waterfall. Kauzis held his staff forward letting wispy spell lyrics fill his mind and the radiating spray parted around him as he called upon a dome of this chilly air. He stooped by the water's edge and dunked his cupped hands inside, slurping until he was sated
It took him two and half weeks to reach this point, relying on the elements to keep him alive. He held his hand over a patch of water and it rippled and solidified into a slick mirror embedded with his memories. A slight shrill buzzed in his ears as he watched the wavering faces of his daughter and son-in-law smiling. Two of their three children silently shouted and babbled at his face from their parents' arms. The third, the oldest, hugged his mother's leg and coyly dug his face into her skirt.
It was his last memory of them as he walked out the door to reclaim his life as an arcanist. People laughed when Kauzis proclaimed that he had cast his final curse and raised his last remains. They swore he would never turn down the power and money that came with a skill like necromancy. He could have the world of the living and the dead bowing to him, but he never wanted that.
Kauzis tapped the mirror and a thin crack splintered across its face as it broke apart and melted into the pool along with the buzzing. He stood and held his hands over the clumped dirt on his jeans. Stalwart thoughts coughed out of his throat and the dirt became so much dust that drifted off with the breeze. He scratched at the inside of the ear when the buzzing made a brief encore appearance.
Kauzis scoped the area, sensing for where each of these elemental powers, so unique unto themselves, were joined and waiting for him to conquer them.
Each element had its own personality that he had to overcome to gain access to it for his grimoire. With each victory, he felt himself pulled further from his dark habits and towards a school of magic that would lighten the world. It took years, years that the 74 year old man didn't think he had to offer, but now he could sniff out each element in a moment and call upon it.
There! The falls!
With the protection of his air dome, he slid into the water along the bank that sloped gently towards the center of the pool. The water pushed against the arcane shield and he nearly lost his balance. He called upon the sensation that turned his thoughts to waves and breathed out the magic. The water parted a few inches from his barrier. Beads formed on his clothes and plummeted to the drying earth bed, but the sudden twang of each droplet frightened him the way a thunderstorm scared his oldest grandson as it hit their roof.
Kauzis jogged the distance to the waterfall and felt a new pressure seize his mind. After a moment of hesitation, he stepped beneath the falls. His muscles strained as the mental burden nearly overwhelmed him. Before his legs could give out, Kauzis leapt forward and fell sprawled on a craggy stone stairway in pitch black.
The sound of the falls echoed around him, giving the impression of a large space. Whatever cave this might have been was blocked off by more than a typical deluge. He cupped the rounded tip of the oak staff and thought on his body heat. The warmth fled from his coursing blood and gathered into his palm. The staff ignited with a piercing white flame that bathed the cavern in light.
It was smaller than Kauzis expected, only about forty feet around, but it held enough elemental power to fuel the sun. He lifted himself and ascended the short steps into the empty cavern. Nothing stood out as the source of the knotted elemental energy he needed to obtain. He reached out with a magical sense towards each prevalent element. The stone barely garbled a reply, bested by the raging magical field. The water from the falls swirled light years away now. The air was stagnant and unresponsive. Only his flame that was a part of him whispered back, but even that power shook against the massive elemental web.
Kauzis bellowed in frustration and his voice bounced throughout the cavern. The ground quaked as if in response to his anger. The air filled with bits of dust as pebbles loosened from the walls. Thundering water returned as well as a crumbling that left a pit of dread in Kauzis' belly.
He turned to the steps only to find the stones sinking into pooling water and still no sight of the falls.
"You're here, Kauzis," a familiar steady voice spoke through his mind, "and now the trial of elemental harmony begins."
"Master Senso?" Kauzis said, looking for his mentor's face. "But what am I doing here?"
Only his questioning voice answered him. Then the ground rocked and sank.
Kauzis stopped spinning long enough to take a steadying breath and consider why Senso led him to the island and inevitably the cavern. He tried to block out the fear of the water lapping at his sneakers and dampening his socks. Somewhere in this cave there was a heartbeat of elemental power, but it displayed itself as a cacophony. He couldn't hear the elements within it and when he lost sight of that, the bubbling panic returned.
Ignoring the blaring sound, Kauzis aimed his staff at the ground. The water swirled at a dizzying speed and cleared from his feet, retreating towards the drowned steps. He tried to call upon the stone in the ground to halt, but it was like lifting a truck with his bare hands as it wailed in his ears. As soon as his mind fled from the retreating water, it swarmed back around him and the stone sunk faster.
Kauzis reached for the sensation of air as he realized he would be overtaken by the earth and frigid sea. His blood boiled both with rage and magical ability to keep him warm in the dome of air that was consumed by the flood. Trapped in his warm bubble that echoed a small squealing in his ears, Kauzis reached out again to that point somewhere beyond his pounding heartbeat and tried to untangle the mass of elemental energy in order to control it.
The mental gymnastics drained him as the precision of unknotting his grandson's lanyard fought against the brute strength of bending a steel rod. Kauzis couldn't release any bit of his might to clean the tracks of sweat along his cheeks. Pressure built as he was pulled deeper underground. The call of each element beyond the cavern struck him with the same debilitating force as the energy within. Kauzis felt his knees buckle and he knew he had no choice.
Kauzis released the knot and then punctured the bubble of air around him after taking a deep breath. As the water consumed him, he called upon his heat and any he could gather from beyond the cave as his own wasn't enough. His body absorbed whatever fire answered his call. He held his staff upwards and a patch of stone shimmered and melted away with an ease he hadn't expected as if the heat he called for also spat forward against the rock. Then he rallied the water's might and rocketed towards the hole. He was at least physically warmed as the cacophony faded away in the distance and for just a moment he thought he heard his master's kind laugh.
Darkness enveloped him for a few minutes as he traveled the narrow path back to what he prayed would be the surface of the island. He tried not to think about how many species or hidden peoples may have perished from his failure. A dim light appeared before him, blossoming into a blinding flash as he jettisoned from the hole and slammed into damp stone. Kauzis' aged joints rebelled as he pushed himself to his knees and looked around with a fright.
About a mile in each direction was black stone glinting in the reddish glow of a new sun in the east. There was nothing else beyond it except a steady fog. Kauzis stood at the top of a cliff of this stone with the air whipping around him. The island was gone, but there was a melancholy tune rising up from his escape path. It was a beautiful, but incomplete noise with a churning like stone and crackling like fire. He could feel the hollowness as his true test dawned on him.
Kauzis was an arcanist that left behind a lifetime of a lonely skill. There wasn't mingling in the trade of death, but in life everything found its place amidst everything else.
Kauzis summoned a lonely flame and let it dance upon a damp stone. He heard the song again. He willed the flame to envelop the stone, but to leave the water be and let it join their dance. The water beaded up and neither it nor the flame withdrew. The song brightened with the precise ebb and flow of the sea. Kauzis picked up the stone, unharmed by the flame and tossed it in the air with an ounce of his will. The air grew hard and caught the stone, cradling it to complete the melody of his elemental song.
"Very good, Kauzis," said the elderly man, now sitting beside him on the cliff face. From under hooded eyelids he looked upon the ocean as the sun continued its ascent. "You can hear them in harmony. You won't ignore them next time."
"Next time?" Kauzis frowned considering what he had been through to reach this point. "Master, isn't this the lesson? Isn't this what I came here to do?"
"Yes, but spinning a pebble is an apprentice lesson. Take this lesson as you've taken the others and you will learn in time."
With a rush of displaced air, Master Senso vanished. Kauzis let out a heavy sigh and felt himself crumple forwards with his head in his hands. He felt like he had so little time left and yet there he was at the beginning again. The anger coursed through him and he lifted one of the black stones to throw into the sea.
On the sleek surface he saw his reflection for a moment. With a touch that reflection became his family's faces again. The smile from his daughter and grandchildren-even from the man he grew to love as a son-he had missed all those year while practicing dark magics. He could rebuild his life. He had done it before.
Kauzis, the elemental arcanist, stood and watched the sun rise on a new day.