It began with blood and thunder, the clash of steel on steel, the roar of elemental magic exploding destructively into being in a battle such as minstrels would sing about for decades to come.
Well, no, it didn't, but it sounds better that way.
In truth, it began with a squeal of indignation and shock, the kind of noise one makes when coming face to face with something so repulsive, so grotesque as to be nothing less than a nightmare made real. Which wouldn't have been a bad beginning either, if the squealer had reliable judgment and a keen eye for those sort of fine details.
"You? You want to join the Mia Ausa Fan Club!?"
However, the squealer was in fact Red Bart, a young apprentice at the legendary Magic Guild of Vane. The smart money (and the opinion of his teachers) was firmly behind the idea that Bart would not add to that heroic legend anytime soon. He had managed to achieve one distinction, though; he was the president of the Fan Club dedicated to Mia, daughter of Lemia Ausa, who in turn was Guildmistress and ruler of Vane. Mia's combination of gentle sweetness and dark-haired beauty had attracted several young men to the Club.
Which, supposed Merrill, was Red Bart's problem. As Bart's roommate, best friend, and all-purpose sidekick, he's never before known a girl to ask to join.
Like the boys, their female applicant was a Level One apprentice at the Magic Guild. Her name was Julia, and Merrill actually thought she was kind of cute, with her green ponytail.
"It's impossible!" Bart exclaimed. "Unthinkable! Such a thing has never happened in the history of the Magic Guild!"
"Oh, don't be silly," Julia told him. "You just think you'll be too embarrassed to drool over the latest Hot Girl News with me around."
Red Bart's face changed color to match his hair and his nickname.
"I hope you don't mind me asking," Merrill stepped in while his friend was overcome by the blinding power of truth, "but why would you want to join the Mia Ausa Fan Club anyway?"
"Because Mia is my idol!" Julia clasped her hands together, her expression becoming rapt as her eyes lost focus. "She's beautiful, she's smart, she's a wonderful magical, she's elegant and ladylike. Ohhh," she sighed, "I want to be just like her someday!"
Her glasses slipped down to the very tip of her nose while she was lost in blissful contemplation.
"She looks just like you when you get like that, Bart," Merrill observed.
"What! You can't be in favor of this...this abomination! Do you think the fans of Jessica de Alkirk would admit women into their midst?"
"I think," Merrill reflected, "that Jessica de Alkirk would pound the skulls of a group of boys who sat around objectifying her right into the floor." Merrill's cousin had recently been posted to Black Rose Street in Meribia, and one heard stories.
"Argh! What does that have to do with anything? This is a matter of principle!"
"What principle?" Julia asked innocently, adjusting her glasses.
"Um... well... er... that is to say..."
"Ha! I knew you were making it all up! You're just nervous around girls."
Afraid that if Bart's voice rose any higher he'd start squeaking, which always embarrassed him so much it would put him into the sulks for a couple of days, Merrill stepped in once again.
"Look, why don't we be democratic about this? I think it should be okay for her to join and you're against it. Why don't we ask the other members of the Club what they think, and let the majority decide?"
The idea seemed to strike a chord with Red Bart, perhaps because he was out of arguments and needed some time to think, so he agreed. As they crossed the grassy lawns and cobbled paths of their floating city, though, Fate reached out and grabbed them. They were looking for Stu, an artistic member of the club who was sketching the Crystal Spire that afternoon. Along the way, though, they passed by a hedge, and the sound of voices from the other side made them stop in their tracks. There was something so unbelievably sinister, so furtive in the way the voices sounded as to put all three of the apprentices on their guard, straining to hear.
"Everything is ready," said a deep, rumbling voice, the kind that hinted at hidden depths... hidden secrets.
"It's all set for tonight, then?" replied the other, which had a clipped, nasal quality to it that instantly inspired distrust.
"It is; all the preparations are complete. We had to import the last item from Iluk, so we weren't sure if we'd miss our chance."
Bart and Merrill glanced at each other. They knew from their classes that Iluk was a town in the Marius Zone populated by inventors, experimenters, and those who didn't quite... mesh... with society in other towns (the popular description, not sanctioned by the Magic Guild's issue-sensitive leadership, being "freaks, loons, and crazies"). If something from Iluk was involved, the results were likely to be... messy.
"That would have been disastrous. Timing is everything. It just wouldn't have the same emotional impact if we were forced to wait," Clip-Nose asserted.
"Well, we don't have to worry about that," Rumbly answered him. "Now all we need to do is make sure that things get set up in the Cave of Trial."
Clip-Nose chuckled sardonically.
"Mia will never know what hit her."
The three apprentices looked at one another in stunned horror.
"Mi--mmph, umph!" Bart started to exclaim but was cut off as Merrill and Julia clapped their hands over his mouth.
"Quiet!" Julia hissed in his ear. "If you yell, they'll hear us!"
Seeing the understanding in Bart's eyes, they took their hands away.
"Come on!" he whispered. "Let's see if we can get a look at them!"
They tried to peer through the hedge, but unfortunately it was one of those thick, green, leafy kind that had ambitions of being a stone wall; they couldn't see a thing from the far side except the odd speck of light. It was also the kind with stiff, prickly leaves that tended to jab into hands, or in Merrill's case, his face when he stumbled into it. Luckily, Red Bart managed to catch his arm and pull him back before he fell fully into the hedge and gave away their position with the noise.
"All part of the President's job, to help club members out of trouble." He buffed his nails on the front of his tunic in mock nonchalance. "Now, quick! Let's try going around."
They dashed to the nearest break in the hedge, but it was over a hundred feet away from them. They rounded the corner, and saw a bench where Rumbly and Clip-Nose had probably been sitting, but no sign of the men themselves.
"Oh, no! We've lost them!"
"What are we going to do?" Julia exclaimed. "They have some diabolical plot afoot against our noble Mia!"
She sounds just like Bart, Merrill observed to himself.
"We have to do something," Red Bart agreed. "We have to report this to the Guild authorities."
Merrill shook his head.
"They'll never believe us, Bart. Remember the incident with Professor Thurston's Magic Sousaphone?"
Bart shuffled his feet.
"Or the time that Octo Plant sprout that got planted in the flowerbeds outside the Guild?" Julia contributed. "Everybody heard about that one."
"Or when you tried to make an omelet, only it turned out to be the egg of a Killer Wasp?"
"I still have the scar," Bart reflected.
"Or what about the whole business with Mia's birthday dress, the Wind Staff, and the flagpole?"
"Or the Affair of the Abbreviated Aardvark?"
"I get the idea!" Bart then let out a heavy sign. "All right, so if the Guild won't believe us without proof..."
He paused thoughtfully, then slapped his fist into his palm.
"Then the solution is obvious!"
Julia glanced over at Merrill.
"Hey, Merrill, are you all right? You suddenly turned almost as green as my hair."
"If you get accepted into the Fan Club, you'll understand soon enough." Those five little words were Red Bart's rallying cry for his most daring, most outrageous, and most-likely-to-lead-to-expulsion ideas.
"Will you two pay attention?"
"You should be! Our precious Mia Ausa is in deadly danger, her life threatened by an unknown peril. It is our duty as magicians, as students of the Magic Guild, and above all as members of the Mia Ausa Fan Club to save her. And, if we can't convince our teachers and the Guild to do it, then we'll just have to rescue her ourselves!"
The Mia Ausa Fan Club was determined to save their idol from her deadly peril. There was only one problem, effectively summed up by their aspiring member, Julia:
"This would be a lot easier if we knew what or who we were supposed to be saving Mia from."
"Well, we may not, but we do know when and where the miscreants will strike," Red Bart countered. Letting how and why get pushed to the side without mention, he continued, "We know it's tonight in the Cave of Trial."
"How are they going to get Mia into the Cave?" Merrill wondered. It didn't seem to be a very likely place to find the Guildmistress's daughter.
Bart and Julia both rounded on Merrill.
"What? Don't you know what today is?" Julia exclaimed.
"Merrill, I'm ashamed of your inattention to important details," Bart chimed in. "It's an insult to the very spirit of the Fan Club!"
"Um... what am I missing?"
"Merrill, today is Mia's magic exam! She's being tested to advance to Level Three apprentice," Julia explained.
"Your heart and your prayers are supposed to be with Mia tonight, Merrill. This is a very serious infraction of club honor."
"How about we save her life first, and that way I can be redeemed?" he suggested. It was a good point, and it got him off the hook. Particularly since he quickly changed to subject so they were back on track.
"If Mia is going to be tested in the Cave of Trial, it's a perfect chance for someone to attempt to hurt her. She'll be fighting monsters and magical guardians in there. One slip and she could be seriously hurt. It would be easy to hide an attack in among the chaos of the exam."
"That's right--it could easily be put off as the attack of a monster, or a magical trap."
"In fact," Merrill said, "maybe they don't want to hurt or kill her at all. It could be that instead they're out to make sure she fails the exam."
"How do you figure that?" Bart wanted to know.
"Well, there has to be a reason for them to do this, whatever it is, right?"
The other two nodded.
"I can imagine why anyone would want to hurt Mia. She's nice, sweet, gentle, and shy. Not only is she the most inoffensive person anyone's ever seen, but she isn't even outgoing enough that her beauty and kindness get thrown into people's faces regularly."
Red Bart clapped Merrill on the shoulder.
"I'm sorry for doubting your dedication to her, Merrill."
"It's okay. Anyway, I figured that if no one could want to hurt Mia for her own sake, then maybe it's political, since her mother is the Guildmistress."
Julia caught on at once.
"You mean--to make her fail the trial because they want to embarrass Lemia and the Magic Guild?"
"Right! It could be part of someone's scheme to seize power by undermining the Ausa family."
"But even if Mia--" Bart gulped, and forced out the word. "--fails, and it discredits Lemia, there's still Ghaleon. He's the Premier of the Guild and he'd become Guildmaster next."
"Maybe he doesn't want the job," Julia suggested, "or can't do it? Everybody says he's a better magician than Lemia, but he wasn't made Guildmaster; she was. Maybe whomever is behind this scheme figures whatever Ghaleon's reasons were back then, they'll still be good now."
"We're just guessing!" Red Bart exclaimed. "All this talk won't get us anywhere."
"Then what are we going to do?"
"There's only one thing we can do, and that's go to the Cave of Trial, find the plotters, and foil their scheme!"
Bart had a point. He'd also ignored one.
"Bart, we're just Level One apprentices," Merrill pointed out that oversight, "and the Cave will be set up for the Level Three trial. If we go poking around in there, who knows what will happen?"
Specifically, Merrill was thinking of what would happen if a cave monster decided to nibble his legs off, but he kept that to himself. Caution was bad enough, but he was at that age where the outright display of fear before a friend--not to mention a member of the opposite sex--was, he felt, worse than a mere leg-nibbling.
"Don't worry, Merrill. The test is for one person alone, but we'll work together. There's nothing the Mia Ausa Fan Club can't accomplish when we join together as one!"
"That's beautiful, Bart, just beautiful," Julia sniffled.
Merrill looked from one to the other. There was safety in numbers, he supposed, especially if the enemy was using single-target attack spells.
"Okay, so how do we get in? Mia will be entering through the Spring of Transmission, but the back door will be watched by the teachers who are judging the test."
"It has to be the back door. If we take the Spring we'll just be following Mia around and she'll get to the danger before we do," Julia deduced.
"Then we'll need to find a way to distract the teachers," Bart said. "Let's see here, Mia's test begins at 5, with an estimated three-hour length, and it's... what time is it now, anyway?"
"I couldn't say. It was a little after three-thirty when we came outside, so it must have been after four when Julia caught up with us."
"Which means it's probably getting close to five right now! We've got to hurry!"
"But what do we do about the Guild elders?"
"We'll have to distract them," Merrill said, "and I think I have an idea."
Alham Zorah, senior lecturer and trial examiner of the Magic Guild, was uneasy in the Cave of Trial. While he not only looked the part of a wizard with his weathered face and full white beard but could back up that appearance with magical power, he still remembered his own days as an apprentice. Lacking even a rudimentary sense of direction at age fourteen, he'd become one of those unfortunates who'd become lost in the cave, desperately fleeing from monsters, wandering blindly from terror to terror until at last he stumbled upon the exit, exhausted in mind and body. The feeling never really left him, though he'd rather be hung off the edge of the city by his ankles than admit it to anyone.
To this day, Alham couldn't stand to eat mushrooms.
Standing inside the Cave of Trial, even just inside the exit stairs, was not his idea of a good time. Alham's shoulders trembled faintly, and a trickle of perspiration that had nothing to do with heat flowed down his back.
The scuffle of feet behind him made Alham all but jump out of his boots, and he spun, a devastating spell on his lips. Luckily, his wits caught up with his fears before he barbecued the apprentice who was dashing down the stairs.
"Master, please hurry!" she exclaimed, all but cannoning into him.
"You shouldn't be down here. Don't you know the Cave of Trial is dangerous?"
"I know, but I couldn't find anyone else, so I had to come down here. Somebody has to stop them!"
Alham looked at the girl quizzically.
"Stop whom? From doing what?"
She adjusted her glasses, trying to regain some composure.
"It's the Mia Ausa Fan Club, Master. They were over at the Silver Spire doing something. I'm not sure what it was, but... Master, you remember the Affair of the Abbreviated Aardvark, don't you? Think what might happen if they tampered with the Spire!"
The wizard scowled.
"I certainly do remember! Those young miscreants have a positive talent for landing themselves in disaster. The Spire..." Very few people--only the highest-ranking magicians in Vane, in fact--knew that the Silver Spire was actually a device capable of channeling and directing all of Vane's magic at once. The Spire was sealed except by direct order of the Guildmistress in all but the most utter emergencies, sealed by wards both physical and magical.
Those kids couldn't get in.
Was it possible?
Alham tried to imagine what young Bartholomew might do in such a place and cringed in horror. Someone clearly had to put a stop to them.
Yet it couldn't be him. He was on duty here in the Cave of Trial. If he left his post, Mia's examination might be compromised.
A tiny voice in the back of Alham's mind pointed out that this was the perfect excuse to get out of the hated Cave. No one could blame him for trying to head off a catastrophe more epic than even the flagpole incident, could they? No, certainly not!
"Very well; I'll go and check it out. You did the right thing in coming to me."
Alham scuttled past the girl and all but ran up the exit stairs, still quite the spry fellow for his age.
Julia had to wait less than a minute before she heard footsteps. Bart and Merrill darted into view a moment later.
"You know, you shouldn't run on stairs."
"Do you think that's more hazardous than being caught sneaking into the Cave of Trial?"
"Okay, so maybe you have a point, Bart."
"Did everything work out all right?" Merrill asked.
Julia nodded eagerly.
"Oh, yes; it went just like clockwork. The Master believed everything I told him. He seemed almost in a hurry to go chasing after you.
Red Bart ground his teeth together.
"I still can't believe you'd stoop so far, Merrill. Deliberately slandering the reputation of our honorable club! By this time tomorrow the rumor that we were tampering with the Silver Spire will be all over Vane!"
Merrill doubted that. Without any evidence--including the usual pyrotechnics that accompanied their more interesting escapades--the masses wouldn't know a thing. Likewise, he doubted the Guild elder would spread the story because it would also mean confessing that he abandoned his post in the Cave for what turned out to be nothing.
Bart sighed, then bore himself up bravely.
"Still, in the greater scheme of things, it's a small enough price to pay. I would gladly sacrifice my good name, my career in magic, even my life itself were it to save the glorious Mia even a moment's discomfort. Come on, let's go!"
If there was such a thing as a good side to the Cave of Trial, it would have to be the lack of darkness. The walls themselves seemed to glow with a faint phosphorescence. The point of this was that early trials, in which the one being tested had to fight off monsters and cast spells with a lantern in one hand, tended to have very abrupt endings, until someone realized that it might be more fair (and save the Guild a fortune in Angel Tears and Healing Nuts) if the participants were allowed to use both hands.
Knowing this, the apprentices hadn't bothered to pack a light source. They had, however, prepared a backpack of what could best be described as "stuff."
"C'mon, Merrill, open that thing up and give us our weapons. We need to hurry."
Merrill was quick to comply with Red Bart's instructions. Every item he handed out was one less he had to lug. He got out a dagger for himself, a second for Bart, and a two-foot stick for Julia.
"What is that?" he asked her. "It's too short to be a magic cane."
"It isn't a cane. It's half of a magical staff my great-uncle made."
"What happened to the other half?"
"He tried to fight a Statue Soldier with it; he whacked the monster over its rocky head. Apparently he wasn't listening when they explained the relative hardness of wood and stone. Luckily, while he wasn't the best fighter, he could run like a jealous husband was after him." She pressed a finger to her lips, looking up thoughtfully. "Come to think of it, I think that's where he got the practice."
"What does half a staff do?" Bart wanted to know.
"Twice as much as a quarterstaff?" Merrill quipped.
"Actually, it basically does whatever it feels like," Julia explained. "There were a lot of spells enchanted into the staff, but since it's broken there's no way to control it. Usually it casts status stuff, but not always. Once I even got a Flameria out of it--and believe me, that was one surprised pickpocket!"
"And if that magician comes back, it's going to be Mia who's surprised because we weren't there to save him. Let's go!"
Bart suited his actions to his words, striding off into the cave without a backward glance. Merrill followed, his nerves on edge. Before now, his escapades had all been just that--fun and games at their core. This, though, was serious. Someone could be seriously hurt or worse; the consequences were real. It was his first taste of what it would actually be like to be a magician of Vane, adventuring on missions to serve the Goddess Althena and protect the people of Lunar. Finally, he had a glimpse of true responsibility.
Of course, it scared him silly, but he wasn't telling anyone else that!
"Which way do we go?" Julia asked as they came to a four-way intersection.
"I don't know," Bart said.
"Let's stop and think it through, then," Merrill suggested.
"Mia's probably working her way through the beginning of the trial," Bart said. "The bad guys probably want to catch her at or near the end, where she'll be tired out, but not right at the very end up here, where there are officials who might catch on."
The others nodded in agreement.
"So then, what should we do?"
"Get down a level, however we can. We need to catch up to them before Mia does!"
The passage directly ahead seemed to open up after a time, so they went that way and found themselves in a large, vaulted cavern. They path they were on continued along a ledge running across the side of the cave to a dim opening on the far wall. About fifteen feet below, though, was the floor of the chamber, with at least three entrances on that level.
"There!" Bart said. "If we can get down there, we can skip a bunch of the Cave--we'll be able to catch up!"
"It's worth a try at least, but I don't see any stairs."
"Ah, but as president of the Fan Club, Julia, I thought ahead for just such a situation. Merrill, the rope!"
Merrill unpacked a twenty-five-foot coil of rope and handed it over. Bart knotted it around a stalagmite, then paused to think for a second and knotted it three more times. He couldn't even swear like a sailor, let alone tie rope like one, and it was better to be safe than fall on his head and crack his skull.
"Are you sure about this?" Merrill asked dubiously.
"Of course. It'll be just like the rope climb in physical education, only easier. If you slip, you'll end up right where you wanted to go in the first place!"
"And just think, you'll even get there faster," Julia teased.
Nerves aside, the three apprentices managed to scramble down the rope. Having no real idea where they were going, they picked a passage at random, and ended up at a dead end. Their second choice proved better, and they headed some distance along it before they came to a T-intersection.
"Which way now, left or right?"
"Left!" Julia yelped.
"Because there's a giant mushroom charging us from the right!"
Merrill and Bart couldn't resist taking a look. Sure enough, a Death Shroom was advancing down the passage at high speed. Looking like a six-foot-tall mushroom with a cluster of one-footers at its base, the Shroom was one of the most common monsters of the Cave of Trial. The top half of the cap could flip up to reveal a fanged maw, and it could spray its toxic spores in a cloud around it. This one was of a size and power fit for Mia's Level Three exam.
"Quick--attack it!" Bart commanded boldly.
Merrill thrust his hands forward and chanted a few quick words, conjuring a ball of magic flame which lanced out at the beast. Simultaneously, Bart hurled razor arcs of wind. If the Shroom noticed, it didn't feel like telling them.
Julia, meanwhile, raised the broken staff dramatically and pointed it at the monster.
"Sic 'em, boy!"
"That's the command phrase?" Bart marveled.
"If it works, I don't care if it wants a poetry recital!"
A small black sphere spat from the broken end and launched itself at the enemy. When it struck the Shroom, it swelled into a huge black globe surrounding the creature, which then burst with an audible pop.
"What was that?" Bart asked. "Why didn't it do anything?"
"That was a Magic Seal spell," said Merrill, who hadn't slept through that class. "We've just cut off the Death Shroom's ability to use magic against us."
"Except, of course, that very few fungi have become widely known as archmages," Julia forced out through chattering teeth. "Run!"
As President of the Fan Club, Red Bart was often called upon to take a leadership role, and he did so in this case as well. In fact, he was so much of a leader that he was a good ten feet in the lead before the other two started running. The Shroom scuttled after them, licking its chops.
"Do we--huff--have any idea--puff--where we're going?" Julia called, her ponytail streaming out behind her.
"Yes!" responded Merrill.
"Away--wheeze--from that--gasp--overgrown truffle!"
They dashed pell-mell down one twisting corridor after another, completely losing track of where they were and where they had come from. It was the kind of flight that could easily end with the three of them lost in the Cave of Trial, without anyone so much as knowing they were down there.
Luckily for them, fortune favored those in over their head, and they burst into a fairly good-sized chamber with a high ceiling. A group of robed and hooded individuals ringed the walls, and in the center was a large, roughly octagonal metal box covered with dials, pipes, and levers, the whole apparatus about four feet high.
"That's it!" Bart shouted. "That's the machine! In the name of the Magic Guild, we demand that you stop your diabolical plot against Mia!"
"What?" exclaimed one of the robed figures in a feminine voice.
By then, though, the three apprentices were already launching their attacks. Merrill's fire slagged some kind of control panel. Bart's wind razors sliced off a venting tube from the top of the machine. Julia's staff, perhaps embarrassed by its poor performance against the Death Shroom, slammed a Thunder Blow directly into the insidious device.
As any basic magical theory course taught, thunder magic could have unexpected and highly unstable effects when used against targets made of conductive metal. The machine began to hiss and rumble, actually rocking back and forth threateningly. Explosions of multicolored fire sprayed from launch tubes, bursting into showers of sparks. Unfortunately, however, there were too few tubes to deal with the machine's entire payload having been ignited at once.
In the Magic Guild's dining room, the sudden shaking of the ground caused a meatball to hop out of Senior Magician Vannick's plate, roll down the table, and knock over Assistant Secretary Morthyl's chocolate milkshake, which precipitated itself down the bodice of Elder Wizard Ilsia's gown. She responded by cracking Morthyl over the head with her plate, which in turn sprayed spaghetti over the head of Professor Hazlett.
Which promptly led to the opening salvos of the First-and-only-if-Lemia-Ausa-has-anything-to-say-about-it Annual Magic Guild Senior Staff Food Fight.
One of the robed figures made a curt gesture, and the glittering protective spheres, which had surrounded everyone in the room during what had to be the shortest albeit the most dramatic fireworks display in Magic Guild history, vanished. That same figure then raised a hand and pointed towards the cluster of stunned apprentices.
"Time... to... die!"
"Mommy!" Julia squeaked, while Merrill sent up a (thankfully answered) prayer to the gods of bladder control. A searing beam of energy exploded from the figure's hand, missed Bart's head by half an inch, and reduced the Death Shroom even then charging into the cave to a faint smudge on the floor.
Another figure, the one who had spoken upon the Fan Club's entrance, flipped back her hood, revealing an imperious woman with very light brown hair.
"And just what did you think you were doing?" she snapped, her voice boding ill for the apprentices, their families, friends, casual acquaintances, pen pals, and people whom they'd happened to talk to once or twice.
"I've got to admit it, Julia, Merrill was right about you." Red Bart proved that he was big enough to admit his mistakes. "You've got to be admitted as a member now. None of us have almost blown up the Guildmistress before."
Alham Zorah had been back at his post for no more than ten minutes when Mia emerged from the depths. The dark-haired teenager's pink robe was a bit dusty, but she was otherwise none the worse for wear.
"Congratulations, Miss Ausa! You have completed your examination and will now be ranked as a Level Three apprentice. And, may I say that you look particularly happy?"
Mia blushed prettily. "Thank you, Master Zorah." Being Mia, she knew all the senior staff and most of everyone else at the Guild by name. "As a matter of fact, it's my mother's doing."
"Oh, really?" Alham said, grinning. He knew about the fireworks display Lemia had been arranging for her daughter, though he hadn't expected it to be quite of earthquake proportions.
"Yes. Mother usually makes a big deal about it whenever I pass a trial, and it's really very embarrassing. This year, though, she did nothing at all. I'm very happy that she's finally treating me like a normal student. If I'm really going to be the Guildmistress one day, I'll never learn how if I'm treated like a pampered princess."
Back to the Library of Vane.
Back to the Shrine to Ghaleon.