Chapter 1: The Punishment and the Test
Luca Scordato had never betrayed a friend.
But she had abandoned one.
There was hell to pay for it.
As the Mage tied her short red hair back into what resembled a stub, three short knocks resounded throughout her cabin. Luca jumped up, turning to look at the small clock hanging over her cot. It read the sixth hour of the day.
Shoot, she was late. Late, late, late.
Scrambling, she abandoned her terrible-looking hair, ripping out the band holding it together before clumsily tying the laces of her boots. She rushed to the door, swinging it open to reveal the grim face of her best friend, Jack.
Luca practically melted with comfort at the sight of him. After her return from a grueling mission, his dark brown curls, his strong arms, his soulful brown eyes, the familiar sight of him was all she needed to slightly ease the anxieties that had wracked her brain all night. She craved to touch him, to embrace him and tell him everything that had transpired these last few weeks.
But she couldn't do any of that because she had made a promise that she would say nothing. Reveal nothing. And Luca did not break promises.
"Is it true?" Jack asked, breaking her thoughts. His eyebrows knit in concern, trying to make sense of the rumors he had heard swirling around the Outcast village the day before. He hadn't been allowed to see her now, only adding to his anxiety.
Is what true? Luca signed, dodging the question as they made their way up the hill from her cabin, walking toward the central part of their home, the Outcast village. Hundreds of Mages from all over the world lived here. Some came voluntarily in search of a safe haven from the cruel world that hated their kind. Others were forced to seek shelter and tutelage here under the great Magic masters known to the Outcasts as the Sorcerers. Jack and Luca were among the latter category of Mages who had come to the village. Luca had been thrown to the Kingdom of Ember Glass authorities as soon as her parents had found out the truth about her. They had done cruel experiments on children like her, but she had managed to escape alongside a few others. Jack had also been abandoned by his drug-addicted family, though he had grown up in the lawless Bloodlands.
The rumors, Luca, Jack replied, signing back to his mute friend rather than speaking. He hoped that speaking her language would make her more inclined to share the truth with him. They're saying you left Saara to die in Devaloka. That you abandoned her.
Luca shut her eyes, the painful memory replaying in her mind. She shoved the thoughts away.
The rumors aren't wrong, she replied, confirming Jack's worst fears.
"What?" he gasped softly, barely believing what she was saying. No, no, no. He knew Luca. She was one of the most loyal people he knew. She wouldn't have abandoned Saara. He must have been seeing things.
"Please tell me you're pulling my leg," he pleaded, though he knew from her expression that she could not have been joking.
Luca said nothing for a moment as they descended the leaf-crusted hill to the village below From above, the cabins formed a pattern of concentric circles, neatly leaving room for pathways that branched out like a giant spider web linking every place together. Now, at the foot of the hill, they could see that the outer cabins were much larger and housed plenty of sleeping residents. As the pair walked toward the center of the village, they noticed that no one had come outside for the day.
I'm not, Jack, Luca signed finally, refusing to meet his eyes. She feared that if she did, the truth would come tumbling out. And the truth couldn't come tumbling out. Instead, she breathed deeply, putting aside thoughts of Saara and past promises. She painted an impassive mask onto her face, though she still couldn't risk looking at Jack. Did the Sorcerers send you to walk me to the Council building?
Jack nodded. Last night, the Sorcerers had urgently summoned him, informing him that Luca would have to face a trial before them the next morning though she had just returned from a mission in Devaloka the previous afternoon. Jack had been stunned by their command. He had begged them to tell him what Luca had done, and not only had they refused, but they had also forbidden him from seeking out Luca until the next morning when he would escort her. Jack had waited around in the village, hoping Luca would come to him, but she never had. Instead, he had been forced to walk around the village, listening to others spread terrible rumors about her abandoning Saara Bilaal. He had told them off angrily, insisting that Luca would never do such a thing.
Yet here she was, confirming the rumors herself.
"What happened?" he asked, itching to understand more about the situation. He couldn't see Luca abandoning Saara without reason. She must have been pressured to leave for fear of something. Right?
You'll find out soon, was all Luca gave him as they continued to pass row after row of houses, dining cabins, and training arenas until they came to the center of the village.
Before them stood a solid stone edifice with a central bell tower above the wooden double doors, and two rows of windows spanned out from the center. Luca pushed the door open, entering the Sorcerers' Council building, and Jack followed. The building was old, probably at least three hundred years since it was one of the first buildings that the Sorcerers had constructed when they had formed the village. The wood creaked beneath their feet as they passed the dimly candle-lit foyer, which opened to a more open area that appeared almost like a cathedral. However, unlike a cathedral, there were wooden steps that lead down to a circular floor at the center of the room. Surrounding this center were concentric rings of towering seats and desks, the top row of which seated the six Sorcerers.
"Welcome, Luca. Welcome, Jack," Sorcerer Meline said from her central position at the far end of the chamber, signifying her as the leader of the Circle of Sorcerers— —the six immortal Mages who had mastered their respective spheres of Magic. Above her head was a wooden plaque with letters carved in a language that Jack had never bothered to learn.
"Jack, you may take a seat anywhere. Luca, please step forward to the dais in the center," commanded Sorcerer Crispin, an old portly man who was a favorite among the people of the village for his jovial disposition. Today, his face was grim, disapproving. Like the other five Sorcerers, he was dressed in amber robes, the same robes they wore for all trials.
As instructed, Jack immediately took a seat in one of the middle rows, a position that was neither too far removed from Luca so he could see her signs but also not so close to the Sorcerers' position that he would feel their burning gazes. He watched as the red-haired Mage approached the oak podium. Her face was cast in a harsh glow from the large chandelier hanging above her, as if the ancient chamber itself was condemning her. Even so, Jack couldn't see much discomfort on her face. If anything, she looked calm. Too calm.
But Luca's exterior certainly did not match the sea of doubt churning in her gut. She inhaled deeply, not daring to let the glowering faces of the Sorcerers stir any guilt, and lifted her face up with courage. She stared Sorcerer Meline in the eye as the Mother of all Mages spoke.
"Mage Luca Scordato, do you know why you stand here, today?" her rich voice boomed across the room. Meline, unlike Crispin, was not known for her warmth, and certainly, today of all days, her voice was not any warmer. If anything, it was pure ice.
Luca reminded herself to breathe. She had always admired Sorcerer Meline for her skill, grit, and courage, but that admiration had always been tinged with fear. The Mother of all Mages was not to be messed with, and anyone in their right mind knew that. She had faced every imaginable challenge in the world and was still walking to this day, thousands of years later, a testament to her tenacity. Luca did not want to get on her wrong side today, even if it was too late for that.
Yes, Sorcerer Meline. I am here because of my crimes against Magekind. I betrayed a fellow Mage in order to save myself and the information we had collected, and in doing so, I broke the first rule of a mission— protect Mages at all costs, Luca signed back without missing a beat. Jack felt stones drop one by one into his stomach. What was Luca saying? She had willingly betrayed Saara? She had abandoned their best friend? For the sake of delivering information back to the Sorcerers? Why?
"And please, remind us how exactly you abandoned Mage Bilaal?" Sorcerer Meline pushed.
Luca tried not to notice the nervous sweat beading her forehead or the tremor in her hands. Tell the truth, her heart pleaded.
No, Luca's mind firmly responded.
We were listening in on a conversation between Devalokan soldiers. When we were compromised, Saara was taken away, but we had gained critical information that you needed. I made the decision that Saara, being capable as she is, would be able to escape at some point, but if I did not save myself, all would be lost in that moment, Luca stated, every word a heavy weight her fingers shouldered. Lie, lie, lie. Not a word of it other than the first two sentences were true. Yet she needed the Sorcerers to believe them.
So Luca stopped thinking of them as lies. She thought of them as a new truth. Her truth.
She breathed deeply, daring to look into Sorcerer Meline's eyes and hoped the Sorcerer would not see through Luca's lies. She ensured that her mental walls remained fortified so that Sorcerer Crispin, the Mind-Walker, would not see through her facade either, though she knew she was most likely no match for the nearly all-powerful Sorcerer. If he did know anything, he didn't show it. His grim, disapproving expression matched the faces of all the other Sorcerers.
Meline narrowed her eyes, leaning forward. "And, do you know, that not only did you abandon a Mage, but you abandoned a very important young woman talented enough to train on the path of a Sorcerer, the same as you?"
Yes, I am aware. And, I deeply regret my mistakes. Please accept my humble apologies. I will—
"Stop!" Sorcerer Giri hissed, his amber eyes flashing dangerously. He was the second oldest of the Sorcerers, a long-time friend of Meline and was not just icy, but a downright tundra. Though all the Mages in the Outcasts had heard whispered rumors and tall tales about what the original three Sorcerers—Meline, Giri, and Crispin—had faced, no one knew why Meline and Giri had turned out so positively cold when Crispin was the complete opposite, jolly and warm. Today, however, he looked nearly identical to his three other comrades in demeanor. Luca tried hard not to think about what that would mean for her.
"Your apologies mean nothing when we have lost one of our best Mages because of your incompetence. Do not disgrace Mage Saara Bilaal with your worthless words," Giri spat before nodding to Sorcerer Meline, signaling her to continue.
Luca grit her teeth but refused to flinch at every painful word flung at her like a weapon.
PROMISE ME! The memories of that fateful night poured into her mind.
The young Mage only gritted her teeth harder. No, she could not collapse today, especially in front of the Sorcerers. She banished Saara's pleading voice from her mind.
"Do you know the punishment for the crime you committed?" Meline said with chilling calmness.
Jack sucked in his breath. Every Mage in the Outcasts knew the punishment for abandoning or betraying one of the others— banishment. Even death could not compare to banishment for a Mage who would be persecuted everywhere simply because of their powers. Their life would become a living hell, a slow torture that would kill them day by day, second by second. Luca didn't deserve that.
Unlike Jack, whose gut churned with concern, Luca was not fazed. Nervous as she was, she knew that the Sorcerers wouldn't banish her. It wasn't arrogance that gave her this belief. It was pure, objective fact that she was one of the best Mages the Outcasts had. To banish her would be foolish. They would not only lose a powerful Mage but a skilled strategist as well. That was the belief that Luca clung onto as she stood before the Sorcerers, head bowed down in repentance. Repentance for having to face this difficult reality, but not repentance for abandoning Saara. It had been a necessity, and she reminded herself of this even as doubts began worming into her brain.
Luca shut down the image of Sara's pleading face. Yes, she had left her friend behind. But, there had not been much choice, not that the Sorcerers would believe her. She couldn't tell them what Saara had told her in confidence. Even if Saara had bailed at the end of their plan, she had entrusted Luca knowing that the latter would not waver once a promise was made.
Yes, I know the punishment for abandoning a fellow Mage. It is banishment, Luca simply replied to their question, clasping her hands softly in front of her once she finished signing. A signal of her submission and sorrow. She hoped they would see it as such.
Meline sucked in a breath, raising one dark eyebrow, seeing right through Luca's mock repentance. Her judging obsidian eyes were calculating what to do with such an insolent, incorrigible Mage who refused to grovel at their feet. Mentally, the Sorcerer chuckled, knowing very well that she had admired Luca for that exact quality— unwavering self-belief. Still, the girl needed to be punished for her actions.
"Yes, you are correct. Are you prepared to receive your punishment?" Sorcerer Meline asked sharply.
Luca held her breath. What? They couldn't...they wouldn't....no.
They could not banish her.
Luca's heart stuttered a moment, and she was sure her shock was visible in the tensing of her muscles. She squelched down on the doubts rearing their ugly heads. She could not show weakness here.
Yes, I am prepared.
Far above the center where Luca stood, Jack jumped to his feet, nearly knocking over the desk in front of him in his shock. How could the Sorcerers' commitment to such a punishment? Though banishment was the proper sentence for Luca's actions, he knew just like her that she was one of the best Elemental Mages they had and they would be disservicing themselves if they let her go. Besides, couldn't they see that there had to be more to Luca's actions than selfishness and cowardice? If he could barely believe that Luca would do something so heinous, how could they?
Sorcerer Winona, the youngest and most recently minted Sorcerer, gave Jack a warning glare. She was beautiful with her almond shaped eyes and long chocolate colored twin braids and renowned or her tremendous archery and horseback riding skills, second only to her mind-boggling Necromancy abilities. Though she had always harbored a partial affection for Jack, today, her glance was as cold as the rest of the Sorcerers.
Stay down, her gaze said. Jack obeyed.
"Then, it is settled," Meline continued. She paused, glancing between her fellow Sorcerers, exchanging a secret look. Luca readied herself for their final words— words that would permanently alter her fate. Words that would sentence her to a life on the run, of difficult survival under persecution.
She was ready.
No, she wasn't ready.
She must be ready. She must.
Luca stared into Meline's eyes, daring her to speak. She would not go down like a humiliated fool. No, Luca Scordato would be remembered for graciously accepting the wise Sorcerers' decisions.
Even if this would be the first unwise decision they would make.
But much to her surprise, and Jack's, Meline said nothing of banishment. Instead, she looked at Jack.
"Mage de Fiel, please come down to the dais," she commanded.
Jack furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. Why were they summoning him? He had no part in her mission or her mistake. Still, when the Sorcerers asked you to do something, you did it without question. He slowly descended the wooden steps, the clicking of his mud boots echoing throughout the chamber as he joined Luca's side. He noticed a thin line of sweat had formed on her hairline. She was under more pressure than she had let on with her expressions, he realized.
"Sorcerer Zephyr, would you care to explain the punishment, and their mission?" Sorcerer Meline said, turning her face toward the Sorcerer on the far right side of the chamber.
"Their" mission? What was that supposed to mean? Luca and Jack both wondered.
Both Mages turned to Zephyr questioningly. Though he was not one of the three original Sorcerers, he was equally skilled in his ability to Shape-Shift as any of them were in their own Magical gifts. He was known for being the most indifferent and stoic Sorcerer, but today, his violet eyes stared down at them with even more impassivity. Neither could discern his emotions on the matter.
"Mage Scordato, your punishment is to return to where you abandoned Mage Bilaal and rescue her from the Devaloka prisons. We have an outpost at the port city, Gozen-Maui on the border between Merr and the Empire of the Golden Dragon. There, you will deliver her to a trusted associate, Mage Jayanth Patel—"
"Wait, what do I have to do with this?" Jack asked, not caring that he had interrupted a revered Sorcerer. He had waited a moment for some sort of explanation as to why he was taking part in Luca's punishment, but when none had been given, his reflex had overtaken his common sense. He was starting to come to a dreadful realization of his place in Luca's punishment, but he needed just one word to convince him that his hypothesis was wrong.
Zephyr's eyes flashed. "You will know, if you let me finish speaking. As I was saying, deliver Mage Bilaal to Mage Patel. That is the first part of your mission."
Jack opened his mouth to protest. Only one part? How many parts would there be? But the questions remained on his tongue. He knew better than to incur Zephyr's annoyance a second time.
Luca swallowed her questions, too, in silence. Of all the things the Sorcerers could have punished her with, sending her to save her friend was the least torturous, even if it involved successfully infiltrating the strongest military stronghold on land in all of Primera. But Luca was willing to do anything to stay among the Outcasts, to prove she was repentant for her "crimes," even if those crimes weren't really crimes at all.
"The second part of your quest lies within the Empire of the Golden Dragon. You will need to retrieve the Blood Pearls from Empress Mai, through whatever means necessary. It will not be an easy feat, rest assured of this," he stated.
Jack and Luca's mouths gaped open.
"The B-Blood Pearls? You can't be serious..." Jack whispered in utter disbelief.
"We are most definitely serious, Jack. Your task is indeed, to retrieve the Blood Pearls. We do not give this to you lightly. It is a mission we entrust you with after much thought," Zephyr snapped. "Shall I continue?"
Jack gulped, nodding nervously. The Blood Pearls were a Magical artifact that rightfully belonged to the Mages, but it had been passed down within Golden Dragon's Gozen dynasty for generations, ever since the Fall of Magic. Each bead of the Pearls contained one of the seven major types of Magic— Ether-Bending, Necromancy, Sight, Mind-Walking, Time-Bending, Shape-Shifting, and Elementalism.
All the Mages in the Outcasts knew that the Gozen dynasty had concocted a legend about how their first non-Magic leader, Empress Tomoe Gozen, had slaughtered the Mage generals who governed Golden Dragon's Empire at that time, sealing their dangerous Magic in the Pearls. The Gozens had used the legend to justify their possession of such unstable and powerful Magic, earning the favor of the people. Ever since then, no Mage had ever set foot near the Blood Pearls without losing their life. How the Sorcerers expected the young Mages to capture an artifact that they hadn't managed to retrieve in hundreds of years was beyond Jack. Were they trying to get them killed?
"The third part of your mission involves retrieving the Stone of Flame, which I am sure you both are aware, belongs to us. You know the story. Ember Glass took our sacred Stone from us during the Fall of Magic, but what we haven't told you is that they soon lost it after. The witches in the Bloodlands took it from them, so the Stone no longer lies in either of its historical locations. Remember, the witches are blood thirsty, but you will be able to retrieve it if you are clever."
Zephyr nodded to Meline, signaling he had finished his part. Luca and Jack were too stunned by the stakes of their mission to say anything at first.
"Is the mission clear, Mages?" Meline asked, though it felt more like a statement that everything should have been clear. "Mage Scordato, Mage de Fiel will be accompanying you to ensure that you do not stray from the path as you did when you abandoned Mage Bilaal."
Heat rose up into Jack's cheeks. He was furious. How could they not question Luca's actions? And top of that, how could they punish him alongside her by sending them on this near impossible mission? He wanted to ask this, and more. He wanted to challenge them for being so harsh on Luca, for being so harsh on him, but all he managed to get out was a pathetic gasp.
"What?" he squeaked.
Why are you punishing Jack for my crime? This is my punishment and my punishment alone. I'm the one who abandoned Saara like a coward! Luca signed at the same time, her thoughts much more lucid and less clouded by emotion than Jack's.
The mission was so cruel, so dangerous, it was as fitting a punishment as simply banishing her. If retrieving the Blood Pearls would prove to be the hardest challenge they had ever faced, snatching the Stone of Flame from the hands of gnarly Witches was nigh impossible. The Witches were known for plucking Mages from the streets of the Bloodlands to feed on the Magical energy in their victims' blood. To walk into their lair and steal the Stone of Flame that they so carefully guarded for hundreds of years was virtually a death sentence.
Luca knew that the Sorcerers were essentially gifting her the honorable death of a Mage on a mission. She would be remembered as a martyr for their cause rather than a traitor for abandoning a fellow Mage. Her death would be punishment, but at least it wouldn't be a shameful one. But to bestow such a burden on Jack's shoulders as well...what were the Sorcerers thinking? Luca could face her own mortality. But she would not be the cause of Jack's death.
"Ah, you see, it is not a punishment for you, Mage de Fiel," Meline explained. "It is a test. Unlike Mage Scordato, who will be removed from the competition for the seventh seat among the Sorcerers' Circle, this is a test of your skill. Not a punishment. If you succeed, you will be set on the path to train as a Sorcerer. If you fail, your status will remain unchanged, but Luca will be banished," Sorcerer Alvina, the Seer, said. Her brown eyes were gentle, but Jack didn't trust their false warmth.
The Sorcerers were toying with them. They knew that Jack wouldn't refuse this mission, not only because they had commanded him to embark on it, not only because he would train to become the final and seventh Sorcerer if he succeeded, but because he wouldn't let Luca go this alone. More powerful than his desire to be the next Sorcerer was his desire to ensure that Luca was not banished or killed.
The same could be said of Luca. The Sorcerers knew that giving her this mission without sending Jack along with her would yield little results. She would have saved Saara, yes, but her efforts to chase the Blood Pearls or the Stone of Flame would have been paltry. She would have accepted death too easily, should it knock on her door.
But, now, Jack's life was also at stake, and his lifelong dream to become the next Sorcerer would be fulfilled if they succeeded. Luca would do anything to ensure he would remain alive and that his dreams would come true.
The Sorcerers had full faith that together, Luca and Jack would succeed.
But neither Jack nor Luca suspected the Sorcerers' true beliefs. All they saw was a cruel quest, an unfair test with all odds stacked against their favor. Any other Mage would have given up, begged for mercy, run away from such a Herculean task.
But Luca was not any old Mage, and neither was Jack. They had each other to fight for, and fight for each other they would.
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