Chapter 4: Kith And Kin
As they entered the refectory, the new ascendants were warmed by its welcoming atmosphere. A group of musicians dressed in Ferrum green tunics were playing beautifully hand carved fiddles and their lively Ferrish music mingled with the excited chatter of the young novices. Delicious aromas filled the room, vanilla, honey, maple, coconut, ginger and exotic spices merged into one magnificent, gastronomic assault on their senses. In the centre of the room were four large round stone tables around which were twelve chairs. Three of them were set for twelve people the other was set only for four.
The table closest to the door was draped with the red and black colours of Hydrargyrum. Its plates, goblets and cutlery made of the finest Mercurian pewter. Above the centre of the table hung the black silk Hydrargyrum standard, at its core was the emblem of Hydrargyrum. Twin rampant winged dragons faced each other, their tails entwined as they breathed out shivers of fire that merged together and formed into a flaming crown above their heads. Their motto embroidered below, read; ‘Sanguine Et Igni Vicimus’, ’With Fyre and Blood we Conquer’.
On the left of this table was the Ferrum table. Draped in an emerald green cloth, it was laid with flawless Ferrum steel cutlery, together with wooden, native handcrafted platters and goblets. The emerald green Ferrum standard hung above, with a large rampant black bear at its centre, it’s claws and teeth bared as its tongue protruded like that of a lizard attempting to catch a fly. Beneath this, embroidered in black and gold was the Ferrum motto ‘Fortitudo Fide Honoris’, ‘Strength, Loyalty, Honour’.
The Aurum table was similarly dressed but in the white and gold colours of Aurum. Crisp white linen was set with Aurum’s finest gold place settings. The Arum standard displayed the three Fyre Hawks emblem and bore the motto ‘Ascensio Scientia Potestas’ ‘Ascension, Knowledge, Power.’ It fluttered lightly in the breeze that wafted in from the open door of the Atrium, as the ascendants entered the hall.
The fourth table had evidently, been somewhat hurriedly dressed. Its indigo blue table cloth was set with rose embossed Rhodium silver cutlery and platters and hand cut ice crystal goblets, but the standard hanging above it was old and tattered. The indigo silk banner and the white five-pointed Rhodium rose at its centre, were faded and torn and its motto could barely be distinguished ‘Mollitiam Spiritus Virtus’ ‘Resilience, Spirit, and Valour’.
The Magisters were seated at the far side of the refectory hall behind a crescent-shaped table dressed in the colours of Aurum. Lord Dux, however, remained standing as he waited to address the novices, who were now being guided to their seats by their older peers.
A third-year Gold novice, approached the four Whyte cell ascendants as they entered the hall. His dark blond hair was cut short, though a defiant, wavy lock fell rebelliously across one eye. He smiled warmly at the group, but his eyes did not deviate from Rose’s face as he spoke.
“Good day to you,” he said with a polite bow of his head. “I am Arjan. I have been asked by Lord Dux to escort you to your table and to dine with you this evening if you have no objections?”
The four of them shook their heads.
“Good, that’s great! Then please, follow me.” Arjan offered Rose his hand. Hesitantly, she took it, and he led her and the others through the crowd of chattering novices. As they passed the Aurum table, Arjan grabbed a gold plate, a goblet and some cutlery to take over to the Whyte table.
“Hey Arjan!” said a young gold girl with a wry glance. “Don’t tell me you’re deserting us for a celebrity?” She eyed Rose jealously.
Arjan winked at her.
“Well, you know me Gilda; I always have to be the centre of attention, don’t I? Oh no, wait a minute, that’s you!” he said, laughing at her resulting scowl.
She stuck out her tongue.
Arjan led the Whytes to their table.
“Please take a seat,” he said, pulling out a chair for Rose. “Lord Dux is about to begin.”
Rose glanced around the bustling room. She was becoming increasingly aware of the stares and comments she was drawing from the other novices. It made her uncomfortable. Ignoring Arjan’s offer of a seat, she walked around the table and took a chair that faced away from the centre of the room where she would be able to avoid their gazes. Arjan seemed briefly disappointed. Quickly recovering his composure, he offered Auriel the seat and then sat down in between Rose and Lee while Ash plonked himself in the chair to Rose’s left.
“I feel such a freak,” she said, her voice low.
“Just think of it this way,” Ash said, with a grin. “No one is ever going to have to ask who you are.”
“Well, there is that I suppose,” she said with a shrug. “On the other hand, I’ll never have any privacy, and I will never be able to get away with anything.”
The music stopped abruptly as Dux cleared his throat. This also appeared to act as a signal for the novices to quieten.
“Novices of the Afterlands,” Dux’s voice, although soft, filled the room. “I bid you welcome to this; the twenty thousandth Ascension Feast. As most of you will know, this was always to be a special celebration. However, as most of you will also now be aware, today holds an even greater significance.”
All eyes followed his gaze to fall on Rose, who squirmed uncomfortably in her seat.
“For over a thousand years, there have been no Whyte ascendants on this day, but today, we have been blessed by the ascendance of Rose the Whyte.” Dux’s eyes met hers reassuringly. “I am sure that the magnitude of this occurrence is not lost, on the majority of you. For this reason, I would like to reassure you that if Rose’s ascension does signal the fulfilment of Lord Eldwyn’s Prophecy and we still do not know for sure that it does. Then we are more than prepared to deal with the consequences. So please, make Rose and her extraordinary Whyte cell, as welcome as you have always made each other and.... enjoy your feast.”
Dux opened his arms wide and brought his hands together with a loud clap. The music and chatter immediately restarted and a procession of native Gold servants carrying trays full of food hurried into the refectory.
Auriel looked up as a young girl placed a steaming bowl of green, sweet smelling soup before her.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling politely.
“You’re welcome, my Lady,” said the young Gold, who did not take her eyes off Rose for a second as she completed serving the table.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to this level of attention,” said Rose turning to Arjan.
“It will get easier, they’ll get used to you,” said Arjan as he watched the young serving girl, who was still gazing hopelessly at Rose, walk straight into a marble pillar. Letting out a loud cry, she dropped her tray to the floor with a terrible clatter. “If not,” he said with a grin “there are going to be an awful lot of squashed noses.”
“What are these rings for?” asked Ash, holding his bear claw ring out towards Arjan. “I am kind of hoping it does what Lord Dux’s did and we’ll get to do all sorts of magical stuff.”
Arjan laughed. “Yeah, sort of, it depends on your potentia. Lord Dux is a senior Mage, a Wizard. So he can use powerful magic. You will be able to do some magic, but you’re a Metamorph so your ring will channel your potens to morph.”
“Now you mention it,” said Ash, “what exactly is a Metamorph?”
“A Metamorph is an ascendant with the potentia to change their form into another’s, to understand the thoughts and languages of other creatures, to communicate with them. You are likely to be very gifted in it; Muds always make the best Metamorphs.”
With a look of sudden revelation, he looked around the table at each of them.
“Come to think of it,” he said excitedly “this Whyte cell of yours is going to be one doozy of a cell.”
“Why would you think that?” said Lee raising his eyebrows sceptically. “I don’t see why we should be any better than the other cells.”
“It didn’t strike me until just now,” said Arjan, “ but each of the casts is naturally strongest at one of the potentia. Muds always make the best Metamorphs. Golds the best Memorix. The Bloods are by far the best Alchemists and the Whytes, well all of the most powerful wizards have been Whytes; extraordinary magical power is in their blood. So, as a cell, you are going to be one formidable group.”
“So do we get to win trophies and stuff?” asked Ash eagerly.
Arjan gave him a subdued smile. “No, I just meant that if Eldwyn the Whyte’s prophecy is to be believed, then you could do with all the edge you can get.”
Rose placed her hand gently on his arm. “Why is that Arjan? What does his prophecy say is actually going to happen?”
Arjan sensed her concern and put his hand over hers reassuringly.
“You heard Lord Dux Rose, it’s not entirely clear…”
“Arjan” she pressed him, “what does it predict?”
Arjan did not answer, she shook his arm, and he looked up into her beautiful, probing, violet eyes. Flushing slightly, he looked away.
“Okay,” he said with a sigh. “It predicts that there will be war, in which the Djinn will return to conquer the Afterlands and that you Rose, you will be the one who stops them.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?” Rose asked incredulously.
“With the incantatio,” said Arjan.
Seeing the blank looks on all their faces he elaborated. “It’s a powerful spell, a charm contained within four separate parts, each piece hidden within an object. The objects are usually widely scattered.”
“I don’t understand,” said Rose, “ why separate pieces?”
“It makes it more secure,” said Arjan, “ the spell is broken up to ensure that the full charm is revealed only, to the Wizard for whom it is destined, its procurator.”
“Well, no problem then Rose,” said Ash “It’ll be a piece of cake, with us all being super hot and all.”
His irony drew a raised eyebrow from Arjan. Rose, however, looked distraught.
“So we have to find all of these objects hiding pieces of the spell, or the Djinn will destroy the Afterlands?”
“No Rose, that’s not quite how it works. It’s my understanding from what I have learned from my readings in Cognito that the incantatio finds its way to you. Before you ask, I have no idea how it does that.”
“But I know absolutely nothing about magic,” said Rose, “ and until today, as far as I am aware, I didn’t even exist! How can I possibly be the one to do all this?”
Arjan shrugged. “Eldwyn the Whyte foretold that it would be you Rose, so if we assume that prophecy is correct, then you must be the one.” Said Arjan smiling sympathetically, “don’t worry, you will learn quickly and remember, no one is sure that the prophecy is sound. After all, only your ascension, the very first part of the prophecy is fulfilled, the rest has not come to pass and might not for many years, if at all.”
“Who are these Djinn anyway?” asked Auriel “Should we really be as scared as everyone seems to be?”
Arjan looked uneasy. He glanced nervously towards the Magisters table and lowered his voice.
“I don’t know much of the Djinn, only what I’ve learned in Cognito.” He said “The Djinn inhabit Erebus, a land of sulphur, brimstone and fyre that lies buried beneath Hydrargyrum. Some say that they are born from fyre and that when they take the human form, they have fyre in their blood. Immortals like us, the Djinn are the only beings powerful enough to close the vapour cycles of ascendants and end our existence as independent beings.”
“I don’t understand,” said Rose, “Lord Dux told us that it was near impossible to kill an ascendant.”
“Well, they don’t actually kill us,” said Arjan. “They draw the vapours from our bodies and bind us to theirs within a crucible of fyre, absorbing us into their own form, capturing our magical energy and our essence within themselves. Our vapours become trapped within their bodies, and we can no longer descend. They call it assimilation. Ten thousand years ago a Djinn called Phlegon led his army of Afreet on a mission to assimilate all of the Afterland ascendants. If it were not for Tollen the Whyte, who cast a binding on the entrance to Erebus to seal it for all time, then none of us would be here to discuss this now. Unfortunately, Tollen paid a terrible price for his valour and was assimilated as, in order to permanently seal the gate, he had to be on the other side of it.”
“So why,” said Lee frowning, “ if the Djinn have been imprisoned behind Tollen’s gate for thousands of years, are they still considered a threat?”
“You’re right,” said Arjan, “it does seem unlikely that they could escape after all of these years unless they had some very talented and influential assistance. Unfortunately, though there is a secret sect called the Ophites. They are mainly Bloods, and the vast majority of them are natives. However, the centurion guards have, from time to time, uncovered members from other casts as well as ascendant members, most notably, of course, Lord Ka. Ophites believe that the Djinn are all powerful Gods and that they can ally with them to take control of the Afterlands. Legend has it that Lord Ka had brewed a potent charm that could subdue the Djinn and force them to do his bidding.”
“All powerful Gods!” scoffed Ash. “Yeah, they’re so all-powerful that they have been stuck behind a rock for thousands of years. Oh, I don’t know how I am going to sleep tonight... On the other hand,” he said, chomping on another mouthful of food. “If they have been imprisoned for ten thousand years and they do get out, they’re going to be extremely pissed!”
Closing his eyes as he shovelled in another forkful of the brightly coloured food, savouring its flavour. “Mmmm... Have you tasted this pink stuff it is absolutely the best thing that I can ever remember eating. What is it?”
Arjan scooped up some of the wild rice and pink sauce off his platter, he pointed to it as it rested, steaming at the end of his fork.
“This,” he said, with some pride, “ is Guillywally Fyre-pot a traditional dish of the Ascension feast. It has been enchanted so that it will taste different to everyone. It always feels like the best thing you ever ate, because the charm ensures that it is a perfect match for whatever it is that you’re hungry for. All of the Ascension feast dishes originate in one of the Afterlands. The fyre-pot is from Hydrargyrum. The cassava leaf soup is a native soup from the forests of Ferrum and this,” he nodded at the two scoops of silver white ice that had just been placed in his bowl. “This is Rhodium’s famous ginger, and snow rose sorbet, and very shortly we will be toasting your arrival with Aurum’s honey flower mead.”
“I really, love this place,” said Ash, grinning broadly as he savoured his first mouthful of sorbet.
The general hubbub of the refectory seemed to quieten a little as the older novices began to look towards Lord Dux, in anticipation of the usual introductions and toast. Dux stood, and the remainder of the room stilled.
“Novices, new, and old, please join with me in thanking the Refectorians for the outstanding feast that they have provided for us today.”
At once, the novices began to stamp their feet, applaud and cheer loudly until Lord Dux put up a hand, and quietened them once more.
“It is time to introduce all of you, new ascendants, to the people who will be shaping your futures over the next three years. Tomorrow you will begin your tutelage with the Magisters that you see before you.”
He turned and motioned to the three males and one female at his side. Each of them, like Dux, was shaven-headed, robed in gold, and wore a white and gold magisterial skull cap.
“Our classes will be somewhat larger this year,” he said, his eyes creasing with a smile as he looked pointedly at Rose’s table. “However, the majority of arrangements will remain the same. All novices will receive daily tuition, within their year groups, in all four potentia.” Dux motioned to the tall, stern looking man to his left “Lord De Lille, whom many of you know, is our Alchemy magister.”
De Lille’s acknowledgement was a mere blink of his eyes together with an almost unperceivable nod of the head. He was a stern looking man who wore a long golden moustache and pointed beard which bravely battled for dominance of his features with a pair of extremely thick, bushy eyebrows. Dux gestured to the young magister sitting at De Lille’s side.
“I would like to introduce you all to our new Morphology Magister, Lord Irwin.”
Lord Irwin stood. He was a well built, sturdy and handsome young Gold, even with the small scar that rested above his left eye and dissected his eyebrow. A slight blush warmed his face as he smiled self-consciously and waved briefly at the novices.
Dux, turning to his right, offered a hand to the willowy and exquisitely beautiful woman sitting at his side. Taking his hand, with a regal smile and tilt of the head, she gracefully rose to her feet. She was almost as tall as Dux.
“May I introduce you to Lady Tesla,” said Dux,“ who I am delighted to say, has agreed to remain as our Cognito Magister for another year. I am rather hopeful that I will be able to persuade her to do so again next year?”
She nodded her head, taking her seat after a second, with a smile and a delicately raised eyebrow that implied that ‘maybe,’ she could indeed, be persuaded.
“Finally,” said Dux. “I am very proud, to introduce you new novices, to one of our longest serving Magisters. He is also, undoubtedly, the most able Magica Magister that we have ever had at the Oratory; Lord Theordore Goldin.”
Lord Goldin was an elderly man, tall and thin framed. His deeply lined face exhibited a serene and kindly expression as he slowly placed his two palms together at his lips and bent his head forward in greeting.
Dux lifted the goblet of honey flower mead from his table and held it aloft for the traditional Ascension feast toast. The senior novices immediately mirrored him, raising their cups and standing. The new ascendants quickly followed their lead and the refectory rang with the combined cheery voices of the students and Magisters as they sang out the words of the Ascension toast.
“Here’s to the gold that warms our lands, and here’s to the mud that binds them. Here’s to the blood that joins our kin.... and here’s to the Whyte that minds them!
Here’s to Aurum’s fields of gold, and here’s to Ferrum’s farmers, here’s to Hydrargyrum’s mines untold.... and here’s to Rhodium’s charmers.... the Afterlands!”
A series of cheers rang out, the atmosphere was warm, and the refectory was awash with a sea of happy faces.
Dux felt reassured that as was usual, the ascendants had been welcomed like the old friends that they were and now that many of their questions had been answered, it appeared that they had begun to relax. They were embarking on new relationships and forging bonds. He knew over the next three years, their relationships would strengthen and grow as they helped each other through many trials and challenges that they would have to overcome, to graduate the Oratory.
It was soon time for the new novices to be shown to their dormitories before the night bell sounded. Arjan had been summoned over to speak to Lord Dux. When he returned to their table, his face wore a broad grin.
“Lord Dux has asked me to be the Whyte Advocate as there are no senior Whyte novices to appoint to that position.” He said, bursting with pride. He hardly drew a breath as he went on. “That means that I will move into your dormitory, to act as your mentor and guide.”
Apparently feeling very pleased about this, he caught Rose’s eye, his face flushing fleetingly, as she smiled back at him.
“So... If you would all like to follow me, I’ll show you to the Whyte Dorm, Lord Dux tells me that it has been made ready.”
Eagerly they followed Arjan out of the refectory, through a large Goldstone archway and into a long stone corridor with arched windows on either side. It was dusk outside. Through the windows on the right, they could see an enclosed cobblestone courtyard containing a circle of seating with a fountain at its centre. On the left was a similar yard, but at its core were a collection of bell-shaped straw domes, which rested on intricately carved stone pedestals.
“Arjan, what are they?” asked Auriel.
“Oh, they are our skeps. They house our apis.”
“Apis?” she said, arching her brows.
“Our messenger bees, they’re one of the first things you’ll learn about tomorrow in Morphology.” He went on enthusiastically, “It is a real challenge to interpret their dances when you first start, but you’ll soon learn. It’s Ash that will have the biggest problem, as a Morphology major. It will be his task to transfer the messages to the apis, and that’s a tiny bit more difficult.” he shot an amused look at Ash.
“Right, I get it!” said Ash “I suppose I have to magically turn myself into a bee and then talk to them in bee talk… bzz zzz zzz.”
Arjan gave a series of exaggerated nods. “Pretty much spot on, only you don’t speak to them… you dance.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” said Ash
“I am perfectly serious.” said Arjan straight-faced “Don’t worry you should ace it being a Mud.”
At the end of the corridor was a pentagonal shaped hall, with a large arched doorway on each of the four facing walls. Over each doorway was an Aurum goldstone carved with the emblem of one of the Afterlands. Arjan opened the door to their right, which was directly below the stone carving of a Rhodium snow rose.
The Rhodium dormitory’s central chamber was hexagonal. Its walls were lined with soft white marble. White rose scented candles lit the room with a soft glow. At the centre of the chamber, there was an enormous open fireplace where a wood fire leapt and crackled welcomingly. The scent of from the candles mingled with that of the sandalwood and citrus oak burning on the fire, giving the room a warming, spicy aroma. The fireplace was surrounded by a circular stone seat, piled high with soft velvet, indigo coloured cushions. On each of the walls, there were ornate arched doorways, each covered by thick, indigo velvet curtains appliquéd with white satin Rhodium snow roses. The room felt safe, welcoming, and warm.
Ash pulled open one of the curtains, revealing a small antechamber. It was cooler than the central chamber and smelled of freshly laundered linen. Along one of the walls was a white marble bed supporting a large comfortably made up mattress. To the left of this was an alcove containing a hanging rail supporting five black robes. On a shelf below were three pairs of black pumps and a red scaled leather belt. Against the other wall was a pedestal on which there rested a marble bowl. An ornately carved marble rose hung out from the wall above it and next to this was a small silver pump handle. Ash looked at it quizzically for a second and then gave it a slight push, jumping away as icy water gushed out of the marble rose and splashed into the bowl next to him.
“I think that this must be your room, Lee,” he said pointing to the black robes.
“A logical assumption,” said Lee raising his brows.
He inspected the room briefly before turning the hangers around so that they hung the same way as each other. Then, after straightening each robe, the boy making sure that the pumps and belts were equally spaced and lined up parallel to each other.
“I believe this will be adequate and quite serviceable for my needs,” he said.
After they had each located their rooms, they sat together on the large cushions, warming themselves by the fire.
“What an absolutely fabulous day,” said Auriel, as she stretched out on one particularly plump cushion. “It’s strange, though, I don’t think that any of this has really sunk in yet. I keep thinking that I’ll go to bed and then wake up somewhere else…. somewhere where I’ll have some sort of memory, somewhere where I’ll know who I really am. To me, this place and everything that’s happened just feels like an amazingly weird and wonderful dream.”
“I feel a little like that too,” said Rose warming her hands next to the flames “but I think I’d feel sad if I woke up and you were all gone. You are all that seems real to me now. You’re all I have. We’re all each other have. This is all such an incredible adventure, and despite all this prophecy stuff, I don’t know why but I feel quite calm and wonderfully free. It’s like we could be anyone, do anything, it’s so exciting. I can’t wait to start classes tomorrow.”
Ignoring this emotional disclosure, Lee turned to Arjan “What is the procedure in the morning?”
“Oh yes, of course,” he put on a mock serious expression, “ I guess that is my job now, isn’t it? Well, first, I suppose I should tell you what you should know about tonight. The night bell will sound shortly. Once the night bell sounds novices are not allowed to leave their dorms unless it is an absolute emergency. The morning bell sounds at dawn, and then we dress and go to the refectory for breakfast before we go to our classes. First-year Novices start lessons with Morphology, then Cognito and then Alchemy. On the midday bell, we break for a long lunch, it gets hot in the middle of the day this time of year. After lunch, you return to lessons, first with Magica, and then you each goes to the subject in which you are to major, which will be, of course, whatever is your potentia.”
As he finished speaking, the bright chiming of the night bell rang out. The candlelight flickered, all of the flames simultaneously dimming to a soft glow on the first chime.
“I hadn’t realised it was that late,” said Arjan “The candles will go out on the next chime.” As he said this, the second chime rang out and the candles were extinguished. “Now we must sleep,” he said.
As the third chime sounded, the small candles in their antechambers sparked into life, beckoning them to their beds.
Rose settled herself in between her crisp white sheets and within a few minutes, the excitement and stresses of the day were forgotten as the candles finally dimmed, and she slipped into a deep sleep.
The trees stood, seemingly without support, as the mist swirled around the ground on which they were rooted. Everything was grey, the branches of the trees, the fog, and even the dark beyond. Out of the haze, she heard voices calling to her.
“Rose, Rose the Whyte” the voices both male and female, were soft and melodic, they sounded far away, echoing in the distance.
The mist billowed out and then at its centre began to disperse, revealing a tall white-haired man, his features mostly obscured by an enormous pair of eyebrows, and a long silver white beard. He wore a long white robe which flowed around his feet, spilling onto the ground. To his side came three others, similarly attired. The four of them, three men, and one silver-haired woman seemed to float gently on the mist as they reached out their arms towards her.
“Come Rose the Whyte; it is time. Be one with us...”
Slowly she moved towards them, her arms outstretched, a feeling of great contentment growing inside her, like finally arriving home after a long journey.
Suddenly, there was fyre all around. Great billowing flames that leapt up from the ground barring her way. Out from the centre of the inferno, emerged a red-skinned man, with eyes as black as the night and hair and limbs of fyre. A terrifying cry emanated from his open jaws as he hurtled towards her.
Rose awoke, her heart pounding like a thunderstorm in her chest.