Rori: The Final Travail
She must have cried herself to sleep. When Winifred woke her during the middle of the night, her eyes were too swollen to see well. Her entire face felt hot, burning from the salt in her tears. Perhaps, from the lack of sleep, the swollenness seemed to make her whole body languid. She was certain she couldn’t possibly get out of bed.
“Rori,” Winifed whispered, attempting not to wake up the other apprentices in the dorm. “I know these past few days have been terrible but...” Winifred took in a slow breath. “It is time.”
Her gaze drifted from her mentor to the rows of bunk beds and countless sleeping apprentices. Most were near in age as Rori, all expected to go through their trials at some point. She grew up with most of them, spent everyday with them from breakfast until dinner. She would likely spend the rest of her life with them, die of old age with them.
When Rori made no response Winifred stood up and grabbed the silk robes from the end of her bed. “Chancellor Nicaise is waiting for us.”
Rori eased upright and ran a hand along her messy braid. She must have forgotten to undo it before falling asleep. She tugged the hairband free and ruffled out the dark brown strands of her.
“No time.” Winifred rolled the numerous blankets off of her and motioned for her to follow. “They aren’t judging you on looks, my dear.”
She nodded absentmindedly and slid her feet into her slippers. At least she had remembered to take those off. When she finally looked at Winifred, she realized her mentor was holding out a worn, weathered staff. It had a slight sheen to it. The protective lacquer was still there in patches.
“This staff was handed down to me by my mentor when I took my final trial.” Winifred grabbed Rori’s hand and placed the tall staff into her grasp. “I give this to you as you are now facing your own trial.”
Her attention swept along the twists of wood. Her thumb brushed over a dent in the shaft where a knife had perhaps snagged it. There were slight burn marks at the top of the staff, thin branches arching out like a crown. Rori finally got to her feet and held the staff out in front of her.
“I am no longer your mentor, Rori. I am proud of you.” Her mouth hung open, words caught in her throat. She hugged Rori’s silk robes to her chest, peering down at them as if she would never see them again.
“I’ll be fine.” She gently took the robes from Winifred and slid them over her wool nightgown. They were old robes, worn through the years, tattered in some places. They had been a gift from Merrick... and Winifred had spent every other weekend keeping them mended.
Merrick was gone and she was leaving her mentor. Everything was changing too quickly. But at least Winifred would still be in the spire. She would live one floor away, in fact. It almost made her smile a little to know that her mother figure would still be there for her.
Winifred looked her up and down and, with a confirming nod, snuck out of the chambers into the dark corridors. Her pace never seemed to quicken. In fact, she was walking so painstakingly slow, Rori almost raced past her. But then another part of Rori, the exhausted and drained part of her, didn’t mind slinking down the hallway aimlessly with her.
They made the long descent into the bottom chambers of the tower, well after the first floor. It was colder the further they went into the basement. Rori wasn’t sure if she was shivering from the chill in the air or the rising bursts of adrenaline. Her final trial was steps away from her and she wasn’t as confident as she had been before.
The Final Travail was the best kept secret in Sunstone. No one was allowed to discuss the events of the trial afterwards. Some Mages were even known to have died during the test.
Winifred stopped before a set of wooden doors barely holding onto their hinges. Her mentor shuffled around to face Rori, her expression soft yet somehow worried. Her lips parted a few times but she never got the words out.
Rori’s lips tried to smile and she thought it might have looked like something similar to a smile. “Don’t worry so much. You trained me for this.” She held up the staff as if to prove her words.
The young Mage stepped past her mentor and shoved open the heavy doors. The hinges groaned and the awful sound echoed into the chamber room. Everyone turned to look at her. Their faces and the wall around them were casted in a pale light by the blue fired braziers. It was a sharp contrast to the warmly lit hallways outside.
Ser Ruslan caught her attention first but his eyes were averted and his hands were gripped tightly around the hilt of his sword. A few other Paladins stood with him, all of them nearly the same in age. None were at all as imposing as the Paladin Commander who stood in the center of the room.
Across from the altar was the chancellor, an old man who was too thin for his massive robes. “Ms. Serana,” he greeted, old voice as raspy as dust.
The commander marched towards her, the weight of his armor fierce against the stone floor as he moved. The sound was so loud as it echoed that Rori could barely make out his speech, “Magic must be controlled. It is a dangerous weapon that you have been cursed with. A danger to everyone around you including yourself. Only through your trials can you prove that you can control it.”
The chancellor stood idly by, his hands tucked behind his hunched back. Finally he hobbled forward, his tone much gentler than the commander’s, “You have spent these past nine years as an adept apprentice. It is in your time here at Sunstone that you have developed your skills as an apprentice and earned the right to ascend to the respect of a Master Mage in the Federation.”
“I’m ready,” she whispered, throat dry from crying all night. “Whatever test you have, I can pass it.” She glanced at Sir Ruslan from the corner of her eye, the way he somewhat fidgeted nervously with his gloves and leather straps.
“Then prove it,” Commander Zadkiel bellowed. He tossed a hand towards the altar in the center of the room.
It was a circular pedestal and from it, etched in the marble floor, were ripples. More intricate carvings covered the pedestal itself and resting on top was a glass orb. The glass was iridescent, shimmering with pastels under the blue fires.
Rori raised her chin. She marched forward and glared at the commander as she passed him. He returned the stare, not at all moved by her confidence. But he managed a firm nod of his head as if to encourage her. Perhaps it was Merrick’s memory that made him relent slightly to show some form of kindness to her.
Chancellor Nicaise stepped towards her at the altar, tucking his hands behind him. “This ritual can be dangerous. Many survive it. Some have died.”
“Died?” Ser Ruslan muttered and his commander cleared his throat in a grumble. He lowered his eyes in submission, not even daring to glance at Rori before he did.
Commander Zadkiel drew his sword. “Paladins, stand at the ready.”
Rori turned her gaze back to the altar and the glass orb. The more she looked at it the more details she could see. Swimming inside of it was some form of metallic substance that shimmered in varying colors.
The chancellor’s gruff voice rasped in her ears, “Rest both hands on the glass. Do not fight. Simply allow the spell to do its job.”
Her brows pinched slightly. She didn’t quite know what that meant. If it wasn’t a test of skill or her talents then what had she been training for? Was it somehow measuring her abilities? If she wasn’t showing her skills and magic then... what was she doing here?
If it was dark magic, she wouldn’t have known. Anything that even hinted at evil was banned from Sunstone all together. She heard a rumor once that all the books were carefully tucked away in the chancellor’s study. But she was certain it was only a rumor.
“Your magic will do the work for you,” he assured, seeing the emotions skipping through her features. “Have faith, Ms. Serana.”
Her eyes rolled towards Ser Ruslan and the other Paladins. She couldn’t make out his features now. All of them were wearing their helmets which made them all look incredibly intimidating. Her stomach was tying itself into knots.
Rori raised her hands over the glass orb. Light began welling up around it, arching towards her palms as if it were sensing her magic. If her hands pulled away or moved slightly, the iridescent light followed like a dog wanting attention. She wrapped her palms over the glass. Ice sizzled across her hands and up her arms. She could taste it in the back of her throat, metallic yet minty, a spark of peppercorn that burned her nostrils and watered her eyes.
Her heart hammered and then jolted to a stop. She looked at the chancellor for some sign but he was expressionless. His eyes were black stones and her stomach clenched when her mouth turned sour. Sweat layered her skin in a cold sheen. Her knees buckled out from under her but her hands were frozen to the glass orb.
Poison, she wondered. But poison wasn’t a test of skill. And it really didn’t have anything to do with magic at all.
The sickness, the scattered electricity, began making its way into her mouth where a scream pried her teeth apart. She was screaming or howling, she couldn’t be certain. Her ears felt stuffed, muffled by the ragged hiss of magic as it swelled around her.
A demon, she thought. The worst dark magic.
She pressed her fingers into the cold glass and tried to fight its assault. The darkness drilled and gnawed into her flesh, anchoring itself into her bones, but she wouldn’t allow it to go further. Another boiling wave of heat swept up around her. Her mouth turned sour and metallic, the taste of blood coating her tongue.
She reached out to the room in search for power but something was blocking her attempts.
The Aether hummed against her ears as she searched frantically. She reached through the veil and gathered magic from the otherside. Her spell began spinning around her. She breathed it into her lungs to cleanse away the entropic energy of the demon. A flower of light bloomed out of her and washed the room clean.
The demon’s hold on her vanished with such abruptness that her back fell flat into the floor.
Rori heaved down a breath of air and stared into the ceiling above. The light was fading away, softening until her eyes caught sight of the cowering Paladins. Chancellor Nicaise had shielded his eyes with his robes and when he lowered his arm to look at Rori, his brows were knitted together.
Commander Zadkiel’s lips twisted into a scowl. “Nicaise...”
Rori’s eyes rolled shut before she could see the chancellor’s reaction. She wasn’t entirely sure she cared to see it. She had survived the demon and that was all that mattered to her. She had survived their silly little test. And she would survive the next one.
The chancellor’s voice was quiet, “Please ensure she makes it to the physician for an exam. Then we can return her to her quarters.”
“Nicaise, we both know—”
“My chambers, Commander.” His feet seemed to rustle past her ear and the commander’s heavy boots clattered into the stone right behind him.
She wasn’t entirely sure if it had been the spell or if she was mentally drained from the week’s events, but she just couldn’t force herself to open her eyes. The stone floor was cool against her skin. And strangely enough her lungs felt refreshed, as if she had swam in a pool of mint.