Trials of the Nine

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                “You really don’t have to do this, you know. No shame in giving it a bit of time, coming back later. The offer is always open.”

                “No, I’m thinking I do. Remember, you lot are the ones that offered me the position in the first place.”

                “Well, yes, we did, but I’m not sure the others fully understood what they were doing. Sure, you’re good, all of us agree on that, but you’re only twenty-one. You haven’t even finished your term at the Academy yet. Do you really know what you’re getting yourself into here?”

                “Oh, your lack of faith hurts, Councillor.” Cel put a hand to her chest and made an exaggerated pouty face. “No, but really, I know full well what’s going to happen here. You lot are going to kick my ass with these trials, and at the end of it all I’ll be right up at the top of that tower of yours with all the rest of you. There’s nothing you nine can do to stop me.” She paused briefly, then spoke quickly, bowing her head. “Er, all due respect, Councillor.”

                “Honestly, Cel, your confidence is disturbing.” The Councillor crossed his arms and turned around. “But I suppose that’s what the others liked about you. Just send us a signal when you’re ready for the trials to start.” Then he left, leaving the balcony above Cel empty, with her alone in the arena. As alone as she could be anyways – somewhere even farther above, the Council of Nine was watching her, to keep an eye on her performance. Were they anything less than professionals, she would have been concerned that they were watching her dress. It would be quite the show, for Cel was no longer wearing her usual conservative robes that flowed elegantly down her body and hung just loosely enough to conceal her figure in the process. Rather, her clothing now consisted of a sleeveless tunic and a shorter, more practical skirt (both still in the traditional yellow), completed with the sort of boots a farmer would wear in the winter and simple hand wraps that were only now being tied up. Suffice it to say she was showing quite a generous amount of her fair brass skin, which her peers at the Academy would no doubt have enjoyed despite her remarkably average appearance.

                In any event, there was no chance of spectators seeing the curves Cel so rarely displayed. The Council trials were conducted in a private arena, overseen exclusively by the Nine themselves, and the Nine had no reason to take interest in someone wearing sparring gear they’d seen a million times before. And as if a million times weren’t enough… With all her clothing in order and dark hair arranged just so – it was short enough to keep loose, but it couldn’t just be left to its own devices – she stepped out into the arena proper, draining the contents of the waterskin she’d brought with her on the way out. She didn’t know what exactly the trials would entail, or how long they would last. Best to start well-hydrated and not worry about it later.

                Standing in the center of the arena, Cel raised a hand and produced a golden flame, which she flickered a few times before dropping entirely. Up above, she could see a figure walk up to a window in the cavern wall, and a magically-amplified voice rang out.

                “Ready? Fine. You stand before the Council of the Nine Masters of Medru Dalach, to prove to us your worth to serve at our side.” This Councillor was known to Cel as Varassus, and he sounded incredibly bored as he droned on with his announcement. “Each of us has prepared for you a test designed to push your knowledge and skills to their absolute limits. You must successfully complete each of the nine trials, then you will be tested in a tenth challenge arranged by the entire Council. As any one of us does not know what the content of the other eight trials will be, you are on your own. We are not allowed to provide guidance or aid, though we will intervene to the best of our abilities if it is absolutely necessary. If you leave this cavern, your trials are forfeit, but there are otherwise no rules or limitations. You must complete the tasks set before you by whatever means possible.” Councillor Varassus cleared his throat, now speaking with more energy. “And, official speech aside, on a more personal note, Cel, remember that you are here because we believed in your skills. You are young, yes, but don’t worry. We won’t let that cloud our judgment. You will be subjected to the same rigorous tests as anyone else and held to the same exalted standards. There is only one advantage you get here today, and that is that if you pass these trials now, your position among us is secured – you will be immediately granted the next seat to open, as we have already discussed. But remember that if you fail and come back to try again, we cannot extend this same offer.”

                Then the world went dark and the Councillor continued to speak. “Anyways, your first trial is something I’m sure you’ll find relevant to your studies.” When Cel’s vision returned, Councillor Varassus had retreated from the window, and in the arena a forge had appeared alongside a table, on which lay an assortment of metal bars. Cel recognized silver and gold, and a few others known for their ability to take magic like a sponge.

                The Councillor was right: Cel’s studies had primarily focused on enchantment, and now she was being asked to create one of the enchanted metals. The only problem was that the two most well-known metals were beyond her abilities – literally impossible for her, as they demanded a type of magic she couldn’t use. But of course Varassus wouldn’t expect her to make either of those, knowing that. That would be too easy, anyways, just a case of melting the silver down, imbuing the molten metal with energy, then turning it back into a bar.

                No, it had to be something involving more than one metal. That would make it the hardest to not only enchant, but also to reform to a usable state. But that had its own problem too. Cel had heard of an enchanted metal that made use of everything she’d been given here, but it still needed magic she didn’t have access to. It would theoretically require at least one other person, though realistically she’d need the help of two of the Councillors, which was obviously out of the question.

                That just left one alternative: a complex enchantment that normally needed four people, but Cel’s magic allowed her to do alone. It wouldn’t need all the metals she’d been given, though perhaps that was the trap – assume they want all the metals used then ask for help because the task is impossible alone, then instantly fail for not seeing the alternatives. They’d have to try harder than that if they wanted Cel to fall for their tricks. Indeed, she simply grabbed up the metals she’d need and headed to the forge, where she worked at melting down each piece individually. Drop one bar in, and feed the forge fire and air from her own hands. When it became malleable enough, she’d imbue it with energy and move on to the next piece, until she had four so enchanted.

                And then there was the hard part. All four pieces had to be melted down again, and re-enchanted at the same time. Done incorrectly, the resulting mess would just be a worthless blob of mildly-magical metal. But with skilled hands, such as, say, those of someone who’d spent the last six years studying every form of enchantment known to man – including several supposedly invented by the dragons of ancient myth – it wouldn’t be difficult so much as it would be annoying. Little details needed to be just right, like when the forge should be fed or fanned, and when each energy should be added.

                But, of course, in time Cel pulled out a bar of metal that almost looked silver, except for its golden shine. She waved it over her head and felt its weight leave her as her vision faded again and the next Councillor spoke.

                “Hm, how about something a little more energetic? Mine is a combat trial. The test begins when you have armed yourself.”

                When Cel could see again, the arena had been cleared out entirely, devoid of everything but its own walls and floor.

                “Clever bastard you are, Renagor,” Cel muttered. There were no weapons available, even in the preparation area which was still open. “I have to arm myself but you don’t give me weapons? And if I ask for one I fail. I see how it is.” She laughed quietly as she continued talking to herself. “Good thing I know what the real test is here, hm? How’s this for armed?”

                With that, she raised her right hand over her head and drew it back, a line of dust following the path and taking the shape of Cel’s favored cross-spear. Then she slammed the spear on the ground in front of her and crossed both arms over her body as black iron enveloped her. And when she brought her arms back to her sides, the Second Councillor’s voice sounded again.

                “Ready? Ah, good. This is a little trick I picked up from my nephew, believe it or not. I’ve found it to be very convenient. You should find it quite the opposite.”

                There was a pause after he finished speaking, during which he was presumably waving his hands around or some such thing, then three dark figures seemed to crawl out of the shadows. All three took the shape of Councillor Renagor, and all three carried traditional elven weapons. One had a glaive, another had a staff, and the last brandished a warhammer and cowered behind a tower shield.

                The one with the glaive moved first, surging across the arena with such speed that it simply turned into a cloud of dark smoke. Not even a second later, the mage shadow lifted its staff, and by the time it struck the ground the first shadow had materialized again. Its strike prompted a hasty defense from Cel, who managed to get the shadow’s glaive caught between one of the lugs on her spear and its head, but she was hit from the side by a ball of dark energy before she could take advantage of this.

                She recovered quickly enough to block another attack from the first shadow, this time grabbing its weapon in her left hand and kicking the shadow away. The glaive disintegrated on its own accord and Cel wove around a few more attacks from the mage shadow, then grabbed the cross of her spear with her free hand and drove it into the shadow she’d disarmed. The shadow at first crumbled into the attack like any normal person would upon being violently impaled, but after a brief moment exploded into dark smoke which went to rejoin the shadows cast by the arena walls.

                The remaining two shadow figures didn’t seem the least bit unnerved – unsurprising, considering they were merely magical constructs – and they both went straight to work as if nothing had happened. The one with the hammer had moved in front of the mage to provide cover, and the mage had its free hand in the air.

                Cel started to move in a wide circle around the two shadows, and when the mage finally threw the energy it was collecting, she jumped out of the way with more than enough time to watch the blast crash into the arena wall and dissolve with no effect. Then she just went back to what she was doing, weaving around the barrage that the mage was now unleashing, until the one with the shield was just at the edge of her spear’s range.

                The mage refused to yield, so Cel kept herself low as she stepped forward and hooked the edge of the other shadow’s shield with the cross of her spear. The shadow saw this as an error, so simply took advantage of this to shove Cel’s spear aside while the mage prepared another assault. Unfortunate for the shadows, then, that that was exactly what she wanted, using the momentum she’d been given to swing her weapon around past the shieldbearer, slicing into the mage with the spear’s head. The mage burst like the previous shadow, and now the shieldbearer was left alone.

                Alone, but not without options, of course. The last shadow brought up its shield again and charged straight for Cel, ramming into her before she could bring her spear back around to defend. The shadow immediately followed up by striking her with its hammer before she could regain balance.

                Of course, her armor was well-made and properly-fitted, so the blow didn’t hurt, exactly. But then all the plating and padding didn’t quite cancel out the force of the hammer either. That wouldn’t be much of a problem on its own – Cel could deal with a little blunt shock – but things had aligned in just such a way that getting hit in that particular location brought her attention to a more personal issue, if only for a moment. Good for her that it was an issue she could ignore, at least for now, because she couldn’t spare the moment to give it any more thought than simply acknowledging that this was the result of keeping herself hydrated.

                The shadow’s intervention only served to prove that there was no time to think – it had thrown another strike at Cel, though this one she was able to stop with her left arm. The shock of the impact was enough to indicate that maybe doing that again would be a very stupid idea, and that she was extremely fortunate to be wearing armor at that particular moment.

                Even so, Cel was able to immediately turn around and grab at the shadow’s hammer, though before she could take it for herself she was struck in the chest with the shield and forced to release the weapon. This time she recovered quickly enough to back off out of the shadow’s range before it could do anything else, and retaliated with a few two-handed jabs, though each collided harmlessly with the massive shield. The shadow responded with a wide swing of its hammer, and Cel grabbed its arm to stop the attack. The shadow, in turn, moved to bash her with the shield, only to have it collide rather harmlessly with her spear. Cel kept hold of the shadow’s weapon arm and moved her spear such that the cross was hooked around the edge of the shield. Now in control, Cel threw the shadow’s arms open and quickly drove her spear into where its heart would be. The shadow staggered backwards for a moment, then started a swing aimed directly at Cel’s head – though just as the hammer would have struck the side of her helm, the shadow dissolved like the others.

                Taking a deep breath, Cel dropped her spear, and it faded away before it could hit the ground. Then she took a little step forward, stretching her arms out from her sides while the armor dissipated as well. A moment later, Councillor Renagor’s voice rang out again.

                “Hm. Very physical. Interesting. Obviously I’ve heard of your order from Sentagon, how your people avoid using magic unless it’s absolutely necessary.” He paused for a second. “Admirable, I must say. You’re taught to respect the magic – to fear it, to fear your own power. If only everyone could have such discipline. Ah, but now… Attraeon?”

                Renagor’s voice faded out as he spoke his last sentence, and shortly after he finished speaking, there was a different voice. “Yes, yes, right.” This Councillor coughed before moving on. “Ah, well. Excellent progress so far, but you’re coming for my seat, and I’m sure you know how hard it is to impress me.” Cel’s vision faded again and the Councillor kept talking. “But this… This is special. I don’t just want to be impressed. No, what you have to do…. Suffice it to say that even I haven’t ever actually done this. Nobody has. Not in centuries.” The darkness passed, and the Councillor finished as Cel gazed upon a massive obelisk in the center of the arena. “Enjoy being the first.”

                The obelisk was a simple stone pillar, inhumanly smooth and apparently made out of the same material as the arena itself. This sort of monument was fairly common – there was a much larger version of the same thing up on the surface, out in one of the central plazas of Medru Dalach’s campus, and there were a great deal of them scattered around the countryside and at the edges of cities in most places. Cel knew exactly what this was, so as she looked at the pillar and considered the challenge, all she could do was stare and silently mouth the words “what the fuck”.

                And there was good reason for that – structures like this obelisk were so widespread because of their magical properties. These things acted as conduits for teleportation, enabling travel over long distances to those that had the skills. And in the Fifteen, at least, the obelisks – lodestones, the locals called them – had stood for nearly a thousand years, spaced a few miles apart to cover almost the entire continent. None of them had ever been disabled, and because they covered all the important areas save for more recent constructions like Oraculum, nobody ever bothered to build more.

                The Councillor definitely wasn’t exaggerating – this was extremely special, and enchanting a lodestone would be beyond impressive. It’d be legendary. But of course, there was a reason for that as well. Because it had been centuries since the last time one had been enchanted, nobody knew how to do it, strictly speaking. No doubt Councillor Attraeon knew it, in theory, but especially with something like this, theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge were two entirely different things. Even Cel theoretically knew how to enchant a lodestone, as a consequence of studying enchanting at the world’s most prestigious magical academy. But the problem was: how could that knowledge be applied? Just one way to find out.

                Cel approached the inert shrine and gently laid a hand on it – it certainly felt devoid of all power, so this would need to be done from nothing. She circled around the obelisk a few times, leaving her hand to brush against it. When she finally stopped, she put her free hand onto the lodestone as well, and leaned forwards into it. With a deep breath, she closed her eyes and just as her head was about to touch the pillar, her body turned to smoke and reformed on the other side of the obelisk. She took a few steps to regain proper balance, then turned around to look at the stone again. It didn’t seem to have changed at all, so she shrugged, took a step forward, and teleported back to the other side, the smoke weaving around the pillar. Of course, still nothing had happened.

                “Hmph.” Cel fell into a sitting position and folded her arms, the motion leaving what was under her skirt visible for just a moment before everything settled into place again. There she sat for some time, her head tilted slightly and the fingers of one hand drumming on the opposite arm. Perhaps she was there for only a few minutes, perhaps for a few hours. It was nearly impossible to tell for sure, but eventually she did stand up again, and approached the lodestone again with a sigh.

                This time, she held both hands out at her sides, and when she brought them forward to touch the pillar they had a yellow glow about them. Another deep breath and Cel leaned in as if she were trying to push the lodestone away, moving her hands in small circles over the stone.

                She stood like this for some time, and was about to give up and try something else when the pillar started to glow with the same aura that she was projecting herself. Seeing this, Cel pushed off against the lodestone and jumped back, and with her hands still in front of her she unleashed a stream of yellow energy at the stone; the energy initially struck with no effect, parting to move around the pillar, but when it did that it simply got absorbed on the other side. A few seconds of that, and the assault was cut off, Cel running forward again to strike the pillar with one hand. The resulting glow was even brighter than before, and when her hand was removed, the light of ancient magical symbols shone briefly on the stone before fading away. Then she teleported to the top of the pillar, balancing on its tip for a moment, then jumping off and striking it again while she dissolved to teleport back to the ground.

                When her body reformed, she took a deep breath again, crossed her arms over her chest and bent forward slightly. With one quick motion, she straightened out and her arms flew open, releasing a blast of the same golden energy in all directions, which the lodestone absorbed before any of the energy could hit the other walls of the arena.

                Then, it was a simple matter of just approaching the stone and touching it. If all went well, all Cel would need to do was focus.

                Indeed, upon touching the stone, Cel’s vision blurred and her ears were filled with the sound of rushing air, and when she could see again, the Nine had her backs to her. From this position, she could just barely see the top of the lodestone below. It didn’t take long for the Councillors to realize what had happened, and they all turned to face her – their reactions varied from shock (be that because she had actually succeeded, or because she teleported into the observation room to prove it) to utter indifference. Cel responded with a simple, smug bow before disappearing into the arena again.

                “Um, well, I’m not sure that was necessary, but…” Even Attraeon’s sigh was amplified. “Yeah, fine, good work. Now, even if you fail, you can say you’re the only person alive who’s ever done that.”

                The next voice had an accent Cel had only ever heard at the Academy – thick and tinted with the age of both the Councillor and his native tongue. “Now let us see,” he said. “Here is something else special for you. Very important to my people, these are, but to you, perhaps it is just a slab of rock.” The world went dark again, of course. “Even so, to be a Councillor you must know magic from all parts of the world. I am sure you know much that comes from the Origin of Man, so let us see just how far this knowledge goes.”

                When Cel could see again, the obelisk had been replaced with almost exactly what the Councillor said it would be: a slab of rock, essentially a large stone table. It brought back memories of the altar in the temple back home. But obviously the challenge wouldn’t be so easy – surely Councillor Nemthuur would have known about this, especially with one Star Priest on the Council already. No, this particular altar had a different purpose.

                Whatever it was, Cel was getting those all-too-familiar signals from her body that it’d be best if she figured it out quickly. Sure, she could leave now – no penalty for leaving the arena to deal with things like that so long as she stayed underground – but for now, she could wait just fine. As far as she was concerned, she’d have to anyways. Something so mundane wasn’t about to interfere with the most important tests of her life. Though, she would have to drink something pretty soon, and with no way to tell how long the remaining tests would take, that could very well cause problems.

                Problems to deal with when they arise. For now, the problem was figuring out what the Councillor’s altar was for. If it was like the others Cel had seen, it likely had some sort of teleportation functionality, or perhaps it was an amplifier that needed the correct ritual to activate.

                Too bad for her that Councillor Nemthuur was very much aware that ritual magic like this was her weakness – especially with something so foreign. Sure, if he’d just given her this slab and told her to enchant it to do whatever it was supposed to do, she could do that well enough, but just reaching out for it demonstrated it was overflowing with magical energy. Getting an existing enchantment to actually do something, especially without knowing what it did in the first place? That was a challenge.

                A challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Cel walked up to the altar and laid a hand on it, closing her eyes to try and figure out what all that energy was trying to do. Something about it felt wrong, so Cel frowned and put her other hand on the altar as well. A few minutes of concentration revealed that the energy felt as though it were coming from somewhere else – where exactly, who could say, but that meant one thing: the altar summoned something.

                Specifically, whatever was on the other end of the connection. A reverse teleportation enchantment, essentially. No doubt this was a simplification of what Nemthuur would have used in his homeland, but what chance had anyone from any other part of the world to figure out the real ritual?

                Of course, being easier than it could have been wasn’t saying much – sure, the altar could summon something, and it was already linked to whatever that thing was, but summoning was a fairly peculiar skill, rare if not nonexistent everywhere except in Nemthuur’s homeland of Vinumur. It wasn’t even taught at Medru Dalach, for all their notoriety, because it was so utterly useless outside of obscure religious rituals practiced only by the oldest civilizations. Well, it was useful for that and Council trials, because it wouldn’t be a proper test to become a master among masters if it didn’t test one’s skills at things one would never need to know again.

                Cel stayed in that position, hands on the altar and eyes closed, while she considered how to do what needed to be done. Theoretically, she could just pull the energy through and hope that whatever was on the other end of the connection would come along with it – but that was just as likely to destroy the altar, the connected thing, or both.

                But wait – if it were already connected, perhaps the teleportation idea wasn’t all that far off. Teleporting was already essentially just taking something – one’s own body in practice – and putting it somewhere else. That concept could easily be applied in the opposite direction, as long as there was a way to tap into the energy of whatever needed to be moved.

                Conveniently…

                Cel waved one hand over the altar in a large circle, holding the other steady just above it for a moment, until there was a burst of flame that forced her to pull her arms back. The flame rose from the altar, assuming the form of, according to the legends, a dragon. It continued to rise for a brief moment, then disappeared in a bright flash and a shower of embers.

                “I did not expect that to be so easy for you.” The Councillor’s voice confirmed that was supposed to happen. “Interesting. If you maintain this, we will speak again for your final trial.”

                His voice faded, followed shortly by Cel’s vision. It returned as usual, and the edges of the arena had become a pool of water. There was quiet for a moment, then a woman’s voice, ancient and monotone, was heard above. “Do something useful with this.”

                Useful? Well, it was useful now – for Cel at least, whose first choice was to kneel in front of the water and get herself a few handfuls to drink. She was already being made well aware that she’d regret that soon, but such things were far better problems to deal with than dehydration.

                Anyways, what could Councillor Theryl have wanted? Surely a ninety-year-old legendary alchemist would know better than to give an enchantment trial to a skilled enchanter with no concept of humility. But then, unless Cel were to somehow magically pull together a brewery, there was very little useful to be done with water otherwise.

                Plus, Theryl was definitely the sort to lay traps for overthinkers, especially when she decided to teach classes personally. “Oh, this is too obvious, it must be something else,” her students would think. “There must be something else she wants us to do.” Then they’d fail because she actually just wanted them to brew tea.

                Usually they didn’t fall for that more than once. It was her special way of inducting the first-years into a system they’d likely never seen before. But Cel was in her sixth year. Seeing one of Theryl’s traps at that point was, to say the least, odd, especially when she was testing to find someone that she’d be working with.

                Ah, but she wasn’t looking for skills, was she? No, this was a logic test. To see if Cel could be tripped up not by Theryl’s traps, but by the context of the trials. Everyone knew what to expect from the Councillor in a classroom setting, but surely those expectations wouldn’t apply to a test to join the Council. And that was the trap.

                In any case, the water had already been enchanted while Cel was considering these things – she’d been absentmindedly waving her hands around, as something as trivial as making healing water had become second-nature to her – so by the time she’d finished her thoughts she couldn’t see anything anymore. Theryl hadn’t said anything, unsurprisingly, and presumably she was nodding in approval up in the Council’s little spectating room. The next Councillor was entirely silent, too, leaving Cel staring at a segmented pillar when her vision returned.

                It had old runes carved into it, the sort that Cel couldn’t read but everyone with magic knew vaguely what they meant. One of them was glowing, the one for fire.

                Cel cocked her head and muttered “Fire?” Then she shrugged and made a quick swiping motion in front of her with one hand. She’d launched a small golden fireball at the pillar, and when it struck the rune that segment rotated away and a different one lit up. Air.

                Is that all this is?’ Cel audibly groaned and finished her thought. ‘Great, this isn’t going to end well at all…’ With a sigh, she gave a quick punch with her right hand, and across the room the pillar changed again. Water. Slightly more complicated, but all it took was a bit of a circular motion to pull some of the moisture from the air and send it at the pillar. Then it was earth.

                Cel stomped with her right foot to bring up a rock to throw. Except that never happened. The ground stayed firmly in the ground, so she tried again, and still nothing. She reached out to pull at one of the walls, then the ceiling, and even the other walls, and nothing happened.

                “Yeah, of course.” Cel sighed, rubbing her forehead for a moment, then putting both arms out in front of her and focusing. Her hands started to shake after a little while, and then a bit later pebbles started to form from apparently nothing, eventually coalescing into a rock just large enough to throw.

                So, of course, that rock was immediately hurled at the pillar, which was apparently satisfied and turned to show the fire symbol again. Cel raised an eyebrow and threw another fireball at it, but this time that did nothing. She tried again, and again, no response. Cel leaned back slightly and put out her hands in a motion that on its own said “what is this nonsense?”

                Further consideration, though, caused her to direct one of those hands to her face as she realized that this solution was obvious. She widened her stance, took a deep breath, and started to move both arms in wide circular motions. The first hand started near the ground to make a spark, and the second caught the lightning in front of her and dragged it out even more, eventually leading back to trade the energy between both hands a few times. Then one foot suddenly shot out and her stance had changed entirely – where her body had been facing the pillar before, now she was turned to face the wall with the Councillors’ viewing window, both arms stretched out in opposite directions. The same instant, there was a deafening crash and the lightning Cel had been working on was gone without a trace, save for Cel’s hair now being significantly less orderly.

                Cel relaxed and went back to her normal stance, but the pillar changed again. It was still the symbol for fire, but now it was glowing white, not red.

                “Is that-“ Cel whispered, eyes wide, watching the pillar to make sure it was correct about what it wanted. “They don’t really- Naaah, fuck.” It was. They did.

                Cel took a moment to calm herself down – deep breaths, closed eyes, she’d even sat down again – and went back to talking to herself. “Alright, well, that’s… How am I going to do that? They’re not going to take anything less than perfect, for sure… But can I even do perfect?” She brought her elbows to rest on her legs and let her hands support her head. “Well, not like there’s all that much of a choice. If they really want to see it… I’m going to give them perfect.”

                She stood up, breathed deep again, and held her hands out to her sides. Golden flames appeared in each, and she brought her hands to her front and tried to press them together. The flames resisted, of course – part of why getting this perfect was so difficult; it was hard to even do it at all to begin with – but Cel wasn’t about to give up. She simply tried harder, the effort and heat causing her to break a sweat for the first time in her trials. The flames started to swirl around each other as she focused on nothing but the task at hand.

                But then she suddenly jumped back a bit and dropped the fire as she felt warmth somewhere that the flames couldn’t have affected. Cel’s body tensed and she pressed her legs together for a moment, not daring to check to confirm what she already knew had happened. She looked over her shoulder at the entrance to the arena. It was still open, she could leave now and come right back without penalty. She could, or she could finish what she’d started.

                Well, that was hardly much of a choice, was it?

                Without any further hesitation, Cel had her fire in hand again, right back to what she’d been doing – though this time with a slightly tighter stance and a divided focus – to make it seem like she’d made some mistake the last time. Perhaps they’d think she’d burned herself a little, or something.

                She’d duck out in between tests once this was done. Leaving in the middle of one was just unprofessional. This would just… take a while, is all. Certainly not long enough to be a problem if Cel paid attention.

                At any rate, she’d already committed to the test, and now that she’d doubled down on it, things were going well, if slowly. It did take a few minutes for the flames to join into one, and from there it was a (theoretically) simple matter of compressing that even further. More effort, more focus. And a little bit of focus on making sure that cold spot didn’t get warm again.

                The flame eventually became a white ball resembling a small sun. But it still wasn’t good enough. More effort, more focus. The ball was still hot, still glowing. That wouldn’t do. That wasn’t perfect. Cel threw her arms out to her sides, ripping the ball in half, then forced them back together just as quickly – keeping her head turned so that the resulting blast of heat only warmed up her ear a little bit. Then she pressed her hands even closer together, gradually closing in around the ball until her hands met. When they opened again, she was carrying that ball of energy in her left hand, feeling around it with her right and being very careful to not actually touch it. The absolute lack of any heat – or light, for that matter – coming off of it made it far more dangerous than any regular fire, but also confirmed one very important thing.

                It was perfect.

                And so it was thrown, and when it hit the pillar, the runes stopped glowing and the pillar retreated into the ground. Cel’s vision faded with but a single word from the Councillor: “Impressive.”

                The next one was more talkative. “I must say, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone get this far so quickly and so easily,” he said. “And, of course, we’re not supposed to give you any help, but I’m sure the other eight will agree with me when I tell you…” Cel’s vision returned during the Councillor’s pause, and in the middle of the arena there was now a collection of tables covered in alchemical instruments, plants, and bottles of various liquids. The setup was completed by a lectern off to the side, the book on it already open to a particular page. “If I didn’t give you the directions, you wouldn’t stand a chance at finishing this trial. So I’m not looking for you to know anything. No, this is actually fairly straightforward, and I’m sure this trial is going to… Well, it may just beat the arrogance out of you. I’m actually hoping otherwise; this place just wouldn’t be the same without someone like you around.” He paused for just a moment. “Eh, anyways, just do what the book says.”

                Cel had already made her way over to the book while the Councillor was speaking and had already scanned the page by the time he’d stopped. It actually was fairly straightforward. One very simple task: make the potion described in the book. No tricks, no distractions. Just a potion.

                Or, more specifically, create the single most powerful and complicated potion ever to have been made by human hands. Trivial, really.

                After all, everything Cel needed was out on the tables, and the book told her exactly what to do. That of course didn’t change the fact that Cel’s heart had nearly stopped when she first read the list of ingredients. This particular potion left absolutely no room for error, and there were only enough materials for a single attempt. If even one thing was ever so slightly off, the entire thing would be ruined and the trial failed. In retrospect, perhaps the cold fire didn’t need to be perfect, but this absolutely did – the end result literally could not possibly exist in any state other than perfection.

                But this was fine. Cel just had to pay attention to what she was doing, be careful, and it’d turn out alright. She didn’t even need to enchant the water herself, all she had to do was work the instruments and mix the ingredients.

                There would be no way to stop once she’d started, though. Even looking away for longer than it would take to blink would mean potentially missing a vital timing. Logically, this would be the perfect time to do whatever needed doing – especially pressing concerns that had brought themselves up in the prior test. But, come to think of it, Cel wasn’t really feeling it all that badly anymore. Perhaps it was just the strain from trying to work the cold fire that had set things off. There’d be nothing like that here, just staring at tubes and putting leaves into things. And if it wasn’t all that critical, it could wait until later…

                Cel glanced at the exit – still open – for only a moment as she picked up the book and moved it to the workbench, setting it down directly in front of where she’d be standing for the duration. Pouring out the contents of a bottle into one of the strange vessels and lightning a fire below it marked the point of no return, and from there she set about doing whatever else the book instructed her to do. Crush this plant, put this thing over there, pour this onto that, light this on fire, turn this valve…

                If not for the fact that everything had to be timed and portioned exactly correctly, this would actually be fairly monotonous. It did boil down to just following directions, after all. But that was part of the difficulty of doing this alone rather than with the traditional team of maybe a half-dozen alchemists. Everything was important, every sound, every detail. All the bubbling from the various reactions would be background noise anywhere else, but here, the sound from each individual vessel meant something. Dismissing those sounds as the typical droning of an alchemist’s workstation would mean disaster.

                Ah, but, perhaps something else should have been held with the same regard…

                Of course, that would be a far less significant disaster, but with everything going on now Cel was starting to regret having ignored her needs for so long. Now she couldn’t leave and was stuck watching things boil and drip. Her situation could have been better, to put it mildly.

                Though, honestly, it could have been worse too. At the moment she was standing fairly normally, just with her legs pressed together and occasionally a slight shuffle. If she could risk dividing her attention, she’d probably have forced herself to stand still and proper, but it was better to let her body take control of holding on while her mind concentrated on what would hopefully become the panacea she was supposed to be making.

                Things were looking good on that front, at least. Everything had gone well so far, and right now it was just a series of slight adjustments to things that had already been set up earlier. That certainly didn’t mean she could pay any less attention to it, though: a “slight” adjustment could mean something so minute that whatever needed to be adjusted would be changed too much by touching it a little too intensely. But it was still a nice bit of a break until things needed to start being brought away from the heat, at which point it was business as usual again.

                Near to usual, anyways, as the strain on Cel’s body had only been increasing the entire time, and with both hands needed to work the alchemical instruments…

                Well, better to not think about that – especially since she literally couldn’t afford to think about anything else anyways. Still, it had gotten to the point where even if she could dedicate any willpower to it, she wouldn’t be able to stop the constant motion of her legs. And because she had to focus on the trial, she couldn’t actively suppress the pressure down there either – just let herself feel the dull ache for a while, minimized only by the fact that it wasn’t the most important thing at the moment.

                As time went on, though, things were only moving in one direction, and with her mind focused on the potion, Cel’s body was left to its own devices. Only her inseparable legs and subconscious willpower were keeping things (mostly) dry below, but everything has a breaking point… Cel was finding it increasingly difficult to stand still as the trial dragged on, forcing her upper body to remain mostly steady by pure necessity while her legs shook and tried to dance.

                Cel was aware of the warmth when it appeared, but she could do nothing about it and was forced to feel the wetness expand before it stopped on its own. She was running out of time, but fortunately so was the potion. It would be close, and she was already wet, but there was a chance. There were only a few steps left in the preparation, and the only evidence of anything having gone wrong was under her skirt, which nobody with a brain would risk provoking her ire to check. Cel’s legs crossed tighter as the warm spot was freshened up and she forced herself to finish the potion as quickly as the procedure would allow. That was all she had to do. All the hard parts were over already. Just finish the damn potion.

                It probably would have been easier if “finish the potion” meant anything other than “pour these liquids together in specific amounts that need to be measured out exactly.” Suffice it to say that pouring things into other things was not exactly what Cel wanted to be doing if she couldn’t pour things from her own body into… well, anything would do, really, so long as it wasn’t her own clothes. Not that her body was giving her much choice in that matter – her bladder was burning and its patience wearing thin, leaving her wet spot with no time to cool off and a puddle at her feet that could hopefully be passed off as excess fluid from the instruments. Not much longer, though…

                Cel’s control was slipping for good by the time the final potion was getting bottled, and by the time it was finished she was producing a steady trickle, so as soon as she was done she dropped the potion onto the table and threw herself at one of the arena walls – the one with the Councillors above, so they couldn’t see her given the angle. The Councillor whose challenge she’d just finished said something she wasn’t listening to, and when her vision faded to confirm that her potion was correct, she gave up. Back against the wall, legs spread out slightly, Cel let go.

                Her already-wet black panties were destroyed almost instantly, the flood creating a puddle that quickly reached to her boots. Before she could even see again, Cel closed her eyes, sighed, and lowered herself to the ground, hiking up her skirt to save it from the damage she was doing to everything else. Some part of her found some humor in this situation – this hadn’t been the first time something like this had happened, and of course she hadn’t learned from then. Though, at least now she wasn’t in public, and there wasn’t even anyone around to see her. Her torrent died down quickly, though despite both the volume she’d released and how long it’d taken, Cel knew she wasn’t quite done – she never was, when something like this happened; she’d always end up only letting out about half of whatever was in her if she was pushed to the end, just enough to feel better immediately, but also enough that she’d still need to deal with it properly soon anyways. As far as she was concerned, though, she was done. She wouldn’t be able to force anything else to happen just yet anyways, so she stood up, sliding off her ruined delicates as she did so. She wrung them out into the puddle she’d made as best she could then attempted to use them to dry off her legs (to minimal effect) before summoning up a magical fire to destroy them.

                And then she looked up. The next trial had been prepared with a very simple setup. A small circular platform and a table nearby with various sacred oils and ritualistic instruments. And the next Councillor was standing in the arena, too, with his back to Cel, clearly very uncomfortable. Cel’s face immediately turned red and she looked around for some way to explain what had just happened. Technically it wasn’t against the rules to piss on the floor of the trial arena, but it was shameful, and went completely against the image Cel had tried to create for herself at Medru Dalach. She was already practically a kid to everyone else at the academy, and while everyone could overlook one public incident, another happening for the exact same reason would be devastating for her.

                But there was nothing Cel could blame but her own pride, so she cautiously approached Councillor Sentagon without a word. He turned around to face her when she got close, and they both seemed to be actively avoiding eye contact. Sentagon spoke first.

                “Um, well… you, uh… you do know that wasn’t the kind of limit we were testing for, right?” He gave a half-hearted chuckle. “But, ah, are you alright? Do you need to go wash up or something first?”

                “N-no, sir, I’m fine.” Cel’s legs came together again, if only to hide the fact that she was now bare beneath her skirt.

                “You sure?” Sentagon cleared his throat. “Alright, well, I’ll just, uh, not tell anyone about this, and we’ll both pretend it never happened, yeah?” When Cel nodded silently, he went on. “It’s no big deal, this stuff happens. You see it a lot in ninety years, trust me. Ah, but, anyways.” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Back to business. I’m actually down here because it’s the only way to figure out if you’re doing this correctly. Could have sent anyone down here, really, could even have you work with one of Renagor’s shadows, but I honestly don’t trust the judgment of anyone but myself with this. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want to perform this particular ritual on anyone not of our faith anyways.”

                “And this ritual is…?” Cel tugged at the front of her skirt. Suddenly it felt too small.

                “You’re going to act like I’m being initiated as our High Priest. I expect you to perform this ritual exactly as if it were real, so do be careful with it.”

                Cel leaned back a bit and raised an eyebrow. “Really? That’s…”

                “Monumentally rare, yes. Even, eh, even our Hierophants, we actually need to know it, but we’re never expected to do it. You were never expected to learn it, you never would have had to do it, but I know you know it and can do it anyways. So, am I right?”

                There was a fierce nod from Cel and she spoke with her usual conviction. “Damn right, sir.”

                The Councillor chuckled. “That’s the spirit. Now…” He reached up to his shoulder and untied the blue sash that served as part of his uniform, tossing it aside and letting it dissolve. Then he worked his way out of the white button shirt beneath, letting that disappear to the same place as the sash. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said, turning to face the entrance to the arena and falling to one knee, his gaze immutably directed to the ground.

                Cel walked over to the table nearby and set about looking through the bottles and tools upon it. “So, I don’t suppose you’re allowed to talk anymore, huh?”

                “No.”

                “Yeah, figures. Now, what was… Ah, yes…” She picked up a small vial of oil and a piece of yellow cloth from the table, ripping the cork from the vial with her teeth and soaking the fabric in its contents as thoroughly as possible. Then she brought the cloth to the Councillor and drew it down his back several times, hesitantly muttering in a long-forgotten language as she did so – she didn’t know what the words meant, hardly anyone did, but they were important. When she spoke the last word, accidentally making it sound like a question, the Councillor responded with conviction in the same language.

                The cloth was left draped over Sentagon’s neck as Cel brought a bowl of water from the table. She lifted it above herself with another ancient word, waited for the Councillor’s response, then poured the contents over his head. She took a knife from the table and came around to Sentagon’s front – he was still staring at the ground as before, but now lifted up one arm. Cel drew blood from his hand, and Sentagon looked up slightly, with eyes shut – she took with two fingers the Councillor’s blood and pressed those fingers into his forehead, then did the same with her own blood. The cuts weren’t deep by any possible description, but she still pressed an open hand against each. Sentagon’s only response was a sharp breath as Cel’s hand grew hot enough to seal the wound, and she reacted vocally when she did the same to herself.

                Then the cloth was brought over to cover Sentagon’s face, and he was pushed back so that his body was straight and his head was pointed towards the ceiling. Cel pressed a hand to his chest and there was a yellow glow for a moment, then the cloth was removed and more instruments brought out – this time a plain white cloth, a brush, and ink. The white cloth was used to remove the oil from Sentagon’s back, then, with the brush coated in ink, Cel drew sacred symbols onto the Councillor, slowly and carefully, while speaking another ancient prayer just as slowly. Sentagon responded firmly when she finished, then he stood and looked straight ahead.

                A staff was brought out from the table, Cel bringing this to Sentagon’s front. They each held the staff with two hands, and Cel gave one last chant with her eyes closed. She let go of the staff when she’d finished, and the Councillor bowed his head, speaking a single ancient word.

                Then he handed the staff back to Cel and stretched, a golden light removing the ink from his body and a swirl of dust returning his clothes to him.

                “Alright, yes.” He reached up to his head and magically pulled the water from his hair, tossing it aside. “Fine, very good. I just need to check what the others saw you draw. It felt right, but I am clearly not in a position to render judgment on something I have not seen. You’ll hear the results soon.” Then he dissolved into a cloud of dust that shot up towards the observation room.

                Cel took advantage of the downtime and used one of the spare cleaning cloths on her legs, which had only been made more wet by her earlier attempt at drying them off. There was a quiet gasp from her as the cloth found its way under her skirt, apparently also finding a sensitive spot – but there was no time to fool around with that, so she moved on and tossed the cloth to the side when she was done. The rest of her spare time was spent looking at the excess materials left for her, including a bottle of clean water that she downed – presumably it had been intended for refilling the bowl if something should have happened, but now it was a drink.

                Her vision faded almost as soon as the bottle met with the table again, and the voice was that of Varassus this time, not Sentagon. “Well, that was… a rather unusual trial. I won’t pretend to know what Master Sentagon was thinking, but I trust him when he says he rendered you no aid, and I trust his judgment. Of course, all eight of us were watching and he requested our opinion to aid in his decision. Perhaps we are not the best at explaining what we saw, but Sentagon found our input adequate to render judgment on your trial.”

                Cel’s vision returned, and her heart sank when she saw the arena was empty. Her mind was filled with thoughts of what she might have done wrong, and she hardly heard the Councillor’s announcement. She heard something, and froze. What was that he said? It didn’t sound like “failed”.

                There was no time to consider this, though, and the next voice that rang out put her mind at ease. It was the last Councillor. “Well, I must say,” he started. “I am sorry to have ever doubted you, Cel. Honestly, I am… amazed at the challenges the others have given you today. And I’m equally amazed at how absolutely none of them seemed to be of any challenge at all. I’m also disappointed, because I know that there is nothing I can give you at this point that is going to stop you from joining us. I may have underestimated you, but now… Now the world is going to know who you are, and all you have to do is clear two more trials. There is no way that I can see that you would fail them, so consider this a break. Something simple that will allow you to rest in preparation for your last test.”

                There was a blinding flash, and when it passed the arena was filled with what seemed to be walls made of light, waves of energy assembled into blocks that seemed to interact and intersect in impossible ways. There was only a little bit of clearly-visible ground in front of Cel, and all the rest of the arena was warped by the light-walls.

                Clearly, it was a maze designed to get the occupant even more lost than a regular maze. And as just about anyone knew, a maze was trivial to someone who could teleport – therefore, teleporting would presumably be rewarded with a failure. How the Council would know, Cel wasn’t sure, as the light-walls formed a dome over the arena, blocking the Council’s view of the situation below. Still wouldn’t be a great idea for her to find out what would happen, not after getting this far and nearly humiliating herself once already.

                So she just started walking. The opening to the maze was blocked off by a light-wall once she was inside, and Cel kept her eyes to the ground to avoid being distracted by the view through the walls. Or, she did, for a little while, until that turned out to be disorienting as well. She ended up getting horribly lost going around corners, so she decided to instead keep her left hand pressed against the wall, which was far more solid than it seemed. It was still hard to see any turns that weren’t immediate, but it would help with navigation somewhat. And for a while, Cel wandered around quietly through the maze with that as her tactic.

                She wasn’t sure how far she’d gotten through the maze when she realized that things had caught up with her – the water from the previous trial, however necessary it was, had not reacted well with the fact that she was still half-full from her incident. Cel moved slowly and kept her legs close together. Hopefully the end was somewhat close. This time she’d surely get away for a break before the last trial began, just as soon as she could get out of the maze.

                Whenever that would be.

                Definitely seemed to be taking a while, and the walls of the maze meant it was impossible for Cel to tell if she’d already been to a particular part of it – no doubt she’d ended up walking back and forth through the same area for a while. And with things moving quite a bit faster than Cel would have preferred, she had to find a way out of the maze very soon. There was no way to tell time in the cave, of course, but however much time had passed between the end of the eighth trial and now, Cel had progressed to the point of having to stop every so often to press her legs together, occasionally letting a hand join in – nobody could see anyways.

                Speaking of nobody to see…

                No, she couldn’t do that. Well, she could, technically, but she wouldn’t allow herself to. It was bad enough that she’d let that happen just two trials ago, she was definitely not going to relieve herself somewhere inappropriate if she could help it.

                That was starting to be quite a big “if”, though.

                Before long, Cel had one hand that was quite content to remain wedged between her legs while she attempted to orient herself and escape the maze. She was reduced to a bit of an awkward shuffle, but she could last until the end.

                Never mind that if she were to put a hand to her belly, it’d be ever so slightly inflated and harder than normal, or that the hand stuck between her legs was already getting wet. She’d be fine.

                As long as she could find the exit soon. Had she already seen that corner? Was that even a corner? Everything looked the same, and the only indication that she’d already been to an area was that she was starting to leave a trail. But of course she could ignore that, it didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be a problem once she just got out of the damn maze.

                Not much longer, she kept telling herself. Not much longer…

                Too bad for Cel that her body was saying the same thing. She managed to pull her hand out from its position, only to double over in instant regret when her body realized there wasn’t anything left to physically block its relief – she did recover quickly enough, but not without getting a trail down her legs. She took a deep breath once she’d composed herself and looked down at her skirt. First off, it needed a good ironing, but more importantly there was a conspicuous dark patch on the front. Cel just groaned and tried to smooth her skirt out with her wet hand, creating a lighter streak.

                After taking a moment to look around – for all the good that did – Cel stumbled forward, leaning on the wall to her left to maintain some sense of direction. Both hands were against the wall, one slightly ahead feeling for turns, the other serving to keep Cel some degree of upright. Each step added to the trail running down her legs and to the trail on the ground behind her, and before long she could have stood on dry ground and still have her feet in a puddle. Yet still she went on, until she rounded a corner, only to feel the walls turn her right back around again.

                Rather than following the path out from the dead end, though, she stood there for a moment, legs trembling, and looked around in vain. “What…?” She started muttering, incoherent even to herself. “But, I don’t…”

                She backed up against one of the walls surrounding her, closing her eyes and breathing heavily.

                “Ah…”

                There was no attempt to stop the wave of desperation that overtook her, and caused a large spurt to soak her legs and boots even further. Cel opened a single eye to look down and inspect the damage, and then her only reaction was to spread her legs and give up. She brought down a hand to move the front of her skirt out of the way just before the torrent started, then sighed as she soaked the arena floor for the second time in mere hours.

                “Haah…” After a minute, Cel opened her eyes and looked around again. The puddle at her feet had already reached her boots and just seemed to be getting bigger, but considering they were wet on the inside too, there was little reason to adjust her stance. The walls were all as nonsensical as before, except… “Ah… W-wait… What’s…?” She stuck her head out as far as possible without moving from her spot, squinting and looking at the wall across the way. Something looked off about it, even moreso than all the other walls, but she wasn’t in much of a position to investigate. “Huh.” She leaned back and sighed again, keeping an eye on the suspicious wall while her stream gradually slowed down. Another minute and it had been reduced to occasional dripping, so Cel released her skirt and stepped out of her puddle, shaking her feet as she did so.

                Her legs quickly grew cold and her feet were wet and uncomfortable as she headed toward the strange light, prompting her to pull at her lower half with magic in some attempt to clean herself – most of her urine came off and she tossed it aside, letting it strike a wall with an outlandish noise, though what was in her boots couldn’t be removed until she washed them later.

                When she reached the wall, looking at it up close confirmed it was darker than its surroundings, and ever so slightly more transparent. Cel reached out to touch it and it rippled when her hand made contact, and when she pushed, the wall disappeared and she nearly fell over.

                “What in th- Fucking kidding me?” When she regained her balance, she looked around mouthing “What” repeatedly and making exasperated hand motions. “Really that fucking close, right,” she muttered, “of course it would be. Fuck.”

                Indeed, she needed only to take a few steps forward after breaking through the wall for a bright light to overwhelm her, taking the maze with it when it faded. Soon after, a cloud of dust formed into the Nine, with Varassus stepping forward once they were all present. Cel stepped back slightly, hoping he wouldn’t be able to smell what had happened.

                If he could, he made no indication, instead giving a nod and a smile. “Excellent work, Cel. Yes, that all was… quite interesting, I must say.” Some of the other eight behind him either nodded along or gave Cel looks of encouragement. “Now, you’ve passed all nine of the individual trials. This tenth and final one is administered by all of the Nine Masters at once. We will do our best to stop you from joining us, but…” Varassus shrugged. “At this point I highly doubt there’s anything we can do to that end. Do you… need a moment to prepare?” He raised an eyebrow and looked Cel over, his gaze lingering a little on the dark spot on her skirt, which she quickly covered up with a hand.

                Cel blushed and attempted to respond to the Councillor. “I, uh… I…” She took a deep breath and continued. “No, I’m ready.”

                Councillor Varassus stretched out his arms to his sides. “Then let us begin.”

               



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Cover art is a piece commissioned from the divine Biku.

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6 hours ago, RachelRoland_ said:

Great drawing! How do you guys manage to draw such detailed pictures?

Biku is a wizard, that's how. Consider asking him in his art thread.

Edited by Sake

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