Dim morning light stirred Hanno from his slumber. Yawning he sat up and stretched. It had been a while since he had slept this well. Several minutes passed before he realized something was out of place. It was too quiet. There was no snoring.
Danel’s bed was empty.
“Danel?” Hanno’s gaze darted around the room confirming he was alone. Had he already gotten up and gone for breakfast? No, it can’t be that. Danel never woke up before him. Hanno had to practically drag him out of bed after Danel had spent the night out drinking.
The bed was still made. Had he never come back?
Hanno felt his heart skip a beat. It was not unusual for his friend to come home late, although he couldn’t remember the last time he had missed a work morning. He hastily grabbed his robe and headed to the stairwell.
A burning knot was tightening in his gut. Without him really understanding why, there was a sense of dread about.
The large dining hall on the second floor was half full. Quiet chatter filled the plain redstone room. Hanno paced forward as fast as he dared without appearing unpolite. Looking around he saw rows after rows of robed students and scribes sitting at the long featureless stone tables, eating honey bread and fruit from small clay bowls. Danel was nowhere to be seen. Somehow he had already known he wouldn’t find his friend there.
Something is wrong, he thought as he descended the staircase and passed to the main atrium. Doors to the Great Hall were already open.
Images of flame flashed in his mind.
He had almost forgotten the strange tranquility within fire and in the voice of the beautiful young woman. He could almost still feel her cool hand brushing against his skin…
But is this fire there was something darker. The serenity disappeared as memories of the last night flooded him. “Oh gods!” he whispered. He had trashed the hall. Destroyed scrolls. How could he? It must be a dream. No, it had happened. Sinking his face in his palms he despaired. They are going to surely expel me. Or worse…
Something else drew his attention. There was a … presence behind him. Spinning around he raised his gaze. An old woman in a dirty linen robe was sitting in the far corner of the large atrium, on the other side of the main doors. Her back was hunched and face deeply wrinkled. She looked absolutely ancient as she leaned against a silver metal cane, crafted in the shape of intertwined snakes. Her eyes were smoky white with the blinding sickness. Still, it seemed as if she was staring directly at him. Unseen flames danced in those pools of alabaster that were her eyes. Her lips didn’t move and yet she was speaking to him. Her voice was hoarse and sounded like coals crackling on a brazier. It seemed to come from all around him. It was terrible and yet, as he continued to listen, there was a strange lure within.
“Birrth of firr-ee,” it said. “Firr-ee will returrn to the Firrsst Sstarr.” The old woman grinned revealing a mouth of rotten tooth. Then there was another voice in his mind. “Back!” Mindless terror filled Hanno. He turned and ran.
Flaming, burning arms of the dead groped at him. Grabbing, pulling. Their grasp was irresistibly strong. They shook him violently.
“Hanno. Hanno!” Somebody slapped him in the face, hard.
“Hanno! What in the demons´ ash-hole! Snap out of it!”
Danel was crouched above Hanno, holding him down. He was lying on his back on the atrium floor. Around them other students were eyeing him with disapproving looks as they passed by, moving into the Great Hall. The old woman was gone.
“What is the matter with you, man? Are you high or sleepwalking again?”
“Danel! You’re back,” he managed to answer.
“Yeah, I’m back and my head is hurting. Please keep it down from now on. Now get up. The class is starting.”
Hanno scrambled back to his feet. He felt nauseous. “Where have you been? I… I thought…”
“A long story.” He shrugged. “Come on. Let’s go.”
When they got to their seats, headmaster Hakim was already there. The hall was darker than usual. It was still early and the sky was overcast. Only dim grey beams of light filtered down through the large quartz skylights. Many of the scribes had lit the dual-tipped stone lamps on their desks.
Once everyone had settled in, Hakim rang the small bronze gong on his table to signal the beginning of the morning lecture. His voice was smooth and calm, but there was an unusual aura of severity about him. It seemed almost deliberate.
“Peace of the Living God, gentlemen.” Stroking his grey goatee, he looked around the room, fixating his gaze momentarily upon several of the younger boys. Hanno was one of them. His glance only took a fraction of a second, but in his dark eyes there was concern. Even a glimmer of …. pity?
“I am sorry to tell you that there will be another disruption. I have just received word that a party of significance has requested us to alter today´s schedule. The following event will be only for the students. As there won’t be time for work today, all adepts and masters are dismissed. Please enjoy your day off. I´ll see you again tomorrow morning.”
Hushed chatter burst out in the room. It was extremely unusual for the headmaster to change his plans on such a short notice. Eyeing each other in surprise, the adults gathered their tools and headed out. Hakim waited patiently until each and every one of them had left and the doors were closed again. Then he continued, “Rise azures! Our esteemed visitor arrives.”
Only now Hanno noticed the door behind headmaster’s desk was open again. Has it been like that the whole time? He couldn’t tell. Someone was approaching. Only a silhouette could be seen against the faint glow of the torches in the corridor. The robed figure reached the hall proper with a few theatrically slow strides and pulled down its hood.
It was a she.
Her robes were crimson.
“Mistress Adoncia of the Council of Red!” Hakim exclaimed.
A collective gasp echoed in the Great Hall. The students shuffled trying to correct their postures and bowed down in proper respect. Hanno whispered in astonishment, “She’s a firecaster.”
“No kidding,” Danel hissed between his teeth. “Now shut up and bend over.”
The woman was almost as tall as the headmaster and she wore her shoulder-long black hair free. An elegant tiara of gold filigree and blood red rubies adorned her forehead. Hanno thought she had to be in her fifties, but her narrow features were still sharp and flawlessly beautiful. Only slight wrinkles around her eyes and decolte betrayed her age. As she looked over her audience she smiled slightly, but the look in her deep green eyes was remote and unkind. Chills ran down Hanno’s spine. He lowered his head.
She waited for an unbearably long time just looking at the cowed boys. Once she appeared sufficiently satisfied with their discomfort, she cracked a smile. “Emperor’s peace, young seekers of the word.” Surprisingly, her voice was melodic and sounded almost pleasant. Still it carried the austere undertone of someone who was well used to wielding power. “There is no need for concern. I bring good news. Please sit down.” Danel hurriedly obeyed. He wouldn’t want to cross this woman.
“Now that everyone is comfortable, let me tell you why I am here.”
Motioning Hakim to move back, she sat down on the corner of his desk and crossed her right leg over her left. Small red gems in her robe glittered in the bleak light. “As you all surely know, the members of our ancient order serve the Emperor. What, however, is less widely known, is how our members are chosen.” She paused, letting the words sink in. Looks and soft whispers were exchanged.
“Having recently received a vision from the gods, the Emperor has deemed that after many years, the time has come to introduce new members to the Order of Red.” He paused with a sly look on her face, then continued “They will be chosen from among you.” A shocked disbelief took the room over. Pretty much everyone started babbling at the same time.
Hakim sighed and motioned with his both hand for the class to calm down.
The raven woman seemed genuinely pleased with the ruckus she had managed to cause. It would be almost a minute before the headmaster had managed to shut everyone up again. After the fuss had died down, she continued casually. “I am here to identify and test the ones, who will be sent to the council.”
Now it was Hakim’s turn to look shocked, “Mistress, surely you mean you have come to observe. It is a most holy protocol and tradition that the Tests of Fire are performed by the Academy.”
Adoncia barely bothered to look at the man as she dismissed him, “This is the new protocol.”
He protested further, “I have not been notified of such changes. This is highly irregular …”
Hakim stopped mid-sentence. The smirk on her face had died down. The woman straightened up and turned to face the headmaster. She didn’t say anything, but everyone could see the unspoken warning in her look. Hanno felt a sudden urge to hide under his pulpit.
Defeated, the elderly man closed his eyes and nodded slightly, “Of course, Mistress. The will of the Council shall be done.”
Adoncia turned back to the students. Their faces were white as sheets. “All right then. Let’s see what you are made of.”
Danel walked along the battlements of the seaside wall. The air was fresh with the smell of brine and summer flowers blooming in the gardens below. He usually came here when he had something on his mind and needed some time alone. Technically civilians were not allowed here, but he knew most of the guards personally. They were happy to have someone to chat with every now and then and let him come and go as he pleased. After all it had been a long time since the city had seen war. The security in the city was far laxer now than it had been when he had been a child. Some twenty years ago the fleet of king Namar of Ingal had blockaded the harbor from sea, while the armies of his allies had laid siege on the city from land.
Noon sun had risen high thinning the clouds, but the sky was still covered in a grey haze. The breeze had picked up. He looked down from the wall. The view was majestic as always. From the top of the wall the fall down the cliff was almost a hundred yards. The sea below was now full of whitecaps as far as the eye could see. The wind was now unusually brisk. Few ships would dare the seas on days like this. No matter, it was just the way he preferred. He paced slowly over the ancient tangerine granite, trying to imagine what it had looked like to the defenders, seeing a hundred green-sailed ships approaching.
The siege had, of course, ended very badly for the attackers. In a rare display of power, the imperial firecasters had intervened, setting Namar´s command ships ablaze. Amidst the chaos, the young captain Ahiram had managed to sail his assault fleet out from the walled harbor. A mere hour later, half of the enemy ships lay in the bottom of sea and the rest had been routed. From there on the opposition had rapidly crumbled. Some weeks later the generals had presented the head of the enemy king to the Emperor in a grand ceremony. Ingal and her former allies´ territory was annexed to the empire.
Bah! Damn him and his stupid mages, Danel thought. His thoughts went back to why he was upset in the first place. The so-called selection had been a farce. Curse that woman.
She had told them to shut up and stay still. Then she had walked through the rows and stopped just beside Danel who had been sitting in the back row. He had been excited. He was one of the few students who had suspected that the academy had something to do with the firecasters. After all it was rumored his great-grandfather had been both a scribe and part of the council. He had been certain he would be one of the chosen. Then, just like that, she had only given him the briefest glance and told him his presence was no longer required.
To his merit, he had stood up for himself. In his most serious and respectful tone he had answered, “O high Lady of the Council. Please give me a chance to prove myself. I will pledge my life to serve the Emperor and train hard every day. I will do whatever it takes.”
She had chuckled softly, clearly amused at his pious fervor. What had her words been? “Dear boy, that’s very nice of you, but without a jin you could train for a century and still not be able to light a candle.” The nerve of that woman. What the crap was a jin anyway?
Before he had the chance to protest further, headmaster Hakim had come and ushered him out of the room by his shoulders. He had never been humiliated so thoroughly. He was going to have a drink. Or two. And then perhaps punch someone in the face.
Then again, he thought, would he really have wanted to study under someone like that anyway. To nether with her.
As he had stood in the atrium, almost fifty other boys had come out of the hall in a quick succession. Most of them had looked more confused than disappointed. Anyway, he had thought, this should be over quickly. I can as well wait for the little dork. If they didn’t choose me, he’ll be surely thrown out faster than he can apologize for his existence.
Soon the stream of students had ceased. He had waited for almost an hour. He had even tried to listen with his ear against the large doors, but it was completely silent inside. What it hell had been going on in there?
After a while he had grown tired and decided he needed to clear his head. He hadn’t been really hungover anymore, but still sizzling with rage. Heading out the academy he had noticed the red-haired girl who had made out with Hanno last night. She had been sitting at the fountain, again. Well, screw you too, he had thought. I have better things to do.
Now, sitting on a crenellation and looking far out to the horizon, he was starting to feel better. He reminded himself that good things had been happening too. His thoughts returned to the last night. It had been amazing. While getting drunk at the Kubab Hut, his favorite hangout, he had met a group of strange people. A bald albino man, a little girl and an old woman had asked if they could sit down and play a couple of games of twenty squares with him. What a strange group for hustlers, he had thought. Good luck beating me.
But beat him they had. Or actually she had. The child was blonde with brilliant blue eyes. She had spoken with a strange shrill accent. Clearly not from around here. Perhaps from one of the northern colonies. And gods forbid, she had been skilled. Danel had thought he knew every and each legal trick in the game and then some. He hadn’t stood a chance against the child. Whatever he had done, it seemed she had always been one step ahead of him. After nine games and a week’s worth of wage lost, the albino man had suggested he could show him some sleight of hand instead.
Danel hadn’t really minded losing the coin. After all his father was providing him with an immense stipend. The meager pay for the work at school was all but meaningless to him. Still he has grown weary losing to this giggling little … creature.
What he had witnessed next, had been even more unbelievable.
The man had introduced himself as Erxalth. His skin had been almost white. On a closer look, he hadn’t seemed to have any body hair whatsoever. Even his brows and eyelashes were missing. He wasn’t ugly per se, but such alien features made him unnerving to look at. He had asked if Danel had had something behind his ear. This trick he knew. “Bah, anyone could do that with a coin. Children’s stuff.” he had chuckled, gaining back some of his lost confidence. As soon as he had said that, he had realized his poor choice of words, considering his recent performance against the girl. She had smiled at him. Without having really meant to, his look had turned surly. This had served only to amuse her further. She had burst out in a most annoying laughter.
Then the man had continued, “Oh, I don’t think it’s a coin you have in there.” He had reached for his right ear and all suddenly pulled out a brass chalice, ten inches tall. He had looked in astonishment. “What in the world…?” The albino the reached behind his left ear. “I think there is something stuck here as well.” Then he had brought his hand back in front of him in a deliberately slow motion, holding a chicken. A damn large white live chicken!
Danel had stared at him dumbfounded, unable to find words. He had picked a couple of pockets in his time, but this was out of his league entirely. The chicken had ran away clucking wildly and appearing as surprised as he had been. The marble-skinned man had just smiled slightly and ordered another cup of herbal tea.
Finally the old woman had started speaking. She had addressed him in a slow, friendly manner, but something about her had made him feel funny in the stomach. “You know, Danel, there are so many things in the world you still know nothing about.” How in the blazes does she know my name? Alarmed, he had stood up. “Now listen, lady. I don’t know who you are or how do you know me, but that’s enough. I’m outta here.”
“Calm down, Danel” she had said. Her voice was warm and soothing. “We mean you no harm. All the sudden he had felt confused. He hadn’t really wanted to and yet he witnessed himself sitting back down at the table. “Actually, we are here to help you. Perhaps you would like to learn some of these things you’ve just seen. And more.”
Danel hadn’t really known what to think. His common sense had told him these people were dangerous, but there had been something too fascinating about them just to walk away.
“Well,” he had said, “you have some really nice tricks and all there, but I don’t think they’d do me much good. Besides I don’t feel comfortable paying to strangers.”
“Don’t worry.” All sudden she had sounded different, almost like a sizzling kettle. He hadn’t been sure where the sound had been coming from. All three of them were gone. He had stood up again and looked around. The other patrons had still been sitting at their tables, talking calmly. No-one had seemed to have noticed anything out of the ordinary.
Then he had felt thin fingers on his shoulder. He had spun around. The old woman had been standing right in front of her. How had she done that?
“We don’t require your money. Whatever teaching you may choose to accept, will be a gift. Think about it, Danel. If you want to hear more, we’ll be here at the same time tomorrow.”
Then he had been alone again. Had she walked out or just vanished into thin air. Trying to think had felt so hard. Almost like trying to remember a dream.
The grunts of camels from a caravan trade post near the gate returned Danel’s thoughts to the present. Several hours had passed and the wind was becoming chilly. Perhaps it was time to get back to the bar and see if they were up to their word. At least he could use some mezes and a glass of hot spiced wine.
What the woman had done still astonished him. No-one had ever been able to sneak on him like that. And with those eyes of her, it had been ever more incredible, he thought smiling to himself.
Not bad for a blind old crone.