Friday, 24 October 2014

The Wolf Pack Chapter 16 in which Carthinal takes his practical test.



This was it. The final and most important part of the test was to begin a little later than the others, at the fourth hour. There were still six of them as all had learned of their success in the previous afternoon’s test, Carthinal and Ebrassaria again gaining distinctions. (The elf had looked rather piqued to find that a mere half-elf seemed to be matching her efforts in the written tests.)
This time, instead of going upstairs to the room where they had done their written tests, they were escorted down many flights of stairs to a room well below ground level. They were left in a circular room devoid of furniture, but which boasted seven doors in the walls, including the one through which they had entered. Six mages entered from the other doors and introduced themselves to the candidates. There was to be one mage to watch each candidate. Carthinal’s examiner was an elven mage who introduced herself as Yssalithissandra. (Yssa for short she told him in a whisper, giving him a wink.) They were each to enter a different door, and had six hours to find the door to return to this room. There would be a number of different problems and dangers for them to overcome. On their return, they would be assessed on the efficacy of their use of magic and how well they conserved their strength as well as the intelligent way they solved any problems they might meet on the way. They were allowed to take one scroll and one weapon with them, but no magical items. The last word to them was a warning that there was a very real danger of death in the test before them, and that if any of them wished to pull out, now was the time.
Carthinal looked round. No one moved, although Olipeca looked rather pale, and Grimmaldo looked decidedly green. No. No one was going to pull out. They all selected their weapon and scroll. Carthinal chose to take his dagger, which he always had strapped to his wrist, and a True Seeing scroll, having decided that it was quite possible that much of what was behind the door would be illusion. Even with that knowledge he knew that illusions could be deadly too.
They all moved forward as one. As they reached the doors, Grimmaldo whispered “Good Luck” to Carthinal. He did not have his usual cheery grin, Carthinal noted, and he was looking decidedly nervous. Carthinal wondered if he looked as scared and if they would all return through those doors.
The door closed and he was alone in the pitch darkness. He could see nothing at all with normal vision, so he looked around for any heat sources that may denote a living being. Towards the end of the corridor, he could see a vaguely humanoid-shaped red glow.
‘Is this enemy number one?’ he wondered. ‘I’d better walk quietly closer and see.’
This he did, in the pitch dark, until he could make out a distinctly hobgoblin smell.
‘OK,’ he thought to himself, ‘I can deal with this without my spells,’ and with that, he released his dagger from the harness holding it on his forearm and in the same movement threw it unerringly towards the creature’s throat. He was rewarded with a gurgle and saw the reddish shape slump to the floor, the redness fading as the body began to cool in death. Carthinal quickly retrieved his dagger while he could still see it.
Now there was only blackness. No sign of any further enemies, but a few paces away from where the body of the hobgoblin lay, the corridor finished in a blank wall. 
‘What now?’ he muttered aloud. ‘There must be a secret door somewhere. I’ve got six hours to complete this test, so there is no rush. At least not yet.’ He leaned against the wall to think, and as he moved his feet, he heard a sound beneath them and realised that there were rushes on the ground. ‘Torches! Yes!’
Carthinal knelt down and gathered a bunch of the rushes. They were dry, so he set about making a torch. He knew that if he just set light to them, as they were, they would burn far too quickly, so he plaited the ends where he would grip them, and left the tops free. He made a number of these rush torches, taking the time to do so since he had no idea if he would find any more further into the labyrinth, or so he surmised it to be. After he had what he considered to be a sufficient number, he used the cantrip that he had used to light the fires on his journey with Asphodel and Bas to light the first torch. It took a few seconds to light, and he thought that it was not going to work but then suddenly there was a splutter and the makeshift rush torch was burning.
The end of the corridor proved not to have any signs of secret doors. He searched twice to be sure, then slowly made his way back up the corridor towards the door through which he had entered. There was no sign of a door on the right hand side, nor, to his surprise, was there any sign of the door through which he had entered. 
‘Well that ensures we don’t go back anyway,’ he said to himself, as he began to search the other wall of the corridor. ‘Ah! I knew there must be something somewhere!’
He could see the very finest line in the stonework. It was hardly visible, but his elven heritage had given him excellent vision. He did wonder for a moment how non-elves would set about finding this door, but it was not his problem, so he put it aside. Mabryl had told him to focus on the problem to hand and not to worry about things he could do nothing about.
‘That way lies death,’ Mabryl’s voice whispered in his mind. He also remembered similar instructions from his life in the gangs, before Mabryl had saved him.
It took but a couple of seconds for him to discover the mechanism that opened the door and then a portion of the wall swung inwards with a grinding sound.
‘Kassilla’s tits!’ he swore. ‘If anything’s in there, it would have heard that a mile away.’
Ensuring there were no rushes to set on fire on the floor of this new corridor, Carthinal stubbed his torch out. He stood in the dark, searching the corridor for signs of life. No red glowing figures were visible, nor did he hear any sounds. Wait! Was that a shuffling? No… Yes! There was something out there. But he could see no heat sources. Then he realised with a sinking feeling. One of his biggest dreads! Undead!
Well, they knew he was here, and he must be able to see them if he was to fight them, so he quickly re-lit his torch. Sure enough, shuffling slowly along the corridor was a zombie. Carthinal’s mind began to work quickly. He needed something more than his dagger here as it was unlikely that a single throw would stop the zombie. Zombies fought with their bare hands, hitting and clawing at their victims, but could do a tremendous amount of damage, especially to an unarmoured mage. He therefore could not get into close combat with it. A spell then, that was the answer. Trying any mind influencing spell was no use as undead were generally immune to such spells, not having a mind to affect, so it was no use trying to put it to sleep. He decided to use small bolts of energy. He quickly took the mana into himself and wove the pattern to absorb energy from the surroundings and transfer it into darts of pure energy. Two silvery darts shot out from his fingertips to bury themselves unerringly in the zombie’s chest. It staggered and fell to the ground, twitched a few times and then was still. 
‘I hope there are no more of them! I hate undead, they give me the creeps.’ Carthinal was not sure why he was talking aloud. ‘Maybe for reassurance,’ he reasoned, ‘After all, I could actually die in here.’
The thought was not a pleasant one, and he quickly quashed it, but like everything that one tries not to think about, the idea kept returning. To try to stop it, he began to talk to himself again.
‘I think that I’ve been in here now about an hour and a half. Time to find the door, time to make the rush lights, and two enemies to dispatch. Still plenty time, but then, I don’t know, do I? I’ve no idea how far I have to go, or what I must face. I’d better move on.’
The corridor seemed to curve to the left, meaning that Carthinal could not see very far in front of him. It was worse than a sudden corner, as there he could have stopped and looked carefully round it, so he walked slowly and quietly along, pausing every few yards to listen. It meant that his progress was very slow, but he was as sure as he could be that he was not running into danger unprepared. The long curving corridor eventually came to an end with no further traps or enemies to be overcome, and then forked into two ahead of him. 
‘Now which way?’ he wondered. 
He decided to toss a coin as no other ideas came to him. Heads, left, tails right. It came down heads, so he took the left fork. Again there was no sign of an enemy, but he moved with care just in case. The corridor ended in a blank wall. He searched again for any secret doors, but this time he drew a blank.
‘Seems like I should have gone right then. So much for the God of Chance!’ he murmured as he retraced his steps. This time he took the right hand fork. He estimated that his caution on the curving corridor and the wrong turn had taken up another hour, leaving four more hours to find the way out.
He noticed that the corridor ahead had a number of alcoves in it.
‘What a good place for an ambush,’ he thought. 
Almost as a reflex, he stubbed out the light. That would have let anyone know exactly where he was. He paused. Yes, sure enough, there were heat sources in some of those alcoves. He moved backwards, confidant that whatever or whoever was in the alcoves would have seen his torch and be expecting him. He leaned against the wall while he thought. It may be that there were enemies in the further alcoves too. In which case, they would wait until he had passed the first ones and then surround him. That was what he would do in their place. He considered using a protection spell to give himself some armour, but quickly rejected it, as it would use up his energy and probably to no avail if he were fighting in close quarters with enemies in front and behind. No, he would need to draw them out somehow while he was still on this side of them all, so that he could put them to sleep and put at least some of them out of commission while he dealt with the rest.
He quickly made a plan, and then ran it through his mind again to look for any flaws. There were flaws, of course, not least that he did not know what kind of creature he was dealing with. He assumed that the mages would not put in anything that a final grade apprentice should not be able to deal with, so he began to execute his plan.
First, he felt around for any pebbles or stones, and picked up a few, then he crept forward silently, as only elves and their kin can do. When he was within spell range, he stepped out and began to shuffle on the spot. Sure enough, he saw the creatures in the first two alcoves begin to prepare. He noted with relief that they did not seem to be too large, maybe kobolds or goblins. Next, he took out a small pebble and tossed it to just in front of the first alcoves, he then tossed a second between the alcoves. Using a simple cantrip that he had learned in his early days with Mabryl, he said, “Shit!” and caused the sound to appear to come from the position of the second pebble.
Immediately, four goblins emerged from four alcoves, waving short swords at the empty space between them. Goblins are not noted for their intelligence, and after whacking each other a couple of times, they stood around in confusion. This gave Carthinal the chance to get a sleep spell off and within a few seconds, three of the four were snoring on the floor. Carthinal quickly took out the fourth with his dagger, thrown with deadly accuracy, and then re-lit the torch before going over to retrieve his weapon and dispatch the remaining three.
He was beginning to feel tired and thirsty so he decided that there was time for him to rest for a few minutes. He took a drink out of the pack that all the apprentices had been given and sank down onto the floor and drank deeply, but he did not empty the flask. Having decided to remain there for another half-hour before continuing on, he re-lit a torch while he rested and put it in a sconce that he noticed on the wall. It gave a welcome light. He considered his progress so far and felt that he had done all right. He had got past three enemies and only used two simple spells so far. That meant he had enough energy left for several more, depending on their difficulty and the amount of mana they drew. He did not see that there could possibly be more than one more enemy, or it would have been well nigh impossible for many that would rely completely on spells. However, there would almost certainly be tests of ingenuity and intelligence. 
When he estimated that the half hour rest he had allowed himself was up, he stood, stretched to get rid of the stiffness from sitting on the floor, and once more shouldered his pack and set off down the corridor, having picked the torch up out of the sconce. He had decided that he would like some light for a while, reasoning that there would be no enemies in this part of the tunnel as he had just passed some, so he carried the torch still lit. A corridor branched off to the left. Should he take it or go straight on? He pondered for a minute, and then decided to continue along the corridor that he was travelling down. If it came to a dead end, he could always backtrack to here. The corridor continued to have alcoves along it for some distance, but then they suddenly stopped. The corridor widened and became a large circular room with four doorways leading from it. The four doors were closed, but in the centre of the room was a circular device made of metal. On the top was a second circle of metal, slightly smaller, with an arrow engraved on one side.
Carthinal looked carefully at the device and it became apparent that the piece of metal on the top rotated over the lower one. There were four lines engraved on the lower circle across the diameter and at right angles to each other. Carthinal did not touch it yet. He decided that he needed to know more before doing anything. He looked around the room, and saw that there was writing all around, just above the height of the doors. Just at that moment, his rush torch went out.
After he had lit another, noticing that he was getting down to the last few, he approached the wall to the left of the door through which he had entered the room and held up the torch. There was a two-line rhyme, which read,

‘The spring wind blows cross mountains wide
‘Through land of horse where barbarians ride.’

 Continuing round the room, he pieced together the following,

‘From icy mountains encased in snow
‘In winter do the cold winds blow.
‘The summer winds are soft and warm
‘They blow from desert and waving palm.

‘The autumn winds are rough and wild
‘They bring doom for man and child.

‘So turn me round and I will show
‘The proper way that you must go

‘But get it wrong and sorry be
‘For you must fight or you must flee.’

‘It’s some sort of puzzle to locate the correct door.’ surmised Carthinal.
He paused to consider the words again. He wanted to be absolutely sure that he got it right as he did not want to face the consequences of a wrong choice.
‘“Turn me round.” That’s probably the device in the centre. It must be like a combination lock,’ he muttered. ‘I don’t suppose that there will be any help in listening for mechanisms working. It implies that a door will open anyway, and if it is wrong, dire consequences will result. OK. Then the other rhymes must give the directions. The second one must be the south wind as the Great Desert is in the south. The Barbarians with their horses are over the Western Mountains, so that must be the west wind. The one from the icy mountains must be the north wind, which leaves, by a process of elimination, the east wind for the final one. Ah! Got it. The clue is in the word “doom”. The Mountains of Doom are to the east. That means it refers to the compass directions in the order: west, north, south and east. That must be the direction that I turn the wheel.’
The problem now was locating north. There had been so many twists and turns that Carthinal had lost all sense of direction. ‘Bas, I could do with you now!’ he said, thinking of the ability of dwarves to locate direction underground. ‘Or I could do with a lodestone.’
He considered for a little longer, then decided that the mages would not have given an impossible task, so maybe there was a lodestone, or some other hint, hidden somewhere and he had missed it. First of all, he searched the room carefully. Nothing became apparent, so he backtracked to the corridor that he had missed. He entered it holding his light high and walking with care, on the look out for enemies. There did not seem to be any danger down this tunnel. Suddenly, his light glinted off something in the wall of the tunnel. It was the door to a cupboard cut out of the rock. It was the metal ring to the left side of the door that glinted. He did not know whether there were any traps on the door, so he took his dagger and, standing to the side and as far away as he could, he raised the latch. The door swung open. He waited for a few seconds until he was fairly sure that nothing was going to go off belatedly, and then held his light so that he could see into the space. At first he saw nothing, but when he put his hand into the cupboard and felt around, he came across a small object. On withdrawing it, he saw that it was a small case with a glass lid, and suspended inside the case was a small piece of lodestone, one end marked with red paint.
‘Just what I was looking for!’ he remarked, feeling rather smug.
He retraced his footsteps until he came back to the large round room, and now he could establish which way north was. He put the lodestone down, and turned the upper wheel until the notch was pointing to the west. After that he rotated it to the north, then south, then east.
    There was a rumbling sound. Carthinal held his breath, and the second door to the right slowly swung open. He waited for a few seconds, but nothing came out so he put out the torch so he could use infravision better and carefully approached the tunnel. No heat sources to be seen, so he cautiously entered. Feeling his way along, Carthinal crept along a tunnel that wound backwards and forwards, sometimes seeming to go back on itself a number of times. By now he had lost all sense of time, but decided that since no one had come to collect him, he must still be within the six hours, although it felt that he had been creeping along dark tunnels for days. He stopped for another drink and a look around. Still no heat sources. He lit another torch, noting with dismay that it was his last, and praying to Majora that he was near enough to the end for it to last.
After a short while, there seemed to be a wall in front of him. He stopped, thinking that there had been no side passages for him to miss. Then he noticed that there was a cool breeze around his feet. Looking down, he saw a dark shadow towards the bottom of the wall to his left. He knelt down, and sure enough there was a low passage, only high enough to crawl along. Carthinal did not like this idea, as he felt vulnerable being unable to run, and with insufficient space to cast spells or throw his dagger. Memories came unbidden as to how mages sometimes died in the practical test. The more he tried to push those thoughts away, the more they stalked him, like ghosts, quietly and almost imperceptibly. He broke out into a sweat, and felt himself begin to shiver.
‘This is no good,’ he told himself. ‘If you want to pass this damned test, you’ve got to go in there! Remember you promised Mabryl to do you damnedest to get through.’
With that, he hitched his robe out of the way so that he could crawl, put out the light as there would be no possibility of using it safely, and it would have been so humiliating to set himself on fire and have to be rescued. So he entered the tunnel.
‘Thank the gods for infravision. This would be a dreadful ordeal if one could not see anything at all.’
Occasional small heat sources could be seen, but they were just spiders and beetles. Carthinal’s skin crawled as he thought of them getting in his clothing and onto his skin. Second only to undead, Carthinal hated spiders. Eventually, after what seemed to him like hours of crawling, but was in reality only about fifteen minutes, the crawl way ended in another large room.
 At the entrance to the crawl way, Carthinal paused and looked. ‘Oh shit!’
Ahead of him was a large shape glowing red. It turned its eight red glowing eyes towards where Carthinal was crouching by the tunnel. By the shape of it, it was a gigantic spider.
‘Oh shit!’ he re-iterated as the creature began to run towards him across the room.
Then he thought of the true seeing spell that he had on a scroll. Reasoning that the mages would not deliberately try to kill their apprentices, he quickly pulled it out and began to read it. The spell took effect just as the spider was about to strike, and to his relief it disappeared. It had been an illusion after all. However, behind where the spider had been there was a door. Carthinal ran across to it, looking around for any more nasty surprises, and pulled the door open. Light flooded into the cavern, blinding Carthinal for a moment, and he staggered over the threshold. Hands guided him to a chair, and voices were congratulating him for being the first one back. Slowly it dawned on him that he was out of the tunnels, and had succeeded in completing the practical test. His sense of relief was immense, and he offered up a prayer of thanks to Majora for his success. It was several minutes before he realised what it meant. He had passed his test and was now no longer an apprentice.
‘I did it, Mabryl. You said I would, but I didn’t believe you,’ he murmured.
‘What did you say?’ said a voice at his side.
‘Oh, nothing. Was I talking aloud?’
He turned to see who had spoken. It was the mage who had overseen his test, Yssalithissandra. 
‘Well done. You got back with half an hour to spare. We’re expecting some of the others any time now. How are you feeling?’ she sounded genuinely concerned, so Carthinal stood up and told her he was feeling fine.
He stretched and looked towards the other doors. One of them was opening, and through it came Olipeca. She looked very tired, but not completely spent. He guessed that she had not needed to use all her spells either. Her examiner escorted her to a chair, and spoke reassuring words to her. Suddenly, she seemed to realise that she was out of the test tunnels and within the given time. Her face lit up with a smile. Her hair had come loose from its customary tight and severe style. It hung loose around her face, and the ecstatic smile on her face, as she realised she had made it through in time, made her look almost pretty.
Then one of the other doors opened and through it staggered Grimmaldo. He just about managed to get over the threshold when he collapsed into the waiting arms of his examiner, and was all but carried to a chair. He had just made it with only a few minutes to spare, but he had made it. Carthinal looked around. There were three of them back, and there were five arch-mages. Carthinal was just going to ask where the sixth arch-mage was when another door opened and he came in carrying something. He put it down on the floor, and the others could see that it was Laurre. He was lying very still. The mage said something to the others which the now ex-apprentices could not hear. Then he came over to where they were waiting.
‘I am very sorry to tell you that your friend, Laurre did not make it through the labyrinth. He died in the ambush section. A great pity. We always regret the loss of a student, but the tests are essential as I am sure you appreciate.’
‘What about Ebrassaria and Hammevaro?’ asked Grimmaldo. Just as he was speaking, and as the final few seconds of the time ticked away, one of the last two doors opened and Hammevaro literally fell into the room, and was immediately violently sick on the floor. One of the mages called for an apprentice to clear it up as he lifted Hammevaro to one of the chairs, where he immediately passed out.
‘Well, he’s just made it,’ whispered Grimmaldo, ‘But what about Ebrassaria?’
In answer to his question, one of the wizards entered the final door and a few minutes later emerged with Ebrassaria clinging onto his arm. She looked the worst of them all, barely able to stand, and paler even than Grimmaldo had looked before entering. The arch-mage accompanying her led her to a chair and sat her down. He gave her sips of water and talked to her quietly. She did not seem to realise what was going on or where she was at first, then suddenly it seemed to dawn on her that she was out of the labyrinth and that since she had required an escort out that she had not passed the practical. She burst into tears.
Yssalithissandra spoke quietly to the others. ‘Of course, this means that she has failed to pass this test as she did not get out of the labyrinth in time,’ she sighed. ‘A great pity as she did so well in the theory. Still, a mage needs to be a practitioner as well as a theorist. She can always retake another time.’
As the group of newly promoted mages was leaving the room Yssalithissandra approached Carthinal. Grimmaldo, and Hammevaro left to collapse somewhere to sleep, and Olipeca to find her master to give her the good news.
‘I have something that Mabryl was bringing for you,' Carthinal told her. ' An old spell book that he thought would help you in your research of the old knowledge’
'Really?' replied the woman. 'How odd that I should turn out to be your examiner then. Come to my rooms later then and you can give it to me and we can talk about Mabryl. I knew him well when he was in the tower and would like to catch up on his life after he left here.'
'Thank you,' Carthinal answered, 'I would like that.' He realised that he was telling the truth. He was now ready to deal with Mabryl's death and actually wanted to talk about him.

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