Jonathan sat back in the carriage seat with a sigh. He leaned his head back, and took a few deep breaths to calm himself. I still can’t believe I got out of there alive.
It had been a couple of days since he left that town, but his body still trembled at the memory, at the pressure. Jonathan looked down at his hand. On his index finger was the brand of a spider. The legs wrapped around his finger, glistening a dark hue. He sighed. The tether he felt, the one that constricted him before was now replaced with a tighter one. And as Jonathan stared at his finger, he thought back to what had happened.
“Pavilion Elder.” Jonathan spoke as he clasped his hands and gave a slight bow of respect.
The Pavilion Elder went around a desk and sat. He looked at some papers and took out a pen and began to write. “It has been years since I’ve been spoken to by your master. The last time was when I gained my position as Pavilion Elder. I had received a piece of correspondence of congratulations, and that was all. A customary letter. It’s been ten years since. And in all that time we have never crossed paths nor needed to have. So what does the Head Recruitment Elder wish of me now?”
Jonathan shivered. He looked down at his index finger. On it was the form of a crow. A small, completed brand. It signified that he was a servant of the Recruitment Division. And given that only the Head Recruitment Elder would have the audacity to call upon a Pavilion Elder, Jonathan was not surprised that the Elder deemed him specifically as the servant of the Head.
“It is not the Head Pavilion Elder that brings me here.”
As soon as Jonathan said that, the Pavilion Elder stopped writing. The lasting sound of the pen echoed in his ears. Jonathan’s stomach squirmed. It was the first time he wished for the sound of pen on paper to continue.
The Elder slowly looked up, and his six stared pupil faced him, those eyes piercing in every way.
“Why have you come?” The Elder asked.
Jonathan breathed a sigh of relief. So he’s not going to kill me for breaking protocol. It was against the rules of the academy to report to someone of such standing when you had a master and did so without their consent.
It was then that Jonathan knelt. “Even though I’ve come, I cannot betray the Head. I ask that you make me yours.”
Jonathan knew that the Pavilion Elder knew what he was referring to. Jonathan wanted a transfer of masters. Apparently what he had to say would be damaging to the Head Recruitment Elder, and that, unlike a breach of protocol, was a breach of contract. Every servant/master relationship had a contract that followed suit. Even though most contracts were severely unfavorable towards servants, no party, whatsoever, would dare breach a contract. The level of contract was always suited to encompass both parties with their power in mind. So if the master or servant broke said contract, for the one who breached it, their life could end.
The Pavilion Elder remained unmoved. There was not a ripple across his eyes, or a flinch on his face. He just sat there, staring at Jonathan as if nothing was said.
It wasn’t until after a long moment, that the Elder finally moved. His movement was slow, but there was a mystic about it. His arm reached out, and he pointed.
Jonathan screamed. His finger burned, and he saw the crow erode quickly away. This burning sensation was the forceful removal of his bond, his contract. The Pavilion Elder was a lot stronger than the Head, and so, removing such a contract was not that difficult. After a few minutes, it was replaced with a cool feeling. Within moments, Jonathan felt a mystical force enter his mouth and nostrils. It squirmed within his body, and then he felt his skin heat up. Suddenly that heat localized within his chest, becoming smaller and smaller until it was the size of a bean. The heat moved up just right beneath his skin, and ran to his shoulder and down his arm, nesting underneath his right forefinger. A sharp pain pierced his skin, and a dark green spider came out and latched onto him. It squirmed for a moment and finally stilled.
Jonathan rubbed his thumb on the area, but he felt nothing different. It felt like skin, just like the crow he had before. But there was a power behind it like no other. An overwhelming power. Jonathan could feel it pulse beneath his thumb. Not something physical. Just a feeling. And it from that he knew that if he was ever to break this contract, he would surely die. And to forcefully remove it, he would need to become a lot stronger than the Pavilion Elder who casted it.
Jonathan sighed. Ever since then, I’ve lived as a servant. It appears that will never change.
“By now your former master knows of the break in contract. He knows you have betrayed him. But you’re mine now. He cannot touch you. So speak. If you’ve come here with nothing worth my while, I will kill you.”
This time Jonathan didn’t shiver. He took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Two weeks ago, the selection process for Crawfield disciples began. Your nephew was one of them.”
Now, the Pavilion Elder’s eye twitched, and Jonathan confirmed a thought. So you didn’t know.
“This is not enough for you to betray your master. My nephew is strong. Although it is well known that my sister didn’t wish for him to join the academy as of yet, that is not a reflection of his lack in power. So this can’t…” The Pavilion Elder paused. “What happened?”
“Months ago, the Head Recruitment Elder gave a task to an elder, for personal reasons, to go recruit in the east. Unfortunately, it seems those recruited students are strong enough to pass the test. If they do, the central and northern parts of the country will lose advantages for what is to come. And as you know, this has a bigger implication than what it appears to be. And if they do find out, then my former master is doomed.”
Jonathan took a breath. “And the realm for this year’s training is the Realm of the Stalagmites. It was specifically chosen as such by the Head.”
“Yes. It is rare for them to use that realm, but when they do, spirit users become the main focus of the party. They can kill wraiths and fight the other dark creatures living in the deeper parts. But there were only forty spirit users to begin with out of thousands. And the ones that survived enough to even enter the realm were killed during the first night!”
Jonathan could feel his new master tense. This was serious. That meant that there were no way to defend against the wraiths. It was the Head Recruitment Elder’s job to ensure those spirit users’ safety for the first few nights, knowing their importance. That was customary for that realm. But he didn’t. And even knowing so, the Pavilion Elder could do nothing as this was not his jurisdiction. The incompetence of the Head Elder was not to such a degree that would warrant his involvement, even if it was to save his nephew.
“My nephew can still survive.” The Pavilion Elder said. “They provide them with a few light crystals in the beginning, and with his capabilities, he could just avoid them if need be. Survivin is surely still possible.” His voice sounded firm, but Jonathan felt as if it were more as him trying to confirm it in his mind.
“But that is not why I have come.”
“Oh?” The Elder looked at Jonathan and his eyes narrowed. “What else is there?”
“The Head… At any given trial the realm provides a set amount of keys, placing them about randomly. Those who get them, can leave. It usually takes a month to find them and leave the realm. But this time… Master, there are no keys! I was ordered to stop the shipment!”
Jonathan took a breath. The carriage rocked. He closed his eyes, remember that earth shattering roar. His ears had bled. His body was on the precipice of collapse. Without the keys, the Pavilion Elder’s nephew was sure to die. No one left the realm before a month. That was well known as it was nearly impossible given how the test is usually strucutred. But what people did not know was that no one left after a month and a week had passed. Because these spaces could only be opened up when the membrane that separated them was at its weakest. That was 37 days every ten to fifteen years. That was the prime reason they had multiple realms. Every year or two, they would chose a new realm that could be exploited. This year, one of the realms happened to be the Realm of Stalagmites. But after 37 days, the membrane that separated the spaces would strengthen again, and lock them in, closing them off for years. But how could the students even leave without a key? With their capabilities, it was improbable.
If a student with such weak abilities were trapped for so long, it was not hard to imagine their inevitable death.
The carriage continued to rock as the horses clamored back to the academy. I better do what my new master has commanded then.
As dawn broke the night, and the a morning wind blew across the grassland, students came out of their makeshift tents, made of either cloth that they had in their bags, or broad leaves and sticks they took from the nearby forest. It was a couple miles from the river, but the group never strayed, surely keeping to it as best they could on their journey to the other side. This was a group of around thirty to forty prospective students. Their group was growing by the day, as more and more gave up on finding the keys alone, hoping that a larger one had much better chances.
“This piece of waste!” A big, pale student roared. He kicked Cotter down, grimacing at the mud splattered boy that tumbled back onto the grass. Cotter’s hands were tied behind his back, and he felt awfully week. He coughed and hacked, spitting out a dark green phlegm.
Ever since he was captured he had been spitting that thing out. Cotter had been trying to find food, the easiest job of all the four. All he had to do was see where everyone else was getting theirs. Nothing much. But his investigation lead him to a swamp. There were many individuals at the time and so Cotter didn’t think he was in any real danger, albeit, he remained vigilant.
It was then that he saw someone of a nearby group point to him out of everyone, and he was quickly chased down. The area around the swamp was muddy and filled with sparse grass and rocks. It was impossible to get away. He was not accustomed to the terrain, nor was he one of the stronger students. He was immediately pinned down. They stuffed his mouth with a some caked green ball, forcing him to swallow, and every since then, he felt utterly weak, unable to find enough strength to break the rope, much less escape the camp they dragged him to.
“I know you know where it is. Spill!” Cotter looked up at the pale fellow. He was weak, but he still said nothing. They had tormented him for almost two weeks now. He was ragged, and stunk. They barely fed him, throwing him leftovers every few days or so. But they never tortured him.
“Enough, Jargul. There is no point in bothering with him. He knows nothing.”
“Then why do we still keep him? Let’s kill him and be done with it!” Jargul said back.
Cotter looked to the one that had just spoke. He was tall, and pale too. He had deep grey eyes with a thick grey line running down from the bottom of each eye, quickly narrowing to tip at the bottom of each cheek. He looked was of the same clan as Jargul with similar features, except his hair was darker, almost pitch black. This averati was the leader of the group, and his name was-
“Narpul. Don’t bother. This idiot will never learn.”
Walking out of a tent, a female averati came forth, her wide rim sleeves fluttered about.
Students, male or female, wore no skirts or robes. They wore the uniform with black pants and boots, and a white tunic or white coat with a stag insignia stitched at the shoulder. But even though this woman looked like the rest of them, of the same clan, with her dark grey eyes gleaming, her dark grey hair fluttering with the occasional breeze, it caused Cotter to gasp.
This was the female he fell for ever since they were kids. The same female that was by his bedside when he got the letter to the academy. One of the three people his letter allowed him to bring. This female didn’t decide to wait, though, and see if he survived the test and become one of his followers. No, she chose the other choice. And that was to take the test with him. It was the other way of becoming an official disciple without receiving a letter directly by the academy. And this girl took full advantage.
Now she was before him. The averati he fell for. The one he loved. The one where his infatuation brimmed to the utmost, and yet here she stood. She had always treated him as a friend. Never getting close. But still, within moments, she pointed to him that day, and had him captured. And for what? A key? A key he knew nothing about.
Cotter hadn’t seen her since the day he was captured. But now, seeing her, and seeing the tent she came from, his body trembled. Nargul’s tent.
Cotter looked up, his eyes watered. His body trembled.
And he said her name. A name that once thrilled him.
Author’s Note: I’m going to try to release two more chapters out tomorrow. And one on Wednesday. Also, please donate. That way I will be able to release more chapters much more quickly.