The boy named Elm stood knee-deep in a shallow river bed. Now ten years of age, he had grown tall, lean, and confident. Today was a special day. A day he had been preparing for as long as he could remember. Around him too stood others his age – boys and girls who shivered in the cold stream, else in anticipation of what was coming. Elm however was not afraid. For years he’d witnessed this rite of passage, and for each occasion, he’d grown more assured that he too was worthy of the challenge. He stuck out in other ways too. His pale features and bone-white hair were an unusual sight in these parts, or indeed anywhere as far as he was concerned – stark reminders that he was different from the rest.
In the distance, towards the sea, a dark tower rose through the gloom of the stormy sky – Tower of the Elemancers. The tower had been the only home Elm had ever known, ever since he had been left on its doorstep as a child. He knew nothing of his life before then – where he had come from; his parents; or how he had come to be there. The masters had always brushed off any questions pertaining to his past.
‘You came to us from the south.’ was the best he had ever pried from them, although it was an altogether unhelpful clue. Nothing laid to the south apart from the Wastes of Gnomn – a feral land of beasts and barbarism – hardly a fitting origin for one such as Elm. He was no Gnomerii savage. Whatever they were hiding from him, it was as if some dark and terrible truth lay behind the answers he sought, or perhaps they simply did not know either.
That was at least, with the exception of Umi, the old Grand Master. Umi too was different. Not in the same way as Elm, but he had a perplexing way about him. Wise and mysterious – the last of the old-guard, before the Empire’s hold over these lands, Umi had rebuilt the Order almost single-handedly. There was not a single elemancer in Ascania who had not learned the art by his tutelage, and truly none other in the Order knew the depths of elemancy as he. Umi knew things about Elm’s past, that much was clear, but he shared only so much.
‘You have a destiny, Elm.’ he would say
‘Greatness lies ahead.’ but despite Elm’s insistence for more, he only ever received the same cryptic response.
‘…when you are ready.’
Elm often liked to imagine he had come from a faraway land beyond the Teal Sea – a prosperous kingdom of noble knights and daring adventure, set upon by a wicked foe. His mother and father, the King and Queen, had sent him here to learn the ancient art of elemancy so that he might one day return and save the kingdom. These of course were just childish fantasies. Whatever his true origins might be, they seemed set to remain a mystery for now.
Despite his desire for answers, Elm was content. Life at the tower was both comfortable and exciting. Though he had not yet begun his training, he had watched and observed much in his time here. He had no doubt that he was destined for the life of an elemancer – one of the ranks of mythical warriors from a legendary age. Once upon a time, the towers of elemancy were many – centres of ancient learning spread far and wide throughout the lands. Now, the tower by the sea was the last, and the elemancers few, relegated to this quaint corner of the Empire.
It was common knowledge, even amongst the peasant-folk, that the Empire held no love for the Order. They were tolerated only as a necessity – a commonality between the old world and the new – and on the condition that they served the Empire’s interests. No doubt this arrangement boded less-than-well for Grand Master Umi – of pre-imperial Ascania himself, but it wasn’t as if he had a say in the matter, and it was a rare enough event that agents of the Empire came calling. Such politics bored Elm quickly. As long as he too could learn the ancient art, he cared not whom the Order served. Such was the naivety of youth.
Presently, Umi stood before the children on the river-bank, his flowing amber robes fluttering in the breeze.
‘Initiates…’ his voice projected over the water – soft, yet potent, as only Umi could.
‘We are gathered here this day, upon the eve of…’ Elm let out a weary sigh. He had heard this speech before – the same old dreary rhetoric of sanction and benediction used to herald the opening of the trials.
‘Yeees, we’re honoured. Yeees, we’re chosen. Yeees, we’re destined. Get on with it!’ Elm didn’t say any of this out loud of course. He held a deep respect for the old master, but he had never been one for patience.
As he glanced around at the other initiates, he saw that many of them were listening attentively. Peasant-folk, most of them – come, or sent in the hopes of finding a better life. A few others wore the finery of affluence – the progeny of wealthy merchants or noble families from the cities in search of glory. Elm frowned slightly. It was an unfortunate reality of the Order that only the most promising initiates could be accepted for training. The trials set for today were designed to weed out all but the strongest. Most would fail, and many would perish. Those castaways who did survive would return home in disgrace. It was a brutal tradition, even Umi would admit it, but it had served the Order well and kept them strong, especially in these trying times. Elm knew the risks, as did the others. If any of them wished to withdraw, now was their last chance.
Elm noticed a girl standing not far from him. Auburn curls fell about her kind face. She was pretty, he thought as he gazed into her deep-green eyes which sparkled despite the dim light. She caught him staring and shot him a cute smile. Quickly he looked away, blushing.
‘The gauntlet you wear is the symbol of our order. Mind it well and it will return your faith…’ Umi’s sermon rambled on. Elm glanced down at the silvery, rune-inscribed gauntlet upon his hand. It was a heavy thing, and far too large for him, but of great significance – the elemancer’s glove, the tool of their art. Each was a sacred relic from a more technological age – far beyond the skill of even the greatest artisans living to forge. Elm felt a surge of pride. It was a great honour just to see one of these artifacts up close, let alone wear it. Each of the initiates has been granted one for the first time, or in the case of many, their last. They were not theirs to keep, of course. Each was to be returned upon completion, or failure of the trials. No doubt many too would be retrieved from the broken bodies of those least fortunate.
The initiates had spent the past week learning how to control these exotic contraptions. Mastery would take a life-time to obtain, but for their purposes today, their minimal training would suffice. It would take a focused mind and ironclad will to prevail over the challenges they were to face. Much of their training had involved extended periods of meditation aimed at sharpening their minds, else practicing various stances for directing their focus. Now it was up to each of them to prove their worth.
‘Prepare yourselves, young initiates!’ Umi’s speech had at last reached its climax.
‘The waters of the Teal Sea are upon you!’ Elm took one last glance at the green-eyed girl. He hoped to see her on the other side. He prepared his practiced stance – foot forward and gauntleted hand stretched ahead as if to brace himself against some unseen threat. In the distance, a deep rumbling had begun. The noise grew louder as it approached, and Elm felt the shallow water at his feet rise and flow faster, gaining pace with each passing moment. Then he saw it. Following the river’s twisting course, a wall of white water rushed forth from the sea.
This was the moment of truth. If he panicked now or tried to escape, it would be the end. Behind him he heard a desperate cry of terror, but he dared not look. Elm steadied himself and breathed deeply… in… out… to calm his racing heartbeat. As he did so, a faint glow emanated from the gauntlet. Something was happening. Elm concentrated harder. In his mind, he pictured a shield surrounding him – solid and impenetrable. The gauntlet’s glow grew brighter still, and the air around him shimmered with an eerie glimmer – the power of elemancy.
The torrent hit the gathering of initiates with the force of a hurricane and quickly covered them with its cascading assault. The screams of those swept away could not be heard over the fierce uproar. Elm however remained untouched. Safe within his protective cocoon of focussed willpower, the floodwaters had passed by without a single drop even touching him.
As the white waters receded once more, Elm relaxed his focus and breathed a sigh of relief. He has passed. He glanced around to examine the other initiates – those who remained. He was pleased to see that the green-eyed girl was still standing, a keen look of determination etched on her face. Others too were left. Some seemed undeterred by the endeavour. A few were panting heavily from exertion, soaked and shaken, having barely made it through.
The first trial was over, but more were still to come, each more challenging than the last. As the initiates were pushed and strained to their limits, their numbers would be further whittled down. Elm knew that those who had struggled with this first task would be the first to go. If they were smart, they would give in now. If they didn’t, then he hoped they found the strength to carry on, and quickly. The trials of the elemancers were only just beginning.