3: A Taste of Wind & Rock

7 years later…

Deep… to most people, the word held a common meaning. Some might describe a hole to be deep; others a sea, but to the elemancers of the tower, the word referred exclusively to the arena. Deep beneath the temple, a cavernous hollow stretched far and wide as could be seen. To an ordinary observer, its dimensions might have seemed impossible, for surely the forces of nature must cause it to collapse upon itself at any moment – if not many centuries ago. And yet it remained, steadfast and undeterred.

Just what sustained this feat of engineering was a mystery, for this was no natural wonder. It bore the hallmarks of design upon its intricately carved walls which rose through the darkness to an unseen rocky canopy. The only source of light came from great torch erected upon its boundary. Even these blazing furnaces struggled to fight back the encroaching darkness. Each torch was accompanied by a colossal form carved from solid rock – guardian overseers of this underground kingdom. The frames of these titanic kings of old cast looming shadows across the bare expanse of the arena’s centre. There, a circular dais rose from an otherwise smooth surface where two dimly-lit figures stood – silent and motionless, staring at one another from across the platform’s breadth.

As if in response to some unheard signal, the two began to move, circling slowly around the edges of their stage. Despite their similar stature, and though they were each covered from head to toe in long concealing robes, a keen observer might discern from the slight differences in their movements that one was male and the other, female. Without warning, the female sprung forward, arm outstretched and an unnatural blast of air shot towards the male. With lightning-quick reflexes, he leapt aside and the attack passed harmlessly by, leaving only a trail of dust in its wake.

To the arena came a dance, wild, yet elegant. The two performers twisted and turned with smoothly executed rhythm and style. The combatants took turns attacking, parrying and dodging, and the air around them quickly filled with a dusty haze. A strange energy seemed to emanate from the pair which spurred their movements to even greater speed and complexity.

An otherwise ignorant observer might ponder in bewilderment at the spectacle before them – these graceful acrobats bounding and leaping and in seemingly random display. To a trained eye however, it was anything but. Their form was finely orchestrated – a combination of well-rehearsed manoeuvres, developed over years of dedicated training. They were warriors of perfection. Theirs was the dance of the elemancers, a struggle from which only one could emerge victorious.

Suddenly the male stumbled and fell to the ground. Seizing on the opportunity, the female lunged forward to finish him off. It could have been all over in that moment, but the man motioned upwards and a wall of rock sprung up between them. The blast of air hit the wall with tremendous force and it shattered to pieces. The broken shards hailed upon the helpless male who raised his arms in a vain attempt to protect himself. Now bleeding and dazed by the slicing rain, he scrambled to regain his footing but already it was too late. The female had closed the distance between them and he found a gauntleted hand pointed mere inches from his face, poised to deliver the final blow.

‘Stop!’ a booming voice echoed across the chamber. The female eased her stance and pulled back her hood to reveal deep-green eyes which sparkled in triumph.
‘Adept Fair is the victor!’ the voice boomed again.
‘Champion, take your bow!’ Fair bowed deeply in the direction of the voice and received a roar of rapturous applause and cheers in response. From the sidelines of the arena, a small gathering of likewise robed figures emerged from the shadows and approached the pair.  At the lead was Umi – a little older; a little greyer; but no less inspiring.

Elm remained on the hard ground of the arena floor, his head lowered. He felt a sharp pain in his arm and reached to remove the splinter of rock lodged there. He was wounded, yes, but that was hardly his concern. His flesh would heal, but his pride… that he was less sure of.

The contest had been merciless and hard-fought. To have come this far had taken Elm everything he had, and then to fall on the last stretch… it was more than he could bear. He was different; special; destined for greatness. They had told him so his whole life. How then could he have lost? It was if his entire life had been built upon a lie; a cosmic joke without a punchline. Submersed in shame, what was he now?

An open hand appeared before him. Elm glanced up to see the face of his rival. Her green eye shone as she smiled sweetly. Fair. His heart skipped a beat just thinking her name. Elm had made few friends in his time at the temple. The other trainees had always felt unease around him, as if his very presence were a threat. Indeed competition between the trainees was encouraged, but the speed with which Elm had advanced through the ranks of the order from initiate to adept, had set many of them against him. They were jealous, he would tell himself. True or not, it made him feel better in his times of loneliness.

Then there was Fair. There was none other like her – kind, yet also fierce and indominatable, she was his one and only true friend. Where others felt unsettled by him, Fair had stood by his side. To her, he was just another of the trainees, no different from the rest. She saw him for who he really was – Elm… just Elm.

His fair angel – each time he saw her still felt like the first. His cheeks began to grow warm even as he fought to quell the coming blush. Close friends though they were, they were no less earnest rivals. Ever since their initiation into the order together, they had learnt and progressed side-by-side; neck-to-neck. Yet always Elm had thought he held the upper-hand. Where elemancy had come easily to him, Fair had worked for her prowess like no other, and now it seemed her dedication had paid off.

‘Elm, you sorry lump, get up before they think you’re really hurt. I’ve seen you take harder blows than that.’ she grinned down at him.
‘I wouldn’t want them thinking I’d gone easy on you now, would I?’ Elm smiled back. He was a fool. Here he was feeling sorry for himself when he should have been happy for Fair. She had fought as wholeheartedly as he, and deserved her due victory. Perhaps his ego too was due for a correction. More than that, it seemed he had been presented with a new goal. He would strive to overcome his failure and once again surpass his rival – this he swore. Elm took her hand and rose to his feet, dusting himself off.
‘A good fight, Fair. Next time will be different, I promise you that.’ he said with a grin. Fair’s smile widened.
‘I don’t doubt it.’ As she spoke, Elm noticed an unusual twinkle in her eye and she leant in closer to whisper in his ear.
‘I’m not finished with you yet, Elm. Meet me tonight.’ As she stepped back, she gave him a wink, then turned towards the approaching crowd of spectators.

Elm felt a rush of warmth cover his face as he lost control of the coming blush. Thankfully no one was looking his way. Fair stood before crowd and received her congratulations. Umi pinned a golden badge on her robes – the honorific token of the contest champion. For the first time in his life, Elm was glad that he lost.

– J.S.Worth

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