I felt like I was trudging through mud, probably because I actually was. I tripped on something and fell forwards, faceplanting the ground, and getting covered in filth. I looked to my left and right, the others were having a tough time too. You might be thinking I’m talking about the Neame, but I’m not. I’m talking about other familiars. We were all undergoing a test of sorts, without our summoners. We were all given a single direction, to reach the other end of the obstacle course and back; our task was to find and retrieve a specific object. The purpose of the test was to rate our capabilities so our summoners would better understand our limits… at least, that’s what I was told by Suma. I wasn’t actually present when everything was being explained. They thought that since I was intelligent, that I shouldn’t be present during the explanation just in case I figured out a quick way around the problems.
“Suma…” I said after wiping some mud from my forehead and cheek, “how much further does this mud pit go on?” We were talking our private connection since we were so far apart.
“Not much longer Jake, you are nearly at the end.” She said. Suma was flying over the course giving me directions. “Do you see that tree? The one with the red leaves.”
“Yes,” I said approaching it.
“Okay good, make sure you do not go near it.”
I stopped, “…why?”
“That looks like a Dragon’s Blood tree, they are dangerous, but it is difficult to tell from up here.” I went around the tree carefully. Good thing too, because another familiar, a borog, charged straight through its low hanging vines and… well, I’ll leave out the gory details. But suffice it to say, the aftermath was gruesome.
I soon came upon a set of three long narrow hallways that led underground. “Suma, any idea which way I should go?”
“I am sorry Jake, I cannot tell which of the paths is connected to which exit.”
“Okay… I’m right-handed so I’ll go right.” I ducked down to avoid some low hanging roots from a small tree growing above the entrance of the underground hallway. The corridor itself was dark, damp, smelled of mold, and only got worse the deeper I went in. The single saving grace was that it looked built and not natural, so I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to end up in another situation like the cave on Dragon’s Hoard. “Suma, I’m telling you right now, if at any point I have to crawl on my belly to fit through a narrow tunnel I’m quitting this stupid training.” I joked… half joked. I created a ball of fire for light, something I was getting much better at, and tossed a separate fireball down the tunnel to see what was ahead. As the blue flames illuminated the path, I saw collapsed areas of walls and ceilings, roots that had grown through the tunnel and hung from the top, and something very surprising; I saw concrete. It was the first time since arriving in Suma’s world all those years ago I had seen stonework that wasn’t simply the molding or manipulation of existing rock. “Suma, what is this place?”
“What do you mean Jake?” She asked.
“Were these training grounds built on something?” I wondered as I approached the concrete. Getting closer, I could see it was the remains of a wall. It stood out as unnatural compared to the interwoven vines and dirt that made up the rest of the hallway.
“I do not know, why?” She wondered sounding confused. I picked up a bit of the concrete and flipped it over after noticing some black markings on the side. The bottom, or rather I suppose top, of the decayed wall had runes on it. The runes themselves were in varying states of ruin as well. Most of them were completely smeared off, or cracked completely in half from the splitting of the concrete itself.
“I found runes down here, and concrete too.” I told her.
“Runes?” She said surprised. “What would runes be doing down there?”
“Well, your people use runes a lot right? Maybe this was a battle ground at one point? Really the concrete being here is more surprising to me.” I said and put a few of the broken bits of rune cover rock into my backpack. I figured I could just show Suma later, and maybe she would know more if she actually saw it, or she could ask someone who knew. I left the hallway a few minutes later, and was relieved to be out in the sun again. Well, actually it was overcast, but it was still better than being in a cave again.
“I see you know Jake, you came out of the middle exit. You are not far now.” She said. “Turn left and walk forwards to the stream. When you reach it, follow it until I tell you to stop.” I followed her instructions and eventually came to a little creek flowing downhill. However, for some reason the water was a dull green. “Great, you are at the stream, now just keep walking and do not cross it until I say okay.” She told me.
“Why not?” I wondered.
“It is not safe to cross it yet. If you were to fall in, then it could be deadly.” She explained seriously.
“Um, how deadly? Like, how does it kill you?” I wondered looking at the water.
“Jake, please do not try to cross it.” Suma said urgently.
“I wasn’t going to; I was just curious.” I clarified, then began walking downstream like she instructed.
“I do not know all the details, but I have heard rumors of Neame who just landed in the water to rest dying horrible deaths in just a few hours.”
“I guess that explains why I don’t see any fish in the water.” I noticed.
“Not anymore no, though I am told there used to be.”
“Wait, so does that mean the water wasn’t always deadly?”
“Yes, in fact I think that only started a few years before I was hatched.” As I was walking, I opened my bag and started scrounging around for some kind of empty resealable container. I wanted to take a sample of the water back to Earth with me and see if I could figure out what it was, but I didn’t have anything usable. Just as I slung my backpack back over my shoulder, I saw what looked like some kind of dam made of sand, stone, mud, broken tree branches, and other assorted things that must have fallen into the stream. On one side, the water flowing into the dam was green, but on the other it looked almost normal again. “Okay Jake, you can cross along that water stop.”
I watched Jake carefully walk across the water stop. To me, it seemed quite large, but when compared to Jake it seemed almost silly to describe it in such a way. In reality, Jake probably could have jumped across the length of the river, but it seemed too dangerous, so I led him to the nearest safe place I could see from my perch on the guiding tower. The guiding towers were the place all the masters were supposed to perch while guiding their familiars. There were three currently set up around the training ground. We were instructed that while we could give commands to the familiars while in the air, if we were to land anywhere other than a guiding tower we would be failed automatically.
“Okay Suma, which way now?” Jake asked after he crossed the stream. I refocused my attention to him and began looking for a safe path from where he was, to the end of the course.
“Do you see that large rock next to the trees with blue leaves?” I asked.
“Go there, then wait. I need to readjust to a better tower.” I took flight and went to the nearest tower opposite to where Jake was now. I needed a clearer view of his location and what he was walking into. After a moment, I was perched on the new tower, and guiding Jake again. While Jake walked, the instructor for this exercise landed on the perch beside mine.
“Cadet Suma, how is it coming?”
“It is going well ma’am, Sentinel has avoided Delabi River and made it through all other obstacles.” I told her.
“Good, where is he now?”
“He is on his way to a clearing near the seventh obstacle.” I told her.
“He is making excellent progress then. I will leave you to it.” She said. Just as she was about to fly away, I thought about what Jake said.
“Ma’am, before you go, I have a question. Was this training ground built on ruins of some kind?”
“Actually yes.” She confirmed. “It was once the site of a city, before the ravaging anyway. How did you hear about that?”
“Sentinel told me, ma’am. He said he found something in the tunnels that went under the poison forests.” I explained.
“What kind of something?”
“Runes, and something called concrete.”
“Did he know what kinds of runes?” She asked.
“I do not think so, he has no training with runes beyond simply activating them.”
“I see, make sure he leaves them be, I will inform the Major of his discovery.” With that, she flew off. I then contacted Jake and told him to make a mental note of where the runes he found were.
“Suma, I’m at the clearing.” Jake said.
“Good, now for the seventh obstacle.”
“Oh joy,” he complained sarcastically. “So, what do I have to do this time? So far I’ve climbed trees, avoided several sets of deadly plants, trudged through knee deep mud, and navigated mysterious ruins. What fun, and or death defying, task awaits me now?”
“Do you see the large hole to your left?” I asked. He looked around for a moment then walked over to it.
“Okay, I found it.”
“Good, now all you have to do is climb down and then back out.”
“What… is that it?”
“Yes, but it is a rather deep hole.” I said.
“I mean… I guess it’s a little deep. But no more than twice my height. Is this really all I have to do?” He wondered suspiciously.
“Yes, that is really it for this one. But do not get too comfortable, Jake,” I said and turned my gaze to the eighth obstacle, “I believe this one is simply practice.”
I sat on the edge of the pit and carefully slide down as far as I could before letting myself fall into it. I landed with a bit of a thud, but no worse than when I would jump from the halfway down the stairs to the bottom as a child. “Easy,” I said to myself. I looked up at the walls surrounding me and had a momentary flashback to the entrance of that cave. For just a second, I felt like I was back there again, but I shook myself out of it and started climbing my way out of the pit. I started by sending Jericho, my armor, away so I would be lighter. Getting into the pit was far easier than getting back out. I had not noticed from the outside, but the walls were smoother than I had first realized, which made finding hold for my hands and feet harder.
“Jake, I cannot see you from my position. How are you doing?” Suma asked.
“Been… better.” I strained to say as I reached desperately for the next hold, but it was too far. Then I had an idea. “Twilight,” I said summoning my hammer. It appeared in my hand, and nearly caused me to lose my grip on the wall. The sudden change made me drop Twilight and it fell with a clang to the rocks below. I sighed and resummoned it back to my hand, being careful not to drop it this time. Twilight was too heavy to maneuver with only a single arm, so I wouldn’t be using my arm. I focused on what I learned from Ceil and wrapped my mana around Twilight, floating it upwards above my head. I was careful to avoid the areas with runes on them that Sela-Car had created, I didn’t want them activating... not yet anyway. I positioned Twilight so that it was as far upwards as it could go, but while staying withing reach. Then, I activated one of the runes by wrapping my mana around that area. A huge burst of air exploded from the back of Twilight and forced it into the side of the rocky wall. Bits of stone fell and landed on my shoulders, but I hardly noticed.
“Jake! What was that noise?” Suma cried out concerned.
“That was the sound of a handhold being made.” I told her. I looked up and saw a strange sight. The coned spike of my hammer had been thrust its entire length into the rock. The rock wall itself had a brand-new crack running several feet out from the cones entrance.
“Are you okay?” Suma asked.
“I’m fine,” I said and pulled myself up Twilight’s handle. From there, the rest of the climb was almost easy. Once I was out of the pit, I resummoned Twilight and inspected it for damage. It seemed fine, so I sent it away and summoned Jericho back.
“So… was climbing out as easy as you assumed it would be?” Suma wondered.
“Absolutely,” I lied.
“Good, because the eighth obstacle will not be any easier.”
Lauric Isbala’s POV
“Okay Loyalty, just a bit further now, stop when you arrive at the tree line.” I told my Black Serpent familiar. I was one of many Neame going through the exercise with their familiars today. We were on the fourth obstacle, a mud flat created with nature magic. Loyalty was handling it well, but the mud was still slowing him down. His best environment is tall grasslands and rocky hills though, places he can easily hide and attack. Loyalty arrived at the tree line and I repositioned myself to another tower. To my distain, it was the tower that Madam Suma was perched on. She did not seem to take notice of me, as I landed on a perch on the opposite side of the tower. Loyalty was at the poison forest, a deadly place for most creatures, especially Neame, but not to Loyalty. He slithered easily through the obstacle and on to the next, Delabi River. This obstacle would be too much for him to cross like he did the forest though, so he needed to be led to the nearest safe area, a natural passageway that made the poison waters a bit safer. Upon his arrival, I realized it would be difficult for his large frame to cross such a narrow path, so I made him go slowly. Despite the water on the other side of the river being safer, he still would not be able to cross through it due to him not being able to swim. Suddenly, I heard a loud sound like thunder rumble from one of the other obstacles.
“Jake! What was that noise?” Lady Suma shouted. Her familiar was probably doing something reckless again. I ignored her and went back to Loyalty, who had just managed to cross the river and was on his way to the sixth obstacle, an underground maze of sorts.
“Loyalty, go through the middle route.” I ordered him, then began the far sight ritual. It was a spell that masters could perform on their familiars who had already undergone the Rite of Dominance to see through their eyes. “Our minds become one. Our thoughts become the same. I see what you see. I know what you know.” I cast the spell and began to see through Loyalty’s eyes. Suddenly I was slithering my way through a tunnel. Vines that were hanging from the dirt ceiling quickly zoomed past. Carefully, I guided him as he turned corners and went up inclines, doing my best to keep him in a straight path. At one point, I thought I saw something carved into the walls, but his vision in darkness is less than perfect. Eventually, I helped him make his way out and he was on to the next obstacle.
“Well, I would definitely call this an obstacle.” I said looking up the cliffside. I stood at the bottom of a rocky and jagged cliff about fifty feet high. “Or maybe an impossible task.” I mumbled.
“Okay Jake, just do what you did when you got out of the pit. It should be exactly the same.” Suma said over our connection.
“Are you crazy?” I nearly spat. “This is nothing like the pit! If I fell off the side of the wall down there all that I had to worry about was a bruised butt and ego. If I fall here, I’m going to die!”
“Well, maybe you could go slowly?” She suggested.
“Yeah… I don’t think that’s going to help.” I said and knocked two fingers on the rocky face of the cliff.
“Do not worry Jake, this is the last major obstacle. Once you finish this-” She started to say, but I cut her off.
“Suma, it doesn’t matter if this is the final obstacle or the key to curing cancer, I can’t climb this… hold on.” I was halfway through complaining when I realized something. “Suma, the point of this obstacle is to get to the top of the cliff, right?”
“Yes Jake, why do you ask?”
“Do the rules specifically say I need to climb the cliff?”
“Um no, not to my knowledge.” She answered.
“Good, because that’s not happening, but I might have an idea on another way up.” I told her.
“What, like a spell perhaps?” She wondered.
“Yes. Now Suma, I can use nature magic right, even though I have Inversion magic?” I clarified.
“Of course Jake, you know that.” She answered, then asked concerned, “Why?”
“If I can’t go to the top of the mountain, I’ll bring the top of the mountain to me.” I suggested.
In a very confused and slightly worried tone, she asked, “…What?”
I watched from my perch on the observation tower as Jake used Nature Spell after Nature Spell to move incredible amounts of dirt and rock from the side of the cliff, then climb to the top of the pile, and start again. Slowly, he was making his way to the top, and leaving a path of destroyed rubble in his wake. He would raise his hands above his head, then clench his fists and throw them down to his side, and the rocks would break apart and fall beside him; ready to be climbed. “Are you doing okay, Jake?” I asked in a mixture of amazed and horrified.
“I’m… fine.” He answered grunting with each motion.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yeah, I just haven’t had to cast this many spells in a row before. It’s more mentally tiring then I assumed it would be.” He explained. “I can’t tell from here, how far along am I?”
“You are about a quarter of the way done, maybe a third.” I said and he climbed up his most recent pile of debris.
He was panting as he spoke, “It… felt like… more than... that.”
“Jake, you mana cannot be running out already, can it?” I asked concerned.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said, and I saw him sit down on his pile of rubble. “But repeatedly climbing up all of these rocks sure is taking the wind out of me. Especially after everything else I’ve done today.” He then pulled out something from the garment he keeps on his back, and placed it to his mouth. I could not see it clearly from where I was, but it looked like he was either eating or drinking. “I need to take a break for a second,” he said.
“Okay, just let me know when you are ready to continue. I am going to fly to the next obstacle and try to get a better look at it.”
“How many more do I have left?” He wondered.
“Only one I believe.” With that, I took to the skies.
- Louisiana, The United States of America
Bio: I'm a writer, and have been for a while. I have three published books at the time of writing this. Humans Don't Make Good Familiars, The Immortal Legends: Merlin and Arthur, and The Alpha Prophecy: The Legend of the Alpha of War.