The Main Hall was as ornately decorated as the mage chambers, but the atmosphere was somewhat less comfortable-Zariel thought it had something to do with the purple things sitting nearby, but it could also have been the generally murderous looks the mages were giving each other.
Nearly every mage was surrounded by at least five sponsors, who almost invariably were bigger than the mage and seemed like something between bodyguards, servants, and friends. The sponsors of different mages were glaring at each other with all the same hostility as their charges. Only a few mages had no sponsors, and these sat by themselves, with at least a three metre radius around them, looking either lonely or so antisocial that Zariel thought they had probably killed their sponsors, and that was the only reason they didn't have any.
It was an unusual breakfast.
Early that morning, Bashkir had appeared at the door of the Opal Room, and knocked until Zariel came to answer it. Bashkir said the presence of every mage and their sponsors was required in the Main Hall for breakfast, and to come along immediately. Zariel fetched his companions, and soon they were all marching down the passageways after Bashkir.
Now here they were, seated at one of six unimaginably long tables, expected to eat breakfast and keep up several staring matches at once. Zariel decided to let his sponsors do the staring. Breakfast took a priority for him, and besides, most of them weren't hungry anyway; last night, they had discovered a cache of strange foods, which Rusty referred to as 'haggis' and 'turnovers' and 'tea cakes'. After Rusty had convinced everyone that these things were edible, they had all eaten a bit more than strictly necessary. All but Kya (who had shown some reserve at dinner) and Zariel (who was still growing and always hungry anyway) hadn't slept well on account of having stomach-aches, and now weren't especially interested in breakfast.
Zariel, though, happily tucked into the morning meal.
Events continued in this manner for perhaps fifteen minutes, then a bell toll sounded, and a door opened at the far end of the hall. Everyone-except a few sponsors inextricably locked into staring matches-turned to see who entered.
Sylwind, clad now in ankle-length robes of dark purple with silver embroidery, strode in and mounted a staircase set against the wall. When he reached the platform at the top, he turned to face the gathered mages and sponsors. The bell toll sounded again.
"Mages, sponsors, may I please have your attention?" Sylwind was speaking something other than English now, but Zariel could understand him through the translator. Presumably so could everyone else, because even the die-hard staring matches ceased and the participants looked at Sylwind.
"Today, begins the Trial of Mages."
Cheers erupted in the vast hall, and creatures of all kinds rose to their feet (or whatever) to applaud.
When the cheering died down, Sylwind continued. "Most of you, of course, are unfamiliar with quite how the Trial works, or perhaps even what it is. For those mages, I offer the explanation that the Trial is, quite simply, an examination of sorts-one in which the finest mages participate, in order to find the very best of them all."
Sylwind clapped his hands together, and smiled in a manner that could only be described as saccharine. "Isn't that lovely? Of course, there are also magnificent prizes to be won, but that's secondary, naturally.
"Now then, as to how this will all work: there will be six phases of the Trial, some lasting several days. After each phase, a set number of mages will be obliged to forfeit-those who have not performed as well as their competitors.
"Additionally, the mage who best executes the goal of each phase will be named the winner, and be awarded thirty marks. The number of marks each mage possesses will in part determine who advances to the next phase, and who doesn't. Marks are also awarded for outstanding feats of mage skill, and are detracted for un-mage-like conduct."
Sylwind paused to look out over the crowd. "Pay careful attention to the way in which you comport yourselves, mages. Within your private chambers you may behave as you wish, but in any public space, including during the phases of the Trial, you will be expected to conduct yourselves as a true mage ought to. A lapse in judgement may cost you any number of marks, and thus the right to stay on to the next phase."
Nearly all of the human mages sat up a little straighter. Those who didn't were the ones who had already been imitating fence posts.
"Now," Sylwind went on, "as to the first phase of the Trial. It will be held in the Secondary Amphitheatre, not far from here. Each mage and their sponsors will be escorted there, and given further instructions. Sponsors will, of course, be outside the arena, but may stay in contact with the mage they are associated with, through their translators.
"The purpose of the first phase is mainly to gauge the sort of talent we have here, and pick out those who are really not ready to compete at the Trial. As such, the rules are simple: the Secondary Amphitheatre contains, at its centre, a considerable pit. Your solitary goal is to knock as many other mages as you can into it."
Sylwind looked as though he was going to say more, but he was drowned out by derogatory shouts in hundreds of languages.
"That's the Trial?" a young woman in scarlet robes called. "We're just going to be throwing each other down a hole?"
One of the purple things with antennae (presumably the mage) made angry chittering noises that translated as, "I travelled through fifty dimensions for a tavern brawl?"
Something with scales and a forked tongue screeched, "I want my money back!"
At least half of the mages had risen to their feet, some were pounding the table and chanting in thirty languages "We want our money back!", others were bellowing their own complaints. Apparently, they had all forgotten about proper mage conduct.
Sylwind, with the look of one who dealt with this sort of thing often, raised a hand for silence. "Quiet, please, mages. Quiet, please, and allow me to finish."
Most of the mages remained standing, glaring at Sylwind, but they did quiet down.
"As I was saying, the purpose of the first phase is to eliminate those who really do not belong here." Sylwind paused, probably to let this sink in. "Recall, mages, that it is not at all difficult to enter the Trial. While most of you are professional, accomplished mages, there are some that honestly should have stayed at home -- mages of only weak power who can barely summon a flame, or those who are ill-prepared for the mental aspects of the Trial. Even young mages who lack the maturity and skill to control their magic."
Zariel felt that this last sentence might be directed at him, and took suitable offence.
"As such," Sylwind continued, "the Council of Mages begins every Trial with a simple task that skilled mages will easily pass, but that others will stumble on. Rest assured, tomorrow will be much more challenging.
"The object of today, however, is to weed out those of dubious skill, with as little harm done as possible. The first three hundred to topple into the chasm will be sent home immediately, along with their sponsors, and shall see no more of the Trial."
At this, the mages looked apprehensive. Most resumed their seats.
"So, now that has been settled, I suggest that you all continue your breakfast. Your escorts will arrive in forty-five minutes, and the first phase will commence. May the Great Mage grant good fortune to you all." Sylwind made his way back down the stairs, and exited through the door he had entered by.
Within a few minutes, the mages and their sponsors returned to eating and glaring at each other.
Zariel, however, found his appetite somewhat diminished. The idea of being surrounded by hostile mages was bad enough, but the part that really worried him was the thing about 'mage-like conduct'. What did that mean? One of his spell books had briefly gone over the code of honour for mages, but it was pretty vague . . . defend the weak, don't abuse your power, set a good example . . . blah, blah, blah. Zariel had skimmed over that part, not thinking it important. Now he wished he had paid more attention.
And besides, this was a competition. The stuff about defending the weak and showing courtesy to others didn't seem to apply. Did Sylwind just mean to act professionally? Or were there some special rules that everyone but Zariel was aware of?
The young mage shifted restlessly on the bench. And, in spite of the fact that he didn't want to get caught up in a staring match, he turned around to look at the other mages.
Some of them looked a little uncertain too, though with the non-humans it was hard to tell . . . gee, someone else was wearing plain robes? Not twenty paces away there was a large group, all clad in dark grey, cowled robes, much like the people of the House wore. Everyone in this assemblage was pretty awfully tall, even sitting down, and there had to be at least thirty of them . . . Funny, they looked sort of like-
Zariel caught his breath as one of the robed figured turned to meet his gaze. It smiled coldly, and crooked a finger at him.
Zariel stared for a second, then turned quickly away, letting his hood fall down to cover his face, though he knew he had already been seen. "Rusty!" He tugged the Scot's sleeve, not daring to raise his voice above a whisper. "They're - they're here!"
"Eh?" Rusty had been looking unconcerned, and apparently didn't see the need to change this. "Where?"
"Behind us! But don't turn arou-"
Before Zariel could finish the sentence, Rusty had already swivelled about to see for himself. Ten Guardians stared back at him. Rusty gave them his most annoying smile, waved, and turned back to his breakfast. "Aye, that's our old friends all right. I wonder how they got here. Ah, well. Pass the teapot, will you, lad?"
"How can you think about breakfast at a time like this?"
"Breakfast is important at any time, and you're one to speak, you little shovel-guts. Besides, what happened to you being all amazed about the presence of water? Isn't tea a miraculous thing?"
"Rusty, the Guardians are here! At the Trial! The Guardians!"
"What's your point, and am I going to have to fetch that teapot myself?"
With a snort, Zariel passed the tea. "You're unbelievable, Rusty MacFen."
"What's all the whispering about?" Kya, sitting across from Zariel, leaned forward.
"The Guardians are here, and Rusty doesn't even care!"
"What?" Kya instantly tensed, as though ready to run. "Here? But - where are they?"
"Behind us, at the next table. There are about thirty."
By craning her neck, Kya managed to see around the other diners-and instantly dropped her gaze, as Zariel had. "It's them."
By this time, Barias, Velder, and Kest were paying attention.
"How did they get here?" Kest asked, after a moment.
Rusty shrugged. "This just happens to be the dimension they wound up in?"
"No," said Zariel, shaking his head. "Even if they somehow came here accidentally, they wouldn't be allowed to stay without a mage."
The companions looked at one another, as the significance of Zariel's words sunk in.
"Meaning," said Kya, "they've found another mage."
Rusty turned to look at the Guardians again. "I only see Guardian nut jobs."
"Look closer," Zariel murmured, pointing to the centre of the Guardians' ranks. "After the fifteenth Guardian, there's a gap before the next one. Whoever the mage is, they're slender and short enough that the Guardians block them from view."
Barias, during this exchange, had been gradually rising up in his seat until he was nearly standing. He stayed that way for a few seconds, then sank back down with a sigh. "Is there a reason, Zariel, that mages are so infernally short?"
Zariel shrugged. "Maybe the magic stunts our growth."
"Well, it would be a grand help if that mage grew about a half-metre. Then we could find out who and what it is."
"Why do we need to know?" Velder asked, poking at her breakfast. "I don't see as knowing what the Guardians' mage looks like will be any help."
Zariel leaned forward on his elbows, and covered his face with his hands. "Maybe, maybe not. All I know for certain is that I'd better start looking around corners and checking doorways; the Guardians are going to have it in for me. The mage working with them probably will too."
Rusty reached over to pat his shoulder. "Och, don't you be worrying about that, laddie. All you did was send them to another dimension and kill a couple of them. Like as not, they've forgotten all about it."
"Anyway, the old biddy has a partial point; we've got other stuff to think about. Like our strategy for the first phase."
"What strategy?" Zariel lifted his gaze, intending for the look on his face to communicate total hopelessness. "The other mages are right; it's going to be a free-for-all. I'll try to stay back and blend into the scenery, but there isn't much strategizing to be done."
"Rubbish. Have you ever fought another mage before?"
"No." Zariel hid his face again. "I've never fought anyone." He was quiet for a second. "Why the devil didn't the Guardians prepare me for this?"
"They're ill-equipped divits, that's why. But, though you lack in martial experience, you can make up for it by using your noggin." Rusty cocked his bonnet to one side, and narrowed his eyes, looking like a general about to lead an army into battle-a short, Scottish, scientific general. "First off, discard any notions you have about blending into the wall. It doesn't work, and I ken that from personal experience. Secondly, stay away from the pit at all costs. Don't bother about chucking the other lads into it; someone else will do that for you. Your sole aim is to keep yourself alive and in the competition. Thirdly . . . Thirdly, Blackbeard looks like he has something to say. What's up, old salt?"
"Just how is Zariel supposed to keep from being dragged over to the pit?"
"Simple." Rusty took a sip from his cup of tea, and smiled at Zariel. "The trick, my lad, is not to stay where the fighting is thinnest, but rather where it's thick and confusing, 'cause, when there's fifty laddies hurling thunderbolts at each other, it's hard to pick out a single target. But when there's only five combatants, there's a one in five chance someone's going to try chucking you over the precipice. However, don't get caught up too much in the fight. If you do, you won't be able to watch yourself on all sides, thus upping your chances of being taken by surprise. Understand?"
Zariel was quiet for a second. "I think so. Rusty? How do you know so much about this?"
"I'm Glaswegian. D'you ken how many times I've been caught in between two rival gangs, trying to last it out and not be a target? Jings, lad, anyone living in Scotland's finest city has to ken a thing or two about fighting, or they're not going to bloody well make it to adulthood."
"If that's Scotland's finest city," said Velder, "I would hate to see Scotland's worst."
"That'd be Auld Reekie, and aye, you don't want to see that. But, back to the matter at hand: Zariel, where in the arena are you going to keep your wee self?"
"Away from the pit."
"And where amongst the fiercely quarrelling mages are you going to be?"
"Dodging around where the fighting is thickest, but not getting caught up in it myself."
"And who are you going to ask for help if the situation is heading southwards?"
Zariel paused for a moment. "No one?"
"No, you're going to ask us. We're your team-mates, and we can communicate through the translators." Rusty paused, thinking. "And if - jings! For God's sake, laddie, push your hood back!" Before Zariel could comply, Rusty reached over and did it for him. "Just how d'you expect to avoid disaster if you've got no peripheral vision?"
Zariel blushed and looked down at the ground. "I hadn't thought of that."
"Well, start thinking, my lad. You're in competition with people that actually ken what they're doing, so we've got to act like professionals. 'Leave no stone unturned', as the Greek lassie said. So, again: where are you going to be staying?"
"Away from the pit."
Rusty continued this line of questioning, until it was apparent that Zariel remembered his lines. Then the rest of breakfast was spent with Rusty advising the young mage on how to trip an opponent, poke them in the eyes, or, better yet, run away.
To Zariel, it seemed only a few minutes before the escorts arrived to lead the mages on their way.
Bashkir, seemingly having stepped out of thin air, stood at Zariel's shoulder and tapped his foot. He had the look of one who had been waiting for hours, and had better things to do anyway. "You are ready, Mage Zariel?"
"Yes." As Zariel stood, it occurred to him that he really didn't have to put up with that sort of attitude. He glared up at Bashkir. "And that's Mage Zariel of Lyren."
Bashkir rolled his eyes, and began walking. "As you say, Mage Zariel of Lyren."
The mage and his friends followed Bashkir down several winding passageways, which alternated between lavishly decorated halls, and dark caverns lit only by glowing jewels.
"Bashkir?" This time, Rusty had managed to stay right alongside the disgruntled escort, although the pace was nearly as brisk as before.
"Why aren't all the other mages and sponsors coming with us?"
"They are taking different paths. As well, my fellow escorts who have been paired with quiet mages and sponsors, won't be troubled with answering pointless questions. Sadly, that burden falls on the rest of us."
"Why'd they make you an escort, anyway?" Rusty apparently wasn't very good at taking hints. "Aren't servants supposed to be polite?"
"Yes, servants are."
Bashkir said nothing more, and the rest of the trip was completed in silence-until they came to a tall, black door. "Mage Zariel of Lyren, please step through this door, and continue on. You will come to the Secondary Amphitheatre. When you do, wait for further instructions. Sponsors, come with me."
Bashkir continued on his way, without waiting to see if Zariel followed his orders. Kya lingered just long enough to squeeze Zariel's hand and whisper, "Good luck, baby brother." Then she turned to follow the rest of the group.
Zariel was left alone with the black door. Perhaps he was just being paranoid, but it looked like the sort of door you might come across in the afterlife, if you hadn't been a very good person. He swallowed, and pushed it open.
However daunting the entrance might have been, the corridor it led to was worse. Steep, dark steps led down, down, down . . . into pitch blackness. No glowing jewels, no sun-like orbs, just dismal nothingness.
Zariel started shuffling down the stairs, trailing his fingers along the rough stone walls to feel his way. The young mage had never considered himself afraid of the dark, but this cramped space was asking a bit much. His breathing seemed amplified, the air temperature must have been higher than back at the House, and yet the walls smelled clammy and dank. Zariel began counting the steps.
. . . Six hundred-and-seventy-two . . . six hundred-and-seventy-three . . . is that light?!
It was. In the distance shone a pinprick of sweet, longed-for light. Zariel walked faster, still feeling his way, but getting as close as he could to running. There it was, the light-he stepped out into it-
And failed to notice that the last step was a good metre above ground level.
Zariel tripped and fell sprawling on the hard, dark blue floor. And, though he sprang right back up-nearly tripping again in the process-it was difficult to suppress a groan, and impossible to keep from blushing. The Trial hadn't even started, and he was probably already having marks deducted for un-mage-like conduct.
As Zariel tried to compose himself and look like a professional, he glanced about at his competitors. Some, having seen the drop-off, gracefully stepped down. Others (show-offs) walked out over thin air and lowered themselves, using some kind of wind magic. A few sat on the last step, then jumped down.
All of them were looking at Zariel. And it was grimly obvious what they were thinking: Easy prey.
Zariel tried to swallow, but his throat was too dry. Instead, he looked out over the arena. All along the walls of the vast amphitheatre ran a three metre-wide walkway, in what seemed to be blue stone. The corridors from which the mages had emerged were also about three metres apart, set into the milky blue walls-or perhaps they just looked that colour, for the entire arena was lit with a dim, blue-ish light that only just allowed a view of the opposite wall.
But in the centre . . . the complete, enormous centre of the field was a pit. The floor stopped, and beyond it was a black void, a well of impenetrable darkness. Zariel wanted to go closer and look over the edge, maybe see what supported the floor, but that would probably be unprofessional. And besides, Sylwind was speaking through the translator in his ear:
"Mages, when the bell sounds, you may begin. Remember, as your escorts should already have told you, you may use magic, your own physical abilities, and anything that is a part of the arena, but weaponry and devices brought in from outside are illegal and anyone using them will be instantly disqualified. May the Great Mage watch over the worthiest."
As Sylwind finished his message, there came the sound of a bell-deep and loud and echoing. The mages began to move.
Many of them towards Zariel.
# # #
Rusty tugged his bonnet down over his eyes and moaned. "He did not just trip. Someone tell me he didn't trip."
Barias shrugged. "Actually, he did."
"What am I going to do with that lad? We go over our entire strategy, he kens what to do . . . and then he falls over in front of the other mages. Next time, we're going to focus more on his entrance."
Rusty sighed, and leaned back in his chair. It was almost as comfortable as the plush ones in their lodgings, but now, Rusty's complete attention was on the monitors lining the walls.
The five large screens that hung before him were so clear, they seemed more like windows. One was focused on Zariel, one showed the entirety of the amphitheatre from above, and the others were adjustable, by way of little keypads covered in symbols.
The rest of the room was small but luxurious, located somewhere near the Secondary Amphitheatre. Bashkir had seen them inside, explained again how to use their translators to speak with Zariel, then strode out looking annoyed.
Rusty would ordinarily have been impressed by all the technology, and probably would have started taking apart one of the monitors; but now, he was too busy worrying about Zariel.
There he was, that stately lad, standing up and dusting himself off with all the grace and grandeur of a lame duck. In a battlefield crafted of lapis lazuli and quartz, with towering pilasters and buttresses, surrounded by mages, many of whom looked right at home in such splendour . . . he had to go and trip. That's my boy, Zariel. Kya must be so proud.
And there went the bell. It sounded a lot like the church bell back home, only that this one was signalling the start of a titanic scuffle, rather than calling the faithful to Mass.
The mages were moving forward now, nothing really noteworthy . . . except that a lot of them were moving sort of in the same direction: towards Zariel.
Still, the lad looked like he had the situation under control. His hands were wreathed in fire, an odd bolt of lightning accompanied the flames; aye, he was giving these mages what-for. There he'd just sent a lad flying backwards into the pit, a lassie went tumbling head over heels, followed by something with fur. Of course, Zariel was disregarding the fact that he was supposed to be staying out of the fight. But he was doing okay.
Except . . . hold on, what did that lad with the feathered headdress think he was doing? He was sneaking around behind-
Rusty sat bolt upright, flipping the switch on his translator. "Zariel, turn around and-"
# # #
Zariel was never exactly sure how it happened. One moment he had the other mages running scared, the next he was being dragged across the smooth floor towards the pit, with nothing to anchor himself to.
The big, savage-looking mage had one arm around Zariel's body, and a hand clutching the front of his robes. The pit was coming closer . . .
So Zariel bit him.
He didn't think about it; it just happened, in the same way that he proceeded to kick the big mage in the stomach, and trip him into the chasm. Without thinking.
Of course, the downside of doing all this without conscious thought was that he didn't notice the female mage also behind him, until she had already shoved him into the abyss.