We worked through the rest of the day, swapping out the marching order to give those hacking their way through the dense jungle foliage a bit of a rest. After the attack by the greens and the one black wyrm, we kept a roving watch that continuously checked our sides and rear, to make sure we didn’t get surprised. It took most of the day and well into dusk before Christopher called a halt and we decided to make camp. Christopher was the oldest and most experienced of our band. He was our de-facto leader, though each of us had an equal say in every decision. It wouldn’t work for most parties, but we were hunters, and any sense of family is something we all generally revel in. Most of us had been plucked from obscurity, orphans, refugees, or just the poor on the streets. Some, like our resident magic-user, Vannes, were actually higher-born nobles that had the gift. Every person in the Kingdom is tested for “The Gift” when they turn the age of seven. The test is conducted in two different ways.
The first test is simple, touch a chaos crystal. This seems like something that would be easy for anyone to do, but unless you have the gift, the chaos energy that radiates from the crystal would severely injure or kill anyone without the gift. Magic-Users and hunters are the most common people born with the ability to handle raw chaos energy, sometimes a very powerful druid is able to do it, but there haven’t been any druids seen for dozens of years. Most people, like King Pericourt, believed they had been destroyed during the last Chaos War. My band had run into one small band of druids that hid deep in the northern mountains, the Firewalkers. They were able to form and shape red chaos energy to allow them to manipulate fire and molten lava from deep inside the ground. They kept to themselves, and as far as we were concerned, they were fine to leave up in their mountain retreat. Should they ever decide to come down and cause trouble, my party would be the last thing those druids ever saw.
The second test is more complex, and only those who are magic users can pass it. The test is relatively simple in theory. The child candidate is walked into a large open testing theater with the seats rising up from the sides of the basin. The wizards and other magic users sit and evaluate the candidate as they attempt to conjure pure chaos energy. The task itself is nothing to those with the raw ability to do it, but there can be some adverse.. side effects. Most children can conjure a small glowing ball of energy in their hand and that’s sufficient to earn them acceptance to the university. Some of them though, are not able to control the energy once they conjure it. There was one incident over 150 years ago where a young child named Stranha Bellport, summoned a veritable tempest of energy during her test. At the time of her examination, the tests were conducted in a small classroom in the bowels of the university. Her tempest quickly grew out of her control with her fear taking hold and fueling the storm of energy. It took all the instructors present and several others who were called from the surrounding classrooms to contain the energy and funnel it into a large Gargantuan crystal. Stranha was whisked away and never seen or spoken of again. When asked about the young girl and her abilities, every single one of those instructors who were present, feign ignorance on the subject. The story of Stranha Bellport is one of folk legend that some believe is real but most believe is a made up tale.
I, however, was just a simple poor child living on the streets when one of the apostates from the university plucked me out of the gutter to take the test. I was led by the nearly ambiguous apostate through the city and into the university. He wore the same generic robes as all the others who attended the university. Dark red in colour with a sash that indicated the caste he belonged to. The Apostates had green sashes, the instructors had blue, the students wore red, and the high council wore gold. The apostate that wound through the crowds and markets as they approached the university didn’t have anything to stand out from the hundreds of others save for his long mustache. It was a large and full mustache that sat perfectly below his nose on his upper lip. It must have been a point of pride for him because while his robes were slightly wrinkled, his facial hair was perfectly sculpted to resemble a comb. He didn’t say a word, just turned back every now and then to smile at me; as if his smile said “Don’t be scared. Everyone does it. You’ll be fine”. As a child of the streets, I easily could’ve avoided him and ran away. I knew the alleys and tunnels under the streets better than anybody. But I was starving and if me holding a stupid crystal was the difference between a bed and a hot meal for the rest of my life or dying in the gutter, well there was no choice there. So I followed him. His robes and sash making it easy to differentiate him from the hundred of other merchants, citizens and travelers moving about the city. Finally, we crossed the long bridge to the university. The building itself was massive and appeared to be carved out of the same black stone it was built on. Large stone buildings that were 8 stories tall covered most of the rocky island the campus was situated on. Three large towers rose serving as both lighthouses and laboratories for the more advanced students and teachers. There was an open courtyard where those attending the university could gather and walk through the small garden, maintained by students, in between classes. The lower levels were carved into the rock of the island descending down into an unknown level of floors beneath the surface. Most students knew about the first 5 sub-levels. Plenty of classrooms were used for early lessons on the first five floors. The next five were for storage with a dumb waiter system worked into the rock, the chute rising all the way up to the main level with the courtyard. What the students didn’t know is that below these 10 levels, there existed another five. These last five floors were only used by the high council of the university for undisclosed projects. Some of the students have told stories of moaning and wailing coming from “the foundation rock itself” as they attended class in the lower levels, but nobody has any concrete proof of any of these labs. The university was out in the middle of the harbour well away from the populace and the castle itself. This was deliberately done by King Pericourt to ensure that any magic spells or experiments can be contained on the island by destroying the bridge if necessary.
At the time of my testing, I didn’t know any of this. I was just a small scrawny nobody plucked from obscurity by this apostate with the mustache. He walked me across the long bridge from the harbour to the university and motioned for me to follow him through a large open set of doors into the main building at the center of the island. As we stepped from the bright sunny day into the dark confines of the building, my eyes took a few moments to adjust before I saw in front of me a large group, probably over 100 kids, all waiting to have the test administered. Of every 20 kids tested, 4 wouldn’t come back out. I took that to mean that they had the Gift and were beginning their training immediately. I took my spot at the back of the line and waited as those in front of me went in, one after the other. Apostates continuously brought in children from all social statuses to stand in line and wait for their tests. I was behind an olive-skinned boy from one of the farms outside of the City and I stood in front of a nobleman’s child who wore a very well crafted doublet with matching trousers. The sigil on the breast of the doublet was two snakes intertwined over a fire, House Vasco, known for their druidic heritage. As I turned to speak to the young man in the fine clothes he hissed at me through gritted teeth, “Turn to the front street rat. I don’t talk to the likes of you”. Without so much as a word I turned back to the front and stayed silent until I was standing in front of the door to the examination chamber. The boy who had walked in before me hadn’t come out, which meant that odds were I wouldn’t have the gift. I walked to stand in the center of the examination room. It was a perfectly circular room, which must have been housed in one of the towers. The walls were smooth sandstone, a stark contrast to the dark stone of the outer walls. Torches lined the space evenly distributed to provide as much light as possible. There was a small wooden table in the center of the room, which rested right above a beautifully carved mosaic on the floor. Sitting on top of the small table was a tiny box with a latch. As I entered the room, one of the instructors, marked by his blue sash, gestured for me to stand behind the table. I walked to the center of the room and waited. The instructors formed a loose semi-circle in front of me and waited silently.
Finally, the teacher in the center spoke, “You understand why you are here child?” She asked in a crisp and curt voice, clearly, this day was wearing on her patience. I slowly nodded my head up and down to show I understood. “Good, then please open the box and pick up the crystal in your bare hand”. I took a half step closer to the table and undid the small latch that held the lid of the box down. I opened the hand-carved box and sitting inside on a small piece of velvet cloth, was a blue crystal that crackled with energy. I hesitated for a brief moment wondering how much it would hurt if I didn’t have the Gift.
“Is something wrong child?” the instructor on the far right side asked, impatience creeping into his voice. I shook my head no quite vigorously. “Good, then proceed please. it’s nearly dinner time and we still have over 100 children to get through”.
I reached out my hand and felt my fingers clasp around the cold crystal. The smooth edges of the chaos crystal felt strangely comforting as I lifted the blue formed energy out of the box and held it up to the instructors in my hand. The cool sensation was replaced with a power I had never felt in my life. It filled me with a sense of strength and bravado. Like I could take the world on by myself. Me. This little child with a blue wyrm crystal. The instructors all began to murmur to each other as I examined the crystal in my hand. It was nearly transparent save for the edges which were transparent. It was cut into an odd shape with sharp edges, but the edges felt smooth in my hand. Swirling in the middle of the tiny rock, was a nexus of blue chaos energy. As I stared at it, I could see all the different hues of blue that roiled and spun together every now and then throwing off small spurts of electricity to the edges of the formed crystal. The lightning would arc from the swirling nexus and connect with the points on my hand touching the crystal and I could feel the power flowing through my arm and into my chest. I stared in wonder as one of the instructors spoke, “Excellent child. You have passed the test and have the Gift. If you will follow the hallway through this door…” she swung her arm and a door to the left of where I stood in the center of the room opened, “.. you will be greeted by your instructors and inducted into Hunter school”.
I nodded slowly and turned to leave before the teacher in the center stopped me, “Child, you need to leave the crystal”. I looked down and still clutched in my hand was the small rock that contained the veritable galaxy of chaos energy. I turned on my heel and took a few small steps back to the table. I extended my hand and dropped the formed essence into the box, which closed and latched on its own with a wave from on of the instructors. “One more thing child, can you summon chaos energy?”
I was startled for a moment before I answered openly “I’ve never tried”.
“Please try now. Form a sphere of chaos energy in your hand, if you can”, the instructor requested as they all looked on. I thought as hard as I could about the energy in the box and how it had felt flowing through me. I concentrated on the feeling, of being powerful for once in my life and finally being able to do something rather than begging in the gutter. I strained and flexed all of my muscles concentrating on the energy and what it meant to me and the others in the room. Beads of sweat dripped down my forehead matting into my long hair that hung over my face. I opened my eyes and held out my hand, sitting in the palm of my hand was a crystal in the shape of a small blue dragon. Unlike the crystalized essence, there was nothing overly special about this one. I looked with a small smile towards the instructors, all of whom had a small frown on their face. “Very well child..”, the lead instructor at the center of the group stated, “You will be a hunter at the very least. Follow the corridor and you will meet your new family”. Without a second look, I tucked the small blue crystal dragon into the inner pocket of the ripped and tattered shirt and set off down the hall.
That was 20 years ago though, nearly a lifetime… I rolled over on my blanket, using my pack as my pillow. I watched the others in our camp deep in the new jungle. We had several fires lit around the perimeter and 3 people on watch at all times. My watch was going to be the end of the night just before dawn, but even as I laid there knowing I should sleep I couldn’t. I kept thinking about the black wyrm that had been leading the green wyrms against us and how that defied everything we had been taught. I sat up and reached into the pouch on my belt where I had stored the black wyrm crystal. I held it in my hand and could feel the energy cascading through me, but this felt different. Out of place. Like everything else surrounding the whole incident, this crystal didn’t belong.
I sat there pondering what could cause something like this to happen when I smelled it. The smell of rot and decay. Of stagnant water and moldy fauna. The stench of death and fear or as we called it, a swamp. I whistled quietly to those on watch and pointed to my nose, wrinkling it in the process. They all took a big whiff and crinkled their noses as well. Without a word, we roused the others and held a finger to our lips, our universal sign for silence. We each brandished our weapons and tied our belts to us, our hands instinctively hovering over the collection of pouches holding our crystals. We circled together, around the central fire. Keeping our backs to the flames to block the light and make sure nothing could sneak up. That was when we heard it, the loud Boom.
At first, we could barely hear it, my ears flexed with the strain as I tried to catch it again. Our hushed breathing and crackling of the fire were drowning it out. As we stood there waiting we heard it again and then again, it got louder and louder, as if it was coming closer.
We all drew in a hushed breath as we could see a cloud of green gas moving through the foliage towards us. The Elder dragon was on the move, and it was heading right for us.