Erik reached the door of the Exam Hall and shivered. His initiate cloak never seemed to keep out the chill of the stone corridors. Before him stood the ironwood door etched with six intertwined fire lizards.
“More brains than sense,” he could hear his mother say. She had supported his decision to leave the settlement for the Arcane University. He had worked hard to excel in his studies. He could do this. But oh, did he miss the warm summers of home in the Wilds.
He swallowed hard and opened the door.
He hadn’t expected to come face to face with an actual fire lizard. It clung to the stone wall, motionless, heat radiating from its brilliant red scales. Orange, reptilian eyes pierced him, and all of his hours poring over dusty old tomes suddenly felt woefully inadequate. Its mouth opened.
Erik grasped for the Words of Winter that could quench the fire or spray shards of ice, but only random trivia came to mind. “143 teeth” was his last thought as the flames engulfed him.
A cold voice spoke Words behind him, and he lost consciousness.
Erik awoke on a floor of black stone so polished that he could see his reflection before the warmth of his breath clouded the surface. He looked up to see the twelve Masters of Winter staring down at him.
Their dispassionate faces filled him with dread. With an abrupt wave, the Headmaster sealed his fate. “You have failed the Test. Goodbye.”
The Twelve showed no hint of emotion as they stared at him.
Shaking, Erik climbed to his feet and walked out into the snow-frosted courtyard. His robe felt crusted with ice. He couldn’t stop trembling.
He had spent his entire childhood dreaming of becoming an Arcane Master. Everyone had told him he would be brilliant at it. What now?
He looked out at the dominating silhouette of Ice Peak. A fragment from an old tome came to mind:
By snow-winds tossed,
By sky embraced;
Find Wisdom lost
In ice encased.
It had been scrawled below a drawing of a pillared dome—a fabled Place of Power–on the peak of a mountain.
But the slopes of Ice Peak were notoriously littered with frozen corpses.
“More brains than sense,” Erik murmured. He could still picture his mother smiling as she teased him, her hair glowing in the summer sun. He hadn’t been home in four years.
He glared at the mountain. “Wisdom lost? Watch me come find it.”
He wrapped his meager cloak about him more tightly and strode toward town, banishing all thoughts of home.
Erik inched forward, carefully planting another step on the snow-dusted ice. Through the flurries he strained to catch glimpses of the shaggy trolls who had destroyed everyone else in his expedition.
An enormous creature flew through the air, sharp claws digging into the ice beside him. Erik stared into the face of a giant snow cougar.
“Good girl,” he muttered through chapped lips. His unlikely ally dropped a mouthful of raw rabbit. He would have died days ago without her help.
An ice troll howled nearby. A chorus of howls answered. The cougar growled back, but even she looked uncertain.
Why had he come here? Why had he ever left home in the first place?
Erik gritted his teeth and hoisted his only weapon, a hand axe designed to cut steps in the ice. It would be next to useless against even one troll.
What a fool he had been! The grand adventurer striving to conquer Ice Peak would soon be just another frozen corpse on its slopes. Just like the ambitious initiate, shivering in his robe, who had dreamed of stunning the Arcane masters and blazing his name into glory. A frozen corpse he’d been then, too, when he wandered nameless and penniless into town in search of other desperate adventurers. They’d offered to put their swords with his magic in hope of riches and glory on Ice Peak. Now they were all dead.
The snow blinded him. He couldn’t feel the axe in his hand. He had burned through every Winter spell he could remember over the last few days, and now they were all gone. It was over.
The trolls howled again, louder.
Erik let his mind drift back to the Wilds, back to the home he had discarded so easily. His pa waved from the field of turnips, freshly tilled. His sisters danced in the late sunlight of a high summer day. They laughed at him, not unkindly.
He was again a young boy leading Jahu, the stubborn donkey, across the natural bridge of Waterfall Gorge. Erik felt the pounding of the water as if it were a living thing.
He closed his eyes and filled his soul with memories of summer, home, family.
Words rose in his mind, and he sang. He imagined he could hear his sisters singing with him as they danced through the summer field.
Rest and shelter,
gentle winds arise.
Soft and flowing,
warm and growing,
filled with fragrance,
Erik smiled as the memory of warm wind brushed his face.
Then he heard the sound of running water, and he opened his eyes.
The ice trolls were gone. Erik stood in a sodden circle of brown grass near the highest peak of the mountain. Icy columns stood in a circle before him, looking half melted. Ancient stone pillars shone through the ice. They were glowing, pulsing, inviting.
Erik recognized the ancient script on the pillars. It read “W – I – S – D – O – M.”
The front two pillars stood slightly wider apart than the others, almost like a door.
Erik stepped forward.
–William David Graves