This story is closer to a classic in many ways, with a young maiden, her love stolen away by a dragon and her quest to recover her lost love. Complexities arise from there.
Through the Fire
Anara flinched as she heard the slow sound of footsteps coming down the hallway. The slow, perfect cadence of the footsteps told her exactly who was walking down the hall. The owner of those steps could walk in utter silence that no one could hear if she wished to. But every woman in the castle knew that she walked so she could be heard in order to strike terror into others. Which was why Anara murmured a prayer under her breath.
“Princess, let her pass me by. Let this day leave me in peace once more.” Anara murmured in an utterly heartfelt intonation. But she flinched as the footsteps came to a stop outside of her door.
“Anara Sylwyn. It is your turn for training.” The sultry, vibrant voice pierced the heavy wooden door like it wasn’t even there, the tone pleasant. That voice would turn heads anywhere it went, causing shivers of desire in others, and Anara couldn’t help but react herself, even as fear tempered those feelings. Those simple, pleasant words were far more dangerous than they seemed. Anara remembered what had happened with Merryn had defied the commands to present herself for training. No one else had been requested for three days…and when Merryn had returned, there had been little defiance left in the confident older woman. No one had dared disobey since.
“I’ll be right there, Mistress Essryl.” Anara spoke quickly, her own soft soprano trembling as she raised her voice, then rose from her bed, looking around her room with despairing eyes.
The room was…beautiful, really. The walls, floor, and ceiling were perfectly planed white marble, carefully vaulted above her head. The room was illuminated by a crystalline globe that hung on a gold chain in the center of the room. Controlled by voice, it could be dimmed or brightened as she wished, providing her with warm illumination wherever she looked. The four-posted bed was of dark walnut, the posts carved to resemble towering walnut trees with twining dragons climbing them, each exquisitely detailed. The bed was covered in beautiful linen covers and sheets as well, though they were currently rumpled from Anara being on them. A cherrywood wardrobe and vanity, with a large, beautiful full-length mirror next to it complemented things as well. A small table and three chairs allowed her to take visitors, each matching the bed in the degree of craftsmanship. The floors were covered in fine carpets, and hangings on the walls blunted any echoes enough to make the space quite comfortable. It was a far cry from the simple village where the elf had grown up. She missed Mellesyn desperately, but there was little that she could do about it.
Taking a deep breath, she plastered a smile on her face and went to answer the door. Beautiful this place might be, but a gilded dragon’s prison was a prison, no matter how beautiful it might be. The question was how long she would retain her sense of self.
3rd of Copper Skies
Year 2117 of the Andriath Dynasty
Tyrness Academy, Kingdom of Selwyn
Tyrness Academy, the highest source of magical learning in the elven kingdom of Selwyn. For a thousand years it produced thousands of magi who have supported the kingdom through the worst disasters that have faced the kingdom. The grounds of the academy were surrounded by a shining white stone wall fifteen feet in height, circling an area just over a mile across.
The grounds themselves were impressive. From the gates to the northwest a smooth stone path led to a huge central building, the academy itself, a vast cross-shaped building with a tower rising five hundred feet in the air at its center. Dormitories were constructed a short distance from each of the four wings in the cardinal directions, each of them crafted of fine stonework and tiled roofs, with an eye toward lasting through ages. The grounds themselves were elegantly manicured gardens, small glades, forests…and interspersed with frequent clearings of dirt and gravel scarred with small craters, glass, and worse where students might practice. Yet all of it was of virtually no interest to most.
On this, one of the last days of summer, a new class of students were joining the academy. One by one, numerous students arrived at the gates, some accompanied by guardians, others by elder students. One pair quickly passed through the gates and moved deeper into the grounds, heading for the north wing of the academy.
Both of the young elves were men. The elder of the two was a handsome blond who looked to be about twenty seven years of age. His hair fell to the middle of his back and was held back from his face by silver clips adorned with small sapphire gems that matched his eyes. His high cheeks, clear skin, and refined manners showed that he was well born, and he wore a close-fitting tunic and pants of high quality linen dyed a deep burgundy, and his boots looked all but new. A black mahogany wand hung in a sheath at his belt, along with a dagger hilt.
His companion was younger by about seven years, and his eyes matched those of the elder man, though his hair was a sandy brown instead. His facial features and general build seemed to indicate that he and the elder elf were brothers. His tunic matched the other’s, but his pants were of a much simpler brown, and his boots looked a bit more worn. Unlike most of the others, a curved scimitar hung at his side, and it looked as though he had long since become used to the weapon’s presence at his side.
Opening the door to enter the north hall, the elder spoke in a pleasant tenor, his voice on the soft side. “This is the Great Library, Tadrick. Do remember not to raise your voice within, the librarians don’t appreciate such, and a few students have found themselves forbidden from the library for a few weeks if they were overly loud. You’ll likely spend a great deal of time here!”
“Of course, brother! I’ve been looking forward to seeing the library with my own eyes, after the stories you’ve told me.” Tadrick replied eagerly, looking at his older brother, Navaan. The two of them were scions of the Earldom of Hadrick, and while he’d seen quite a number of impressive libraries, few in the kingdom could match that of the Tyrness Academy. This was the place that young magi dreamed of studying, after all! As the doors opened, though, Navaan stepped aside, grinning as he saw the awestruck expression cross his little brother’s face.
The doors opened to a desk, first and foremost, where the young men saw an elderly elven woman and two young men attending to books and placing them on carts, likely for sorting. Behind them, though, was a main corridor heading down the length of the building to the center of the complex, over sixty yards distant, and with dozens of tables and chairs for studying on either side of the carpeted walkway. The ceiling was fifty feet above, and on either side of the walkway were towering stacks shelves, each with neatly organized tomes upon the shelves. The shelves nearly reached the ceiling, with walkways every ten feet of height. Illuminating the gleaming shelves were glowing crystals suspended in mid-air that shed gentle white light. The library was far from unoccupied, with several dozen older students studying, and one young lady floating in mid-air while she looked at books halfway to the ceiling. Stepping inside, one could feel the magic carefully controlling the temperature within.
“By the Court…” Tadrick breathed, his eyes huge as he gazed on the library. And then he jumped, startled as his brother elbowed him in the side. “Hey! What was that for?”
“Stop blocking the entrance, blockhead. You can go inside, you know.” Navaan told him with a grin, his tone showing his insult was a joke. The sharp tone from the entrance garnered the attention of one of the librarians, but the elven man just smiled, shaking his head as he recognized the look on Tadrick’s face. The reaction of most students when they first saw the library was generally the same.
“Oh, of course.” Tadrick eagerly entered the library, the doors swinging closed behind the pair almost silently, and he looked around in awe, moving to look over the titles on the first floor near the doorway. As he did, Navaan explained.
“Each student can check out only five books at a time, though more can be reference here in the library. If an instructor directs you to read a specific book, their note can allow you to exceed the standard five books, which means that most of us have eight or more books at any one time. Those in higher grades have priority over those in lower grades, of course.” Navaan was quiet, but his voice was clear, and another girl overheard and came a bit closer, looking like she was close to Tadrick in age.
“If I may…may I ask if there’s a meaning to the multiple levels of walkways? I’ve noticed that it’s just the older students at the upper ones thus far.” The young lady asked, somewhat nervously as she smoothed her dress. She was wearing a decent, but not spectacular linen dress in deep blue and embroidered with silver orchids, Navaan noted, and the lack of jewelry probably meant she was either a commoner, or more likely, the child of one of the lesser nobility.
“Certainly! But first, why don’t we introduce ourselves? I’m Adept Navaan Daskar, and this is my younger brother Tadrick.” He spoke politely, gesturing to his brother, who bowed respectfully. “He has just entered the apprentice class. And you are?”
“Oh! Certainly, ah, I’m Sella, Sella Vintas.” She replied, quickly curtsying. Steadying herself as she stood up straight, she blushed slightly. The young woman had long raven hair to the base of her back, and her long ears were twitching nervously, but she smiled prettily at the pair. “I was just tested a few weeks back for my talent, and was recommended to join the apprentice class myself. Everything is a bit…overwhelming. My father didn’t think I had talent, but…I guess mine was a bit more esoteric than most.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Sella.” Tadrick told her with a smile, tilting his head and opening his mouth to continue, only to have Navaan smoothly interject.
“Indeed! It is most certainly a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Sella. Do you mind if I ask what your talent is for? I’ve a particular talent for the sphere of air, and decent talent with water and fire, myself.” He asked curiously. Any student whose talent had been discovered that recently would likely be quite impressive, after all, and he’d rather be on top of things. His smile didn’t waver, though, and Sella blushed more, seeming to hesitate before speaking.
“Actually…I seem to have been born with a mana core, and while I don’t have a particular talent with any sphere, I have a basic affinity with all of them, it seems.” Sella admitted after a moment, blushing quite a bit brighter as both young men looked at her with open astonishment.
“That…that’s incredible…” Tadrick breathed out, eyes fixed on the young woman, who wrung her hands together, her ears flicking in embarrassment. Even Navaan was astonished. All spellcasters had to develop a mana core, but those who were born with one would find that their pool of mana was far greater than those who had to create their own. And having a basic affinity for all the spheres of magic? That was even more rare, as it would make it easy for her to specialize in whichever magic she thought best. She wouldn’t be quite as powerful in any of them as someone with an affinity for the sphere she chose, but with the mana core, she’d have more raw power than others.
“Indeed…you are very lucky, Sella. I wish I’d had such a prodigious talent.” Navaan spoke enviously, shaking his head and grinning. “It sounds like you and Tadrick will be classmates as well. I hope the two of you get along well. In any case, he has at least some of the basic training, so if you have questions, I’d talk to him. Of course, I’ll help if I can, but I’m afraid that they keep us Adepts rather busy as well.”
“Now, as to your question. Each set of books is ideal for those at a particular stage in their training.” Navaan quickly explained, hoping to get in the good graces of the young lady. He was actually curious about wooing her…but that was for a later point. Marrying a girl with her abilities would be excellent for their family’s future! Pointing at the ground floor, he explained quietly. “The ground floor is best for the basics. Whether just learning magic, or starting on the basic levels of a sphere, the ground is your proper foundation. As an apprentice, it is extraordinarily rare to need to reference anything not on the ground floor. The first walkway is most appropriate for adepts like me…though I’d point out that if I start trying to learn, say, the sphere of water, I’d start on the ground floor myself. The higher you go, the more advanced the topics become, too, so good luck understanding anything on the third level if you haven’t become an adept. But like the ground floor and second level, the third is for masters, the fourth is for grandmasters, and the fifth is for archmagi. Nothing stops you from going straight to the top, but…well, I looked at a few of the tomes, and couldn’t make heads nor tails of them.”
“Umm…just to be clear, an adept is someone who reached the third circle of their sphere, right?” Sella asked, a hint of worry on her face, as she wasn’t even first circle in any sphere.
“Ah, I can answer this!” Tadrick said eagerly, smiling. “Those who’ve reached third circle are adepts, fifth are masters, seventh are grandmasters, and ninth are archmagi! That’s right, isn’t it, brother?”
“Mmm…close enough. Though you shouldn’t necessarily base your view of actual power on what circle a mage has achieved.” Navaan confirmed, then cautioned the two. He spoke seriously as they walked through the library slowly. “The teacher of the Apprentice class is Vintess Mara, and he’s an adept. It might surprise you, but only until you realize that he’s reached third circle in all the spheres. At least the ones that are taught here. If there’s a better teacher for new students, I haven’t met them…and he’s managed to fuse the magic of different spheres in incredible ways.”
“Oh my…that’s impressive.” Sella gasped, her eyes going wide again.
“It sounds like he’d be an ideal teacher for Sella then, and-” Tadrick began, and then suddenly his voice cut off, and he paused, shock playing across his face before he controlled his expression and looked away from one of the tables for a moment before carefully glancing over at the student sitting in a slightly shadowed corner.
“What…oh…oh goddess…” Sella asked, then paled as she looked over as well.
“Ah. Her…sorry, I should’ve warned you. She is in your class as well.” Navaan spoke softly, his voice chagrined as he looked at the young woman in the corner.
At the corner of a table just barely shadowed by one of the bookshelves sat a single young woman, with no one else at her table. She was ignoring everything else, and a dozen tomes laid on the table next to her. She was laboriously writing something out on a sheet of paper, though, and didn’t seem to notice the looks her appearance had gotten.
Once upon a time the woman wouldn’t have looked out of place on the street, a reasonably pretty face, dark eyes, and raven hair that fell to the midst of her back. That time was past, however, for she was no longer normal. Her right arm was entirely missing, the sleeve of her white tunic carefully rolled up and pinned in place. One of her expressive ears was little more than a stumpy blob of flesh, seeming like a candle that had melted and hardened…as was the rest of the right side of her face, including the utter lack of a right eye. The hair on the front half of that side of her skull was gone, the skin bubbled and shiny as the rest of the young woman’s ruined right half. The ruined flesh continued downward, likely past the turtleneck of her tunic.
The sight was enough to make Sella swallow hard…and then ask, very, very softly. “W-what happened…to h-her?”
“Come on, don’t stare. It isn’t polite.” Navaan urged the other two, quickly grabbing their wrists and pulling them away. He didn’t speak again until they were well out of earshot, and his words were not what either expected. Instead of directly answering, he asked a question. “So do you both know of Mellesyn?”
Blinking at the seemingly random comment, Tadrick shook his head, his voice slightly unsteady. “…No? I don’t remember hearing anything about a Mellesyn.”
“I…I do. That’s the village raided by Shadowgrave and his army in Springmist, right?” Sella ventured after a moment, pale…and then paled more. “Is…is she…?”
“Indeed. Shadowgrave raided the village himself, along with a division of his army. Last I heard, an army outpost was destroyed, along with several hundred soldiers, magi, and civilians.” Navaan said with a sigh, finally sitting down at a table, frowning as he stopped speaking for a long moment. The other two sat as well, and his tone seemed pained as he continued at last. “That…that is Ruethwyn Sylaris. She’s the only known survivor from Mellesyn. Apparently she was the apprentice of a retired mage who lived there. But she was caught in the edge of Shadowgrave’s flames…with quite evident results.”
Taking a deep breath, he continued grimly. “Worse than that, as you likely know, Shadowgrave’s flames are cursed. They damage the soul, and healers can’t fix her body. She’s stuck like that, and many of her magical channels were crippled. Which is a damned shame, since I hear she has an inborn mana core like you do, Sella, but casting spells causes her severe pain, and she can’t cast all of them since she’s missing both mana channels and an arm. I’d be surprised if she ever manages to cast a second rank spell without a ritual.”
The other two simply sat, stunned. After a minute, though, Tadrick asked. “Then, given all of that…how is she here? I know the rules of the Academy. Unless you have a sponsor, you can’t even get in! And I doubt she can afford the tuition, either. And if she’s crippled, there’s no way she got in purely on merit.”
“While something of a cruel thought, I admit to having wondered the same thing and done a bit of an investigation.” Navaan admitted, hesitating before adding, his voice firm. “While I couldn’t find out everything, I heard that her teacher had already arranged for her to come to the Academy this year, and that she’d paid her tuition in advance. For a century, including food, board, and supplies.”
“She…wait, a century?” Sella asked, her eyes going huge. “That…that’s…”
“That’s an enormous amount of money…more than merely thousands of gold pieces, more like over a hundred thousand.” Navaan confirmed, shrugging. “Yet I have no idea who her teacher was. It’s something of a shock…but she got into the academy legitimately, so please keep that in mind? As much as I disagree with it, she didn’t get in through false pretenses.”
“Err…you don’t seem to like her, brother…may I ask why? I mean, it’s obvious that she isn’t responsible for what happened to her.” Tadrick asked cautiously, swallowing for a moment before continuing. “This just…doesn’t seem like you.”
“Because…bluntly, she doesn’t really belong here. This is the greatest academy in the kingdom. Having someone here who doesn’t have the requisite ability…irks me.” He replied after a moment, painfully honest, and obviously not approving of his own attitude. “For all that I dislike it, though, I will support her right to be here. It is not comfortable to me, however.”
“…How do you know that she doesn’t have the requisite ability?” Sella asked after a moment, her ears drooping slightly at the discussion. She looked up at Navaan, who blinked in surprise.
“What do you mean? She’s crippled! I doubt she could cast any second or third rank spells.” He replied, shaking his head. Yet at the same time he was giving Sella a thoughtful look. “Those spells require the use of both hands in most cases, as well as more mana than can be channeled through a single arm.”
“Because…because just because she can’t quickly cast high tier spells…does that mean that she doesn’t have talent?” Sella asked beseechingly, seemingly uncomfortable.
“Of course not! It’s just that she won’t be able to truly use it, given her situation.” Navaan replied uncomfortably, shaking his head and getting up. “Enough of this, I need to finish giving the tour. Come on, Tadrick. You can come as well, Sella.”
Tadrick had kept quiet, a contemplative look on his face through the discussion. He glanced back in the direction of the unfortunate Ruethwyn, but said nothing about her as he spoke. “Of course, brother…where are we heading next?”
Hesitating only a moment, Sella followed behind them, listening as Navaan explained. “We’ll pass by the offices, as well as the quarters of most of the staff. A few have towers out on the grounds, so don’t bother them. Then we’ll head to the classrooms…”
Behind them Ruethwyn continued her reading. Had Navaan come closer, he would likely have been astonished to see the young woman’s reading material. The book she was consulting was for fifth circle artificing alone. The others were all for everything from mind magic to healing spells, each intended for master-grade magicians. And from the speed with which her quill was moving it appeared that the young elf understood the material.