Since the days of The Archon War, Zephiran mages were trained to use Chi, the world’s energy. Chi is the source we use in order to materialize elemental power, and though using Chi fatigues the mind and spirit just as any other magic style does, it requires no ‘Essence’. Unlike Cedrian totems or Aluvalian weapons, we channel Chi through our bodies. The largest downside to this is the fact that gathering enough to use in a real battle can take hours, which means a Zephiran mage must always be prepared for a fight by meditating constantly.
This method of utilizing magic encompassed everything I hate about Zephiran culture.
Sarelle and I sat, unmoving, deep in meditation. At least, she probably did. I had never gotten a good handle on meditating. It was such a waste of time.
The room sat deathly quiet, only the sound of the hundred candles filling the room. The seven Windcallers still surrounded us, as well as the mysterious knight at the back wall, judging the Trials.
Some ‘wizard’s duel’ this was. The Trial of Winds was meant to test the Aspirants’ skill in gathering Chi. When one felt prepared, they stood, and after a few short exchanges of blows, the victor and next Windcaller would be named.
Except, since Aspirants had guards making sure they had no reserve Chi before the Trials, this meant that The Trial of Winds was really just a game of ‘Who can meditate most effectively’. Most of these Trials were several hours of meditation followed by less than a minute of magical combat.
This is why I had a plan that couldn’t fail. One that told the Windcallers exactly who they were dealing with. I would prove to them that I could win fairly in a way their ‘tradition’ could not anticipate.
After only ten minutes of what my old instructors would have considered a pathetic attempt at ‘detached concentration’, I discreetly opened my palms within my lap.
Focusing the pitiful amount of Chi I had gathered in that time, I gathered it together, a small pebble formed in my hands. It was even smaller than I had expected, but it would have to do. If I waited any longer I would lose the advantage.
In one swift motion, I clenched the stone and rolled forward. As soon as I was upright, I used the momentum of the roll to throw the rock as hard as I could at Sarelle’s head.
Her body was closed and relaxed. She still hadn’t even registered any movement. The pebble slammed into her temple, and she crumpled to the floor without giving so much as a cry of pain.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better result. In fact, I felt a little bad that it went so well. But no, she was a good student. She’d have her chance next year.
I looked around me, trying to gauge the expressions on the Windcallers’ faces. They looked paralyzed from shock.
I heard dull clapping ahead of me, and I turned to see the knight breaking the silence with a slow but genuine applause.
“Delanden!” Eshan roared, throwing her hood back. This seemed to snap the Windcallers out of their petrified state, and a few of them moved into the circle to see to Sarelle. I backed up to get out of their way.
“This is inexcusable!” she continued. “Your impetuousness and disdain for our customs have gone too far! You think we will reward this, this barbaric mockery of millennia of tradition?!”
“You will be silent!” she boomed. “You have presented your case to the Windcallers. As is our duty, we will decide what your fate is to be.”
That wasn’t fair, she had asked me a question directly. I figured I had the right to respond to it. In any case, wrath was definitely not an emotion I would have imagined the Windcallers expressing at my display. I decided it would be best to do as she said rather than do more damage.
Tilehn spoke up, his old familiar voice as sagely and ponderous as it always was. “Technically, he did not violate any rules. He had no Chi stored prior to the Trials and he struck exclusively with the power he gained within the ring.” I felt an immense relief as somebody finally took my side here.
“But he did not warn his adversary of an attack,” another stated. “There was no time for the Aspirant Sarelle to prepare.”
“Hold on,” somebody called from across the room. The knight!
He dislodged himself from the wall and walked over, boots making a rhythmic thud as he closed the gap. He wore no helmet, and as he approached I saw his shaven white beard and short hair that was kept in a tight braid. He was huge compared to the Windcallers next to him.
“This kid clearly won the Trial. What is this debate about?” His voice was gruff: like the rough bark of a wild snowpine compared to the polished wood of a typical Zephiran.
“Aspirant Delanden has always had a knack for succeeding his obstacles in entirely the wrong ways, Paladin,” Eshan supplied. “When always looks for the most offensive solution in any problem he faces. We should have known he’d do the same here.”
That was odd. She almost sounded subservient to this guy. Nobody save for the Zephiran Keeper was above a Windcaller’s authority here.
“That is absurd,” the knight said, frowning now. “If there is to be a combat, the victor is the one left standing. I see he is still standing, therefore he is the victor. In a real life or death scenario, attacks will come quickly and without warning. It was the girl’s fault she was not prepared for such a strike.”
“She was not prepared because that is not how it is done!” Eshan argued. “This wasn’t a Trial, it was a joke!”
“Idiocy like this is why the world is falling apart!” the man retorted. “Mages like you can’t deal with the new threats the Rupture has introduced because you try to solve everything with old thinking. This boy has done nothing but follow your rules. I will not allow you to reprimand him for it.”
I didn’t know who this guy was, but I was starting to like him.
“We cannot honor a lack of respect for his and the spirit of the Trials,” one of others offered after a moment’s silence. “If he cannot follow in the Lord Archon’s path, perhaps he should find his own. Away from Zephira and the World Spire.”
I felt a spike of panic at the idea of banishment. But then a thought occurred to me: leaving the World Spire was exactly what I wanted. Sure, the freedom the Windcaller title gave would make things a lot easier, but I would do anything to be away from here.
“Now, now,” Tilehn said. “He did honor the rules. Let us not be so hasty to throw him out. He looked at his strengths and he took the opportunity he was given.”
“What if I can follow Zephirine’s path?” I broke in. Immediately, I cursed myself for speaking at all. There was no way giving them ideas would do me any good.
“Yes,” the knight agreed. “Perhaps you should give him another chance to prove himself. The boy is clearly capable. The idea of throwing away what could be a valuable asset is absurd.”
Eshan nodded. “If you are as clever as you seem to think yourself, Aspirant, perhaps you can steal the Secret Wind?”
I saw Tilehn’s demeanor darken at that. The Secret Wind was a legendary artifact kept inside Zephirine’s temple at the very peak of the World Spire.
The path there was devoid of any breathable air. The Archon was the only one that could come or go, and thus had been left vacant since the dawn of the Third Era.
“Follow the Lord Archon’s path indeed!” another Windcaller chimed in. “He cannot cheat his way through this challenge. All in favor in sending the boy to Zephirine’s Temple?”
They might as well have condemned me to death.
After a few murmurs and nods, the vote concluded six to one, Tilehn being the only one against. I glanced helplessly to the paladin, who glanced back at me. This guy was on my side and the Windcallers seemed to hold him to a higher authority. Couldn’t he do anything?
I didn’t voice my concern, but he gave me an assuring nod. “If he is to go alone and unaided in this new trial, give him something to defend himself with.”
“Defend himself, Paladin?” Eshan asked. “No creature lives this high up the mountain. The only danger is the weather conditions.”
“A tool, then,” he amended. “Allow him a day’s meditation to help him gather Chi as he contemplates the challenge.”
“That is a reasonable request,” Tilehn said. “In a day’s time, he is to venture up the mountain. If he returns with the Secret Wind, he shall be named Windcaller.”
Everyone seemed to be in agreement with the plan. Everybody except me, that is. I wasn’t partial to the idea of suffocating in the biting cold, but I had no choice.
I would just have to find a way to climb a mountain without breathing.