Story — Windcaller Pt. 4 (365)

I awoke to the sensation of warmth. It was a dry, mobile heat. Not the heat of the sun. There was also the sound of… snapping? A fire, then. It was so warm and soft. I hadn’t been this cozy in ages. I decided not to ruin it, and laid there.

As I thought about it, I realized there was an entirely different noise all around me. It sounded like cracking, but was methodical and almost melodious. The snapping of the fire was obviously the deep pop of snowpine wood, but this was a higher pitch.

I opened one eye. The fire seemed to be directly below me. And there were figures standing around it. They almost looked like birds. Really tall birds that stood upright like humans.

Rubbing my eyes open, I pulled the blanket off of me and sat up slowly. Was I hallucinating? Or, more likely, dead?

“The Windcaller has woken!” one of the birds said.

Startled, I swiveled around to look at it. All of the birds were staring at me now, tilting their heads slightly to look at me with beady eyes. The color of their plumage varied from brown to white to blue, but other than that they were identical. By human standards they were small–maybe four feet at the most. But for a bird that was enormous. And they spoke!

None of them moved. They were just watching me intently. And I thought the Windcallers’ scrutiny was unsettling. There must have been forty of these things all around me in this dark room. The only light source was the fire underneath me.

Suddenly, I realized that the bed I was on was a stone slab covered in blankets, and somehow it levitated over the huge fire below. They made a full circle around me. If I tried to escape from the fire by jumping off the bed, I would crash right into one of the bird things. If they wanted me dead, I was in no position to object.

“Uh,” I stammered. “Hello.”

“Honor to the Holy One,” one chanted in its chirping, clacking bird call. As it said this, all of the other birds bowed to the ground in deference, repeating “Honor to the Holy One” as they did.

I had no idea what to do. Who did they think I was? The Archon? My first instinct was to correct them of their error, but there was no way of knowing how they would react to anything I did, so it was probably best to avoid angering them.

Play it safe. That’s all. “What… I mean… who are you?”

“The Chosen disciples of the Windcaller, Holy One!” a bird thing said.

“Awaiting the day of judgment when you returned to us and lead us back to the Promised Land, Holy One!” another chirped.

I examined them thoroughly now. It was impossible to tell male and female apart, assuming the ones before me weren’t all the same gender. They wore no clothes, but a few had adorned themselves with jeweled necklaces and beak piercings. Their resemblance to humans was striking. The biggest differences, aside from the feathers, were their pronounced beaks and what had to be wings folded into their arms.

“Ah, yes,” I nodded, voice more authoritative now. “Allow me to get my bearings first. I will require one attendant to aid me as I rest.”

One of the birds made a screeching sound, and a different bird stood. It stared at me, cocking its head to each side. My attendant, I supposed.

“Very good,” I nodded. “The rest of you may leave.”

They complied without a word, shuffling out several doors. This room looked like a main entryway. It had larger doors straight ahead of me, and behind a few columns and torches there were several smaller doors scattered throughout the room, which seemed to have a heptagon shape.

Soon, I was left alone in the room with the bird that had stood. “So, uh, what’s your name?”

It made the same screeching noise that one of the others had made to address it.

“Skriishre?” I asked.

“Yes, Holy One,” it replied. I had a distinct yet indescribable feeling that this one was female. “Anything I can provide to you. You need only ask.” It bowed again. The bird’s bow seemed more like the equivalent of a human’s squat, since it only bent it’s knees. Their legs bent opposite to a humans, which made the gesture seem odd.

“I asked for you because I need answers. First, though, I could do without the fire.” Even if I could leap over it, I was curious to see just how subservient these creatures were.

“Yes, Holy One,” she said quickly, rushing to one side of the room.

“I’d rather you didn’t call me that, though,” I called after her.

She found a wooden trunk and pulled out a blanket. “Yes… Lord Windcaller,” she amended, saying the words slowly. It was strange to hear such human-like speech coming from those beaks. In any case, I could accept that title, even if it was still inaccurate.

She returned to the center of the room and cast a blanket over the fire beneath me. The roar of the flames died down immediately, and the room was left with an uncomfortable silence.

“Skriishre,” I said. “Sit down. Or, uh… make yourself comfortable I guess.” She looked hesitant but squatted down on the floor where she had stood. She was already so small, and me still sitting on something that was floating off the ground meant I was looking down on her even more now. It made me uneasy, so I used this as an excuse to get off the slab and leaped onto the ground below.

Upon landing on the stone beneath me, my legs gave out in a weariness I hadn’t realized was there, and in a cry of pain I collapsed to the floor. At least it was warm from being so near the fire.

“Lord Windcaller!” Skriishre cried, frantically jumping to her feet and helping me up. Her feathers were warm and softer than I expected, but since she was so much smaller than me she could only aid me in the act of standing, not staying upright.

“Why didn’t you warn me about my state?” I asked, suddenly realizing that all of my aches and pains were whisked away by a warm bed and blanket. A bed and blanket that were no longer there to shield me. I looked at my arms. My palms and arms were wrapped up quite a bit, and the bandages on my hands were stained red, even if they were dry.

“It is not my place to speak or judge,” she said, quiet and careful. She tried to gently encourage me back onto the bed, but I refused. I didn’t want to go back to sleep, I wanted to investigate. So I took to investigating the room, even at a slow, stiff, and painful pace.

The room wasn’t all that big, but it defied the laws of the natural world. The floating slab in the middle of the room was impossible enough. The smooth columns were rigid squares, but they were so smooth you could cut yourself on the edges. I couldn’t tell whether they were carved out or placed here. Upon further inspection, I realized that they couldn’t hold the room up at all! In fact, about eight feet up, the column abruptly ended, and about a foot later continued on as if the space in between was not there at all. And inside this empty space was a fire that helped illuminate the room. And the fire was levitating, too! “Am I in the Zephi–the Windcaller’s Temple?” I said. I couldn’t hide the amazement in my voice.

“Yes, Lord Windcaller,” she said. “Iike and the other High Chosen found you outside the Temple. You journey here from the Promised Land must have been a long one indeed if it could exhaust a god such as you.” Her feathers suddenly perked up. “If, you’ll forgive me for saying so, Holy One!” she added hastily.

“Right. Tell me about your, uh… people. Why are you here?”

“Forgive me Holy One–I mean Lord Windcaller–but I don’t understand. You were the ones that brought the Chosen here centuries ago. Our kind has awaited your return ever since.”

“And I am to return you to the ‘Promised Land’?”

“That is what the prophecies say, Lord Windcaller,” Skriishre said, head locked on me as I meandered the room. “Only a Windcaller can enter the Holy One’s Temple. The common humans would die if they tried to approach without controlling the winds.”

“So I am the first to enter in centuries.”

“The first to enter since the Holy One, yes. Prophecy says that when the Windcaller left, a small piece of himself would remain, and when that piece grew, it would return and lead the Chosen back to the Promised Land.”

“I see. And what if a human had arrived at the temple without ‘controlling the winds’?”

“Well, that is impossible, but somebody claiming the title of Windcaller without controlling the winds would be a heretic. The Chosen would have no choice but to cast them off the mountain.”

Well, it was a good thing I was the Lord Windcaller, then.

Story — Windcaller Pt. 3

Hours later, Graysteel and I gazed outwards where the mountain pass led up, looking out from the back door to the temple. It was no easy road. The rocks jutting out of ice and snow were jagged with no wind to smooth its edges. It would be an easy climb, but a single misstep could lead to serious injury, or worse, even if the weather itself was temperate.

“I’m going,” I said.

The knight frowned. “Confidence is a good quality, Aspirant. But there is a fine line between it and arrogance. None have ventured that path and survived in centuries.”

“I can’t let the Windcallers win. If I turn back now I will lose my chance to prove to them that I’m better.”

“You’re willing to die for such a cause?”

I gulped. How could the rocks be so sharp?

Graysteel placed a hand on my shoulder, and I looked at him. “Banishment is not such a bad thing. Archon’s fury, boy, you seemed excited at the prospect of leaving Zephira.”

I brushed his gauntlet off with a shrug. “You’ve made your position quite clear. But I’m still going. Besides, I’ve solved the problem.”

“You know how you’re going to get up there without air?”

I nodded.

“Without Chi?”

“What? No, it’s going to use a lot of Chi. Maybe more than I’ve ever used before. It depends on how high up the temple is.”

“Boy, you barely meditated at all. An hour at the most. You were pacing the rest of the time. There’s no way you have a meaningful amount of Chi stored.”

He was exaggerating, but it was certainly a real concern. I just hoped that the Archon’s temple wasn’t too far up. “Don’t worry about it,” I said.

“You’re going to use air magic again, aren’t you. That’s how Zephirine got up.”

“I already told you, that’s impossible. You can believe what you want, but nobody has used air magic since the Archon.”

“Alright, alright.” By the sound of his tone, he remained unconvinced. “There’s no way I can talk you out of this?”

“Not unless you can convince the Master Windcallers to grant me their title.” I didn’t say it, but part of me wanted to do this anyway. I had just spent the last several hours thinking about doing this. Giving up now was not an option.

Graysteel nodded. “In that case, I respect your decision. Your bravery befits a full knight of the Riftguard, and I would commend you for it. Archons guide you, Aspirant.”

I nodded, grateful. It was time to go.

I stepped outside, soft shoes melding into the cold snow. I turned to him and gave him a bow. A genuine one. He wasn’t like the Windcallers, even Tilehn, and part of me regretted even comparing the two.

He returned the bow, but didn’t leave.

I glanced up the mountain one more time. It would be far more comforting if the temple was at least visible from here, but there was nothing but rocks and ice.

I exhaled, relaxing as I mustered my Chi. Throwing my hands outwards, a large dome of water burst from me, shielding me in a protective bubble. The water was thin, though. It was nothing like a ward designed to block attacks.

Focusing back inwards, I collapsed the dome inwards, condensing it so that it surrounded me and the ground I walked on, no more than three feet away from me in any direction.

“Clever!” Graysteel called from behind me. “I wish you luck!”

I didn’t respond. My mind was too occupied with maintaining the water bubble. Instead, I left him with an affirming thumbs up and began my journey.

At first, the trek was easy. The path was clear, and with my shield I could breathe normally. Careful to avoid stepping on ice, I kept toward the solid rock and, after confirming it was safe, the clumps of snow that pervaded the walkway.

After some time, the water shield started expanding slowly. Since more surface area would mean a thinner shield, I pulled it back, but it resisted. It wanted to expand, and tampering with it would cost more Chi than it was worth.

Soon, the bubble was well over fifteen feet in diameter, and the air began to thin. No time to worry. I had to press on.

In a few places, the road required me to climb. This path had no carved stairs like there were on the road up to the lower temple, so it was a good deal more treacherous. I wasn’t prepared for actual climbing, and my focus was still on maintaining the water bubble. Soon my hands were cut and bleeding as if I had cast them into a bucket full of snowpine needles. Once I lost my balance and slipped on a sheet of ice. The rocks below were happy to greet me and tore my right arm open. I stuck it into my robes to help the bleeding. Hopefully the rest of the journey would just be a short walk.

By now, cursory glances up the mountain told me I was nearly there. I still couldn’t see any building, which was worrying. It was still just rock and snow. A thought suddenly occurred to me. What if there was no temple? What if the Archon’s residence was the place I had just left? Would I reach my destination only to find out there was no sanctuary there? I would certainly suffocate.

The water bubble popped.

The air flew out with nothing left to encapsulate it, and my next breath was met with a void.

Hurriedly, I wrapped another water shield around myself, but it was too late. Nearly all of the air was already gone, and my Chi was spent. The new bubble evaporated.

Do I press on or try to make it back to safety?

If I turned back, with no air the hike would be dangerous at best. I wouldn’t have time to carefully avoid ice patches.

At the same time, there was no guarantee there would be any refuge further on, and the further I went, the less likely anyone would be able to save me.

Except, nobody was coming to my rescue anyway. I made my choice.

I might as well follow through with it.

Breaking into a run up the mountain, I felt my body twist in agony as I no longer had fuel to give it. My vision started to blur.

Once again I slipped on some ice, but it barely slowed me.

I was going to die.

I clutched my chest, heaving and gasping for air. Somehow that helped a bit. I concentrated on the feel of the ground beneath my shoes. Rock. Snow. Snow. Snow. Rock. Rock. Anything to distract me.

My eyes started to darken. I couldn’t keep them open anymore.

Was the ground here flatter than usual? I hadn’t tripped in some time.

My hands felt snow. Apparently I had collapsed.

Forcing my eyes open, I saw that the ground below was drenched in blood. I looked ahead of me. The path ended.

I had taken a wrong turn. Ahead of me, there was nothing but cold stone.

But… Was that a door?

My head crashed into the snow.

Story — Windcaller Pt. 2.5

(Wasn’t able to get into a ‘writing zone’ this week, so instead of writing a two thousand word piece I made this awkwardly-lengthed lump. Oh well.)

 

The Windcallers had left me alone in the chambers to handle the problem as I saw fit. Being banished wouldn’t be so bad, but it would forever haunt me if they had the last laugh. The knight alone had remained, volunteering to be the one to escort be back down should I accept banishment.

I spent most of the next day sleeping in one corner of the room, as far away from torchlight as possible. Cold, hard rock didn’t make for the most comfortable rest, but my body was glad to have some uninterrupted sleep. My back hurt afterwards, but it was a small price to pay.

When I awoke, he sat just outside the candle-lit ring, meditating. He still wore his armor, which had to be incredibly uncomfortable.

“Who are you?” I asked, returning to the center of the room.

He opened his eyes to address me. “Graysteel.”

“What kind of name is that?” I said, doing a poor job at hiding my distaste.

“One that was given to me,” he smirked.

“All names are given to us,” I snapped.

He chuckled. “That is true.”

This was getting nowhere. “Why are you here?”

“To observe and judge.”

“You sound like them,” I all but spat.

He sighed. “I am a knight of the Riftguard, hailing from Aluvalia. I came here to observe the Zephiran ways of magic, and perhaps finding candidates worthy of joining my order.”

“What is the ‘Riftguard’?”

“We are knights trained in flat combat. We know how to fight magic without magic.”

“So you’re here to see if I’m ‘worthy’ of being trained?”

“In a sense,” he replied. “I have to say, I was impressed with your Trial. I was under the impression air magic was a lost art.”

“What do you mean?”

“You altered the air currents to curve the direction of the rock you threw, and made it look like a natural spin. It was masterfully done.”

“I didn’t do anything like that. Nobody can. It’s impossible.” Was this guy for real?

“Suit yourself. I don’t know why you keep it hidden from the Windcallers, but your secret is safe with me.”

It was obvious that his mind was already made up on the matter. Arguing would do no good.”Why are you being so nice to me? You don’t even know me. Are you trying to recruit me to your order or something?”

He shook his head. “I already know it wouldn’t suit you. You seem to think Zephiran ways and traditions are restrictive.”

“You’re going to tell me they aren’t?”

He sighed. “You’re young. You have much to learn about the world around you. Getting banished would perhaps be the best thing for personal growth.”

I rolled my eyes. “Are you sure you’re not one of the Windcallers?”

“Do you antagonize every person you meet?” he countered.

I bit back a retort. Maybe this guy wasn’t as understanding as he initially seemed. “Why were you meditating if you’re not Zephiran?”

“Zephirans didn’t invent meditation. It’s been a practice long before the rebirth of magic. Or Chi, if you want to call it that. Have you figured out how to get to Zephirine’s temple?”

I sighed, leaning against one of the stone columns. “No. I did think of something, but it involved the use of turning Chi to fire, which wouldn’t work without air to burn. I can’t imagine holding my breath would suffice.”

“You’re probably right.”

“I don’t suppose you have any ideas?” I wondered.

“This isn’t my trial, Aspirant.”

Of course it isn’t. Just then, a troubling thought occurred to me. “How long as I asleep?”

Graysteel scratched his chin. “Half a day, I suspect. I’m to take you down the mountain in a few hours if you haven’t already given up by then.”

“Archon’s breath,” I muttered. “Don’t talk to me. I’ve got to think of a plan and gather Chi, and I don’t have time for distractions.”

“Alright,” he smiled. “I’ll wake you up in a few hours when it’s time to leave.”

Story — Windcaller Pt. 2

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?!”

“Actually, ye–”

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.

Story — Windcaller Pt. 1

(No audio recording this week. I’m going to take an indefinite break on that and focus on the more important aspects of this blog for a while!)

 

The Trial of Winds. I had finally made it. I gazed out, looking down the nearly vertical landscape to the clouds below. I had never been this high up the World Spire. I had hoped the view would be better. Nope. Just the same old clouds and the same mountain peaks poking out of them.

But after today, I could finally go to those other mountains and finally see what the rest of Zephira has in store. The World Spire isn’t grand. It isn’t even interesting. It’s just an old monastery where old people teach old ways of using magic.

This would be my chance to prove to them how flawed their ways were.

“No dallying, Aspirant.”

I turned my attention from the cliff to the four guards escorting me and the other ‘Aspirant’ here. The ones that had been watching us, ensuring that we didn’t cheat in today’s preparations. As if I needed to.

“Yes, sir,” I nodded, bowing as if he was the Archon himself. I returned to my place among them, and the group resumed its normal pace up the mountain and the crude steps that had been carved along its slopes. This place was disappointingly boring, anyway.

“You really shouldn’t try their patience like that,” Sarelle, my rival intoned, voice low. “The Trial of Winds is an honor few get the opportunity to face.” She had the perfect serenity about her, as if the laws of nature obeyed her every whim. It made her look far older than the young woman she really was.

“What are they going to do?” I shrugged. I didn’t bother to keep my voice down. They would be able to hear us even if we were whispering. “They wouldn’t dare lay a finger on one of their ‘honored Aspirants’.”

I had no intention of making friends with Sarelle. She was nice, but only one of us could become a Windcaller, and she had no chance of ascending this year. Even if she did fit the appalling paradigm of the ‘perfect and thoughtful Zephiran monk’.

It was really a miracle I had found myself an Aspirant in the Trials, really. Tilehn must have pulled some strings. He was pretty understanding, considering his status as one of the Master Windcallers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he likes me, but he doesn’t hate me as much as everybody else seems to. If I didn’t know any better, I would even think that he–

Delanden!” one of the guards hissed. I snapped out of my reverie to see that we had reached the entrance to the temple, it’s large, snowpine doors stood a stark contrast against the dark rocks of the mountain. It didn’t look like much. Most of the building was carved from inside the rock by the Archon millennia ago. Why anyone would choose to live here was beyond me.

“We finally made it,” Sarelle said, staring at the doors with a calm but clearly evident grin.” The Archon’s Temple. Our entire nation was born behind those doors.”

“Not really,” I replied. “First of all, that’s not really his temple. Zephirine lived even further up the mountain. There’s no air on the pathway up, though. The Archon was the only one that could come or go. Besides, controlling the weather doesn’t ‘birth an entire nation’. Nothing is that simple.”

“I know all that,” she eyed me. “But this is still a sacred place, and is worthy of our respect. I choose to appreciate the majesty it has to offer.” Whatever.

As the guards opened the doors, Sarelle and I were the first ones to enter. The temple was a large, vaguely circular room. Occasional stone columns carved out of the rock contained torches, but they were too sparse to call the room anything other than ‘dim’. It was a flat, and in a wide space in the center was a ring about thirty feet across, marked by a circle of a hundred candles. Some feet away, behind three of the masters, stood a large gong.

The seven Master Windcallers stood in a circle around this ring. They all looked so similar with their hoods up and symmetrical posture that they even had the same folds in their robes.

This picture of perfect symmetry and ceremony probably would have made me throw up if I didn’t know it would have gotten me thrown off the mountain.

As the six of us approached the candle lit ring, I noticed somebody else stood on the far side of the room, opposite us. He was wearing a full plate of armor, which meant he wasn’t from around here. I couldn’t make out any features, since he was too far away from the candles, but he stood stock still, arms crossed, and bore a sword on his belt.

He wasn’t supposed to be here. Even the guards that escorted the Aspirants weren’t allowed to be in the room when the Trial began. It sent a chill down my spine.

Without a word from anyone in the room, Sarelle and I entered the ring of candles. She glanced to me as she stepped in, and I could see a flash of uncertainty breach her otherwise calm and serene eyes. Despite myself, I gave her a nod of encouragement.

We both approached the center of the circle. When we reached the middle, we both knelt to the ground, facing the Masters. This was the signal for the guards to leave. Their primary task was to ensure that we spent the entire week before the trial out of meditation. One of the few rules of the Trial of the Winds was that Aspirants had to have absolutely no gathered Chi before the Trial began. Unfortunately, this meant constant surveillance of everything we did. The guards even woke me up a few times every night to make sure I was sleeping rather than meditating. And people wonder why I hate these stupid rules.

“Sarelle,” one of the Master Windcallers said. Eshan, by the sound of the woman’s voice. “You come as an Aspirant of the Trial of Winds, hoping to…” I tuned Eshan out. I didn’t even need to listen because I would hear this all again soon enough. Instead, I focused my attention on the armored knight near the wall. I couldn’t look at him directly, as even inclining my head would be frowned upon, but I trained my ears on him, for what little it was worth. He seemed to be focusing intently on the ceremony.

“…mastery of the stars and Chi that none can challenge,” Eshan continued. I swear I heard him snort quietly at that. Oddly enough, I felt a twitch of anger at this guy. Who was he to storm into an ancient ceremony and belittle our ways? Even if they were archaic and boring, he had no right to be here.

“I am the Aspirant Sarelle,” the girl next to me stated as she stood, grabbing my attention. “I seek the mantle of Windcaller so that I may be the one who decides my own path, and so I may help lead others on the paths they choose for themselves. I swear to uphold the honor of our ways and and the wishes of our people.”

Tradition. Custom. There was no point to talk so much. This trial was only a formal duel. There was no mystical atmosphere or a reason for all of this ritual. Zephirine wouldn’t strike me down if I walked out right now. All I wanted was the title of ‘Windcaller’ and the privileges that name came with.

As the Master Windcallers nodded at Sarelle’s vows, she knelt once again.

“Delanden,” Eshan stated.

“That’s me!” I stood up and waved to all of the Masters around me. Aspirant’s weren’t supposed to speak until the Windcallers were finished. But what did it matter?

I could almost feel Sarelle tense up next to me, but none of the Masters reacted in the slightest. I sort of expected that. I had hoped at least one would have flinched, though. I couldn’t even tell which one was Tilehn.

After an extra moment’s pause to make sure I didn’t continue speaking out of turn, Eshan returned to her speech. I decided it would probably be best to pay attention this time. “You come as an Aspirant of the Trial of Winds, hoping to bear the title of ‘Windcaller’. One who may come and go without question nor explanation. One who is both warrior and diplomat. One who holds a mastery of the stars and Chi that none can challenge.”

“I am the Aspirant Delanden.” The duties of the Windcaller were always the same, and all Windcallers were expected to follow them, but in this ceremony, an Aspirant can speak their own vows. Tradition obviously dictated that they should be about ‘honor’ and ‘peace’, but it really didn’t matter what you said.

“When I gain the mantle of Windcaller, I’m going to do everything that’s required of me and absolutely nothing else. I’m going to live by my own rules and go where I please. I’m going to find my own ways of doing things and, if possible, ignore the old meaningless traditions.”

Below me, I heard an almost inaudible sigh from Sarelle. I was staring at the knight, though. Was he stifling laughter?

“Your vows are made,” Eshan completed. “Each of you take ten paces away and at the tone of the gong, you may begin.”

Before we complied, we both stood and faced each other directly. Her stern face was once again the epitome of tranquility. We shook and bowed slightly, leaning to the sides so we didn’t smack our heads against each other. This wasn’t an official part of the ceremony, but it was a sign of respect that signified the beginning of any duel. It was a sign of respect, not a useless piece of tradition, so I had no problem with it.

When we finished, we both took ten paces opposite each other towards the candles and sat down in a meditative posture.

As we both settled, the gong sounded.

The Trials had begun.