The fist passed over her head as Exliana dropped to the ground. She stepped back, but Navarre leaned forward so his weight shifted towards her. She crossed her arms above her head just in time to catch his elbow, blocking her skull from a crushing blow. Surging up, she pushed him back, but his size compared to hers kept him from moving very far. She retaliated, launching her own fist, but he tilted his head to the side so it missed.
Hopping back, he placed some distance between the two of them, but it wasn’t enough. Without thinking, Exliana lurched forward with another assault, but she realized almost immediately that she had screwed up. Her overcommitment left Navarre with an advantage; his weight was balanced, while hers was unevenly distributed. He evaded her attack by ducking sideways, and she tumbled forward headfirst.
Twisting, he brought his knee up into her gut, sending her reeling backwards. He was going easy on her, but the blow was mind-numbing nonetheless. She crumpled on the sandy floor of the training hollow, trying to recover, but the pain was difficult to bear. Navarre made no further advances, instead reaching out a hand to her. Reluctantly, she accepted, and he pulled her to her feet.
“That wasn’t bad form from either of you,” their mentor said as he crossed the hollow to you. Dizzy, Exliana tried to regain composure. She grounded herself, looking to the lush greenery of the trees and shrubs outlining the hollow as an anchor. Below her, the sandy ground was disturbed from the commotion she and Navarre had made, and a burning sun shone down on them from above. “Exliana, I’m sure you’re already aware that you overcommitted and it would have gotten you killed.”
Exliana nodded indignantly. “Yes Emniu, I know.” The tone of her voice was rather rude, and inwardly, it bothered her. Emniu had dropped everything to raise Exliana and Navarre, and to mentor them. It was her fault she screwed up. Fortunately, Emniu wasn’t the type of man to be bothered by attitude.
“And Navarre, you fought well, but you’re still too reserved. If Exliana hadn’t overcommitted, she would almost certainly have bested you.”
Navarre nodded, the messy tuft of white hairs at the front of his head bobbing up and down while the neatened black back settling. “I understand.”
“There are only two weeks now until the entrance tournament for the Order of Mages. You two are more than prepared, of course, seeing as you had me of all people to train you.” Emniu whipped his head up briefly, his arms dancing in a flourish that sent his white robe fluttering in the wind. The sun caught on its golden accents, which denoted the nature of his magic; Fulgurmancy, manipulation of electricity. And of course, the white robe itself indicated that despite his scrawny appearance, Emniu was an archmage. He was one of the most powerful mages on the whole island of Vyheria.
“Fortunately for you,” he continued, and both Exliana and Navarre’s interests were piqued, “there is a very beneficial training event coming up for prospective young mages. It’s run every year by one of the seven archmages. Five days of intensive training out in the badlands, with the only other attendees being mages you’ll be competing with for a place in the Order of Mages. 80% of mages accepted into the Order attend this event.”
Navarre spoke up, his eyes shining. “Which archmage is running it?”
“This year it’s the Secondary Archmage. Not quite as exciting as if someone fabulous like myself was in charge, but you should get plenty of value out of the event.”
Exliana’s excitement was almost uncontrollable. Juvalia, the Secondary Archmage, training them. She was the second most powerful archmage, only behind Queen Sylvetta of the whole Castellum. Emniu was the Tertiary Archmage, meaning despite his extravagant ego, he was only third in the rankings. Training with Juvalia would be an experience unlike any other. “How do we get in this training event?” She asked.
“You’re going to need a recommendation from a senior mage who isn’t your mentor. Juvalia won’t be handing them out, but any other senior mage is fair game. You could even get one from Queen Sylvetta if you wanted. But of course, the archmages are a lot stricter about it. Your best bet is to find some lower-ranking senior mage to impress.”
“I assume the deadline is coming up soon, so how long do we have to get ourselves recommendations?” Navarre asked, hands twitching eagerly. He seemed ready to head out and find a senior mage this second.
Emniu looked up at the sky, Exliana and Navarre following his gaze. The sun was high. “It’s about midday right now, and Juvalia is leaving for the badlands with any mage who has a signed recommendation at sunset. So I would estimate you have maybe eight hours.”
The two of them stood there for a long moment, surprised at the abrupt nature of the offer. Emniu stared at the two before finally shooing them with his hands. “You don’t have the time to waste right now looking shocked. Get your jaws off the ground and go find a recommendation.”
Exliana and Navarre spun around and took off running, pushing through the leaves and branches around the training hollow. After several minutes of running and ducking, they emerged on the plains of the human kingdom. A ways off stood the Castellum, a massive stone fortress which housed the entirety of Vyheria’s human population. Even in their rush, Exliana could take a moment to appreciate the awe-inspiring aura it gave off.
The Castellum had stood the test of time. It was constructed hundreds of years ago, during a war between the wyverns and the humans, to house and protect all humans. The gates at the front entrance were the same metal plates that blocked out wyvern invasions by foot for a decade. Looming above the walls was the central Turrim, a tower amidst the fortress in which the Order of Mages was housed. It had been designed so that if the wyverns ever invaded by air, the prestigious guild of mages would leap from their balconies to save the day. There was no higher honor than living with and serving the Order, and it was both Exliana and Navarre’s dream to do so.
As the two sprinted closer to the Castellum, Navarre tilted his head to Exliana running beside him. “So uh, who exactly are we going to ask for recommendations?”
Fortunately, Exliana had an answer ready. She flashed a toothy grin and pointed to the top of the Turrim, where the archmages lived. “We’re asking the Primary Archmage. Queen Sylvetta.”
This seemed to catch Navarre off-guard, and for a moment he faltered. “She’s gonna be the hardest mage to get a recommendation from. Why don’t we settle for some lower-ranking senior mage? We could ask Sijiva. She knows us pretty well.” Exliana kept running, forcing Navarre to keep up as he tried to reason with her.
“I thought you wanted to be the Primary Archmage? If you can’t impress the current one, how on Vyheria are you ever going to take her place?”
“It’s not like I’m going to take her place tomorrow. I figure there’s a decent amount of training between now and then,” Navarre said, exasperated.
Exliana shrugged. “Well, I’m getting a recommendation from her. That’ll put me one step closer to being the Primary Archmage than you. But you can do what you want,” she said, sticking her tongue out at Navarre.
He hesitated before reluctantly continuing after her. “Fine.” The two of them kept jogging for another few minutes, up until they reached the Castellum. At this time of day, the main gate was left open, with a guard from the Order of Soldiers on each side of the gateway. When the sun wasn’t up, you had to use a back gate that could only be opened with a key or from the inside, as a matter of security. Exliana was very familiar with it, from all the days she went out to train before the sun was up.
The guards nodded to Exliana and Navarre as they made their way inside. Past the gate, a bustling city stretched out before them. Children were playing in the streets as mothers and fathers reported to work. Market places were selling food and supplies, most of it grown or crafted in the back outskirts of the Castellum. Furthest from the gate was a less wealthy subsection, filled with intermittent stretches of farmland. That had been where Exliana and Navarre grew up, in a cabin Emniu put together.
The two made their way down the main street of the city. It led them straight from the gate, through a busy crowd of people, to the doors of the Turrim. Inside, they observed the lounge on the bottom floor. Paintings of famous mages from all over Vyherian history were hanging on the walls. The largest painting was of a red-headed young woman in a white robe with red accents. Her eyes burned a bright red, even in the painting. A plaque hung below it, but Exliana didn’t to read it. That was Queen Yuana the Daring. The hero who crippled the wyvern queen just days before an attack was unleashed on the whole of Vyheria. She had died in the process, as had most of the mages she brought with her.
Everyone knew the story well. Seven mages, all with one of the seven human magics, meant to fulfill a prophecy that Queen Yuana had made public knowledge. Queen Sylvetta, back before she was a queen, had proven to Queen Yuana with her powerful ice magic that she was fit to be the party’s Glacimancer. Unfortunately, the party’s Fulgurmancer Xalis betrayed them, telling the wyvern queen of the approaching attack. Queen Yuana crippled the wyvern queen, but she died in the process. Big shoes to fill, Exliana thought while looking at the painting of her mother.
She turned her attention from the painting of a mother who died before they could even meet, instead looking back to the lounge. Here, mages could relax in the numerous sofas. At tables they could eat meals from the chefs in the kitchen off to the side. Seeing as it was midday, most tables were occupied by mages grabbing lunch, wonderful smells wafting from the tables. Of course, some mages were busy elsewhere this afternoon. Namely, Exliana had heard that scouting missions were being sent out to the Wyvern Territories, to keep an eye on them.
Not being a member of the Order meant that the specifics of what was going on was left a mystery to her. But what bits of it she pieced together from Emniu’s conversations with Sijiva painted a picture of rising tensions. Exliana and Navarre had been in the Turrim a lot, owing to Emniu’s post as the Tertiary Archmage, but even as mages waved to them, she could detect that something tensions were high.
Queen Sylvetta wasn’t down in the lounge, so they assumed she was instead working in her room at the top of the tower. Stairs raised up from the floor on the far end of the lounge, and Exliana and Navarre took them. The next floor was a vast library, the largest in Vyheria. It was open to the public, though it got the most use from members of the Order of Medics looking for references. Tall windows opened on the wall of each cardinal direction, giving Exliana a view of the city that stretched out below.
The next floor was the first floor of dorms. Hallways ran out in all four directions, with dorms lining them all. The higher your ranking and age, the closer you were to the edge, where you could have a dorm with a window and even a balcony. This floor was only for first and second year mages. On the next three floors, which were almost identical to the first one, senior mages who had served longer than two years were housed. There were, however, fewer dorms here, as the higher you went the older the mages were and the larger their rooms were.
The tower continued up for another two floors after, but Exliana and Navarre were not allowed that high. Fortunately, the fifth floor of dorms was reserved solely for archmages. Unlike the other four, this one had a curved wall from which seven doors opened to dorm. The middle door was to Queen Sylvetta’s dorm. Without hesitation, Exliana knocked once, and then again. After a moment, Queen Sylvetta opened the door.
Her long blonde hair was disheveled, but her blue eyes still shone bright. She was adorned with a white robe, light blue accents decorating it. The moment she appeared before them, the strength of her magic could be felt. It made the air heavy, and both Exliana and Navarre needed to adjust for a moment to stay on their feet. “Exliana, Navarre. It’s good to see you. What brings you two up here?” She asked in her characteristic gravelly voice.
“We are seeking a recommendation for the training event which Juvalia is hosting,” Exliana said as she looked up to the queen. Behind her, Navarre quietly nodded.
Queen Sylvetta was caught off-guard. “Not many prospective mages ask the queen to give them a recommendation. I hope you know I’m very conservative with how I hand them out.”
Exliana didn’t falter, and judging from the fact that Navarre hadn’t said anything in objection, he was still equally determined. “We’re both very aware. But we want to prove ourselves, and nothing would be greater than a recommendation from the queen herself.”
Queen Sylvetta seemed to contemplate the matter, her hand on her chin as she delved deep into thought. At last she spoke. “Very well. If you want the recommendation so badly, fight me.”