“A field test? What do you mean, a field test?” Urwick was incensed. “I’ve managed to conquer every challenge you’ve thrown my way, Jadira. Why would I need to prove myself with a field test?
I have no intention of ever wandering the wilds with my magic. Why can’t whatever testing you need completed happen inside? I thought all that outdoor trial foolishness was done once the Admission Trials were over.”
Jadira gave her dark elf apprentice and lover one of her alluring smiles, batting her deep green lashes.
“It’s a requirement for graduation, love, and if you don’t graduate, we can’t get married. Just finish this one thing, and I am properly yours. That won’t happen until it’s done. I’m sure we’ll get a nasty backlash for revealing our relationship after the test. But once you are no longer my apprentice, no one can lodge an official complaint. — So yes, dearest, a field test.”
Urwick sighed and gave his dryad mentor a disgruntled stare.
“If there’s no getting out of this for graduation, and it remains the only obstacle keeping us from going public – then fine. I’ll do whatever you ask. I hate having to hide my feelings for you even more than I despise trudging through muck in open sunlight.”
Jadira laughed, the soft peals a seductive musical sound.
“It won’t be that bad, Urwick. It’s just one task and it ought to be an easy one for you. Just make sure you have a dimming spell on the ready and confidence in your magic. I’m accompanying you on the trip. I’ll be with you the entire time.”
She entwined her slender green fingers through his hair, enjoying the silken feel of his silvery locks. Then she brought her mouth up to his ear, her breath hot and humid on his skin.
“And when you’re done, love, I’ll have a graduation gift for you of my own…one we’ll have to exchange in private.”
Urwick liked that idea. He pulled her into a tight and hungry embrace, burying his dark-skinned face in the nape of her neck and breathing in her bewitching woodsy scent.
“‘It won’t be so bad,’ she said. ‘It ought to be easy,’ she said,” Urwick grumbled. “What’s not bad about this?”
Unfortunately for the dark elf, while he might have all the skills and confidence required for the task ahead of him, the weather had chosen not to be so agreeable. The skies alternated between offering a chilly drizzle and a solid downpour.
Jadira, soggy herself, provided her apprentice a sympathetic smile.
“At least you won’t be bothered by the sun.”
This drew a frown from Urwick. “The sun is the least of my concerns, thanks to my dimming spell. These boots are brand new. This mud is going to destroy them.”
Jadira giggled. “I didn’t know I was engaged to a princess. Really, Urwick – worried about your wardrobe…”
Since they were far out of range of any university officials, she reached over and took his hand. The feel of her warm, supple skin reminded him of why exactly he was there.
“I suppose the boots can be replaced,” he said softly.
They continued on, hand-in-hand, until they reached the golden haze that marked the boundary of their terrain.
“So we go from here…do you get to give me my task for the field test now?” Urwick asked.
“I do. Here is your task: in order to graduate, you must fetch the egg of a phoenix and return to the boundary before nightfall. Succeed, and you become an official graduate of Magic University – a true Master of Magic. Fail, and you’ll be spending at least another year under my instruction.”
Urwick squeezed her hand. “Like that would be such a terrible thing.”
“Which would include another year of keeping our tryst a secret. Do you really want to continue our romance in hiding?”
The dark elf’s expression fell. “You know that isn’t what I want. I never wanted that. I’d shout my feelings to the world if I could. But you won’t let me.”
“It’s a matter of propriety. Faculty are not supposed to fraternize with students – not our kind of fraternizing anyway. If the administration found out, they would separate us, and if they did not force me to leave the university, I’d likely be looking at a demotion along with a severe berating. I love you, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I don’t see how all of that would benefit either of us.”
Urwick understood her position. When he had first become Jadira’s apprentice, he had recognized that the University was her entire life. She had been forced to uproot herself, literally, to attend, abandoning all of her friends, forest and family. She might love him, but was it enough to give up everything she had rebuilt upon settling there? He would never expect nor ask that from her.
On the other hand, he had never understood why she had even taken a romantic interest in him in the first place. He had never flirted with her or made any advances, serious about his studies. He had been a dark horse at the Admission Trials and a black sheep upon admittance. Reformed Renegade he would always be, a blemish upon whatever reputation he managed to build, and he would always display a rebellious attitude, inherent to his nature.
Urwick was surprised Jadira had been willing to talk to him beyond what was necessary for his instruction. But during the earliest portion of his apprenticeship, one very strange day, she had returned from a shopping trip in Anthis regarding him with new interest. She had insisted he had already mastered the energy sphere spell she had just taught him early that morning and when his efforts proved her wrong she had made a point of drilling him until he knew the spell inside and out.
Why energy sphere and why had she seemed so sure? He would always wonder that. As a consequence, her extra attention had brought them closer. Urwick could have sworn at that point she had been trying to seduce him. A woman as alluring and beautiful as Jadira had been impossible for Urwick to resist. Whatever the reason, Urwick considered himself a luckier man for it.
“So what happens from here?” he asked Jadira, looking out at the overgrown terrain. “I charge off in search of volcanic crags and use whatever magic is necessary to locate and retrieve said egg?”
Jadira eyed him warily. “Not ‘whatever magic’. You are absolutely restricted from using Renegade magic for this test. I’ve been in your shoes, Urwick. I know you’ve retained much of your original training and it can be tempting to slide back into old ways for a quick fix to a challenging problem, but that’s not an option here. One slip and you’ll automatically be disqualified. Considering what you went through to get here, I really hope you can resist that temptation. If you mess up that way with this test, you’ll give new ammunition to the naysayers who want to keep reformed Renegades like us out of the University.”
“I know, I know. No Renegade magic. For some reason, I get to play champion for the cause.” Urwick did not try to hide his frustration.
Jadira placed her delicate, leaf-coloured hand atop his arm. “This isn’t a joke, Urwick. We both have something to prove here. If you truly love me, you won’t do anything to jeopardize the progress we’ve made.”
Urwick leaned in and kissed her verdant cheek. “Then you have nothing to fear, because I truly love you.”
They stepped through the golden haze together and Urwick cast the first of his spells. Tracer magic demanded both preparation and concentration, a more difficult incantation, but Urwick had been ready for such a challenge.
Once cast, the spell led Urwick, and with him Jadira, on a lengthy trek which took most of the morning. As he trudged along, he wished he had had a scry-type spell that would have allowed him to visibly locate the sought-after egg and permitted him to reach it with a simple portal, saving him a great deal of time and effort. Unfortunately, he hadn’t anticipated the need, but at least he was in good company for the journey. Urwick made the best of it, talking at length with Jadira as he walked and occasionally stealing a kiss. The test requirements could have been far worse.
Thick brush eventually gave way to scattered bushes and even those petered out after a time to barren soil, dotted with the odd patch of dry grass. The rock formations Urwick had been expecting came into view next. The egg he hunted no doubt was atop of one of those stony nubs – Urwick was sure of it.
As he neared the places a phoenix would be most likely to nest, he would find signs that would present themselves in a rather threatening way. Gouts of flame and molten sand would spring from the earth without warning. If you were agile enough to avoid the first burst, you would then have to dodge the fallout as it showered down from the sky.
Aware of this, Urwick had had the sense to put in place a magical shielding spell once he ventured into that part of the terrain. Jadira, meanwhile, was fully clad in all manner of magical defenses. At least he would not be distracted by worrying about her safety as well as his own. She had been allowed to bring in any devices she wished, while he felt mostly naked in comparison, as well as unpleasantly soggy. He couldn’t feel comfortable stripped of all tricks of the wizard trade other than his ordinary clothing and his own magical knowledge and skill. But then again, the field test was one to determine what Master magic he had actually learned at the university, not measure his access to any magical resources. The entrance trials had not been nearly as restrictive. They wanted new students who were resourceful as well as clever.
Urwick was grateful for his defences fairly early into his trip amongst the rocky spires. Only a few moments along, a great blast of fire and lava exploded from the ground in front of him, taking him completely by surprise and dousing him with sticky gobs of flame. The cloak he was wearing went up in smoke, despite his precautions, and the heat seared his extremities a little even through his shields. Urwick decided to take the time and effort to double up on his defensive magic, not wanting to suffer the same way if he encountered any other close calls. For a change, he was actually grateful for the rain sputtering down from the sky, cooling his steaming body quite quickly.
He continued to pick his way through the wasteland, still sensing the proximity of the egg, until he arrived at one rocky outcropping surrounded by a small moat of molten sand. It bubbled and hissed as the occasional stray drop of rain breeched its surface.
“Here,” Urwick declared with a triumphant laugh. “This is it – this is where the nest will be.”
He glanced up. The top of the stony formation extended out far above his head. If he attempted to climb the rock column, his chances of falling were likely, the pinnacle of the rock jutting out above a narrow support. He saw little in the way of secure handholds or footholds. Urwick decided he would have to resort to magic to ascend it.
While the spire appeared precarious, Urwick wasn’t afraid of what he would find at the top. No phoenix parent would be present in the nest to defend its young since the breeding process involved the full immolation of the breeder. The mother would have left a lone egg in its fiery wake.
“From flames, reborn,” Urwick muttered as he contemplated the obstacle before him.
He settled on a simple levitation spell. It would allow him to float slowly up to the nest, snatch the egg from its blackened bed and then return victorious to the ground – prize in hand. Field test passed.
Urwick cast his spell, immediately rising through the smoke-hazed air. As the ground left him, he watched for the approach of the edge of the rock outcropping. The ascent proved tedious. Unlike flight, levitation magic lifted a wizard at little better than a snail’s pace unless you had a means to quicken the pace: a stiff upward breeze or a method of pulling one’s body up to one’s destination. Urwick had neither.
Perhaps he was being cocky or complacent. Maybe he had allowed his attention to lapse because he had grown bored during the delay. Either way, Urwick was ill-prepared when he got close enough to grab at the lip of the outcropping and yank himself up. The nest, scorched black and still steaming, came into view, the mottled golden-orange prize at its centre. But Urwick was not alone.
While it was true that there would be no parent present to menace Urwick, he had not considered that fact that he might not be the only predator hoping to claim that egg. Hovering directly across the nest from the dark elf, some sort of reptilian winged beast eyed the egg as well.
“Damn!” Urwick knew if he did not act fast he could lose the desired prize and with that, fail the field test.
It took a battle with reflex to quell the temptation to break the rules and resort to Renegade magic. Any offensive Master spells he could launch off the cuff might put the egg at risk as well. Combined speed, power and control was a Renegade spell trait only wielded by stronger Renegades. Lesser Renegades could use spells involving both speed and power but at the expense of control, that’s what gave them the reputation of being dangerous and unpredictable. While all Master spells were controlled, anything involving any power tended to be slow to cast. Even the quickest and most familiar spell, energy sphere, would allow the creature enough opportunity to snatch away the egg and head for cover. The situation demanded an immediate response.
In truth, the only way Urwick could hope to use any Master Magic with an instantaneous effect was by manipulating one of the spells he already had in place. H stripped himself of one of his two existing shields, interposing it between the monster and his prize. As the beast bounced off of the invisible barrier, Urwick ducked beneath it and grabbed up the egg.
If only the hungry reptile would have been willing to let the battle go at that, conceding defeat and heading off in search of other prey, Urwick’s problems would have been over. The dark elf had never been that fortunate, having to fight for everything he ever wanted. This was no different. He now had to win a new struggle for the freedom to openly express his love for Jadira.
Extremely grateful that he had doubled up his shields, Urwick knew he would be relying on the one he had left for protection. Otherwise his soggy and slightly scorched body would have been left completely exposed. Circumventing the shield Urwick had abandoned to the nest, his scaly opponent lunged for him and the egg, only to collide with the second barrier. That was all that prevented the beast’s claws from raking through the dark elf’s flesh and tearing the egg from his grasp. The gesture still resulted in a mid-air collision driving the floating Urwick away from the rocky spire and spinning him out into the open, drizzly sky. The levitation spell kept him from tumbling to his doom but left him stranded beyond the reach of anything that he could have held onto while lowering himself carefully to the ground.
Now a victim of motion-sickness along with other discomforts, Urwick watched helplessly as the creature left its perch alongside the phoenix nest and circled around to make another go at the egg he held. If he didn’t make some drastic move in response, Urwick would likely be swatted around like a dangly plaything until his shields failed him. The descent the levitation spell would allow would be too slow to provide him with a means of escape from the beast’s attentions. He had to figure another way out.
After a second bat from the reptile’s talons, Urwick glanced at the ground far below him. He did have the option to simply drop the levitation spell and allow himself to fall. A giant mud puddle directly below him would offer some cushion and his shield would be a buffer from the concussive force, but then there was the egg to consider. He could handle a solid jolt and take any minor damage, bumps and bruises, that the tumble would inflict, but could his prize survive as much?
As the monster veered around for a third attack, Urwick realized he did not have the time to contemplate all possible outcomes. He bundled the egg in the tattered, sodden and burnt remains of his cloak, embraced it so he would absorb most of the impact and held his breath. Then, rather than get spun out by the beast’s latest charge, he dropped his levitation spell and hoped for the best.
Urwick plunged into the puddle with considerable force, his tired body subject to a jarring strong enough to rattle his teeth. Although he was drenched by a significant amount of muck, he managed to maintain his hold on the egg.
Once totally submerged in the murky water, Urwick decided it was best to stay that way for some time – at least for as long as he could continue to hold his breath. He hoped the predatory reptile, having lost sight of him, might grow discouraged and fly away. Urwick tried to ignore the cool wet, saturated by grit, as it continued to seep its way into all of his orifices. He was not a man who tolerated physical discomforts very well. By the time he emerged from the puddle, retching and gasping for air, he was wishing he could shed his muck-slathered skin to escape the remains of his muddy bath.
It took a few moments for him to clear enough of the sludge from his eyes and ears to gauge his surroundings. The strange sounds he heard as he resurfaced proved not to be the beast squawking in frustration as he anticipated, but Jadira giggling at his predicament.
“You must really love me,” she said with a wide smile.
“I’m so happy my misery is serving to amuse you.” Urwick spat away the ooze that clung to his lips and trickled in at the corners of his mouth. “I could have knocked myself unconscious and been drowning under there…and you would have been chuckling at my early demise.” He glanced down at the muddy but solid form of the egg still resting in his arms. “At least this is still intact.”
“I knew you would be just fine, my love. You always fare better than expected. You may not be lucky in life as a whole, but you are lucky enough when it counts. I’d wager you have a guardian angel with a sadistic sense of humour.” She flashed him a playful look. “I thought you might like to know, that creature flew away while you were under. Good thinking on your part. Apparently, it didn’t want to go wading through the muck anymore than you or I normally would.”
“So I’m done then? I passed the test?”
“All you have to do is portal back to the boundary that marks the edge of University terrain. The egg’s in one piece, isn’t it?” She laughed.
“It is. I guess that makes you mine then, as agreed.” Urwick tucked the egg under one arm and withdrew a small container from his pocket – a container which had escaped the worst of the muck. “Which means I expect you to put this on and wear it from this point onwards.”
Jadira gently plucked the little box from his messy hand. She cracked it open to reveal a ring inside adorned with a sizable emerald surrounded by tiny fire opals. Urwick grinned at her squeal of delight.
“Only the best for you, my dear,” he added.
Her squeals intensified as he wrapped a muddy arm around her and planted a dirty kiss upon her lips. He followed this up with hasty caresses that left obvious hand-prints on the places explored. It was his turn to laugh.
“And that will leave no doubt whatsoever of how I feel about you.”
Urwick did not give Jadira any chance to protest or take revenge. Splashing out of the puddle, he darted off in the direction of Magic University, all of his goals for the moment accomplished.