Chapter 22
The Trials

Ban Gorge, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"Facing a challenge is an important part of growing up. To put aside your fear and to bury your anger, you must do these things for such feelings only hinder you as a warrior and as a person. I have heard a proverb from the Eastland: 'Know your enemy, know yourself, and you will win a hundred battles.' Before you can know your enemy, you must first know yourself."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Tempting as it was, Catherine insisted that the group not stop in Sagia. Instead, they headed directly to the gorge. From the eastern side, they could see a ledge on the opposite face. Beyond the ledge was the entrance to a cave that appeared to run far underground.
"They are waiting," Catherine said, but never explained exactly who or what was waiting for them.
It took about a day to circle around the gorge to reach the cliff above the ledge. Thanks to Catherine's foresight, they had packed a thick rope about five ells long that could be used to scale down the face of the gorge. After tying the rope to a hefty stake, they tossed the other end over the edge. The rope proved to be a little short, but only by a few feet.
Stefan volunteered to go down first. As the second heaviest in the group and the most athletic, he was probably the best person to test the rope's reliability. Once he got down without a hitch, he was followed by Mark, Catherine, Olofer, and lastly Ignatiy.
The group was fortunate the distance was no further than what it was, or they might never have gotten Ignatiy to go down. Perhaps they should have considered an alternative strategy, but they relied on a mix of threats and encouragement to get him to climb down himself. Predictably, he was having a difficult time of it, inching down at a snail's pace while his increasingly sweaty hands made his grip perilous.
He slid down a few feet faster than he wanted and let out a great yelp. He managed to stop himself by clutching the rope ever more fervently, but his grip would not hold for long.
"Help!" he cried. "I'm gonna fall! I'm gonna--!"
Ignatiy's faltering grip failed him at last and he fell. Happily, he was already about halfway down and though he would ultimately find himself on his rear end, most of the shock was absorbed by his legs first, sparing him any serious injury. That did not stop him from immediately wanting to complain about his misadventure.
"Ow..." he whined. When no one responded, he looked to his companions and asked, "Hey, why didn't anybody--"
Ignatiy was stopped short when he realized that the others were not paying any attention to him. Rather than looking at him, their eyes were fixed on something inside the cave. Not just that either. They all were in fighting stances with weapons drawn. It was then that Ignatiy saw it, a skulking figure just on the edge of the cave's shadow. It looked very much like a wolf, yet it stood more like a man. From its neck, wrists and ankles hung keys on thin golden chains.
"I am Gatekeeper Lycanthrope," the creature snarled. "From my body hang the keys to the Masters. If you seek the Crystal Pendants, first you must defeat me."
Without another word, the Gatekeeper pounced at them. A bolt from Catherine sank into its chest, but it did not even slow the charge of the powerful creature. Stefan dashed forward, thrusting his staff between its eyes with so much force that the skull audibly cracked. Not even heeding the damage, it swiped at Stefan and knocked him aside. Fortunately for the fighter, its dull claws did not even tear his clothes, but the force of the blow was enough to knock him off his feet.
Olofer nimbly moved alongside the creature, caught its hind leg with his crook and pulled back sharply, sweeping the Gatekeeper off its feet. Mark swung at its head, but the Gatekeeper caught his blade with its paw and the sword cut through the length of its forearm. It did not even howl in pain at the cleaving of its arm, immediately springing to its feet and snapping at Mark.
Ignatiy took advantage of its preoccupation with the others and fumblingly worked at lighting a torch. It was ready just in time. The Gatekeeper had managed to take hold of Mark's sword in its mouth when Ignatiy thrust the torch into its side. The air quickly fouled with the stench of burning hair and flesh. In rapid succession, Catherine shot a bolt that landed squarely in its forehead, Stefan gave a sharp kick to its throat as its head recoiled and Mark slashed across its belly, spilling its entrails on the ground.
The Gatekeeper fell and Mark finished it off with a thrust to the heart just to be on the safe side. The body convulsed briefly before finally stilling in death. Wearied from the fight, the group stood silently over the body. Then an unknown compulsion came over them. They knelt in unison and each of them yanked a key from their fallen adversary. As they stared at their curious spoils, Catherine looked over to Olofer.
"He says someone cut off its tail," she told the others, taking a closer look at the body herself, "but it was not any of us."
"What does it mean?" Stefan asked.
Catherine looked around suspiciously. "It means we may not be the first ones to come here."
Mark took a moment to inspect the wound more closely. The cut had long since healed over. He could not help wondering who could have done it and how it happened.
"It's probably nothing," Stefan said with a shrug. "And even if there is something to it, there's nothing we can do about it standing out here."
"He is right," Catherine said. "There is nothing to be gained out here."
Mark decided to abandon his curiosity and the group entered the cave. They had not gone far when they reached a broad chamber with six heavy doors. One of the doors had already been opened, but once again, they had no time for curiosity. The same compulsion that had driven them to take the keys drew them to the doors. As each of them got closer to a door, a rumbling voice echoed throughout the chamber.
"Take your key and challenge us. You must prove yourselves worthy of the Crystal Pendants."
The five companions held up the keys they had taken from the Gatekeeper. The same unknown force continued to push them, now to put their keys in the lock of their respective doors and venture beyond. It took considerable willpower to override the fixation on the doors just to look back at each other.
"These Crystal Pendants must be the tears of the Elementals we have been searching for," Catherine said.
"It looks like they want us to split up," Stefan added.
"Why don't we go into each room together?" Ignatiy asked, his voice betraying more than a little unease. "We'd have a better chance of winning, right?"
"No," Catherine replied. "We each must fight a Master alone. Those are the rules and they will not suffer us to break them. You have to believe in yourself. If one of us fails, we all fail. Everyone, we have come a long way, but if we are unworthy, we will die here..."
Silence filled the chamber. There were signs of hesitation, of them struggling against the compulsion to unlock the doors. Trapped between the force driving him forward and the fear holding him back, Mark spoke up.
"It's a risk we have to take," he said. "This may be the only way we can defeat Kyrios. Think of what we're fighting for, who we're fighting for."
Each of them looked inside themselves for their reason to fight and they found the resolve to allow the force to guide them and go onward. As the keys turned and the locks clicked, Catherine looked back at them one last time.
"Everyone, come back alive."
Not knowing what lay in store for them, they walked through the open doors to face their Trials alone.

* * *

As Ignatiy passed through the door, he was greeted by a blast of air so hot that he could hardly breathe. The pool of lava bubbling hundreds of feet below him filled the chamber with a dull orange glow. Dazzled by the sight, he wandered out on the narrow cliff extending to the chamber's center.
As he looked over the far edge, the lava churned with new violence. Then, from the magma burst a massive flaming bird whose wingspan was almost as wide as the chamber itself. The flapping of those huge wings loosed waves of sweltering heat that swept over Ignatiy's body. The firebird looked down on him with eyes that glowed white-hot.
"I am Fire Master Phoenix," it declared, its powerful voice piercing the air like a firebrand. "The Fire Pendant awaits the one who would best me."
Ignatiy had never seen anything so beautiful. No other flame matched the glory of the mighty Fire Master. He had been unable to fight the wyvern because of the wondrous flame that burned inside it. The Phoenix was far greater than the dragon could ever be. Ignatiy held his arms out wide, his eyes sparkling in rapt delight.
"Master!" he cried. "There is no greater pleasure than to be consumed by your holy fury! I beg you, come take me!"
"You dare taunt me!?" the Phoenix screeched.
It dived at Ignatiy, swooping only a few feet from his head. Ignatiy was knocked flat by the force of the Phoenix's wake and nearly fell off the cliff. Undaunted, he scrambled back to his feet, spreading out his arms as he had before.
"Do not torment your servant!" he pleaded. "Take me into your glorious flames!"
The Phoenix's eyes flashed and the glorious flames engulfing the Fire Master burned hotter than ever.
"Foolish mortal! You shall die!"
It flapped its wings furiously, soaring higher and higher. In its anger, its eyes were fixed on its prey and it forgot to account for the ceiling. Its head collided with the ceiling, breaking its neck with a loud crack. Its flames faded away as its body plummeted to the ground. A shocked Ignatiy cried out in despair as the Phoenix fell. Its body hit the cliff with a tremendous crash, sending cracks throughout the length of the rock. With tears streaming down his face, Ignatiy rushed to the fallen bird, now looking more like a giant plucked goose than a thing of wonder.
"No, Master!"
Before he could reach the Fire Master, its body crumbled into ashes. Ignatiy fell to his knees weeping by the remains when the glint of a red gem caught his eye. Reaching into the ashes, he pulled out a pendant. Staring into the gem, he saw the roaring fires that raged within. He clutched the gem and held it close to his chest.
With an almost religious fervor, Ignatiy whispered to the gem, "Master, you shall rise again. Until then, live on through me."

* * *

As soon as Olofer entered the chamber, a great wind blew from an unseen source. As he struggled to stay on his feet, something swooped down at him. He dove to the ground and caught a glimpse of the long talons that would have taken off his head easily. Once he was back on his feet, he got a better look at the creature that had attacked him. It was a bizarrely contorted monster whose body resembled that of a large goat with a lion's head, a serpent's tail and an eagle's wings. Its voice boomed with the force of a gale.
"I am Wind Master Chimera. The Wind Pendant awaits you."
Olofer weighed his options carefully. The wind would make his throwing daggers and slingstones unreliable and his crook could not take down the beast. The Chimera roared. Shock waves cut across the wind and knocked the shepherd into the wall. Stunned briefly, Olofer did not get back on his feet right away. He took a cautious moment to figure out what to do. To vanquish the Chimera, he would have to turn the wind to his advantage.
Fighting against the powerful gusts, he circled around the room until the wind was to his back. His sandals began to slide as the wind pushed him forward. He threw a couple daggers at the Chimera. It blocked with its wing, leaving the daggers stuck in its feathers. The distraction was enough for him to draw a smooth riverstone from the pouch at his waist. When the Chimera drew back its wing, the stone was already loosed from his sling and aimed at the creature's skull. The Chimera moved its head to dodge and the stone shattered its shoulder blade instead, costing it the use of its left wing and forelimb. The Wind Master howled in agony and a second stone smashed its jaw. Reacting to the blow, it head jerked downward, leaving it open to a third stone that landed squarely in the face. The deathblow delivered, the Chimera collapsed and as soon as its body hit the ground, the wind stopped.
Olofer carefully walked up to the body, spinning a stone in his sling just in case the creature was not entirely dead. As he got closer, he noticed a faint glimmer inside the Chimera's mouth. That glimmer gently rolled out, revealing a small pendant. The chain caught on a fang leaving the pendant to dangle just beyond the shepherd's reach.
Once he was certain that the Wind Master no longer posed a threat to him, Olofer gingerly plucked up the pendant and held it up for a better look. In the light blue gem, he could see the same rushing wind that ruled the life and death of the Chimera. Now that power was his.

* * *

The chamber Stefan entered was bare except for a small pool in the center. He had only taken a few steps when stream of water shot up from the pool, solidifying in the form of a giant snake that crashed onto the ground where Stefan stood. Had he not been quite so nimble, he surely would have died right there.
The snake looked at Stefan with its unblinking eyes and hissed, "I am Water Massster Hydrusss. Try to take the Water Pendant from me!"
The snake charged at Stefan with the speed of lightning. Before he could react, it turned back into water and smashed him into the wall. The water became solid as soon as he hit the wall to increase the force of the impact. Stefan could feel his ribs straining against the weight of the mighty Hydrus. Just as he was certain he would be crushed, the Hydrus pulled back and allowed him to fall to the ground.
As Stefan lay vulnerable, the Hydrus' head shot forward to sink its long fangs into his flesh. The speed of the attack was amazing, but Stefan was a good bit faster than a normal person. A swipe from his staff broke one of the serpent's fangs, prompting it to jerk back violently.
He jumped to the side when the Hydrus turned into liquid again, throwing his staff into its watery form seconds before it changed back. Instead of attacking, it began to thrash about wildly as soon as it became solid again. Stefan grinned confidently. The Hydrus' tail raked against the wall and Stefan had to dodge one of the fierce undulations of its midsection. Eventually the thrashing began to subside and the Hydrus stilled.
Its body slowly melted away, returning to water once and for all. Stefan picked up his staff from the puddle that was once the Hydrus and noticed a faint glow within the pool. Peering into its depths, he could see something float to the surface. He picked up the object, a pendant whose gem was the same deep blue as the water. He looked at it briefly and put it away. He had managed to survive, but were the others so lucky?

* * *

Mark had difficulty walking through the soft clay in the chamber. It was ankle-deep and seemed to be getting deeper, but he pressed on. As he reached the center, the ground began to rumble. A stone giant erupted from the ground, sending chunks of clay flying in all directions.
"I am Earth Master Golem," a voice within its chest rumbled. "Are you worthy of the Earth Pendant?"
It punched at Mark, burying its hand deeply into the clay. Before it could pull out its fist, Mark slashed at its arm. Sparks flew from its stone flesh, but did no visible damage. While the Golem struggled to free its arm, Mark got in a few more strikes to no effect.
Once its hand was free, the Golem turned to face him. Mark's agility was hampered by the clay that clung to his boots. Without speed, his primary advantage against the giant was lost and worse yet, his weapon seemed to be useless as well.
The Golem swung at him and he dodged by falling on his back. Unable to spring to his feet, he rolled onto his belly, dug his feet into the clay and pushed himself up with his arms. With all the clay caking on his body, he was beginning to resemble his enemy. He might have laughed at the irony if his life was not in peril.
The Golem pulled its arm back to strike again and Mark performed an overhead slash that caused the blade to become wedged in the elbow joint. The arm continued to bend, shaking from the resistance of the sword until the forearm split from the joint and crashed into the ground.
This small victory gave Mark an idea. He slashed at the Golem's neck, wedging it in the same manner as he had done with its arm. He released his sword and rolled between the creature's legs. As it looked down, the blade groaned from the pressure, but steel prevailed over stone and the head broke off. The rest of its body crumbled in short order, the pieces all sinking in the clay.
Where the Earth Master stood, a pendant lay covered in clay. Picking it up, Mark peeled away the clay to reveal its dark green gem. He clutched it tightly in his hand and looked to the door. He hoped the others were all right.

* * *

Upon entering her chamber, Catherine saw nothing but bare stone walls, no sign of anything whatsoever. However, as soon as her foot touched the floor, the chamber dissolved into open sky dotted with puffy clouds. Catherine shaded her eyes from a blinding light hovering above her. The light transformed into the figure of a man clothed in linen with six feathery wings, all a purer white than she had ever seen before. His whole body was engulfed in a flaming aura and his voice was deafening like a thunderclap.
"I am Heaven Master Seraph. Only the worthy may have the Heaven Pendant!"
The crossbow slipped from her fingers. It would be no use against this foe. No external power would be strong enough. If she wanted to succeed, she would have to strike from within. She closed her eyes and focused herself entirely on the Seraph's mind.
The initial blackness was immediately illuminated the moment she entered his psyche. Her mind was set on fire with the same white-hot flames that enveloped the Seraph. The pain was beyond anything the body could endure. Her extreme focus was her sole salvation. A moment's wavering would cause her mind to be lost forever.
The Heaven Master's mind was a raging inferno, too pure and too powerful. Piercing through the fires of his mind, Catherine forced her way to the core consciousness. Unlike the tangled web of human minds, his was nothing more than a single thread. The elegant simplicity astounded her and it made her task all the easier. Shutting out the flames, she focused all her energy into a single strike, a cut to sever the thread.
The inferno vanished in an instant and the blackness began to crumble like the stones of a castle wall stricken by a catapult. Before his mind collapsed entirely, she pulled out as fast as she could. When her eyes opened, she saw the Heaven Master's body evaporate in a single brilliant flash.
The room faded back to the way it was and Catherine was drawn to a light in the center of the room. She reached out and grasped at the source of the light, finding it to be a simple pendant. Its white gem gleamed as she held it before her eyes. She smiled triumphantly. If the others survived, they finally stood a chance against Kyrios.

* * *

At the same time, all five companions emerged from their respective rooms, each with a pendant in their hands. They had succeeded in the Trials and proven themselves worthy of bearing the Crystal Pendants. All that remained was to face Kyrios himself.
When they exited the cave, they saw the rope coiled at their feet with one of the ends frayed. Looking up, they were met with a most unwelcome sight. Brenok loomed over the edge of the cliff with a smug grin on his face and a knife in his hand.
"You may think you've won," he sneered, "but you're still nothing compared to the master! He's waiting for you in Pandemonium, the demon's tower on top of Ban Plateau." If possible, his face took on a more sinister character as he thrust his knife into the ground. "I hope you make it there alive! I'm looking forward to hearing you scream!"
He walked away cackling, his grating laughter fading away far too slowly for anyone's taste. Everyone looked around for another way back to the surface, but it was a vain effort. All they could see was the sheer cliffs that were a long way up and an even longer way down.
"What're we gonna do now?" Ignatiy whined.
"We can use the pendants' power," Catherine said, "but we learn to wield them first. We have more than enough room to practice in the cave, but we cannot waste much time."
It was not the most appealing prospect, but it did not look like they had much choice.
"I have another idea," Stefan said. "Everyone, stand together as close as you can. I've never tried this with anyone but myself and never for more than a fathom or two."
Before anyone could question him, Catherine gestured for them to comply. They obeyed, standing so close that their bodies pressed against each other. Stefan drew the flute from his sash, put it to his lips and began to play.
The notes started low and dull. The loose bits of rock at their feet began to quiver. As the music became faster and higher, wind began to swirl around them. Their feet lost contact with the ledge and they steadily rose into the air. Stefan continued to play with more and more intensity and they rose higher and higher.
By the time they reached the top of the cliff, Stefan was reaching his limit. On the last few strained notes, Catherine stretched out her arm, pointed her palm inward and forced them to the ground. Stefan was on his knees, breathing heavily while the others look on in bewilderment.
Astonished, Mark asked, "What was that?"
"Gypsy magic," Stefan replied with a grin.