Ayrden blinked in astonishment, struggling to understand how things had gone so badly wrong. As he looked about, everything was charred black, the contents of his bedroom irretrievably lost to a fiery blast that he himself had conjured but mere moments before.
His aim had been to affect a minor rejuvenation, a pick-me-up that that would sustain him through the night. The conjuration should have stimulated his mind and body, allowing him to cram through a week’s worth of study in just a few hours, a necessity if he was to pass his grading exam in the morning. Instead, his seemingly precise utterance of words had summoned a creature from the elemental spheres, a powerful Efreet that had expressed its displeasure by enveloping his room in fire.
The Efreet had been angry, its focus solely on Ayrden, as it unleashed its tumultuous hurricane of fury throughout his room. The flames would surely have devoured Ayrden if that had been the Efreet’s wish, but his panicked recital from the book of lore had stayed it’s hand; that or the expletive strewn apology which Ayrden had hastily blurted at the end.
The loss and damage to his possessions aside, what concerned Ayrden most was that the summoning should not have been possible. As a fledgling acolyte to the noble Order of Magic, the summoning of such a powerful denizen was well beyond his abilities. And then there was the matter of a supplicant, a living vessel whose untainted essence was drained to fuel the summoning. This last fact was something taught at an early age, alongside a warning to any student foolish enough to try any of the higher forms of magic.
Looking to what remained of his door, scorched and broken after the Efreet had stormed through, Ayrden wondered if it was safer to remain inside his room or risk investigating the corridor beyond. The decision was not long in waiting as Ayrden stuck his head through the door, his natural curiosity getting the better of him.
The corridor outside stretched as far as the eye could see, Ayrden noting as he always did, a slight curvature that hinted toward the buildings circular nature and massive size. Even from the inside, the ancient building, known simply as ‘The Tower’, was a daunting prospect to those who lived within its walls.
The interior of the Tower was part of what made the place so daunting, decorated as it was with darkly themed bas reliefs and artwork. The walls depicted the subtleties of magic alongside vast battle scenes, the exquisite craftsmanship unbroken as it continued through to the many doors that lined the corridor. To the observant, each wooden door was reinforced with iron bands, their sturdiness a necessity for the students who worked, slept and ate behind those doors. By its very nature, the magical studies conducted within required a robust and often solitary environment, as Ayrden himself could attest to on more than one occasion.
The tower’s daunting atmosphere was completed by Illumination from the torches mounted in the stone walls, fuelled by an elemental magic that cast a soft blue light throughout. The light was fairly dim, except where the corridor crossed with others running deeper into the Tower, those areas also exposing a stairwell to the students that allowed access to the floors above.
As Ayrden stepped out into the corridor, he noticed that students were congregating in these brightly lit areas, dishevelled adolescents from every part of the continent, all who were displaying signs of anxiety and confusion. Closest to Ayrden in the corridor were Thea and Alex, acolytes from the Heartlands like himself, who spotted him as he stepped out and immediately gestured for him to join them.
“I don’t know what happened”, said Ayrden with a shrug, “I was casting a minor spell to help study and next thing I know, an Efreet turns up out of nowhere.”
Thea’s reply was not what he expected. “You’re not the only one. All our spells have gone haywire. Our place smells like a cesspit after Alex tried to freshen up the room.”
“At least the Efreet didn’t incinerate the inside of your room as well.”
Thea looked down the corridor. “I wouldn’t worry too much about your Efreet.”, she said. “It took off in a hurry toward the library. Hopefully the elders can deal with it.’
Ayrden breathed a sigh of relief. “I hope so.”
“Anyone feel odd?”
The question came from Alex, who was leaning against the wall. Out of the blue, she let out a gasp and doubled over in pain, clutching her stomach as she fell to the floor. Quick as a flash, Thea dropped beside her cousin, automatically uttering a spell of sympathetic magic to ease the pain.
Ayrden did not get an opportunity to complete his words as incredible pain erupted throughout his body. Crumpling to the floor, he instinctively drew his knees to his chest, trying anything to relieve the pain.
“STOP THE SPELL!”
As quickly as it started, the pain cut out, leaving Ayrden to feel both physically and mentally drained. Around him, he noticed that all the students had collapsed to the ground, the spell appearing to have a similar effect on everyone nearby.
Sympathetic spells worked by drawing away the damaged essence of a person, transferring the negative energy from the injury and replacing it with positive energy. Normally, the caster would feel or suffer some of the injury, but always to a much lesser effect. In the case of Thea’s spell however, the transference had not only spread to multiple people, but the effects of the injury had been fully felt or possibly even more. On the positive side, the spells amplified effects seemed to have worked wonders for Alex, whose face was flushed with vitality.
“Is everyone ok?” asked Thea.
Looking around, Ayrden noticed that the acolytes had got themselves up, or were helping the others.
“I think so”, replied Ayrden, “but we should hold off magic till we know what’s going on.”
His words were met with nodding heads before another student, Lothar, spoke up.
Standing slightly apart from the others looking down the northern corridor, Lothar voiced what the others must have been thinking. He was an older student whose skills in magic had been late in developing, a tracker from the Godspur plains to the south before his powers developed. His tribe had celebrated his magical ascension by trying to sacrifice him to their gods; magic there was viewed with a great deal of suspicion. He had been lucky to escape and make it to the Tower and the experience had left him wary of others.
“The elders will know what’s going on”, said Malok, a dwarven acolyte from the northern ranges. “Best thing we can do is find one of them.”
Malok’s suggestion was a sensible one, backed up as it was by the natural wisdom of a dwarf. Looking around, Ayrden nodded his head in agreement, mirroring the actions of the other acolytes, who were all looking to him for direction.
“Up the stairs it is then”, he replied, before turning to head up the stairwell.
Having climbed the last few steps of the stairwell, Ayrden walked out to the adjacent corridor, relieved that the madness below had not yet spread to the floors above. His relief was short lived however when a sudden blast of wind caught him by surprise, picking him up and hurling him toward the stone wall opposite.
Landing in a heap on the floor, he barely managed to recover his breath before a second blast of wind launched him down the corridor, head first toward a group of elder magicians who were busy trying to strengthen a defensive screen further along the corridor.
Standing the other side of the defensive screen was a horde of creatures, both large and small, struggling to break through the barrier and overwhelm the twelve magicians holding them at bay. Behind the mass of summoned beings, Ayrden could make out the hulking form of a Marid, a much more powerful spirit that posed an even greater threat than the horde of its lesser cousins.
With a crack of a barbed whip held in one hand, the Marid spurred on the smaller djinn, wicked barbs of obsidian digging into flesh and inciting the horde to surge forward with even more fervor. At the same time, one of the elders screamed out, clutching his head in pain, before collapsing to the floor exhausted.
Weakened by the loss of an elder, the defensive screen shrank, its rich purple hue fading to a pale shade of blue. Seeing this, the horde of djinn threw themselves bodily against the shield, impact marks blossoming as each creature strove to weaken the defensive screen even further.
With the shield close to falling, one of the taller magicians stepped back, stumbling into Ayrden, who was still dazed from his sudden flight down the corridor. The elder was dressed in black with gold trim, marking him as one of the most senior magicians in the order or possibly even one of the four ruling arch magi who visited the tower infrequently. On seeing Ayrden and the other approaching from the stairwell, the magician’s demeanour changed as a chance to strengthen their position presented itself.
“Quick, throw your energy into the shield!”
The elder’s instruction cut through the haze, his authoritative tone triggering a reflex honed by years of training. Clearing his mind, Ayrden imagined himself as water, a practise that helped to free his mind of constraint. Next, he willed himself forward, a surge of tidal power that poured his energy into the weakened shield.
Beside him, he could sense the energy of the other acolytes, lending their strength with his to feed the barrier. Joined with the elders, their combined power did the trick, slowly, but surely, shifting the barrier back to its original purple colour. As the barrier began it expand, the smaller djinn were pushed back, down the corridor and away from the group of magicians.
“The Marid holds the key”, shouted the senior magician, whose familiar face Ayrden now recognised as Master Tolin, “its presence is warping our control of magic!”
Ayrden shouted back without thinking. “What do we do?”
Surprised by Ayrden’s voraciousness, Master Tolin’s reply was abrupt. “Send it back, and quickly.”
“It won’t be easy” said Master Tolin, his tone relaxing as he turned to speak to the acolyte. “Someone needs to circle round and deal with the smaller djinn. With them out of the way, banishing the Marid will be much simpler.”
Ayrden nodded his head in understanding. Master Tolin needed him and the other acolytes to distract the djinn and draw them away. With the lesser creatures removed from the picture, Master Tolin and the elders would be free to deal with the real threat and send the Marid back to the ethereal plains.
“We don’t have much time. They may be little more than elementals, but don’t underestimate them.”
Ayrden and the other acolytes moved quickly, trying to circle around the Marid and its underlings. The side corridor was surprisingly empty, their journey so far uneventful, only to be interrupted by Ratkin, the tower’s chief librarian. Ratkin came screaming out of nowhere, but disappearing just as quickly, as a swarm of flying books rounded the corner in hot pursuit. The swarm flew past, ignoring Ayrden and the acolytes, only for Ayrden to note with horror the mouth like appendages on each book, rows of carnivorous teeth that snapped and growled, eager to feast on librarian flesh. Uncertain whether he should help the Librarian, Ayrden almost found himself turning to follow.
Hurry acolyte, time is running out.
Master Tolin’s strained voice whispered in his head, catching Ayrden off guard. The telepathic compunction cut through any uncertainty, urging Ayrden to push forward instead.
Master Ratkin can take care of himself.
Still, his conscience weighed heavily on him, a powerful voice that was difficult to ignore. Watching as the swarm of books disappeared after the librarian, Ayrden resolved to make it up to Master Ratkin if their paths should cross again. Forcing himself to move down the corridor, he steeled himself for what was to come next.
Nearing the intersection that would take them behind the horde, Ayrden signalled for the acolytes to slow down. The slightest mistake now, and Master Tolin’s plan would fail. Taking a deep breath, Ayrden stuck his head round the corner, taking in as much information as he could before bringing himself back, an action that he hoped would go unnoticed.
The djinn were gathered fifty or so foot down the corridor, mainly focused on the now struggling group of elders. A few of the djinn were arguing among themselves, probably over who would get to torture the humans first, but in the main, the horde were singular of purpose. Towering over the smaller djinn stood the Marid, now almost face to face with Master Tolin. Using its powerful arms, the Marid slashed and raked at the defensive screen, threatening to break through at any moment, the thin blue barrier barely separating the two powerful figures from each other.
“Okay”, said Ayrden after a moment, “The Djinn are almost through the barrier, we don’t have long”
Looking to his fellow acolytes, he baulked at the lack of options available. Beyond rushing the horde in desperation, Ayrden could not think of another suggestion. His only hope was that someone could think of a better plan than his.
“The Marid is pretty much occupied with Master Tolin. It should ignore us for now.”
Ayrden paused to let the others digest his words. The Marid was a power unto itself, rivalled only by Master Tolin, who was one of the ruling quartet of arch magi. Ayrden doubted that any group of acolytes would stand a chance if forced to deal with the Marid.
“That leaves us with twenty or so Djinn to deal with, mainly ghouls, sprites and a couple of shades. The shades might pose a problem, but if we banish the ghouls and sprites quickly, then the shades should fall pretty quickly.”
His assessment was met by shaking of heads. All the acolytes seemed disheartened, except for Malok, who instead appeared deep in thought. With time running short, Ayrden decided that any plan would be preferable to doing nothing, and so continued to explain his own.
“I’ll lead from the front with Alec and Thea. If we target the ghouls, that will leave the sprites for the rest of you. Ignore the shades for now. Open up with your most powerful spells and…”
“Far too dangerous”, interrupted Malok. “We won’t stand a chance Ayrden. We need to use cunning, not brute force, to defeat them.”
Ayrden found himself nodding in agreement before he realised it. With a more deliberate nod of the head, he indicating that Malok should continue.
“We’ve got to be fast” continued the dwarf. “First thing we need to do is draw them out, into the smaller corridors.”
Smiling apologetically, Malok looked to Alex. “You’re the fastest runner I’m afraid, so that task is yours.”
Alex tilted her head. “And what will the rest of you be doing whilst I run for my life?”
“Waiting down the side corridors near the Upper Library”, replied Malok. “You just need to lead them there. Once they pass, we attack and seal them inside the library. It houses some of the most potent seals in the tower.”
“What if they catch up with me?”
Malok smiled. “Run even faster.”
Alex shook her head.
“Seriously, it won’t come to that. As soon as we attack, get clear using the other entrance and seal it up. Thea and Lothar will be there waiting for you.”
“Just make sure they stop chasing me.”
“We will”, replied Malok. “With a bit of luck and some defensive magic, I think this will work.”
With a return nod from Malok to indicate he was finished, Ayrden looked around. Everyone seemed happy with Malok’s plan.
“Okay, let’s do it.”
Positioned throughout the side corridors, Ayrden, Yog and Malok waited nervously, hiding behind a maze of defensive barriers they hoped would channel the Djinn toward the upper library.
The upper library was located in the heart of the tower and had but two entrances, making it an ideal place to trap and contain the Djinn. Reinforced with permanent wards and barriers, the library also doubled as the student’s main summoning chamber and presented them with a purpose built location. All they needed was for Alex to lead the Djinn past them and into the library. Once inside, Alex would hopefully escape by the other entrance and seal it up with the remaining acolytes.
They did not have long to wait as Alex sprinted past, her face strained with worry as the horde of Djinn appeared behind her and poured into the library.
Realising the time had come, Ayrden stepped out behind the last of the Djinn. “Now”, he shouted, “before they react.”
As one, the acolytes ran from their hiding places and toward the upper library, casting spells as they moved. Ayrden led the way with what he hoped was a blast of frost, mentally crossing his fingers as he unleashed the spell with a grand gesture.
Fortune, it appeared, was with Ayrden as he cast the spell, its icy fallout delivering a barrage that struck deep within the library to leave the djinn stunned and unawares. His frosty assault was joined by Malok and Yog, both acolytes choosing to cast spells of their own to compliment his.
Malok unleashed a tsunami of watery death, wave after wave crashing into the ranks of djinn. The look of surprise on his face however revealed that maybe the spell had not been what he intended. Turning to Ayrden, he smiled, before shrugging his shoulders in confusion; the spell had obviously done the trick, forcing the Djinn inside the massive summoning chamber.
Yog meanwhile was hastily raising barrier after barrier, intending to trap the djinn on the other side by blocking the entrance nearest to him. Unlike spells that were offensive in nature, defensive shields seemed unaffected by chance and so far could be relied upon to not alter mid casting.
“Quickly”, shouted Yog, “strengthen the barriers before they realise what we’ve done.”
Running over, Ayrden and Malok placed a hand on either side of Yog’s shoulders and began chanting. Together, their combined strength would hopefully be enough to hold back the Djinn.
Good work Acolyte. The Marid is under control and its powers suppressed. Hold as long as you can, the ritual is almost complete.
Ayrden breathed a sigh of relief. Master Tolin’s mental communication meant the ordeal was almost over. Smiling, Ayrden turned to Yog and Malok, ready to repeat the good news, when a burst of red caught his eye.
Before he could react, Ayrden was swept off his feet, thrown against the nearest of Yog’s barriers like a rag doll. A sudden burning sensation alerted him to the fact his clothes had caught fire, forcing him to roll on the floor to put the flames out.
Standing in front of Ayrden was an Efreet, most likely the same Efreet that had laid waste to his room earlier. As the creature looked down at Ayrden, it smiled, a cruel and vicious smile that spoke of the pain it wished to inflict on the young acolyte.
Raising its arms, the Efreet moved forward, fire jumping from hand to hand as it prepared to strike. Instead of striking however, the Efreet found its path blocked by Malok, who had shifted one of the barriers and stood protectively behind it with Ayrden.
Still facing the Efreet, Malok struck out his hand, projecting through the barrier to force the Efreet on the defensive. Having bought some time, he reached down to Ayrden, an offer of help that was gladly taken by the younger acolyte. Grimacing as he stood up, Ayrden looked around, trying to assess the situation before wondering what to do next.
The timing could not be worse, as far as Ayrden was concerned. Yog’s barriers would begin to falter without the three of them focusing on the task, whilst with just Malok to help, they lacked the strength to deal with the Efreet quickly. Struggling for inspiration, Ayrden turned to his fellow acolyte.
“Any idea how we deal with this thing?”
Malok shook his head. “Nothing springs to mind”, he replied. “But we can’t waste too much time dealing with it.”
Ayrden looked quizzically towards the library. “What if we trick it through the barriers.”
Malok nodded in agreement. “It could work I guess. Won’t be easy though.”
“Yog, what do you think?”
The question took Yog by surprise. “What do I what?”
“Do you think we could trick the Efreet through the barriers?”
Yog paused for a moment before replying. “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”
“If you have a better idea”, said Ayrden with a shake his head, “Feel free to voice it.”
Yog sighed. “Just let me know when you want to move the barriers.”
With a cough, Malok interrupted the conversation. “If the Efreet gets wind”, said the dwarf, “things will quickly turn nasty for us.”
Ayrden shrugged. “If that happens, we deal with it”.
With a deep breath, Ayrden stepped in front of Malok, undaunted by the Efreet and the uphill battle he now faced.
Leading from the front, Ayrden unleashing everything in his power; anything to get the Efreet to respond. The Efreet’s reaction however was not what he expected; the fire spirit simply checking its position and choosing instead to block Ayrden’s arsenal of spells.
“It’s not taking the bait”, shouted Ayrden to the others, “What’s it waiting for?”
The answer was not long in coming.
Reacting to Malok’s sudden warning, Ayrden threw himself to one side, narrowly avoiding a shower of molten rock as it fell from the once sturdy ceiling. Scrambling back to his feet, he felt someone grasp his collar and pull him back, just in time as a larger section of the ceiling rained down upon where he had been. Even standing back a few feet, the heat from the molten rock was unbearable to Ayrden, who stepped further back as specks of red hot ash spat into his face, expelled from the glowing rubble now before him.
Clever, thought Ayrden, acknowledging that the Efreet should not be underestimated. Looking about, the creature had disappeared, but Ayrden knew the powerful djinn was not finished. An incredibly cunning and malicious spirit, Ayrden expected the Efreet to attack again, seeking retribution against the magician who had summoning it to the material world.
He didn’t need to wait long for the next attack. This time, the Efreet chose to launch a wave of fire, the blistering and prolonged attack starting from further down the corridor. Deciding at the last moment to meet fire with its diametrically opposed element, Ayrden worked quickly, throwing up a barrier of water just as the fire arrived. Steam erupted in all directions as the intense heat caused the water to boil, the immense forces at work bringing Ayrden to his knees.
Covering himself defensively, Ayrden reacted as best he could, unprepared and expecting the red hot scalding steam. Instead, his fears turned to surprise as he felt a cool mist of water descend upon him. Looking around, Ayrden noted that Malok was the only acolyte on his feet, the dwarf’s face red with effort as he manipulated the elements to cool the water. Lips pursed, he was blowing for all he was worth, his efforts rewarded as he succeeded in slowly changing the steam into a dense bank of fog that filled the immediate area and was working its way down the corridor.
With fine droplets of cool water suspended in mid-air, Master Tolin’s earlier warning came to Ayrden. Ever the student, he realised that the Efreet’s ability to draw energy from its elemental plane would be compromised whilst the fog remained. The creature however, did not realise this fact, or simply did not care, for it blazed down the corridor toward them, flaming sword in each hand.
Thinking quickly, Ayrden tried to stall its arrival. Summoning a plume of water, he directed it toward the oncoming Efreet, the spell rewarding him for his efforts by going off without a hitch and forcing the Efreet to splutter and smoke. Arms raised to protect the core of its being, the creature still came on, full of an arrogance that was more than enough to overrule any thought of defeat or banishment by the acolytes.
To either side, Ayrden felt the presence of Malok and Yog, his fellow acolytes joining him in a valiant attempt to defeat the powerful djinn. Spell after spell surged forward to batter the Efreet, yet still it came on, the fire in its eyes asking questions of each acolyte; questions of worthiness, loyalty and above all, duty and sacrifice. For if they were to fail, the djinn would be free of the library, the ramifications for which could be disastrous.
“We need to do this now”, shouted Yog, “my barriers will hold unaided for a few minutes.”
Pouring his very lifeblood into the effort, Ayrden screamed, in both pain and desperation, as he summoned his most potent energies and directed them at the Efreet. A now or never moment, he felt Malok and Yog do the same, their energies combining briefly to assault their foe in a tremendous cacophony of magic.
Exhausted and on the verge of blacking out, Ayrden felt himself stumble, the ground an unforgiving surface as his legs gave way before falling forward. As he hit the ground, Ayrden found himself rolling over and over, catching glimpses of the other acolytes on the floor, who like him, had thrown everything into the attack and were equally exhausted.
Looking up, fear took hold as he realised their efforts had been for nothing. The Efreet was sorely wounded, but from what Ayrden could see, its injuries were healing. Even worse, the fog had cleared, meaning its link to the elemental planes was restored, as was its powers.
Bracing himself for the inevitable, Ayrden watched as the djinn dealt the other acolytes with an almost casual disregard, their bodies combusting to leave but piles of ash where once his young friends had stood. Closing his eyes, Ayrden made peace with himself as he felt his very breath catch fire, a dry scorching heat that leapt down his throat and into his lungs before spreading out and causing his blood to boil.
Strangely though, whilst he felt the experience of being burnt alive, his mind did not register the pain. Confused as he was, Ayrden felt disconnected, as if his consciousness had somehow been separated from his body; placed to one side and told to watch as someone else took control.
Sorry for the intrusion young Ayrden, but your father would never forgive me if I let anything happen to you. Try not to panic; but until you are out of danger, I will remain in control of your body.
Once more, the arch mage’s words caught Ayrden by surprise. Now he knew what was happening, the acolyte felt he could relax, observing through his own eyes as the powerful arch mage went about his business and dealt with the Efreet.
This time, the Efreet was mismatched, it’s look confused as powerful swipes were swept aside with a simple wave of the arm. Being the focus of the arch mage’s mental channelling, the acolyte opened himself fully to the experience, becoming aware of the Master Tolin potential as the arch mage healed the acolytes body whilst battering the Efreet with wave after wave of attacks.
Barriers of ice surrounded the Efreet as Master Tolin moved to end the conflict by containing the spirit. The elemental walls were followed by chanting; words of banishment repeated over and over with increased intensity as the arch mage began the process of sending the Efreet back to the plane of fire.
The process did not take long, the walls collapsing in on themselves as Master Tolin completed the banishment with a final gesture. Immediately, Ayrden felt control of his body restored before a familiar voice spoke in his mind.
You did well young acolyte, though I regret the loss of your friends. Gather what remains and bring them to my chambers so that we may honour their sacrifice. For now, the remaining djinn are no longer your concern. The elders and I will deal with them in due course.
With relief, Ayrden let out a sigh at Master Tolin’s instruction. “Thank you Uncle!”
Master Tolin’s reply was curt.
Remember your place young acolyte. Inside these walls, you are nothing more than a student. Now be gone quickly from this place, lest you desire a schooling in formalities.