Tiny crimson tongues lick at the stone walls of the tunnel, seeping along them like an oozing liquid. The air shimmers like a badly cast illusion. The sudden hiss of heat, crackling and flickering flames behind her. All around, the artificial light is dimmed by the orange glow, and the red-lit tunnel takes on a decidedly menacing atmosphere. The inferno is raging onward, spreading far too fast for a fire with little but bare rock for fuel. Already, she feels a warm breeze on her arms and neck, and the stone floor beneath her feet no longer seems cold. Her innate arcane sense is running haywire, for this is no natural conflagration, as if there was any doubt: Magic is hissing in the air as loudly as the flames.
Quickfire! Stalra, the running flame, the dying curse of Korrol-Bok, last of the Abyssal Circle. Ancient and powerful magic, and by some counted the most deadly spell in existence. For the fire does not stop, it does not pause, but it spreads and devours all in its path. It does not even starve, for its nourishing fuel is not the feeble combustion of earthly matter, but the all-pervading arcane energy of the fiery element. Only after days of confinement is it quelled, or the touch of direct sunlight may halt its greedy expansion, for it is the deep fire of Hell.
This was to be expected, she knew. She was being tested, and the exam did not just test for magical ability or knowledge: Her speed would be essential for her survival. How the first-years had laughed when her senior class had all but cut classes to meet for long-distance running to steel their constitution, but none of them had cared: They knew what to expect in the forachid examination. Let them laugh now!
But she did not run, not yet. She was steadily quickening her step, but still walking. For the fire was not very fast. This was something they were taught several times in the survival and pyromancy courses, but few students could remember it when they actually faced the terrible flames.
Then they panic. And panic is the enemy of reason, and the prelude to death. She could be walking a lot faster, but she needed to control her adrenalin right now. I must not panic. It is supposed to be like this. This is a test. I agreed to this when I enrolled at Oriath. I knew what I would face in these halls. Nobody has died here for years.
Well, months. Sonahn recalled the news that had shocked the campus back during her preparation courses: One of the examinees had gotten himself gored by the insect monsters that infested these caverns. But the poor fool had had it coming, skipping weapons practice as routinely as he did. Close combat was an inevitable part of the trials on the first level, and if you don't know which end of a waveblade to hold on to, you have no business taking on a fully grown chitrach. She still shuddered when she thought back to the terrible pincers and mandibles of the green terror: The nasty insects are fast as lightning, their serrated claws like hardened diamond, and their very body emits a dampening field so it is nigh impossible to cast spells in their presence. Cold steel and great skill alone are a defense against them, and she had barely survived. Her mastery of the iksal, the small razor-sharp throwing discs, had fortunately spared her a test of raw physical strength in hand-to-hand combat, which she lacked.
But enough of reminiscing now; the fire is too close on my heels to get careless. I must not panic, but neither do I wish to be the first Vahnatai ever to die from not taking Quickfire seriously. In truth, however, she was walking for other reasons than to keep back the rush of panic: She greatly feared the possibility of missing a turning, some fork in the corridor that led to the exit, and being then trapped by the flames in a dead end. For there was no way back through the flames, not even running.
The stalra was as hot as ordinary fire at its advancing front, but behind it, she could see the orange-red glow in the air fading away into bright yellow, then a blinding white incandescence. The heart of the Quickfire was a furnace of plasma, burning as hot as the sun. She might survive the first faint touch of the yellow flames with third-degree burns, but once it had closed off her escape, she would be dead before taking three steps through that brilliant white heat.
Another cross section ahead of her, another choice. She looked down each of the two tunnels: Rough stone passages that disappeared into the murky twilight. Then she looked back at the tunnel she had come from, where a faint orange glow around the corner marked the approach of death. Without slowing down, she made a few mental calculations and estimated her position relative to the stairway to the lower level. When she had reached the crossing, she chose the left tunnel and disappeared down it. For an eternal, agonizing minute as she was walking, she fought the terrible doubt, the unreasoning urge to go back to the crossing for another analysis. I know this is the right way. I know it! Then the orange glow heralded the Quickfire's arrival at the section, and she knew her choice was sealed, for good or for ill. This was almost comforting.
This is how they taught us to handle it. Calm. No panic. The fire is implacable, but not inescapable. It is utterly lethal, but slower than its name suggests. Even somewhat less dangerous than most ordinary fires, for its advance is more predictable and there is no poisonous smoke to inhale. Do not hesitate. Do not slow down. Search calmly for the nearest exit. She felt better, recalling the words of her survival instructor. She was all right. She was not about to die. It was a mantra, more of a prayer, but she managed to persuade herself at least. Her heart was still pounding, but the panic had ceased to rise in her chest.
Do not panic. Panic leads to doubt, doubt leads to hesitation, and hesitation is death. Choose the right path and do not look back. Panic is the weapon of the stalra. Panic and fear. She paused. And heat, of course, Sonahn added drily. I suppose heat's the most dangerous one.
Her good spirits held for a few more turns and forks, but when the fourth section appeared in the distance she realized that she had nothing but very vague guesswork to guide her now. Shavhor! My sense of direction is gone completely! She needed to subdue her panic to keep track of her position in the deadly maze of tunnels, but right now she was not even sure which direction she was facing.
North? Northwest? West, even? The directions were arbitrary definitions, of course - she had declared the long stairway down to this level to be facing north, just to have a label to pin on her mental compass. But where am I facing right now? Did I just make two left turns or only one? And was that last tunnel subtly bending to the right, as it had seemed for a while, or did it make no measurable difference? She was almost sure (Completely sure! Please! Let it be so!) that the maze was designed to work with a greedy strategy, so that no student would be required to retrace too many steps: The time pressure and threat of panic alone was sufficiently dangerous by far. So as long as she was pointed more or less towards the exit, she was going the right way.
But that is useless sophistry. I have absolutely no idea which way I am going or where I am, she angrily dismissed this line of thought. I have to play my ace. After all, I can do magic. Strange, how in the face of the terrible flames she had all but forgotten what this examination was supposed to be testing.
The proper spell to use here was the mental map, the friend of dungeon-crawling mages the world over. Sensing the specific mass of the matter surrounding the caster, it was able to detect hollow spaces and tunnels to quite a distance. The resulting vision was hard to make sense of, being little more than a penetrating gaze through the walls, but interpretation was as much part of the magical scrying courses as casting. Given quill and parchment, Sonahn could sketch a map of this place in a jiffy. She didn't have that, of course: Her memory would have to do.
The small pouch at her side tinkled when she opened it with one hand. All Vahnatai mages carry a bag of jewels, because most of their spells require a crystal or gemstone of some kind, such as the smoothly polished sapphire that the young student was now taking out. Many spells use these stones merely as a focus for the arcane energy, but the spell she was about to cast didn't. As soon as the vision arrived, the sapphire would dissolve into the air, her aura having absorbed the structure of the stone. That, of course, was why she had waited until now to cast it, hoping to avoid using up her most expensive materials. Sapphires were imported from the mines far to the east at prohibitive cost.
But whatever the price of sapphires, my most valuable possession is still my skin, so let's get cracking. By now, Sonahn had reached the forking tunnels that had so easily shattered her confidence, and perforce, she stopped in order to cast the spell. The Quickfire was not too far behind, but she reckoned she had about five minutes until she had to make her decision. The spell would take at least one of these to cast, and then as much time as she needed to memorize what it told her. The vision could be held in place almost indefinitely, but only while she was standing still, so she had to hurry before the flames caught up. It's just like the last-minute cramming before the written test, she joked, except that Rabon-Ka never burned anyone alive for failing to remember something.
Not to my certain knowledge, anyway, she cautiously amended this. Rabon-Ka was quite a piece of work.
Her fingers held the glittering deep-blue stone up to her face, and she gazed deep into it. She did not normally require visual contact to work this spell, but with the time limit and her current state of mind, she did not dare take any chances. Her sight was lost in the depth of the sapphire, and it seemed to pulse with a strange inner light as she focused her will on the spell.
"dwiltis", she croaked aloud. It had been a while since she had used her voice down here. The caverns seemed to abjure all sounds, even now that the Quickfire was loudly roaring in the tunnels. She cleared her throat, her mind sinking deeper into focus. "dwiltis". A minute passed. For some reason it was difficult to gather her energy, but that might have been due to the problem of concentrating in the face of death. The greatest fear was not that of running out of time, but of the awful possibility of an earlier mistake: If she had erred on the last section, it might well be too late to return now, and she would have to wait for her inevitable death in the dead end while the Quickfire would draw near with cruel slowness, the air gradually getting unbearably hot and cooking her alive...
When Sonahn was almost ready to surface from her trance in a panic, the spell finally took hold. The blue that filled her eyes and her mind parted and coalesced into curious shapes and lines, and the surrounding tunnels were outlined in ghostly form. Turning and twisting the vision this way and that in her mind, she did her best to edge it into memory on such short notice. Fortunately her magical training had required so much memorization that she had a nearly photographic memory, and casting this spell came as a second nature to her even without parchment.
Even her scrying teacher, who was generally famed to have never forgotten a thing in her life, had advised her to avoid doing this whenever possible: "Have writing equipment ready whenever you cast this spell, Sonahn. Your memory can fail at the most inconvenient time, and the cost of a sapphire is the least that you risk to lose in such a case." Except that she had brought no writing equipment. Rather a conspicuous oversight, but she had been so relieved to have passed the theoretical examination that she had subconsciously repressed the thought of having to write again.
Finally, she was sure that she had the twists and mostly rectangular turns of the maze etched into her mind. Even as she surfaced from her trance and the blue lines faded from her sight, a grin spread on her face. Relief flooded her, and she quickly stepped into the third corridor from the left: She had been walking the right way all along, and the exit lay straight ahead.
The rest of the maze was easily traversed thanks to her certain knowledge of the tunnels, and she was able to gain back the lost time and much more by picking shortcuts she would not otherwise have tried.
At last, the exit lay ahead: A big, circular hole in the ground at the end of the tunnel, down which a solid stone stairway spiraled in narrowing circles, ending in a funnel and a small doorway at the bottom. Safety beckoned!
It seemed a very flimsy idea of safety, of course. The Quickfire would not stop for a mere stairway, or a wooden door. Both of these would be quickly burned away by the flames. But she remembered the big slab of black basalt rock that had slammed shut when she had entered the maze, a lifetime ago. The flames must be prevented from spreading back and filling the whole cavern. Down here, all that burned were the disposable wall-hangings, which were expendable and must probably be re-conjured for every student. The lengths they go in order to give us some authentic atmosphere..., she marveled. But up there, delicate doorways and mechanisms, let alone the monster breeding pits, would be devastated by the purifying stalra.
It stood to reason that another slab of basalt would clang shut behind her once she left this place, leaving the Quickfire to rage in these impervious tunnels until it had burned itself out. This could take more than a day, she remembered. Hazardous biomagical laboratories were sometimes cleansed of contamination in this fashion, the fire purging it of everything organic, leaving only the bare stone behind.
Looking at the ceiling, she could see the place: A slit of darkness in the unbroken grey, about half a meter wide. Below it, there was a shallow indentation in the ground, and similar grooves scored the walls. This was to make the gateway shut tightly without leaving the tiniest gap. If it was but an inch open, the evil fire would creep through the gap and run free, spreading destruction where it went.
The circular stairway stood ahead, waiting. Knowing that the stone gate would detect her passing, Sonahn briskly walked ahead. She quickly passed under the slit, hurrying to get past as if worrying that it might close too soon and crush her. Fortunately, the mechanism was designed safely: Nothing happened until she was more than five steps past the gate, after which she heard the ominous deep rumble behind her. Then there was the dull, grating boom or stone meeting stone, and the roar of the Quickfire was cut off, giving away to silence.
After turning to see the stone slab, Sonahn entered the spiral staircase and quickly walked down it. She was only halfway down it when she suddenly felt the exulting realization that she had survived! This was the most deadly part of the cavern, if you had managed to fight off the monsters, and it lay behind her! From now on, the going would be a cakewalk, she thought with relish. Riddles, she snorted. I heard that some of them are really tough nuts, but none of them are deadly as long as you don't get overconfident. There is no penalty for a delayed answer, even if you take the full three days for the rest of the examination.
Giddy with relief, it was only now that Sonahn noticed her heart had been beating triple-time for the entire duration of the last level. It did not calm down very quickly, though the enormous sense of safety that had suddenly overwhelmed her did wonders. Even as she reached the bottom of the staircase, she felt well-rested and alert, aware of every detail around her in that curious mood that comes with a near-death experience. She felt suddenly as if she had drained a pint of idradhu, the foul-smelling infusion that she and the other students had almost constantly been drinking to keep alert during their late-night revision. This was too much at once, she realized. She had to sit down.
And so she did, letting herself fall to the cool stone floor at once. She waited at least three minutes while her breathing slowly grew less ragged and more regular again.
But even after three minutes, she would not have stood up if she had not noticed something odd out of the corner of her right eye. But when she turned, she saw nothing. Something had moved back there, behind the door she had come from. She was sure of it! And there it was again.
After going through what she had just seen, she was not yet capable of feeling afraid again. She merely felt curious. So she walked toward the open doorway, looking interestedly at the gloomy shadows that now danced and flickered.
The caverns were lit by magical lanterns, which gave a gloomy yellow light. They were not very bright, but the light they gave was steady and unmoving. And yet as she approached that door, the circular stairway ahead seemed to flicker as if lit by a fire. Somehow, she knew then, of course, even though she had not fully grasped it yet. Even the dull roaring failed to convey the full meaning of what was happening. But then she stepped through the small archway and into the narrow center of the stairway that spiraled up and up above, and she saw.
She blinked uncomprehendingly at her doom. "What is happening?" she murmured aloud, watching the terrible flames creep down the sides of the stairwell. Behind the orange haze that was descending, the top of the stairway faded into a bright white light, shining like the sun. The inferno raged through the stairwell. She was looking up into the maw of Hell.
Before she had time to grasp the implications, the explanation came through to her. The basalt did not seal completely. It must have left some invisible sliver of a gap. And the quickfire had crept through it, betraying her safety.
Then, slowly, hesitantly, she realized what would follow.
For if this protection failed, then all the levels below her would be consumed as well. No part of the forachid down here was built to hold off stalra. She would have to run, and keep running. If she could solve the riddles in time, she might yet stand a chance before the fire reached her. If she hesitated even a brief while, the fire would overtake and consume her. She ran.
Within only seconds, her escape was cut short. With a dull roaring clang, another slab of basalt dropped to the floor just ahead of her. She stood, transfixed, unable to credit it. A secondary system, doubtlessly, triggered in case of emergencies to block off the flames. She was not certain it would prove effective - after all, it was the twin of the first gate, whose effectiveness was disproved directly by the flames now pursuing her - but either way, it made very little difference to her. She was on this side of the barrier. The side that would shortly become very hot. What did she care if the fire would get past after she was dead?
"But this makes no sense!" she shouted. There was no escape! The way forward was blocked, the way back was blocked. She was stuck.
And then the panic that she had managed to keep down all this time began to rise unchecked within her. She had nowhere to go. She could not run away. Within a few minutes, the fire would reach her and kill her.
"I'm going to die," she said in bewilderment, the words sounding unfamiliar. No exaggeration this time. Cold certainty, though cold was the wrong word to use here. She was going to be very, very dead in a very, very short time.
"Shavhor! Who gets paid to maintain the safety in here anyway?" she raged. "There will be hell to pay for when word gets back." It would be satisfying to see those idiots at the academy sacked collectively, but the feeling was dampened by the knowledge that she wouldn't be around to see it.
"And what about my work on the amplifying effects of saline crystals on magic shields?" By now, she was raving with desperation. For some strange reason, her mind kept turning back to what she had up till now jokingly called her life's work, as if she would be busy with that thesis until the day she died. In a cruel irony, she realized, that was exactly what had happened. And it wasn't even bloody finished!
From the jumble of anger, confusion and despair, she then suddenly felt a new feeling: Determination. Her self-preservation instinct was finally kicking in.
If her brain didn't get her out of this one, and soon, it was going to fry.
Use your mind. You can beat this too. Remember how.
She focused on her normally vivid memories of the survival lessons. Right now, the only thing that remained clear was an old snatch of rhyme. Some mnemonic verse, apparently. The rhyme was silly, but it had the words, the three crucial things that could ward off Quickfire: karam, mehd, krytark. Sunlight was out of the question. She was many meters below the surface, buried in stone. Stone, the second thing, had just failed her, and she had no way of getting any more stone. She could collapse the tunnel, of course, but that would kill her very certainly, and stood only a marginal chance of sealing the cavern.
krytark was a barrier of magical force. They were difficult to conjure, but they were known to be indefinitely permanent and completely impervious until dispelled. Quickfire could unravel the lesser fire barriers with its arcane tendrils, but a well-built force barrier would block it just as solid rock did.
She had produced krytark only a very few times before, and never well. It was a feat of supreme magic, and her teachers had been astounded that she had managed to conjure one of any strength at all. Only half a dozen students of her year had been able to do the same.
This time, her life depended on it.
She opened the gem pouch again and took out a round opal. Binding and blinding, hindering and blocking, closing and hiding, were its chief uses. Grasping it lightly, Sonahn touched the stone first to several spots along a line across the floor, rather more tightly spaced than she did usually. Her hand went up the wall, doing the same, then reaching to the ceiling. Thanking the powers that be for these low tunnels, she brushed the gem across the arching stone above her. Soon, the circle was complete. Muttering the words for closing and hindering, barring pathways and blocking progress, she moved the stone in a wide arc inside the circle she had marked out.
"ozkrytarkshalasbet," she pronounced the tongue-breaker. "ozkrytarkshastalrabet. krytarkshabet." The points she had touched gradually came to life, bright pinpoints of blue light. Further circling and muttering was required, and still the anchorpoints glowed more intensely.
This was draining work, she remembered. Not ceasing her circular motion and incantations, she reached for the last flask of the restoring elixir of power that remained to her, draining it in quick gulps between the words. As she worked, she saw the orange glow by the stairway become more intense, more palpable, until the wooden door burst into flame. She had less than five minutes now, she knew. And still the barrier did not form.
Fool! she silently cursed, suddenly. You have to speak the releasing words now, or you will merely pour power into the anchors! This final incantation was almost impronouncible. No wonder the barrier was so hard to bring forth. She took a deep breath, and then spoke.
"Kryratistark...," she had to pause for a while to recollect the rest, "...shacrybelasoztark." Quite a mouthful.
And suddenly, just like that, lightning hissed in the air. Sonahn quickly drew back her fingers from the searing haze of energy that grew in the circle, letting the hot opal drop from her fingers. Bright blue lines criscrossed between the anchor-points, forming a dense mesh of force that quickly blocked her sight of the tunnel behind it.
At length, the barrier had formed completely, and Sonahn stood before it in admiration. It was a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, to be sure. Her last one had looked like a badly woven spiderweb, but this... this would be completely impervious.
Sonahn realized what had happened: Her delayed release of the barrier had allowed it to gain far more energy than it usually did. She had all but poured her life into the anchorpoints before allowing the barrier to form, and her accidental omission had made the barrier far stronger than normal. I have to remember that, she thought. It's an interesting trick, and I don't understand why none of the conjuring teachers taught us to overload the thing like this. Powerful mages must do it that way, because their barriers are always strong.
By now, the fire had reached the barrier, and she was relieved to find that it had been halted.
She was still trapped: Imprisoned by impregnable basalt on one end, and crackling force on the other. But she was alive, and for the moment, she would remain so. Someone would come to rescue her soon, she knew: Three days were all that was allowed for the examination, and after that time, they would have to check on her if only to give her the failing grade. The corridor she was confined in contained enough air to last several days at least.
For the second time in the space of only fifteen minutes, Sonahn felt giddy with excitement at still being alive. Then the strain of her spells caught up with her, and she sank down and slept like a stone among stones.