“I don’t know which is worse. Feeling like you’re on the way up and getting knocked down, or looking around and realizing you how far you still have to climb.”

Under Perez Park – 11:55 PM

The crystalline walls thrummed to the echo of distant chanting and the whistle of a sharp breeze through the cavern with an almost hypnotic cadence. The sound of dripping water from a stalactite shattered the calm, almost startling the slender, black-robed woman making her way through a narrow rock passage. She brushed away a lock of red hair back under her hood as she reached a chamber and cautiously looked about.

It was an unassuming cave, except for the large stone table and shelves hewn out of the rock, piled with books and scrolls. With a furtive glance behind her, the woman approached the books, waving a finger over the stacks while whispering quietly to herself.

The seemingly casual pace of her browsing ceased instantly as she snatched a bound leather tome from the shelf. A crisp breeze wafted through the small cave as if in warning. A warning she promptly took, now turning pages with a sense of urgency. Her eyes glowed with an eerie flicker as they darted across the text, bathing the book and her fair skin in dancing red light, muted by the oversized black hood of her robe.

“Natalia?”

Her eyes instantly dimmed, and for two heartbeats she said nothing, making sure to keep her breath in check. She turned.

“Master Markham, are preparations complete so soon?” Her husky voice carried a Russian accent and a casual tone that took the other man by surprise.

“What are you doing in here, Apprentice?” The robed man loomed over her, made all the more imposing by the low ceiling of the cave. In here especially, he bore the presence one came to expect from a High Mage of the Circle of Thorns.

“I wanted to review the Channeling mantras. You said this was a very important ceremony.” Again the statement was delivered without a stutter or hint of emotion. Natalia bowed her head. “I am sorry for not being better prepared, Master.”

Markham considered her, his eyes shifting from her to the book. His features were gaunt, with a hawkish nose and sunken dark eyes now narrowed with suspicion. “Taking steps to insure you are prepared is hardly suited to the normal punishment for failure, child.”

Natalia kept her head bowed all the same.

“Come,” he said at length. “As you said, tonight is very important. Too important to waste on lecture.” Markham turned to leave, with Natalia quickly falling into step next to him.

“Ultimately you only hamper the raw power you wield with such hesitation,” he went on, despite the promise of saving the lecture. “That kind of magic must be fueled by instinct and emotion to be most effective. You must learn to act in the moment.”
“Yes, Master,” she replied neutrally. “I understand.”

Markham sighed. “Elemental magic is not restrained by the same methods as geomancy or summoning. Perhaps you’ve spent too long devoted to menial study.”

A flicker of light flashed across Natalia’s pale blue eyes.

“I never agreed with you being forced into the same apprenticeship as everyone else. Discipline, they said. But not when that comes at the cost of losing your potential.”

They joined a wider cavern and the chanting grew noticeably closer. “We have a surprise for you tonight,” Markham said as if interjecting into his own train of thought.

“Surprise, Master.”

Markham paused to consider if that was a statement or a question. “For you and all the Acolytes as well,” he added.

“Nareth is still ascending to Life Mage?”

“Of course. He’s earned his place. No this is a new development that comes at a most opportune time.”

The pair rounded a corner once more into a massive cavern with a network of stalagmites and bridges crisscrossing not unlike a giant spider web. This close, the ever present chanting reverberating from every direction created an almost palpable sense of dread. Green fires bathed the expanse in magical light, reflecting off the crystal strewn walls. Scores of robed figures moved about on every level, scattered about the upper tiers, but mostly gathering on the rock floor 60 feet below.

There, in the epicenter of the chamber, was the altar of the Grand Mage, the center of the Circle of Thorns itself. Although anyone in the coven had yet to see the Grand Mage, his presence was always felt, a constant reminder that no matter how powerful any coven grew, they were all a single circle. Some say that he wasn’t even corporeal anymore, that he shed all vestige of his humanity and controlled each Circle from those altars.

It was then that Natalia realized it was not her imagination. The chill in the air was definitely colder.

Surrounding the altar was the largest single gathering of Mages she had ever seen. Another High Mage, dressed in ornate green robes stood on a raised dais, holding a heavily runed brown leather book with metal binding. Several torches formed a perfect circle around them, where glyphs on the rocky floor added to their light, forming a distinct sphere of pale green light around the ceremony.

And strapped to the altar was an unconscious and severely beaten young girl no more than 12 years old.

“Hurry. We need everyone for this.” The words barely registered as Natalia looked down from the ledge.

“Natalia!” The sharpness of Master Markham’s tone hit her with an accompanying jolt of pain. Any sense of the favor he showed his apprentice before was gone as she faced him suddenly. “Now,” was all he had to say. She hurried after him.

“What is all this, Master? What is happening?” she asked with genuine anxiety. This surprise was bigger than she dared expect.

“You will see,” he replied with a gleam in his eye. “The whole world will see.”

Natalia’s eyes lit up, literally, as well as at that. He wrapped a bony hand around her shoulder and pointed toward a double row of other apprentices. “You will add your power to the anchor. Master Eliam will orchestrate you through the same cantrip as the Ascension ceremony.

Now that he mentioned it, the lineup did look like a choir, adding to the surreal setting of a church service. Natalia nervously maneuvered in line as the inner circle of mages began chanting in what sounded like a stilted derivation of Latin. Two measures in, Master Eliam, raised his hands and the choir of apprentices began on cue.

A thousand thoughts raced through Natalia’s mind in that instant. She barely whispered the incantation, straining to hear the mystic tongue of the senior wizards, trying desperately to keep her eyes off the girl on the alter, whose stirring made that extremely difficult to do. As the chanting swelled to a fevered pitch, the girl’s eyes fluttered lazily open.

Suddenly the girl’s scream pierced through the steady chanting, driving it faster.

Every panicked thread in Natalia’s mind converged in that instant into two crystal clear thoughts. The first: She recognized the chanting, especially that last part. They were summoning something. Something big. The second: In the Ascension ceremony, a new Life Mage is instilled with enough magical energy to power his spells and potentially allow him to sacrifice his physical body for the glory of the Circle and explode in battle.

If Markham had been paying closer attention, he would have seen that the book she was reading before was opened to a page far too deep to be a mere channeling cantrip. She was memorizing the spell to trigger that explosion.

She frantically looked around the assemblage of Mages and Acolytes but didn’t even take a head count. In that instant, her eyes met those of the terrified girl and a third thought solidified: This was going to hurt.

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