Wide eyes watched as the bandit charged forward, his blade raised high and a blood curdling howl issuing from his mouth. The boy's fingers grasped at his father's corpse as he froze in place, watching certain death bear down upon him.
A sharp crack of electricity tore through the air and the bandit was thrown through the air over the boy's head, colliding violently with a nearby tree and sliding down in a heap, the stench of ozone wafting over to match that of burnt flesh.
"We must leave. It's not safe here."
Pale blue eyes look over at their rescuer in wonder, drinking in the sight with awe. A high collared purple coat, under which was a green silk sash that in turn covered golden chain mail was worn regally by a grizzled old man whose gaze shifted around the burning night, tense, as if watching for a predator. Arcane lines glowed over his skin and his eyes spoke clearly of depths of power waiting to be tapped. Lightning still danced in the palm of a hand that wore heavy fingerless gloves of chain and cloth that stretched to the elbow.
A frown appeared on the Hero's face (for what else could he be, holding lightning in his hands and dispatching one of those who had sacked and pillaged the town with nothing but a thought) as the boy flinched back from his approach. "They're all dead. You don't want to join them, do you?" the old man asked sardonically, receiving a quick head shake in response. "Then give me your hand," he ordered, stretching his left out to midway between them as the right still pulsed with sparks.
Hesitantly at first, as if waiting for his rescuer to snatch his hand back, but then with more confidence, the boy took the offered hand.
"Boy," the old man began as he looked him over critically, "what is your name?"
The boy looked at him blankly for a moment, before answering with the single syllable, "Jack."
The man snorted, although his expression didn't change as he finished his inspection. "I am Maze. Prepare yourself."
Before the young Jack could respond, blue wisps and motes of light rose about them, before they and the ethereal light surrounding them faded away, leaving behind the corpse of his father and a burning village.
"Hmm, I thought you'd have a stronger stomach than that. Come on," Maze commented as made to put a hand on Jack's shoulder to guide him along the established path that Jack found himself vomiting up the previous day's meals on. Jack knocked the old mage's arm away, anger welling up inside of him at the man's casual disregard of the murder of his family. "Save your energy boy! It's not me you want to fight," Maze told him irritably, somewhat unused to dealing with situations like this. "You might not realise it, but I just saved your life."
"You left the village behind!" Jack snapped back, finally finding his voice.
"There's nothing left for you in Oakvale. And if you'd stayed, you'd be just as dead as the rest of them," Maze returned, as he began to move along the fence lined path as dusk set in around them. "Come with me," he ordered, not looking back to see if he followed.
After several minutes of silence during which Jack followed Maze through the forested paths to whatever destination the old man was leading him to, his guide spoke up again. "As I told you, my name is Maze. I am the head of the Guild of Heroes. You've heard of it, of course," he threw out carelessly.
For a moment, Jack was taken away from the reality that was just starting to set in, and back to the pleasant daydreams that he had commonly entertained whenever he was supposed to be doing his chores. Visions of great champions wielding mighty blades, evil mages cloaked in the shadows they commanded, stealthy rangers creeping through the forests...it all seemed like a lifetime ago after the events of the previous day. His sister's birthday.
"You'll find nowhere safer in all of Albion," Maze continued, shaking Jack from his thoughts. "Nor a better place to call your home.
Scattered thoughts began to focus, as Jack began paying real attention to his rescuer's words. He couldn't possibly mean...
"And if it's vengeance you want, you'll need the training only we can offer," Maze continued as they rounded a bend in the path and the sight of the fabled Hero's Guild was revealed to Jack for the first time.
He does, Jack thought disbelief rising within him. People like him weren't accepted into the Guild. They only took the very best; only those who held the potential to become true Heroes, living Legends.
"Here we are," Maze concluded, coming to a stop in front of the solid gate to the Guild, each door inscribed with the Guild Seal and either ignoring or not noticing the stupefied look on his temporary ward's face. "I will introduce you to the Guildmaster. He shall be your guide from now on." He glanced down at the boy at his side. "And for pity's sake close your mouth. You don't want people to think you stupid."
"I have a new student for you," Maze announced to the bald, moustached man who was inspecting what appeared to be a giant map in the main hall of the Guild. "Put him upstairs with the girl. I'm getting tired of other apprentices complaints that she has a room to herself," he groused to himself.
The Guildmaster looked Jack over, his gaze penetrating. Jack found himself straightening subconsciously under that gaze, his eyes drawn to the Seal that was either tattooed or branded onto the old man's (even older than Maze, by the looks of it) forehead. "You don't look much like Hero material to me," he stated disinterestedly. "But Maze knows what he's doing, I suppose," he added, sounding like he very much doubted that.
Jack bristled indignantly under that judgement, before checking himself. Snarling at one of the two men who held the future he'd always dreamed of in his hands in front of the other did not seem like the best idea at the moment.
A look passed between the two old men that went unnoticed by the boy between them, one approving, the other pleased.
"Well, follow me then," the Guildmaster shrugged as if he didn't particularly care either way, before turning and making his way up the stairs to where Jack's room was apparently located. Jack hurried after him, still rather overwhelmed by the events of the entire day, before pausing and turning halfway up the staircase. He looked at Maze and opened his mouth to say something, only to close it again, unsure of how to voice how he felt.
There was no need however. Maze merely looked him in the eyes and nodded gravely, allowing himself to hope for the first time in many years. The old mage departed the hall without further communication, heading to his own quarters where he would spend the rest of the night without rest, pondering the events of the night and his own role in them, and how they could possibly shape the events of the future in the years to come.
Up in his shared room, laying in an uncomfortable new bed, Jack stared at the stone ceiling as he felt his fatigue begin to overtake him. His family had been murdered, his village destroyed. He had been saved from certain death by a stern old Hero and taken to the Guild of Heroes, where he was apparently going to begin his training at the next day. Unsure of how to feel, after having what would have been his worst nightmare entwined with his greatest dream, Jack finally decided to sort it all out when he wasn't so exhausted and allowed the quiet relief of sleep to claim him.
"It's time to wake up!"
Jack blinked groggily as a voice intruded on his sleep, wondering who this strange person in his house was and what they wanted. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he sat up and looked around, as the sight of his new room at the Guild hammered the memories of the previous day back into his skull.
"You must be my new room-mate," a dark skinned girl who stood a full head taller than him stated as she looked him over. "Hmm," she continued. "Shorter than I expected."
Jack scowled fearsomely at the mention of his height, or lack of it. It wasn't his fault that most people his age were all heads taller than him. "You're not that much taller..."
"My name's Whisper," the girl continued with a small smirk at his reaction. "I've been here for a month. Had the room to myself 'til now too. But that's all right," she finished with a shrug.
After the introduction, Jack felt compelled to respond in kind. "Jack," he introduced himself.
"Of Blades?" Whisper quipped. "Might wanna change that," she teasingly advised, earning another fearsome scowl (in his mind) from Jack. "You know you talk in your sleep? Sounded like a bad nightmare," she informed him carelessly. "Happens to a lot the first week. Some don't even last that long. Homesick, you know."
"I'm sorry," Jack bit out angrily. Anger was better than grief. "I'll try not to let the nightmares of my family's murder yesterday interfere with your sleep."
"Oh," Whisper answered in embarrassment. "Sorry." She paused, watching as Jack slid off his bed and began to tidy it up, noting that he was still clad in rough outsider's clothes, blood on the gloves he had apparently been too tired to remove. "What was your family name?"
"Name?" Jack asked blankly.
"You know," Whisper expanded as she watched him work. "Your bloodline."
"Why would I know that?"
"Don't give me that. You've obviously been educated."
"Well, yeah," Jack responded, somewhat confused by the line of questioning. "M-mum made sure we learned our letters, taught some of the other kids too."
"Where did you live?" Whisper demanded curiously. "Half the kids who start here can't read or write to begin with, and you don't speak like some country bumpkin either."
Jack gave a barely noticeable flinch before answering quietly, "Oakvale."
"Oh. Sorry," Whisper repeated herself, mentally kicking herself for her words. Passing through the mess the previous night after she had tired herself playing in the woods, she had overheard several instructors discussing the news that Maze had returned with: a small sleepy hamlet to the south had been razed by a bandit attack with precious few survivors. "Come on," she gathered herself, making a promise to be nice to her new room-mate. "I'll show you the way to the mess hall." Her resolution to be nice crumbled after token resistance to her next comment, "wouldn't want you to get lost, what with not being able to see over all the heads of all the other Trainees here, short stuff."
Another fearsome scowl appeared across Jack's face. He'd only known the girl five minutes and already she infuriated him. The fragrant scent of bacon wafting through the door to their room distracted him however, and he found himself following Whisper downstairs to the mess.
"What are Trainees?" Jack asked as they descended the stairs. "I thought everyone here was an Apprentice until they became a Hero."
"We're Trainees, at the moment," Whisper explained, threading past several others as they apparently returned to their rooms. "We stay Trainees until we reach 13, unless you turn out to be stupidly good at something." The dark skinned girl paused the gestured the the large map of Albion that the Guildmaster had been inspecting when Jack had been introduced to him the previous night. "This is the Map Room. If you're lucky you'll see a Hero come and take a Quest every now and then," she explained before continuing on. "At 13, you're an Apprentice, and that's when they start teaching us the good stuff," Whisper told him excitedly as they entered what had to be the mess hall, where she led him over to a bench that was covered by trays filled with assorted foods.
Grabbing their plates, the two piled them with food and took a seat at one of the long wooden benches that filled the large hall, still half full with other Trainees and the occasional Apprentice.
"What do you mean by good stuff?" Jack asked curiously as he began to devour his bacon and eggs, even as he looked around the hall in an attempt to take it all in.
"They don't really teach us any fighting until we're Apprentices," Whisper told him glumly as she practically inhaled a small mound of...something. "Raisins. Want some?" she offered, noting his gaze. She shrugged as he shook his head and focused on his own hot breakfast. "Until then, it's all focused on 'Improving your Strength, Skill and Will so that you may hone your body into an effective instrument'," Whisper stated pompously, obviously mocking someone.
Jack unsuccessfully tried to hold back a snigger at her tone. It was easy to distract himself from thinking about the events that had led him here, what with the hustle of Guild life and getting to know his new room-mate.
"How old are you, anyway?" Whisper asked idly after several moments of silent eating.
Swallowing a mouthful of juice, Jack replied, "eight summers last Avossuns Day," he named the day marking midway between spring equinox and summer solstice. "What about you?" he asked curiously.
"Eight summers this Skormdron's Eve," Whisper named the midway point between summer solstice and autumn equinox. "Guess for all your lack of height, you're half a year older than me," she mock sighed.
Jack glared at her, although the effect was ruined as a piece of egg escaped the side of his mouth. "Wait till I get my growth spurt, then we'll see who the short one is," he grumbled.
"If you say so, farmboy," Whisper teased as they finished their breakfasts. After a quick instruction to drop his utensils in the large wooden tub in the corner of the hall, she led him outside for his first view of the Guild training grounds.
Jack couldn't help but stare in slight awe at the sight before him. The Guild sat at the top of a hill that looked down over a large expanse of rolling fields interspersed with streams that stretched out to the edge of a vast forest. The grounds themselves were dotted with various types of training fields, some simple dirt rings where Apprentices sparred, archery ranges where Trainees were being taught to string a bow, and even small artificial islands in the middle of one of the numerous streams where two Heroes were putting on a magic exhibition in the form of a mock duel.
Then there were the more unusual training fields. Irrigation had been channelled into one dug out field, where two teams of Apprentices now skirmished in knee deep water, while in another a group of Trainees struggled to crawl through a mass of thick mud while staying under numerous wires strung above them. Jack could even make out a narrow raised platform that Trainees, Apprentices and Heroes alike were taking turns to run across while avoiding the heavy sandbags and wooden mock weapons that swung irregularly back and forth.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Whisper asked as she watched Jack's reaction to the extensive Guild training grounds. The boy could only nod in agreement. "By the way, you have a placement test with all the other Trainees that were accepted in the last month that starts..." Whisper glanced up at the large clock face that adorned the side of the Guild Tower, "...five minutes ago. It's at the training ground two bridges down. Better hurry, you don't want to keep the Guildmaster waiting any more than you already have."
Jack gaped at her for several long moments before taking off in the direction his 'guide' had indicated, pausing only to throw a glare over his shoulder at the laughing girl. There would be vengeance!
"Ah, young master Jack. So good of you to join us this morning."
Jack cringed at the mild greeting he received from the Guildmaster as he tried to slide unobtrusively into the group of Trainees that were listening attentively to whatever speech the old man had been giving before he arrived. He ducked his head as several other Trainees let out sounds of amusement at his plight.
"Now that we are all here, let me explain what you will be undertaking today. As all of you have arrived in the past month, you have not yet been assigned to a particular class in any of the disciplines we provide here at the Guild. Therefore, you shall each be undertaking placement tests to determine whether you will be placed in the beginning class with your fellows, or if you have adequate prior skill to be placed in an existing class."
The Guildmaster paused in his lengthy explanation to survey the twenty or so Trainees before him, They were all listening attentively, so he continued with his speech.
"We run the disciplines offered to each of you based on merit, so if you find yourself excelling in a given field you may be promoted above your age mates to learn with an older group," the old man explained, before his voice turned stern. "However, if you do not perform to the standards we expect of our potential Heroes, you will be dropped down to learn alongside younger Trainees until your performance picks up. If you fail to do so...you will be expelled from the Guild entirely. All of you before me today may go on to become renowned Heroes worthy of song and legend, or none of you."
There were several moments of low muttering amongst the Trainees as they digested this information. Jack resolved in that moment to prove that Maze's trust in him was correct, and be the best damn Hero the world had ever seen. He would show the old man who didn't think he looked much like Hero material just how wrong he was.
The Guildmaster masked a satisfied smile as he observed the group before him. In at least half of them, he could see that drive, the fire to succeed in their eyes that would enable them to thrive in the training they would be given in their time at the Guild. Of the ones who did not, some would go back to the lives they would have had if they had not been accepted into the Guild, while others would go on to become Guardsmen across Albion.
There was one child that attracted his attention most of all, however. Standing at the back of the group, one of the shortest of the bunch, was the dark haired boy that Maze had brought in the previous night. In his eyes the drive to succeed was a veritable inferno, and he already found himself expecting great things from the child.
None of these thoughts showed themselves on the old Hero's face as he gave his next instructions. "Proceed onto the training field, and line up next to the target dummies. When you are ready, I shall administer the first test of the day..."
Jack collapsed onto his bed at the end of a day of torture. It was now late evening, and he and the other Trainees had been given barely a moments rest through the day.
The day had begun with a measure of their strength, obtained by having each of the 24 Trainees beat up a straw mannequin first with their fists, then with a shaft of wood that they had been issued with under the watchful eyes of the Guildmaster and several other instructors. They had then been taken on a 'short jog'-around the entirety of the Trainee accessibly training grounds—before being led inside for a short break and lunch, before being herded into a classroom where they were separated into smaller groups where they were asked all manner of questions and tested on a variety of subjects, ranging from basic maths and writing, to more complicated topics such as history and geography.
Some topics, such as writing, the majority of the Trainees knew enough to get by in, while others, like geography, only the more educated children from well off families were aware of. These knowledge tests had taken up the rest of the afternoon, and Jack thought he had done fairly well all of them, especially after the instructors had assured some of the more worried children that the Guild assumed that Trainees had no prior knowledge in each of the subjects offered, and that testing out into higher classes was the exception rather than the norm. He was now rather grateful for all the time his mother had taken to teach him and his sister all she had, despite his vocal complaints at the time, although he tried not to dwell on that.
The most memorable part of the day had come near the very end, when the Trainees had been led through an unassuming doorway, descended a number of steep winding passages before crossing a dark, empty chasm and been ushered into the titanic Chamber of Fate, an enormous natural cavern filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and strangely coloured crystal formations, at the centre of which a large, shallow arena had been chiselled out of the stone floor, capable of holding the nigh on thousand members of the Guild, from the lowliest Trainee to the greatest Hero. There, the Guildmaster had recited the mythos behind the Guild of Heroes, the discipline and honour they worked to instil in their Trainees, and the driving force behind the Guild itself—Choice.
The final words that the Guildmaster had spoken to them that day, while the young Heroes-to-be were awed by the sheer scale of the structure hidden away beneath the Guild, still echoed in Jack's mind as he drifted off to sleep that night.
"Blood has been shed and suffering endured, so that you who would become Heroes have the power to Choose your own path. But know this, young Heroes: in time it will be blood of your own that is needed to sustain the freedom of Choice, and you the ones that must endure the suffering."
"It is against that day that we guide you all."
In the months that followed, Jack proved himself to be a sharp and dedicated Trainee, pushing past his age mates and gaining entry to classes held for those two years his senior. The field of Trainees was much thinner there than compared to his entry level class—Whisper informed him that sometimes, as many as half the class left the Guild within the first month, unable to keep up with the high standards expected of its members.
He was not the only Trainee to rise through the placements, finding a familiar face in Whisper. While the dark skinned girl took great delight in reminding him of his lack of height and farm boy status at every chance, Jack retaliated with long winded lectures about how a city girl like her wouldn't have lasted a week on a farm. Soon, the pair of them could be reliably found poring over a book as they worked on their assignments together, or challenging each other in a race to complete the daily physical exercises.
Guild life settled into a comfortable routine. With the fortune of sharing a room with a fellow classmate, Jack and Whisper found themselves able to work off each other as they pushed themselves to keep up with their older peers, some of whom did not take kindly to the little kids who were supposedly their equals. Rising early in the morning, they would undertake the physical conditioning that their instructors put them through to prepare their bodies for their Apprenticeship, before moving on to the drills that they still performed with the wooden sticks that they had been issued on their first day at the Guild.
After a day full of physical activity, the Trainees would be granted several hours break to work on their own pursuits or just generally calm down after a full day, before making their way to one of the many comfortable classrooms within the Guild. There, they would learn of all they could about the outside world, from the creatures that roamed it to those who ruled it.
They were also taught about those who had come before them, the Heroes so legendary that children grew up knowing their names. This was not done as a way to promote the importance of the Guild, but rather as a way of helping young Heroes survive. One of the greatest causes of death amongst young Heroes was death at the hands of another, more experienced Hero when they found themselves on opposing sides of a Quest, or when a young Hero somehow offended an older one. There were even occasions of older Heroes hunting younger ones for the challenge of it, although cases like these often found themselves the victims in turn of a larger group of those who would be their prey.
The Guild was doing its best to weed out those who thought the life of a Hero to be an easy, glamorous existence, and leave only those who could survive what the world would throw at them. They were succeeding.
At that particular point in time however, the Trainees of Jack and Whisper's class were gathered in one of the many clearings that dotted the Guild woods, waiting for their instructor with barely contained excitement. Today, they were going to learn about the most fabled of Hero abilities—Will.
Quiet conversations were taking place all over the clearing, the Trainees speculating on what the lesson would involve, and who their instructor would be. Details on what they were to learn were left intentionally vague by the more senior Guild members, leading to nearly anxious levels of anticipation.
"What do you know about this?" Jack asked his friend and rival, slightly nervous about the lesson to come. He knew for a fact that every Hero was capable of exercising their Will, and he'd found himself having several nightmares over an inability to perform the simplest of magic.
"About the same amount as you," Whisper replied, eyeing the rest of the assembled Trainees in the clearing.
The pair of them stood off to the side of the clearing, away from the main group of children. While there were none who were openly antagonistic towards the pair, their classmates had made it clear that they did not particularly appreciate having two younger peers skip right over two years of training that they had all been required to take.
"Don't give me that. Your brother must've told you something," Jack grumbled, idly fingering the hem of the plain Trainee shirt he wore. Whisper had told him about her famous brother, the Arena legend Thunder, several months ago, and they had both benefited from numerous small bits of advice the man had passed on to his sister.
"He didn't! The most I've ever gotten out of him is that belief and gut instinct has a lot to do with it," Whisper protested irritably. "And believe me, I've made a nuisance of myself asking about it too."
"Yeah, I can picture that easily," Jack snickered.
Whisper made to drive an elbow into her annoying companion's ribs and make a suitably witty reply, when a hush fell over the clearing. Looking over to the pathway that led back to the Guild, the pair's eyes widened.
What could only be described as a desiccated corpse was approaching steadily, with a sense of power far beyond what his appearance portrayed worn about him like a cloak. He wore a blue robe with gold mail woven into it with a single sleeve running down his left arm, while a bright gold pauldron adorned his right shoulder. A golden gauntlet covered his right hand, while a blue bolt of cloth wrapped around his head to cover his nose and forehead, leaving the shrivelled skin around his eyes and jaw bare. A ruff of white fur ran about the collar and bottom hem of his robe. His weapon, a vicious looking scythe, was secured across his back, made of plain appearing wood while the blade was forged from the same magnificent gold metal that made up his armour and decorated with arcane runes that matched those tattooed on the dry, shrunken skin of his right arm.
"Fuck," Whisper breathed quietly, greatly startling Jack with her uncharacteristic swearing. "That—that's Scythe!"
"Scythe?" Jack questioned quietly, grimacing at his ignorance. Scythe was not a name that he had come across before.
"The Guild doesn't cover him because he never interferes with other Heroes and spends most of his time outside of Albion," Whisper explained, a hint of awe colouring her tone. "It's said that he's almost as old as Jack of Blades, if not more powerful!"
"Why the hell is he teaching a class of Trainees then?" Jack asked as Scythe arrived at the clearing, before the legend's eyes swept over the group watching him in various degrees of shock, fear and awe. For the briefest of moments, it seemed that the Hero's gaze lingered on him, before it continued on and Jack was sure he had imagined it.
"He has done it once before that Thunder told me, but that was over two decades ago," Whisper murmured her reply. "Maybe he just gets bored once in a while?"
Further speculation was cut off as a deeper voice than they would expect issued forth from the living corpse. "I am Scythe," he introduced himself evenly, "and I am here to introduce you to the wonders of the Will."
The Trainees, Jack and Whisper included, gathered around their instructor at a respectful (or perhaps fearful) distance, their attention hanging off his every word.
"Exercising your Will for the first time is both simple and extremely difficult. Learning to call upon your Will whenever you wish is a process that will take years of dedication, and some will never master the ability to any reasonable degree at all."
Many of the Trainees seemed discouraged at this information, yet Scythe pressed on, uncaring of their reactions.
"Regardless of personal limitation, I will see each of you unlock the potential of your Will this day," Scythe stated somewhat ominously, his words coming off as a mix between promise and threat. He raised his uncovered hand high, revealing bony, spindly fingers. Jack saw his dark eyes shine with an inner light, before he clenched his fist and a jaw rattling pulse of energy passed through the clearing.
Startled exclamations issued from many of the Trainees and several backed away at the sudden sensation that lingered within them for a long moment, even after the pulse was gone. Some of their classmates clutched at their heads, while others rubbed at muscle tics and cramps. Whisper shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot as she shook out her hands with her eyes closed, while Jack merely stared at his hands as he flexed his fingers, his entire body tingling. He felt alive.
"Absorb this feeling," Scythe interrupted their reactions. "That is the feeling of my Will echoing through you. To unlock your potential, you will need to exercise a Will of your own in its place." His once again dark eyes swept the group, coming to rest on Jack. "Do not concern yourselves with the discomfort of the prior sensation. This is merely the result of a foreign Will within your system. When you succeed in unlocking your Will, it will feel much more natural...and powerful," Scythe continued on, his gaze leaving Jack. "You will find the meditation techniques you have been taught useful in this endeavour. I will be monitoring you as you proceed. Begin."
Jack turned the curious exchange over in his head as he made his way over to a nearby tree, sitting down and leaning against it. He certainly hadn't endured the same discomfort the other Trainee's had if their reactions had been anything to go by. On the contrary, he couldn't recall ever feeling so energised.
The young Trainee began to regulate his breathing, pacing himself to a count of seven. If his own Will was supposed to be even better than that, he wasn't going to waste another minute.
More than an hour later, and Jack was staring at his hands with an expression of purest loathing. He could feel the pressure building inside him, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't bring it forth.
While he wasn't the only Trainee struggling, he was the only one who had yet to gain any reaction at all. Just half an hour into the exercise, Whisper had given a startled shout as her hand burst into flame, gaining the attention of everyone in the clearing. The conjured flame had licked harmlessly at her fingers under her astonished gaze, before catching on the sleeve of her shirt.
Whisper, suddenly less enamoured in her success, had danced somewhat humorously on the spot before managing to smother the burning material and looking about sheepishly. The slight burns on her arm had led to the second incident of Will expression, when a fellow Trainee had spontaneously healed the shiny red marks.
Scythe had given her the curt direction of, "control. Learn it," before turning to the second Trainee who had begun to sway dangerously on his feet. "Rest," he ordered. "Do not attempt to heal another until you have sufficiently developed your Will."
Spurred on by the success of their fellows, every member of the group managed to manifest their Will in some way, some with more success than others—except for Jack. While his peers attempted to recreate their various successes—fire, frost, healing, increased strength—he was still struggling to express the power he could feel rising within himself.
Whisper glanced at her friend in concern. While they had always been able to keep pace with their older peers with ease, Will was something that developed with age, and she couldn't help but worry that perhaps Jack just couldn't access it yet.
The feeling of his rising Will was starting to become physically painful to Jack as he struggled with it. His arms were covered in a sharp, exaggerated sensation of pins and needles and it was only getting worse. His fingers began to twitch as pain lanced through his joints and tendons.
"Do not neglect to give your Will a form to express itself," Scythe's deep voice interrupted Jack's focus, causing him to look up at the ancient Hero where he stood some distance away at the other end of the clearing. "Will without intent is useless," the same deep voice whispered inches from his ear.
A jolt of adrenaline roared through his system at the sudden presence behind him, despite having his back to a tree. The sharp build up of Will within his arms broke like a collapsing dam, sending power flowing through his body. His alarm at the presence behind him transmitted itself to his Will, and then he moved.
The world turned into a blur as he was propelled forward from his sitting position. The young Trainee didn't even have time to blink as he found himself on his feet and about to collide with a small group of his fellows—except he didn't. His body turned insubstantial, passing through all obstacles in a rush before he came to a jarring stop, finding himself staring at the back of his instructor. The skeletal man turned in a blur, almost too fast to see, and Jack found himself moving at insane speeds before he could consciously process his desire to be elsewhere.
Barely a second later he was at Whisper's side. His legs threatened to give out, and would have if Jack hadn't caught himself by leaning into his friend at the last moment. Whisper put an arm around his shoulders, helping the younger boy remain on his feet as whispers broke out among their classmates.
"A most impressive display for a Trainee," Scythe announced to his charges, casting an eye to the now orange afternoon light filtering through the forest canopy. "I feel we have achieved all that we will today." His gaze roamed around the clearing, once again seeming to linger on Jack for the barest of moments. "You have done well," he intoned. Without further comment, he placed a hand into one of the pouches he wore at his waist, before a piping whistle echoed through the clearing and he winked out of existence.
Jack felt a rising sense of pride in himself as his vision began to go dark. He remained conscious just long enough to take note of the Trainee who had unintentionally healed Whisper's arm earlier take a hold of his other side, before passing out just as he and Whisper began to lead him back down the path to the Guild.
Yes. This was a good day.
Whisper batted the scrunched up ball of paper out of the air as it flew towards her without glancing away from her work. A second, and then a third projectile met with similar fates before the girl slowly looked towards her antagonists, sending the pair of boys a heavy glare through bloodshot eyes.
"Jack, Duran," Whisper started sweetly, before her tone went flat. "If you do not stop distracting me from the very important study I am doing for the Apprentice exams we are all taking tomorrow, I will rip off your hands and use your blood to refill my inkwell."
"Come on Wisp," Jack attempted to coax. "It's time for a break."
"I'll have time for a break after our exams," Whisper snapped back at her friend of three years.
"You're doing yourself more harm than good," Duran, a pale, white haired boy with dreadlocks from the north eastern mountains and a knack for healing told her frankly. They had become friends after they first learned to unlock their Will and the older boy had helped Whisper carry an unconscious Jack back to the Guild. "When I was your age I wasn't doing half as much study as you have been."
"Maybe that's why you weren't taking the Apprentice exam two years early," the dark girl replied waspishly.
"Ouch," a newcomer approaching the table cut in before an argument could start. "What has Whisper all worked up like bait in her trousers?" the girl asked as she turned an empty chair around to rest her chin on the back. Her skin was tanned but fading, and she wore her straggly brown hair in a long ponytail.
"She's terrified that she'll fail the Apprentice exam and be forced to remain a Trainee for the rest of her life," Jack answered seriously, cutting across what he knew would have been a denial from Whisper.
"I am not terrified," Whisper glared at Jack, "I just don't fancy spending an extra year here that could be spent productively out in the real world, farmboy."
"I haven't seen the boys since workout this morning, and that was six hours ago. And I haven't seen you at all today Whisper," the newcomer told her plainly. "Which means you've been cooped up in here all day."
"So we're going outside. Now. Fresh air, sunlight and white fluffy bunnies."
Without giving their friend another chance to protest, the three Trainees grabbed the fourth and began to drag her through the Guild towards the outside world, leaving the piles of books on the table behind them.
"Damn it Klessan," Whisper complained. "They would have left me alone if you hadn't interfered."
"Don't blame me cause your threats don't frighten me none," the tanned girl, Klessan, shrugged.
Whisper scowled at the reminder. While she could normally threaten Jack and Duran into doing small things for her, Klessan had always been immune. Leadership of their little group seemed to sway from Whisper to Klessan, and had done so from the day they had become friendly rivals. Hailing from a small fishing village on the coast, Klessan had completed their group shortly after Duran had joined, the mountain clansman's son being her only other close friend at the Guild.
"If I fail the exams tomorrow," Whisper assured them slowly, "there will be pain."
"Let's hit up the lake," Duran suggested, perking up at the idea and completely ignoring Whisper.
"Sounds like fun," Jack agreed with a glance at his sometimes volatile friend, who seemed to be warming to the idea against her desire to study despite herself.
"Let's go then," Klessan declared, still leading Whisper by the arm. "Mayhap we'll be able to relax a bit after studying so hard today," she finished airily.
"Fine," Whisper groused as she shook her arm loose. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt."
"Awesome," Jack stated happily as they passed through the Guild courtyard. "Last one there-"
"I'm afraid," a stern voice interrupted, "you won't have the chance to partake in the challenge you were undoubtedly about to issue." Looking over to the covered walkway that stretched around the courtyard, the four children took in the sight of Maze, the Guild leader himself, partially cloaked in shadow as he leaned against the wall.
"Sir?" Jack inquired nervously. Maze had rarely spoken to him since the night he had brought him to the Guild.
"Come see me in my office," the guild head directed. "You friends may continue on their excursion to the lake."
Without further instruction, the image of the elder mage began to blur and distort, before it returned to the shadow it really was. The four friends looked each other over for a moment.
"That's not weird or anything..." Klessan trailed off.
"You haven't gotten into another fight, have you?" Whisper asked suspiciously.
"We would have heard if he had," Duran shook his head as he answered in Jack's place. "If you can't make it to the lake, we'll see you at dinner, yeah?"
"Sure," Jack shrugged, still puzzling over Maze's invitation and ignoring Whisper's baseless, completely untrue accusation. "I don't know what this is about though."
"Guess you'll find out," Duran nodded to him as he, Klessan and Whisper began to move away.
"I'll be wanting a full report about all this!" Klessan called before they passed around the corner of the courtyard and out of sight, her unnaturally high curiosity demanding no less.
"Yeah, yeah," Jack grumbled to himself. He looked up at Maze's tower, where he could just make out the shape of a figure watching from the highest window. This was a curious occurrence.
"Come in," Maze instructed without turning to face Jack, engrossed with a large book that rested upon a pedestal before the window. Hesitantly, the Trainee did so, entering the office of one of the most powerful Heroes produced by the Guild in recent memory.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Jack asked, looking around. The office of the Guild Head was a multi story affair in the top half of the great tower that watched over the Guild, richly appointed with polished wood and dark rugs. Tall bookcases lined the walls, and a ladder poked out of the top of a trapdoor across the room that led to the lower levels of the office complex. In order to reach the lower levels of the rooms you first had to climb the circling staircase to the top of the tower, an ordeal that would have left most of those without Guild training extremely short of breath.
"Yes," Maze replied, turning away from his book to look at the young Trainee. "I've recently returned from the last of a series of rather time consuming Quests and had an enlightening conversation with an old acquaintance, a Hero named Scythe. You know of him?" he threw out at the end.
"Yes sir," Jack responded, trying to keep his eyes from darting about at the esoteric devices dotting the tables and strange paintings on the walls. "He covered our Will induction several weeks ago."
"I know. That was the main topic of our conversation," the old mage informed him as he approached from across the room. "I hear that you displayed a remarkable amount of natural talent in your first expression of Will. Have you progressed any further since then?" he questioned.
"Trainees aren't permitted to train the Will until we become Apprentices and have proper supervision sir," Jack answered neutrally, keeping his face bland.
"That isn't what I asked, Trainee," Maze rebuked, taking up a crystal pitcher filled with some sort of brown liquid. He wordlessly offered some to Jack, who accepted readily, his mouth suddenly dry.
Accepting the glass cup from Maze (actual glass! As a cup!) Jack took a small sip that turned into a larger swill at the taste.
"Some sort of fruit juice, from the southern islands," Maze explained easily, although his sharp eyes never left Jack's face.
"I have been practising on my own a bit," Jack confessed after several long moments of silent interrogation. "But always on my own, and my friends don't know about it."
That was a lie. Whisper had guessed the first time he returned to bed exhausted after a 'night time stroll' around the grounds, before demanding to be let in on it, if only so she could drag his 'fool of a farmboy body' to the infirmary when he messed up, as she was sure he would. Her Hero brother had regaled her with enough stories of Will training gone wrong for her to want to attempt it on her own, but Jack's continued success seemed to be weakening her resolve. If the opportunity to become an Apprentice wasn't so close in their future, Jack was sure she would have given in and joined his practices by now.
"I see," Maze replied at length, breaking Jack from his reverie. "Have you met with success?"
"Sir?" Jack asked, somewhat surprised by the lack of reprimand.
"Have you been able to expand the abilities of your Will?" the tattooed man asked impatiently.
"Er, yes sir," Jacked stumbled over his reply. "I've been able to move a bit faster over a longer distance, and I'm nowhere near as tired after just one try," he explained, before realising he should probably start at the beginning. "I mean, I'm able to rush-"
"Yes, Scythe described what it is you were able to do," Maze returned with a raised eyebrow. "Rushing forward some distance while becoming insubstantial and passing through obstacles blocking your path—not only that, but appearing at their back, ready to strike? Quite the Assassin's move there, young Jack," Maze remarked, a hint of calculation in his eyes.
Jack grinned at the compliment, happy at having his accomplishment praised by a master of Will.
"Have you managed anything more?" Maze questioned, sipping from his glass.
Jack's grin turned a bit sheepish as he scratched the back of his head. "Well, I electrocuted myself pretty badly once, and scorched the tree I was sitting against..." he trailed off at a chuckle from Maze.
"I would have been greatly surprised if you managed to make such progress without any mishaps whatsoever," Maze explained at Jack's questioning look. "But regardless, I am most impressed. The vast majority of Guild members do not achieve a working Will ability until midway through their Apprentice training, yet here you are about to take your Apprentice exam, two years early at that, and already you have one manageable ability with what sounds like another on the way."
This time Jack wasn't able to hold back a slight blush at the praise. It was extremely rare for a Trainee to gain the praise of an actual Hero and here he was being complimented by the head of the Guild himself! "Thank you sir," Jack answered, remembering his manners.
Maze waved his response off, "it appears you will excel in your Will training, should you gain Apprenticeship with with Guild."
Jack grimaced at the reminder of the upcoming exams. His friends constant worrying about it wasn't helping his own anxiety.
"Until then, the only help I can give you is to pass on the most invaluable piece of advice I ever received in the course of my own studies," Maze continued, fixing Jack with a gimlet eye. "'There is but one barrier holding back your Will, and that barrier is Will itself. Understand this, and you will be capable of great, terrible and wondrous things'," the silver haired man quoted.
Jack nodded once, absorbing and memorising the Guild leader's words.
"Away with you," Maze gestured towards the tower stairs, seeing that his words had been heeded. "I have business to conduct, and I'm sure you wish to join your friends."
The young Trainee nodded at Maze's words and turned to leave, but hesitated as he reached the stairs. His curiosity was roused. "Sir, who said that to you?" he ventured.
The arch mage stared at him impassively for a long moment before answering. "A being whose origins are lost to time. For now, you are better off knowing no more."
At the ominous reply, Jack scraped a hasty bow and wasted no time in leaving the tower. He took a deep breath once he was out in the fresh air and sunshine of the outdoors once more. His talk with Maze had given him a great deal to think about, but that pondering would have to wait. He would have plenty of time to research age-old beings once he had passed the Apprenticeship exam.
Jack felt like dancing. Dancing in his awesome shiny new Apprentice robes. At his left his friends, Duran and Klessan were comparing their experiences in the exams, while Whisper leaned against a tree to his right with an air that suggested that she hadn't been concerned about the rigorous testing in the slightest.
Seven of the fifty Trainees who had taken the exam had failed, two of whom were expelled from the Guild having failed the exam once before.
News that two of their year mates had already been escorted from the Guild grounds wouldn't have fazed the newly minted Apprentices even if they hadn't been on an emotional high from their success. While the Guild strictly forbade sabotage between Trainees and Apprentices, it encouraged an extremely competitive attitude between its members by providing rewards for exemplary skill. If anything, the new Apprentices were pleased by the departure of potential competition.
"What happens now?" Jack asked over the chatter of the other Apprentices in the tree covered clearing.
"I keep forgetting you jumped two years," Duran remarked idly, turning from his conversation with Klessan.
"I wasn't the only one," Jack pointed out.
"Whisper don't go asking questions that everyone else knows though," Klessan jumped in helpfully. "And she has her brother."
Jack shrugged and waited for a response to his question.
"We're to be split based on our scores," Duran answered as if Klessan had never spoke in the first place.
"Totally different classes?" Jack questioned.
"Nah," Duran yawned. "Just focus groups, for the main disciplines anyway. Don't know bout the other subjects."
"Don't worry, farmboy," Whisper began in a 'reassuring' voice. "I'm amazing at everything, so you're bound to have me in at least one of your classes." Her expression turned sly, "unless you didn't manage to score a merit on anything in your exam," she teased.
Jack's witty and scorching retort was cut off before he could think of it by the arrival of several Heroes who served as Guild trainers, headed by the Guildmaster himself.
"Congratulations...Apprentices," the Guildmaster said by way of greeting. "If you will remain in place, an Instructor will come to you with your examination critiques and your merit tokens, should you be skilled enough to have earned one. Kindly keep an eye on these tokens, as they are rather valuable. If you happen to lose or misplace yours, you will find yourself unable to gain access to the offered focus classes," the venerable old man warned, before gesturing to the men and women at his sides.
As the Instructors began to move about the clearing, Jack shifted from foot to foot impatiently. When a small brown bag was finally handed to him, he wasted no time in scrabbling amongst it for the small wooden tokens he knew had to be in there. From the corner of his eye he spied Whisper pull out a red token for Strength and a yellow one for Skill, while Duran held a red and Klessan a yellow.
After several agonising moments of anxiety, he grasped a length of twine and suppressed a relieved sigh. Retrieving it from the bag, he grinned at the sight of the red and blue tokens hanging from it. Now their training would truly begin.
A lone candle burned brightly, illuminating the parchment strewn table it sat upon. A lone figure sat hunched over the same table, his eyes straining to make out the faded words on the book he was poring over. The candle began to stutter and lose its strength, earning an irritated scowl from the boy using it. He made a flicking motion in its direction, causing it to flare blue and give out a steadier light, before turning back to his studies.
"It's nearly sunrise," a female voice remarked from a shadowed corner of the room.
The teen at the table tensed at the unexpected intrusion for a split second, before recognising the familiar presence. "'lo, Whisper," he greeted, rubbing at his eyes.
"You'll be exhausted for the rankings tomorrow," Whisper pointed out coolly, emerging from the shadowed corner. "Jack, you know that Dace is just waiting for an opportunity to humiliate you in from of the Instructors. You should steal a few hours sleep while you still can."
"That'd leave me even worse off," Jack shook his head, running a hand through unkempt brown hair. "I'll just Quicken myself for the tests."
Whisper gave an exasperated sigh, pacing forward and taking a seat on the edge of the table. "And pay the price for it when?"
"Come the weekend," Jack shrugged. "We'll have it off after the rankings, so I'll just sleep through it."
Whisper shook her head at the boy who had become her closest friend. When the farmboy set his mind to discovering some obscure fact or perfecting a new expression of Will, there was little that could distract him, least of all his own health. "Did you at least find what you holed yourself up in here for?"
"I think so," the boy replied, blinking slowly. "I'll know for sure after I test it out."
"Come on," Whisper stated, standing as she announced her decision. "Let's see if we can steal some bread from the kitchens and head out to the Guild Woods. You won't be worth anything later if you don't take a break now."
"Alright," Jack agreed, fighting down a yawn of tiredness now that he was no longer focusing on study. He stretched as he stood, working out the kinks in his back, before following his friend out of the room. He held back a smirk as he looked down on her. His growth spurt had finally delivered, and put an end to all of the short jokes at his expense.
After a quick detour through the Guild kitchens, they were making their way through the training grounds, empty save for a few Apprentices going through their morning routines and a squad on punishment detail. Illuminated by the light of the false dawn, there was a faint mist covering the grounds, leaving an atmosphere that made those present speak in hushed tones.
Jack and Whisper navigated their way through the woods with the skill of practised ease, heading for a small clearing by a river that they had staked their claim to alongside Duran and Klessan. As they walked, Jack checked the short iron blade that was slung casually across his back. Travelling with your weapon was a habit drilled constantly into the heads of Guild Apprentices to the point that it became first nature and they felt naked without one. For her part, Whisper carried a number of small combustible devices she called 'blast globes' that lit up whichever unfortunate managed to be hit by one, weapons she herself had devised after getting the basic idea from her brother.
Arriving at their destination, Jack slumped to the ground in the centre of the clearing and tore hungrily into a piece of still warm bread, only bothering with the fruit spread they'd brought once his initial hunger had been sated. Whisper stretched out like a cat before making herself comfortable leaning her back against his and deftly stealing the portion of bread he had just spread jam over. He scowled before retrieving another piece of bread for himself. The pair of them were silent for several long minutes, taking their time with the small breakfast.
Jack was the first to break the silence. "Looking forward to the final testing?" he ventured.
The question seemed to light a fire within Whisper. "Yes! Three months and we'll be true Heroes."
"We've got to pass the final exam first," Jack reminded her, rubbing at the stubble on his cheeks.
"Please," Whisper scoffed. "Like there's any chance we won't. There's a reason we're going to be the youngest graduates this decade. Well, I have you beaten by six months, but who's counting?" she teased.
Jack snorted and elbowed his confident friend in the ribs none too softly. "Don't be too overconfident now," he warned.
"I think I have every right to be confident," Whisper asserted, shifting her position against him slightly. "You don't get to be the fourth ranked by being a lazy farmboy."
"We'll see who holds the higher rank after today," Jack replied airily. "Silly little city girls should know better than-"
The Apprentice cut himself off abruptly as he heard rough movements coming from the underbrush across the stream. No Apprentice worth their salt would move so clumsily, and the woods were out of bounds to the Trainees. Swiftly, the two teens gathered the sack their food had been in and moved out of sight, Whisper leaping directly up into a tree while Jack concealed himself under a tangle of bushes at the waters edge. After several tense moments, the approaching group came into sight.
Jack frowned heavily at the sight of the five bandits that were apparently following the steam, heading towards the Guild. He could remember little of the night his hometown had been sacked and his family murdered, but he knew it was the work of bandits. These man would have fit in easily amongst the few he could recall. He closed his eyes and listened as their conversation floated across the stream.
"...don't you be wasting time 'ere either! We get in, get out, and tha's that," the apparent leader of the bandits was growling at the others.
"We were supposed to be there 'ours ago," another bandit complained. "Won't get there till lunch time at this rate."
"Shut yer gob, will ye?" a third demanded plaintively. "I don't fancy runnin' into any of those Heroes, ey."
"Awww, scared of the big bad Heroes are we? I never heard naught but tales of what these Heroes are supposed to be able tah do," another bandit mocked.
"Fuck up, all of ye," the leader spat as they ground to a halt across the steam from Jack's hiding place. "Pull up here a moment, an' less go over the plan one last time," he ordered, waiting until he was sure he had his men's attention before continuing. "We spread out along the edge of the forest once we reach the Guild, makin' damned sure we're properly hidden. The point of all this is to find ourselves a couple the young uns that we can take for ourselves and train up as our own, so no hurtin' the little blighters too badly."
"Why come all this way just for a couple of tykes?" the bandit who had complained earlier whined again. "Woulda been easier just tah grab a few kids from outside Bowerstone."
"Because these kids have been hand picked by the Guild to become Heroes," the leader snapped back. "Now put a sock in it afore I put my fist in it."
Tuning out the bickering between the bandits, Jack glanced upwards to the tree he knew Whisper was concealed in. He could barely make out her form where she had molded herself against a tree limb. She made several gestures, before pointing at the bandits across the stream. Jack shook his head and made several gestures in reply, receiving a nod from the girl.
The bandits were still arguing with each other when a clay globe about the size of a fist sailed through the air to land between two of their number who had been about to come to blows. They stared at it dumbly for several seconds, before the fuse that burned on it ran out.
A sharp crack broke the morning silence, and send several flocks of nearby birds scrambling for flight, as the screams of the bandits that had been peppered with numerous shards of clay were drowned out by the two who had been unfortunate enough to have the blast globe explode at their feet and cover them with some burning liquid.
Jack rose from his hiding place, lightning crackling between his fingers. With a thought, he was propelled across the water, spraying a wake in the shallow stream behind him. He grasped two of the three remaining bandits by the neck and tried to ignore the burned smell of flesh as they were cooked by the current, their screams cut off as their voice boxes were fried.
The last remaining bandit, the leader, drew a wicked blade from across his back and charged Jack with a bellow. The Apprentice rolled out of the way of the attack, bringing his own short blade to bear. He was able to fend off the heavy over handed blows of the larger blade by keeping his distance, but was unable to retaliate. The bandit leader sneered at him.
"Blown yer load already? I'm gonna enjoy gutting you, ye little sack of shit," the bandit taunted, before charging him with a roar.
Jack froze briefly as he thought back to the night he had been orphaned, and the bandit that had charged him as he knelt at his father's corpse, and then his foe was upon him, a victorious snarl on his face. The cleaver swept down to separate his head from his torso, only to pass through air. Jack smirked at the stupefied expression on the bandit's face as he swept through him, his form insubstantial, before reforming behind his victim. He reversed his grip on his blade, thrusting it behind him and into the lower back of his opponent. With a vicious tear, he pulled the blade out—through the side of the man's torso, ripping through muscle and tendon.
It was with a detached gaze that Jack surveyed the carnage he and Whisper had wreaked upon the bandits in less than a minute. The screams of the two men who had been hit by the blast globe had subsided into agonised moans and whimpers. The scent of cooked flesh was heavy in the clearing, although he found it hard to pay attention to small things like that.
Whisper dropped out of one of the trees, having used the treetops to cross the stream, and used a small knife to put the survivors out of their misery. Her hands shook as she did so, resulting in a jagged tear across one man's throat rather than a clean cut. Jack doubted the man was coherent enough to notice it.
"W-we should alert the Guildmaster," Whisper spoke up, looking shaken but trying to hide it.
"Yeah," Jack replied absently. He sat down hard, heedless of the blood on the clearing floor.
"Jack?" Whisper questioned hesitantly.
"Yeah, Wisp," he replied with a name he hadn't used in four years, since they were Trainees. "Just give me a minute."
The Guildmaster surveyed the two promising Apprentices over his desk, taking note of the bloodstains on young Jack's clothing. He listened patiently as they concluded their report.
"I see," the old Hero said at length. "And you're sure there were no other bandits present?"
Jack and Whisper exchanged a glance before nodding surely.
"Ah," the Guildmaster accepted. "Excellent work. You have done your trainers proud."
Whatever the teens had been expecting, that wasn't it.
"Sir?" Whisper questioned.
"You weren't waiting for a scolding, were you?" he asked in amusement. "You protected the Guild, as expected of a proper Apprentice. You have also taken your first lives a bit ahead of your peers, but you seem to be handling it remarkably well. Life as a Hero can be quite difficult if you find yourself reluctant to take a life."
"Not exactly how I expected to start the day," Whisper joked self consciously, rubbing the back of her head.
"Least you got some sleep," Jack retorted. "I'm still on yesterday."
"I can't imagine whose fault that is, farmboy," Whisper shot back, seemingly unmindful of the amused face of Guildmaster following their exchange.
"Certainly not mine," Jack proclaimed.
Whisper snorted and made to respond, but was cut off by the Guildmaster.
"Despite your heroics this morning, you are still required to attend the scheduled rankings later today," he interrupted mildly. "I believe they start in half an hour?"
Whisper ducked her head and Jack flushed at being called out by the Guildmaster, before they rose and gave a short bow each. "Guildmaster," they intoned, after which they were dismissed with a quick nod.
The Guildmaster, Weaver, chuckled as they left the room. He hadn't enjoyed the antics of his students so much since Thunder and Scarlet Robe had been young Apprentices.
Klessan was laid out on her back, clutching at her sides, laughing at something Whisper had said to Duran while the mountain man (for he was a man of nearly 18 summers now) waved his hammer about in an exaggerated fashion as he strode back and forth, doing his utmost to keep a serious expression on his face and failing miserably. Jack, sprawled against a large oak next to Whisper, threw an apple core at the older boy, prompting him to him to turn on him with an affronted expression, eyebrows waggling furiously. The expression succeeded in breaking the two younger members of the group out of the strange mood they had been in for most of the morning, setting them to chuckling, as the four friends relaxed in the middle of the training grounds set aside for rankings.
"This wait is killing me," Klessan grumbled, looking over to a field where a small number of Apprentices were sparring under the watchful eyes of two Instructors.
"So you've said," Whisper replied dryly, "numerous times."
"Oh, like you don't want to get your turn out of the way too," Klessan waved her comment away. "We should have gotten to go first."
"Maybe," Duran agreed, the dread locked man leaning onto his hammer like a cane, "but then the Instructors wouldn't be able to enjoy your suffering."
"You say that like you don't believe it," Klessan shot back, flipping a lock of unruly brown hair that had escaped its tie out of her eyes. "You believe it, don't you Jack?" she asked, turning a beseeching gaze upon the younger boy.
The attention jerked Jack from the slight doze he'd slipped into. "I guess it's possible," he allowed. Seeing Klessan brighten at his apparent support, he prepared to continue with the gentle mocking of his friend, before an unwelcome chill rasped its way down his spine. He shuddered heavily, jerking into full wakefulness.
Whisper frowned, noting his reaction. "Farmboy, what-"
A dull roar blasted through the morning quiet, a pillar of black smoke rising from a point along the Guild wall to pollute the blue sky. Klessan gasped at the sight, while Duran's hammer found its way into his grip. Jack and Whisper shared a startled glance. Had they been wrong when they told the Guildmaster they had dealt with all the of bandits?
The Guild bell began to toll, calling all of its junior members back into the safety of the main complex. Trainees and Apprentices alike began to stream away from the fields, a few Instructors accompanying them, while the rest grouped together and moved for the now partially visible hole in the Guild wall. They moved with grim purpose as figures became visible in the smoke that still obscured part of the wall, forcefully reminding the younger Guild members watching that their Instructors were in fact Heroes who were well deserving of the title. As they moved into the smoke, Jack and his friends watched as the first invading figures were cut down without mercy—before another explosion, much smaller than the first, erupted within the ranks of the Instructors, hurling most back into the Guild grounds and undoubtedly killing some outright. An object the size of a fist was hurled from the smoke, aimed at Jack and his friends who had not yet moved for the safety of the Guild proper.
"Blast globe!" Whisper shouted in warning, already springing out of the way.
Time slowed and Jack's eyes tracked the small object as it flew through the air towards the group. He could feel the heat of the burning wick as the stench of rotten eggs washed over him. From the corner of his eye, he could see Klessan drawing her short sword back like a bat, waiting to hit the globe back at their attackers, just as he could see the flare on the wick burning perilously close to the end. Time began to resume its normal march and Jack reacted instinctively.
Will gathered, then pulsed, as Jack's most recently created expression of Will ended.. Clods of earth were thrown up before him as his Will reacted to his basic desire, a cone of pure force blasting forth to catch the explosive globe and hurl it back at the figure that had thrown it. The globe exploded as it connected, its contents spilling over the attacker and setting them ablaze. Agonised screams issued from the lingering smoke of the initial explosion as their foe collapsed next to one of the mangled bodies of their fallen Instructors and Jack staggered to one side, fatigued.
From behind the burning man, more enemies came. One stopped to put a dagger in an Instructor who was beginning to stir, slitting her throat neatly. The cold blooded killing broke the spell that gripped the group of Apprentices, and then they were moving.
Duran gave a bellow of rage and rushed the attackers, his main arm swelling in size, brandishing the sledgehammer he carried one handedly with frightening force, a dagger in his offhand. Seeing Jack's weakness and remembering his lack of rest, Whisper hesitated for a moment before the younger teen gestured for her to follow their large friend, while Klessan scrambled over to a bow that had been dropped during the evacuation, nimbly scavenging fallen arrows as she did so. As she reached the bow, she turned and put an arrow through the throat of an attacker in one smooth motion.
Jack faltered for a brief moment at his first clear view of their attackers. They were utterly foreign, their grey armour unlike any he had ever seen in the archives, made from a strange sort of animal hide, while their skin was paler than even Duran's, from the wintry far north, had been at the start of his Training. As the first attacker fell, clutching at the arrow in his throat, his comrades streamed past him, apparently uncaring of his fall. These men were clad in the same grey animal hide armour, several wearing helms mounted with the horns of some unknown beast.
One burly raider rushed at Duran to meet his charge, catching an over handed blow of his hammer on his shield, staggering slightly.. Duran made to disembowel his foe, tearing his dagger across the man's stomach, only to find the iron blade unable to penetrate the strange hide armour. An arrow took the raider in the shoulder, causing him to drop his blade from nerveless fingers and saving Duran from a deep leg wound. Wasting no time, Duran brought his hammer down again, shattering the shield and the foe behind it. The invader dropped to the ground, the side of his face a messy pulp. Two more attackers rushed Duran in his distraction, only to be intercepted by Whisper as she leaped over Duran, staff spinning to crack viciously against the jaw of one, catching a strike from the other in the same motion. Recovering, Duran crushed the first foe beneath his sledgehammer, while Klessan put another arrow into the chest of the second.
Even with five of the raiders downed in short order, more still came. Duran's augmentation of his arm failed, forcing him to wield his hammer two handed as he fended off more foes. Whisper's staff was a blur as she spun, deflecting the blows that Duran couldn't as they stood back to back. One raider ignored the two Apprentices assailed by his fellows to advance on Klessan, who was forced to rely on her short blade for defence, scavenged arrows spent.
His wind regained, Jack straightened and made for the man harrying Klessan, his longer blade and clear experience allowing him to corral her against a nearby fence. Crouching low, Jack brought his own short blade to bear, its tip seeking whatever gap in the raider's hide armour he could find. The man dropped to one knee, his calf pierced from behind. As he attempted to turn to face the new threat, the slight girl before him stabbed him through the eye, killing him instantly.
An oath of pain snapped Jack's attention back to his friends. One of the raiders had succeeded in piercing Duran's guard, leaving a crimson gash down his left arm. Whisper was desperately defending against three more foes, unable to come to her friend's aid as his defence faltered. A blade gleamed as it rose high, and in that moment Jack could see how it would come down and cleave Duran's head from his neck. Gathering his fading Will, Jack rushed to the mountain man's side.
Steel rang against iron as Jack blocked the killing blow, free hand bracing the flat of his blade. He yanked his sword to the side, nearly tearing his foe's weapon from their hands, as the superior sword had become embedded in the shorter blade. The world turned to grey around the young Apprentice, his Will spent, and he prepared to defend himself.
Then the world lit up in a cacophony of roaring light and seared flesh. Pillars of lightning erupted around the Apprentices, dancing amongst them as they consumed the raiders, leaving aught but ash in their wake. Then the lightning was gone, just as suddenly as it had appeared. The quietness was nearly overwhelming.
Boots crunched on gravel, the sound coming from the breach in the Guild wall. The four Apprentices turned to face the newcomer, and each nearly took a step back. The man who was the Guildmaster surveyed the carnage with a hawk-like eye, having cast aside the persona of the kindly old man. In his place stood Weaver, the Hero who had orchestrated the overthrow of the previous Guild leadership. Floating behind him were the unconscious but still living bodies of two raiders, the charred remains of their limbs testament to the control and viciousness of Weaver's assault on them.
Examining the corpses created by the four teens, he gave them a grim smile. "Good work, young Heroes. You have proven yourselves to be a credit to the Guild."
Jack swayed in exhaustion as the old man's words sunk in. He had called them Heroes.
Weaver held a glowing hand over the wound on Duran's arm, inspecting the flesh as it knit itself back together under his watchful eye. More Instructors were arriving on the scene, attending to their fallen fellows. One of them knelt next to the woman whose throat had been slit, and Jack thought he saw a glimmer of a golden phial.
"Report to Maze's office to receive your Guild Seal and accept your final instruction," Weaver continued, casually confirming the success of the ambition that had dominated the last several years of their lives. "I would perform this duty myself, but I have an interrogation to attend to." He cast an eye over his floating captives. "I do hope you understand."
"Heroes?" Klessan questioned numbly, standing shoulder to shoulder with Whisper.
The Guildmaster chuckled at their surprised expressions, observing them as the adrenaline of the fight left their systems. "Aye, lass. You have all performed admirably in the defence of our home, and displayed the skills required of any young Hero," he affirmed, before a hint of his more jovial personality shone through. "Of course, you could always wait several more months to take the Trials with your peers...?" he trailed off, noting their disgruntled expressions at the thought with a smile. "No, I thought not. Oh, and Master Jack?"
Jack focused on the Guildmaster with some effort, the roaring in his ears starting to fade. "Sir?"
"Do be aware that if you continue to exert your Will after draining your reserves as you did today it will undoubtedly kill you," the old man delivered calmly, handing him a small blue phial of potion. "Now, off to Maze with you. I have work to do."
The four newly minted Heroes stood to the side as the Guildmaster directed the bodies of his captives to float with him to a dark, rarely used door that led to a steep descending stairway. Rumour had it that it led to the Guild dungeons, and it would seem that in this case the rumours were true.
Downing the potion the Guildmaster had given him, Jack felt a wild grin spread across his face. This was it. They had finished their training.
They were Heroes.