Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 4 of Legends of Leone: The Crystal Ordeal

The final few hours of their hike were mostly peaceful, apart from the constant yelling and clanging from the random practice duels. As they approached the end of the trail, the forest around them became thicker and more overgrown. Eventually, only the trail itself was clear of plant life, even the sky being blocked from view. The fighting settled down as they ran out of room to move forward more than three bodies side-by-side. Even though the forest seemed to close in around them, the sounds of birds and the wind in the trees made it all feel like an inviting path.

After rounding the final turn, a clearing in the trees opened up, revealing a wide, thirty-foot-tall, bright, gray stone dome under a clear sky. Two volunteers sat on cheap chairs in front of the structure, already holding packs of supplies for the approaching graduates.

“Welcome to the Ordeal!” they barked in unison.

“Thanks!” Falchion called back from behind the other couples.

One of the volunteers began a rehearsed speech. “Before you lies the Ordeal. This will be your final test to determine your proficiency.” He motioned towards a well-worn area of the wall behind him. “Each of you must stand in front of this wall and proclaim your chosen profession. You will then be judged by your ability to complete a number of objectives. Should you fail, you will be rejected by the Ordeal, never to return.”

“Ominous,” Falchion whispered.

“You may take as long as you need, but you may only use this bag of supplies and whatever you find inside. Be warned: you will only receive food and water for one day. Should you decide to tarry longer in the Ordeal, it will be at your peril.”

“Well, this is the scariest supply speech I’ve ever heard,” Falchion said quietly.

The other volunteer interrupted. “In more pleasant news, if you make it to the end, there will be a reward waiting for you. The key to the exit will be with your reward to prevent anyone accidentally leaving without their proof of completion. Once you leave, you may request rudimentary supplies for your return trip home. No matter whether you complete the Ordeal or not, you’ll exit into the nearby town, where you can either walk home or find a ride with your own money.”

He paused. “You will all need to leave behind anything apart from clothing and weapons. This includes all spell components that are not clothing or weapons. You may use anything you find within the Ordeal. Oh, and one more thing. If you find yourselves overwhelmed and need help to leave, simply shout that you surrender, and the Ordeal will end.”

Leone’s head began spinning as she emptied her numerous pockets. She dreaded the possibility that she could not bring her own supplies, but it was much worse to actually hear it. They each took a small pack of provisions from the table.

Two of their camping companions stepped forward to face the stone dome. She heard them say “Town Guard” and “Alchemist” before the ground below them opened and swallowed them whole. She looked down at the spot where they stood, but it was just solid earth as it was before.

“I wonder what their tests will be…” Falchion wondered to Leone. “I’ll bet Leonard has to guard a city gate against invading armies while Gabriella invents new and interesting potions and other nasty stuff to throw at them.”

Leone was caught off guard. “Those were their names?”

“Are. Those are their names. You really are dramatic about this whole thing,” Falchion replied.

Leone felt embarrassed. “No, it’s not that. I just missed introductions, I guess.”

“You didn’t know them at the school?” Falchion asked, surprised. “Not even Gabriella? She was in your class.”

“I didn’t socialize much,” Leone said, looking back at the patch of ground.

The next pair stepped forward, stating “Spy” and “Tinkerer” before dropping into the same place as Leonard and Gabriella.

“Ooh, this should be a good one,” Falchion said, imagining the possibilities. “It’ll be like one of those novels. Penny can invent some cool gadgets for Rico, and he’ll have to swoop in and steal some plans or something, I’ll bet.”

“You have a very active imagination,” Leone told him.

“It’s fun to think about these things,” he told her. “Every Ordeal is different, depending on who goes in and what they claim to be.”

“You’re not at all worried about being sucked into the ground?” she asked.

“Not really,” Falchion said, a confused look on his face.

Their final two companions stepped forward, stating “Acrobat” and “Healer” before falling quickly into the ground.

Falchion’s face turned bittersweet. “Well, good for Artie that she’s pursuing performance. I know her parents weren’t happy about that.”

“But…?” Leone asked.

“But…” Falchion continued, “Peter went in as a Healer. That does not bode well for her. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Pete’s great, but I shudder to think of how he’s going to be tested and what that means for Artie. I get the feeling there might be a few slippery surfaces even she can’t manage because of that.”

“So how is it we happened to run into only people who you knew?” she asked.

“The school wasn’t that big,” he replied. “You knew some of them, right?”

“Er…no. Not really,” she tried to smile. “But I didn’t know you or Wick, either!”

“I guess that’s not really a bruise to my ego anymore, then. You really were invisible at school, weren’t you?” Falchion said, a bit bemused.

One of the volunteers coughed, followed by the other loudly and deeply exclaiming, “It is time!”

“They’re very dramatic here,” Falchion said, walking to the wall.

“Waiting here gets boring,” the volunteer stated, handing him a bag.

“Archaeologist,” Falchion said excitedly, staring forward.

Leone stepped up next to him. Her head raced for a few moments. She thought about stating any other career. She could even switch to archaeologist right now if she wanted, and the Ordeal would arrange itself for the two of them. The list of possible careers flashed by in her mind as she considered each one in a panic. She could be good at any number of them, maybe they’d even be interesting for her, but she kept coming back to the conclusion that she was only knowledgeable about being a general mage. It sounded so generic when compared to everything else. She looked at Falchion, smiling about completing his next step on his journey of hunting treasure. Anything to make her career different, or specialized, could make her happy and stand out more.

The volunteer, standing away from the patch of ground, leaned over in front of her, arching an eyebrow.

“Mage,” she stated, feeling defeated. The ground shuttered violently as she gasped and felt herself quickly pulled down, but only up to her knees. She and Falchion were still standing in front of the stone dome, only now a foot lower than they were a second before, with dirt filling their shoes.

They stood for a moment, waiting for the rest of the drop. Falchion tilted his head, then started poking at the dirt with his finger. They looked back at the volunteers, but the two men were nowhere to be found. The mage and archaeologist stood there in the dirt, surrounded by the forest, dome, and table covered in supply bags under the open sky.

Falchion sat on the ground, his legs still dug into the dirt. “Maybe we should have said our specialties with more enthusiasm?”

Leone pulled out her legs, sat down, and began pouring the dirt from her shoes. “The volunteers are gone, so I’m guessing this is part of the first test.”

“How would they know to run away?” Falchion asked.

Leone lifted one of the bags from the table, turning it upside down. The contents fell to the ground with a loud thud, including several colored rocks in the shape of an apple, an orange, a flask, and a hunk of meat still on a stone bone. Each supply piece had the name of the item carved into it.

Falchion stared at the stones, tilting his head still further. “What?”

“We’re in the Ordeal now. To anyone watching, they probably saw us drop into the ground completely. Everything here is essentially just a prop,” Leone said, picking up the other bags and dropping out similar contents.

“Weird, but I guess it makes sense,” Falchion said. “So then the first test for an archaeologist is finding the cave in the first place.”

“Or just the entrance,” Leone replied. “The cave is probably this big dome.”

Falchion pulled his legs from the ground then jumped a few times on the soft patch of earth. “I think we can rule this way out. Start looking around for anything out of the ordinary. Entrances to ancient sites are usually well hidden, but offer some subtle clues.” He began knocking on parts of the curved wall and kicking the ground.

Leone walked completely around the grey structure but only saw the smooth stone. As she approached the table again, a chill went up her spine. “That’s creepy,” she said to Falchion, realizing what was wrong. “I know this is just a recreation of where we were before, but listen. There aren’t any birds singing.”

“That’s not so odd,” he said. “Like you said, this is all fake.”

“Maybe,” she said, still uneasy. “I didn’t notice it before, though. And the path we took to get here is just trees now.”

“Well, no worries. There’s no point in going back now, anyway, right?” As he finished his statement, thunder boomed in the distance and wind began rustling the trees. He sighed. “Nevermind. We’re now in a fairly open area with a thunderstorm rolling in, which I’m sure will conveniently pass directly overhead.”

“Why is this part of the Ordeal? There wasn’t supposed to be a time limit,” Leone said over the wind as it began to howl louder, a gust forcing the lighter rocks from the supply bags to the wall.

Falchion pulled his weapon apart to create two hooks, then started to climb the dome’s side. “Extra incentive,” he called. “Maybe it wants you to be more passionate about what you’re doing, and what creates passion better than impending doom?”

Black clouds rolled over the treeline. Leone called back, “That’s not something the Ordeal can do, is it?” as she overturned the table, looking for anything that could help her find the entrance.

“Who knows?” Falchion yelled to her, pulling himself onto the top of the dome. After a minute of running around and knocking on different points with his foot, he resorted to jumping on the roof. He then looked up into the clouds, his face sinking. He began to laugh nervously as he sprinted back down the sloping stone, sliding along the vertical part of the wall. “We need to find the entrance. Now.”

Leone looked up at him concerned, but his wide eyes told her that this really was an urgent matter. She began looking frantically for anything out of the ordinary. The wind and thunder assaulted her senses, making it difficult to concentrate, but then she realized what was out of place. “The rocks!” she yelled, running over to the supply rocks which were now tumbling into the wall of the dome.

Falchion ran over with her. “What about them?”

“I came in here as a mage!” she yelled, understanding.

“Er, yes. And the rocks?” he asked.

“’Mage’ isn’t really a career, it’s just generic magic studies,” she said, excitedly. “Magic studies is a fancy way of saying that I practice my mental abilities. This is a puzzle! Or like a giant lock that needs to be picked!”

“That might be reaching, but I’m glad you’re excited!” Falchion said, smiling. A blinding bolt of lightning exploded into a nearby tree, throwing it crashing to the ground. “So the entrance?”

Leone picked up one of the supply rocks. “These are recreations of supplies, right? So where were they meant to go?” She threw the stone colored like a hunk of meat into the air over the grey structure. The wind picked it up then dropped it to the right of the dome. “The cave!” Leone cried, picking up a few more rocks and running over to where it dropped. She threw another rock into the air where the other dropped, and it landed in exactly the same place. “Here it is! It’s like divination! Or ‘like attracts like’!”

Falchion knocked on the wall, then kicked it, but nothing happened. “SO HOW DO WE GET IN?” he called over the now deafening wind.

Leone thought for a moment, then ran over to the lightning-struck tree. She picked up one of the charred branches and ran against the wind back to the dome. Even though all of the electricity was gone, she could still feel the violence of the lightning in her hand. Reaching into it with her mind, she knew she could pull it out. “Get away from me for a minute,” she said distractedly, but was drowned out by a gust of wind.

“WHAT!?” he called, his yell barely audible.

With her eyes closed, she didn’t see him next to her. In a trance-like state, she aimed the branch at the wall, focused on the energy still in the branch, and released it in a blindingly bright and raging burst, arcing into the dome’s stone wall. Her muscles convulsed painfully as she dropped the branch, throwing her to the ground. She groaned as she lifted herself back up, arms and legs twitching. “I’M OKAY,” she yelled, turning to Falchion.

“WHAT!?” Falchion called back, on the ground himself and now wearing charred clothes.

She flashed a half smile at him, then looked at the wall. It now showed a charred outline of a door. “PROGRESS!” she yelled, running to the door to figure out a way to open it. Unfortunately, it only looked like a door. She felt along the charred marks, and it was still completely flat stone; though it glowed a little at her touch, it then dulled when she removed her hand.

“PASSWORD!” Falchion yelled at the door, but nothing happened. He shrugged. “FRIEND!” he tried again, but nothing happened. He motioned for Leone to stand back, then ran to the trees. He steadied himself before charging at the door, hitting it squarely with his shoulder. The wall didn’t budge, but he stayed slumped against it with his face turned away from Leone.

“ARE YOU OKAY?” she yelled. Without turning, he gave her a thumbs up, still leaning against the rock wall. She looked at the door, whose outline now appeared to glow softly again. As she pressed her hand against the stone, it felt warm before the stone quickly cracked apart, falling inward and taking Falchion along with it into a dark pit.

“FALCHION!” she yelled into the pitch black hole. She could barely make out a pained groan. “ARE YOU OKAY?”

“Probably,” he called back weakly.

“HOW DEEP IS IT?” she called down.

“I don’t know. I survived, though, I’m pretty sure,” he called back.

“How reassuring,” she muttered. “IF I JUMP, WILL YOU CATCH ME?” she yelled to him.

“If I don’t have any broken bones? Sure,” he called back.

She hesitated, trying to see into the darkness how far she had to fall. The trees behind her began to crash and swing wildly. She turned around to see loose limbs and stones flying into the air as a menacing form bore down on the outside of the dome. A tornado had formed.

In a moment of panic, she threw herself into the opening, falling for longer than she hoped before landing directly on Falchion.

“See? Nothing to it,” he whimpered from under her.

“SORRY!” she yelled before realizing the quietness of the cave. Before they could move themselves, the rocks under Falchion flung the two of them upwards and back against the wall as the shattered stones flew up into the opening, sealing it shut. As the last stone slid into place, torches flickered to life, illuminating the room.

“Breather?” groaned Falchion, sliding downward to slouch against the wall, clutching his ribs.

“Breather,” Leone affirmed, looking around the room. “It doesn’t look like this room is actively attacking us, anyway.”

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