It was my first time choosing a quest, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Honestly the last thing I thought might be a possibility was for my mentor to hold a bag out, with slips of paper in, for us to pick one out. She said it made everything fairer because it was pure luck which one of us got which and as it was our first time she wouldn’t let us swap. We had to deal with the option we’d chosen, by chance, no matter how hard it ended up being. “Remember, trainees, if the quest becomes too difficult for you it is possible for you to walk away, but you only have ten available, so use them carefully.” Nodding, I hoped I wouldn’t need the button at all, but I was grateful they’d thought of something like that, just in case something did go wrong. “A weapon will be there when you step through the portal, as will any other supplies you may need, and take your time. This is the first quest – if it takes you a week to complete then so be it. Don’t let any competition between you stop you from being careful. You won’t die, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be injured. Some trainees have come out of their quests with broken bones, swords in places they really didn’t want swords, and one even lost an eye.
“Today you will be going in alone. Other days you’ll be going in as a group. What happens always depends on how many people step through the portal and if you go through alone the training will be easier than if you went through with a group, although there will come a time when that will change. Your future at this school does depend on how well you do during your first five quests, as well as your actions in your classes, so don’t treat them as a game, because they aren’t. Any questions?”
Silence followed the question. We’d gone through what was going to happen over and over, told by numerous teachers, prepared for anything that might happen, even though they kept saying it was impossible to fully ready us for what was coming. Until we stepped through the portal ourselves there was no way to understand what we were going to deal with. Breathing deeply I waited as she made her way along the line, with the bag, and no one said anything about the quests they’re received, but I did notice a couple of people surreptitiously swapping their quests with the person next to them. Finally it was my turn and the quest I picked out – Swamp Temple.
“Anyone who hasn’t followed the rules will be banned from this quest unless they swap back right now,” she said, once she was at the end of the line, and as it hadn’t been me I knew I was safe, even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. I watched as the people I’d seen swapped back, looking embarrassed. “Thank you. Now I’m not going to do something stupid, like ask if you’re ready for this, so I’d like Anders to be the first to go through the portal. What you do is throw your slip of paper through the portal and then go after it.”
Breathing deeply, in an attempt to calm myself, I watched as my fellow trainees all threw in their slip of paper and then followed it. When it was my turn I didn’t feel ready, but I had to be. From the very first day I knew what was coming – they’d made certain of that, because they didn’t permit anyone to leave the program after the first tenday, and I’d stayed, so I had to step through the portal. Even if I couldn’t do it at least I would have tried. Nodding to my mentor, a woman I respected because of the hard work she’d done, I threw in my own slip of paper, with swamp temple on it, before stepping through the portal.
I found myself knee deep in a swamp. Honestly I’m not sure why I was surprised, but I was. There was a platform close by that held a pack, I guessed it was full of supplies, and my sword, in its scabbard. Once that was around my waist, although I couldn’t help wishing they’d left me my bow and arrows as well. I was good with the sword. I was better with the bow. It was just that being able to attack from a distance would have made me feel much safer, but obviously I wasn’t meant to feel safe, not during this trial. Sighing, hoping there was a change of trousers in the pack, I started making my way towards the temple I could see.
There was probably a map in my pack, but I’d always preferred exploring my surroundings without the benefit of one first. Even though it was unusual for a mapmaker to miss anything I kept my eyes open for anything that might be useful to me. No matter who they were they weren’t me, so they couldn’t have any idea what I might find useful in the situation. Knowing I might be there for some time made me think of what I would do if there wasn’t enough food in the pack to last me for a week, and I was going to need to find a safe shelter for the night, as well as work out some way of getting water. Fortunately we weren’t just taught how to fight – we were taught how to survive. The swamp, though… I looked around myself wishing I’d drawn another slip of paper.
“Most do,” a male voice said, making me jump, and I looked around to find an owl staring down at me. “Good morning, Aurelia.”
“Odell?” I stared at him. “You never said you could shapeshift.”
“You really believe I’d give away all of my secrets.” I could hear his smile. “None of your fellows are particularly pleased with their choices either, but I do think your mentor has the best way of doing things. This way you can’t choose the one that you think you’d be best at.”
“Why are you here?”
“It’s my job to check in on your every now and again, to make certain that something hasn’t happened to you. You do, of course, have the button, but occasionally something does go wrong with that system, so we like to keep in contact.”
Nodding, I couldn’t help breathing a sigh of relief. Knowing they would be there helped. If I screwed up and the button didn’t work there would be someone there. Of course that was no guarantee they’d be there when I needed them, but it was better than them not being there at all. “How often am I likely to see you?”
“As it’s your first time out here I’m going to be checking on you every day. We don’t want anything to happen to you. You are important to us.”
“How many have you lost?”
“So far we’ve lost no one. I want to keep it that way.” Odell studied me. “The swamp isn’t the nicest of places, but things are never as bad as they seem at the beginning.”
From the beginning I’d liked Odell. He was one of the mentors who let himself get slightly closer to his students, and I’d had a number of interesting conversations with him about when he was training. Having him watch over us was probably the best choice they could have made. I nodded. “I know. I just wish I had my bow.”
“No one is ever truly without a bow and arrows. You have the skills to make them.” His eyes met with mine, just for a moment, and I could see a twinkle within them. “I taught you those skills.”
With that he was gone. I stood there for a moment, readying myself for whatever was going to come next, before turning back to look at the temple that was in front of me. Having heard stories from all of our mentors I kind of knew what to expect, but every time someone entered a land through that portal it was different. They had said I wouldn’t come across anything I wasn’t prepared for. Nibbling on my lip I tried to work out if it was even possible to be ready for what was going to come next. A voice in the back of my mind was yelling at me, the way it had been ever since I made the decision I was going to follow in my father’s footsteps. It belonged to my mother, because she was the one who’d tried to talk me out of walking that path, in the hope I wouldn’t end up never coming home. What she seemed to have forgotten was that it was possible I might not get home at any time. At least my training meant I’d be able to cope with what came next.
Sighing, I pushed all of that aside. I needed to focus. Thinking about things I couldn’t change was just going to take my mind off the creatures I might come up against. As I started sloshing through the swamp again it was easy enough not to think. Instead I focused on what I could see, and on what might help me. Making a bow was a step I could take, if it became necessary, and there was a chance it wouldn’t. Having something more to carry didn’t make sense. Especially as I didn’t have a quiver for my arrows. Far sooner than I expected I reached dry land. It wasn’t the temple, but it would give me a chance to look through what else I had been given.
As I knelt, my wet trousers squelching slightly, I opened the bag. They said I would have what I needed to be able to survive, but that didn’t mean I really knew what I would find. When I reached my hand into it I smiled. Everyone said the school had bags that could carry everything, and it seemed that those bags had been given to us for our first trial. As time passed and we got better I was sure that would change. Yet, as I pulled out an apple, I couldn’t help wondering exactly what everything was. Dumping the bag out right there would be a mistake. Instead I shut it up, telling myself I would be find. I’d been training for months to get to the point where they would finally let us go through the trials. They wouldn’t have let us go if they didn’t think we were ready. My own doubts were probably always going to be there.
From where I was I studied the temple. I bit into the apple, grateful for the food, and knew that what I was seeing was barely any of what was going to be inside. Being in the temple was going to make it hard for me to be able to tell day from night. I would need to rest regularly, to keep my strength up, because I knew how easy it could be for someone to run into things without stopping to think through what they were going to do in advance. Some of my fellow trainees were definitely like that. When we’d worked together on the preparation trials they’d always been impatient with me. A couple of them had come to realise I was actually doing something useful. Thinking things through in advance wasn’t a waste of time, and had I not done that we would have got lost multiple times. Considering the size of what I was seeing I knew the temple was going to be large, with plenty of rooms to explore. Like all the others I had an objective. Until I looked at the map I wouldn’t have any idea what that objective was, however.
Nodding to myself I pulled the map out of the bag. They were always in the same place, so I didn’t have to go hunting for it. At the top my objective had been written – find the lost girl, and bring her back to safety. I brushed a hand through my hair. Of course it was going to be something like that. I always hated it when I had to deal with other people, but I knew that one of the ways I would earn an income would be by finding those who were lost, and it was going to be a good test for me. Odell was the one who’d told me, more than once, I needed to learn how to work with other people, including people I had never met before. That girl was going to be someone I had never met before. She would probably be terrified. If I’d found myself lost somewhere I definitely would be… had it been before my training.
Before I moved from my dry patch I took some time to study the map. The map didn’t tell me what I might end up coming across within the temple, but at least I knew, mostly, where I was going. From what I could see there were a couple of points where I was going to make a decision as to which direction I was going to look first. The first floor, fortunately, was simple enough, and if I worked quickly it would be easy enough for me to clear it out before I slept. I had all day still to go. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to move. The temple was where I knew I need to be. Each one of them had been created for us, the trainees, because our mentors wanted us to learn as much as possible before they sent us out into the world. Back when the first of us had learnt our skills it hadn’t been like that. Instead they’d been tossed onto another world and left to survive. I knew I was lucky to be in the position I was, and yet there was a part of me that wanted to give it all up. After everything I’d been through I didn’t think I was someone who could do the jobs my mentors had done.
“You’re being an idiot.” I shook my head. “You’re more than capable of doing this. Issues with your fellow trainees are no reason to stop yourself from walking this path.” If I kept telling myself that I might even come to believe it. “You’re skilled with multiple weapons. You’ve learnt how to use your magic along with those weapons. Turning back now is not an option.”
Slipping the map back into my bag I pushed myself to move. There was nothing else I could so, and letting my worries get the better of me wasn’t something I was willing to do. As I slogged my way through the swamp, wishing once more I’d picked somewhere better, I was grateful to see the temple getting closer. We’d been told the temples, and the land around them, had been created in such a way it knew who it was dealing with, so I shouldn’t come across anything I couldn’t deal with. That was the reason they had been created. Before their creation too many of the trainees had been lost.
Reaching the temple was a relief. I slipped into the first room, half certain there would be nothing for me to deal with, but I didn’t want my assumptions to get me killed. When I’d checked the room both for traps and for anything that might attack me I took the time to change out of my wet trousers. The sound of them coming off wasn’t nice, and the sensation was even worse. After several minutes of tugging I managed to get them off. Fortunately for me someone had put a towel into my bag, so I could dry my legs, and then I made sure to squeeze out as much of the liquid as I could from both my trousers and my socks. My boots were still going to be wet, but I didn’t have any spare pairs. Instead I was going to have to put them back on, with a couple of dry pairs of socks.
Once I was in dry clothing I looked at the map again. Maybe I was being too careful, but as it was my first time out I was going to be even more careful than I normally was. Not being with anyone else meant I didn’t have to worry about what they thought about me. All I needed to do was ready myself for the next steps I was going to take. Yet my mind turned to those people I had come to think of as friends, and what they might be dealing with. Even though Odell said they hadn’t lost anyone it didn’t mean they wouldn’t. We’d also all heard the story of what had happened to the guy who lost his eye, and knew what could happen if we weren’t careful enough, so worrying about them was normal enough. Worrying about what I was going to do was far more important, though, and while I was distracted I knew the best thing I could do was take some time out. Dealing with whatever came next wasn’t going to be possible when I couldn’t stop thinking about things that didn’t really matter.
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