Tipsy Pelican Tavern Prequel Short Story #2

Cassia’s Story: The Final Test

As a proponent of peace, why did Celeru create the Seventy-Seven Rules of Ruin?

a. Celeru had powerful enemies that he needed to destroy.

b. Celeru created the spells for his disciples to protect the followers of the Church.

c. Celeru enjoyed creating spells because spells are fun!

d. The question makes a false supposition. Celeru was not a proponent of peace but a proponent of justice.

e. None of the above.

Cassia sighed with relief as she circled “d.”, completing the last question of the written test. She spent a few more minutes looking over her answers. Each question included some of Templar Mimber’s humor, and she wondered how the Church let him get away with such things. She shuddered at the thought of anyone actually selecting one of the more ridiculous answers on the test.

With her answers double-checked–there were only a few she was uncertain of, but she kept them the same–she rose from her seat and headed toward the classroom’s door.

As she passed through the aisles of desks, she heard someone whisper, “Show-Off”.

It stunned Cassia and she turned to the source of the voice. The young woman sitting there did not look up, eyes intent on her exam parchment as if nothing had happened. But Cassia knew it had come from her. The young woman’s name was Netha, she was a short, pretty girl that was always making snide remarks to Cassia.

But only then did Cassia realize that none of the other dozen or so apprentices had turned in their test. The seats were all full, and once again, Cassia was first to finish.

She sighed. She should have checked first before rising. But now that she was standing, all she could do was turn in the test.

She stepped out of the classroom and closed the door gently behind herself.

Outside the door, Templar Kuedo was seated at a desk with an empty box for the completed exam.

“Tomorrow you will face your final test,” Kuedo said as Cassia placed her text parchment in the box. “In each previous year, half the apprentices fail this test. Prepare yourself wisely.”

Cassia wanted to ask for details of the final test, but she knew that Templar Kuedo would not provide any. The apprentices’ skills in spellcraft and swordsmanship had already been evaluated. The previous day had tested their learnings of science and history. And today’s exam was about their knowledge of Celeru’s teachings. As far as Cassia could tell, everything they had learned at the Templar’s Academy had been covered. Yet there was still one last test. The one that all apprentices feared, spoke often of, and knew nothing about. It was a secret that all previous examinees had sworn to never speak of, even if one did not become a full templar after failing it.

“We will gather at sunrise before the West Gate,” Kuedo said. “Do not be late.”

“Yes, Master Kuedo,” Cassia said. Then she excused herself and left the Hall of Studies, which contained various classrooms in the Catagolion.

Outside, the afternoon sky was a dark shade of blue, providing a colorful contrast to the stark white walls of the Catagolion’s buildings and structures. Despite the cloudless sky, the winter wind was icy cold, and Cassia wrapped her robes tightly around herself as she walked through the Catagolion’s many tall buildings.

The Catagolion was the seat of the Order of the White Church, it’s largest monastery in all of Visseria. Although it was located within the great city of Yestereaster, the Catagolion was like a city in itself. Only it was filled with the clergy. She made her way to the Grand Library, and as she did, Cassia passed by all manner of deacons, priests, monks, and even templars.

The library was one of the tallest structures in the Catagolion. It contained more books than any other in Yestereaster, and in all likelihood, more books than any library in all of Visseria.

Cassia stepped up the white stone steps of the library, checked herself in, and wandered about the many floors with a borrowed glass oil lamp, all the while unsure of what exactly she was supposed to be studying.

She had heard rumors of the final test as all apprentices had. Though no rumor ever contained any specifics, it was said that the test was the most difficult of all. The test determined what kind of missions the templars were sent on when they graduated and their chances of ever becoming a High Templar. Of course, it also determined if they were fit to become templars at all.

Failure was not an option in Cassia’s mind. Upon becoming a templar, she hoped that she would be given leave to travel the continent or be sent on a far-reaching mission. There were such positions, but they were rare. Usually, only journeymen templars were granted such missions. Some, the lucky ones, Cassia thought, were sent across Visseria, helping the people they came across.

It wasn’t only adventure that she longed for. Though it was certainly that too. But mainly, Cassia wanted to see the world, just as Celeru had done. She knew that true knowledge could not only be gained in books. It had to be learned through first-hand experience.

The sun was setting outside the tall glass windows of the library. She’d spent an hour just pacing about without selecting a single book to study. Outside, she could see Lake Yasmen, its surface frozen over, the waning sun painting the ice sheet a pale orange.

She rubbed her head and scanned the shelf at her side for something useful to read, though she really had no idea what would be useful at the moment. Her eyes stopped upon a thick dark red binding with gold-embroidered letters. She smiled as she reached for it. The book was one that she loved dearly. It was called The Hero of Our Time.

The thick tome was written by the historian Andso Ruvo, a famous adventurer and hero in his own right. But the book he had written was about another man, the legendary hero Archibold Stormblood.

When she looked out the window again, the sky was completely dark. Worse yet, she had spent all her time reading the wrong book. She was nearly two hundred pages into The Hero of Our Time and it contained none of Celeru’s teachings. She had gotten entirely engrossed in the Stormblood’s deeds even though she had already read the book several times previously.

She sighed, putting the book down, feeling guilty. But still she did not know what she was to do instead. She wondered what the Stormblood would do in this situation. He probably wouldn’t worry at all at such a test having faced challenges far more difficult.

She held the book to her chest and wondered what it would be like to meet the Stormblood. He would be a very old man by now, over two hundred years old according to some estimates. She imagined him a wisened and sagely person but also kind and just. Cassia hoped that she would be able to accomplish her own great deeds one day. And when she really thought about it, she was often surprised to find that she was a templar-in-training, learning the skills to become a hero. She had even seen the Archbishop of the White Church on one occasion, when the Archbishop visited their class over a year ago. The Archbishop Katharis was a figure that had as many books written about her as the Stormblood.

Two more hours would pass before Cassia realized she had begun reading again. And it was only because the oil in her lamp had run out, making her stand and move closer to one of the many candles along the library’s walls. Upon the realization, she snapped the book shut and returned it to the shelf before she could make the mistake again. The entire afternoon and evening were gone, and she had not prepared at all for the test. Yet somehow, after reading about the Stormblood’s battle against the Mad King, the final test did not seem so nerve-racking anymore.

As they were to meet early the next morning, she decided that she would go grab a quick meal at the mess hall, then head straight to the dorms and to bed.

As she walked to the exit, she heard a voice say, “Giving up so soon?”

She turned to the voice, surprised by it, and once again found Netha. The young woman was seated at an open desk and did not look up from the book she was reading.

“We are meeting the masters early tomorrow,” Cassia said.

Netha looked up from her book now. “You might be more gifted than the rest of us, but we make up for it with hard work.”

Cassia frowned. “It is not a competition.”

“Of course, it is!” Netha said, her voice heated, drawing the attention of others in the quiet library. “Of course, it is,” she hissed, quieter this time. “Do you really think those at the bottom of the class will become templars?”

“Surely if they pass the requirements…”

“But that’s it, isn’t it?” Netha said. “Not everyone can pass. Not everyone is born with natural spell and sword talent like you.”

Cassia was not sure what to say. She had trained hard at her learnings, and so had her classmates. She could not explain why she consistently scored at the top of the class. Perhaps she had only gotten lucky when the tests were administered. She wasn’t sure. But she did not like Netha attributing it to natural ability. If that were true, Cassia was certain she’d never be able to catch up to the great heroes that she’d read in her books. But she did not know how to put all of this into words. It was getting late and she needed to rest. So she said, “It is getting late and we must be up early tomorrow. I am returning to the dorms.”

“You rest,” Netha said. “I have studying to do.”

Cassia nodded. She did not want to say anything else and end up in an argument. She had known Netha for many years. And arguing would only make the young woman more stubborn. So instead she said goodnight and left the library.

She ate quickly at the mess hall and returned to her dorm room which was shared with three other girls who were apprentices in other departments of the clergy. The three others were already in bed and fast asleep. Cassia climbed onto her bunk and into the covers. She did not think about her test the next morning, letting her mind wander about the stories of Archibold Stormblood. She fell fast asleep.

The next morning, the apprentices gathered at the monastery’s North Gate. The sun had just begun to peak over the horizon and the air was frigidly cold. Master Kuedo strolled over, also bundled in thick white robes to keep warm.

“Follow,” he said, not stopping, walking down the path, in the direction of Lake Yasmen.

The apprentices lined up and followed after the High Templar, their breaths visible in the chilled air.

Despite the early hour, Cassia felt alert and refreshed, ready for whatever the test held. She noted that several of her classmates had bags under their eyes, and she felt a little worried for them.

The road curved and the buildings near the lake cleared away, revealing the wide expanse of Lake Yasmen. But unlike the day before, the surface of the lake was not entirely frozen over. Instead there was a large crack that ran down its center in nearly a straight line like a river between massive sheets of ice.

Standing on an empty pier was Master Mimber’s tall figure. He was waiting for them with his customary cheerful smile.

Kuedo nodded to Mimber and made the apprentices line up on the pier just before the wide strip of lakewater.

“This is your final test,” Kuedo said to them as he walked down the line. “But before we begin, tell me, what did you do yesterday to prepare for this test? You go first, Ildram.”

“I spent the evening practicing the sword forms.”

Kuedo nodded to the next apprentice, which happened to be Netha.

“I studied the Word of Celeru for the entire night,” she said proudly.

One by one they gave their answers, and each was similar to the first two. Most had spent their time training in the templar barracks or studying religious texts in the library or a combination of both.

Finally it was Cassia’s turn to answer, as she was last in line.

“I… um… read the Hero of Our Time and went to bed early.”

There were some chuckles among the apprentices.

“What’s so funny?” Mimber said from behind Kuedo. He was still smiling himself. “It appears only Cassia is well-prepared for this test.”

“What!?” exclaimed Combal, a short, orange-haired young man.

“Don’t tell me we will be tested on our knowledge of the Stormblood,” Netha groaned.

“Don’t be stupid,” Kuedo snapped. “Cassia is well-prepared because she is rested. And judging by the choice of her reading, her mind is likely also calm and ready. Meanwhile the rest of you burned the midnight oil and fatigued your minds and bodies.”

“But Master Kuedo,” Netha exclaimed. “The rest of us studied diligently to better prepare ourselves. Cassia just read a book that glorified the Stormblood!”

“Prepare?” Kuedo said. “What exactly did you prepare for?”

“The final test, of course,” Netha said. Several of the other apprentices bobbed their heads in agreement.

“Does it look like we’ll be testing Celeru’s texts or the sword forms today?”

Netha looked around. “I-I suppose not. But it is better to be prepared-“

“Prepared for what?” Kuedo said. “How can you be prepared when you do not know what is coming? We’ve already tested your physical and magical abilities as well as your knowledge. The final test exists to test your ability to face uncertainty and great difficulty. When you do not know what is to come, it is best to rest. It is best to calm your mind and remind yourself of those who have succeeded in such situations. The great heroes have all faced such challenges countless times. They have stepped in and out of them successful and victorious. The final test is your first true challenge as a templar.”

The apprentices looked chastened. Even Netha. But Cassia could not help but feel she had lucked into preparing correctly.

“What is our test today, Master Kuedo?” Ildram asked.

Kuedo grinned. “You will be swimming to the other side of Lake Yasmen. Those who successfully make it to the other side will become full templars.”

“But that is impossible!” exclaimed Combal.

“The lake is below freezing!” Netha said in the same shocked voice. “Our bodies will not last two minutes!”

“Impossible? Below freezing? Do you think Celeru or even Archibold Stormblood made such excuses when they confronted the impossible tasks of defeated their enemies?”

“But… but…” Combal stuttered, but unsure of what to say.

“But we are not heroes,” Ildram said.

Combal and Netha nodded vigorously to that. “We are only apprentices. None of our gates are opened.”

“Tell me,” Kuedo said, leaning over them. “What do you think you are doing here? Do you think becoming a templar means a life spent singing hymns and getting massages?”

“No… of course not,” Ildram said.

“If you fail this test, then you will be right,” Kuedo said. “You will end your learnings as an apprentice. You will never become a true templar.”

“But it is physically impossible, Master Kuedo,” said Netha, the fear growing in her eyes. “We will die and drown in that lake.”

Several others voiced the agreement, turning their pleading eyes to Master Mimber who still wore a smile unlike Kuedo, who scowled at them like an elder dragon.

“Oh, we’ll make an effort to fish you out,” Mimber said. “But there are several of you and only two Masters.”

“It will be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done,” Kuedo said. “And so it is true, you may die. But that is the fate of every templar who serves Celeru.”

Master Kuedo was right of course, Cassia thought. Each apprentice had worked hard, studied hard, trained hard. Every one of them wanted to be templars more than anything else in the world. They wanted to serve Celeru with more than words and prayers. They wanted to make a difference in the world. That is what it meant to be a templar.

Not two days ago, Cassia could not fathom how anyone would come so far to only fail the final test. But now she understood. The final test was difficult. Perhaps impossible. And it only made her admire the templars more because Master Kuedo and Master Mimber and every other templar and high templar had already passed a test with such difficulty.

And Cassia knew that if they had passed the test, then she would too. And if she did not, then she did not deserve to stand beside them.

Master Kuedo was still talking, still chiding the others. But Cassia did not wait. She had made up her mind. She was going in. She just had to get to the other side. That was simple enough, wasn’t it?

She stripped off her robes for she knew they would drag her down in the cold, leaving on only her undergarments. She’d not even touched the water yet and the frigid winter air was already shocking her body.

But she shook it off. Someone was speaking. Perhaps Master Mimber. But it mattered not now. She had set her mind. And she would not turn away from her task until it was done.

She sprinted down the pier, running as fast as she could. She needed the body heat. Needed to hit the water with speed and keep that speed up.

She jumped. Leaping off the pier and pierced through the water’s surface.

Then she sank.

The ice water sent her body into immediate shock. It was as if every nerve in her body screamed at once. Despite her decision moments earlier, her mind forgot her task. Forgot almost everything except for survival. But the desire to become a templar did not leave her. Even in what felt like a moment of death, it did not leave her. She pushed forward, remembering that she needed to swim. Needed to keep moving to get to the other side.

She pushed her arms sideways. Legs kicking. Her head broke above the water’s surface and she gasped for air, sucking in the winter cold. Her body was nearly numb and becoming more sluggish by the second. She swam as best she could. Putting her body through motions that felt lost to her.

But she had to go on. She only had a lake to swim. A task that took her no more than twenty minutes in summer. It was nothing compared to the Mad King’s armies. Nothing compared to the fatal powers of the One Emperor. This was nothing. Nothing at all. She repeated it in her mind over and over again. She willed her body forward. Willed the movements of her arms and legs. Sucking in cold air into her freezing body. It felt as if a lifetime had passed and somehow the shore was not any closer. Still so far away.

She could no longer feel the sharp spikes of pain. Her body was entirely numb and sensationless. There was only an icy darkness that clouded her consciousness. The world had become bright and shapeless. She was not certain she was even headed in the right direction anymore. But she kept on pushing forward. Raising her arms in strokes and kicking with her legs.

Then the water splashed over her face and she swallowed a mouthful of water. It turned her core entirely cold. She felt it instantly. Her head did not rise above the surface again as it was supposed to. She was sinking.

But even then she did not give up. Willing her limbs to keep moving. Keep struggling.

Then in the distance, she saw a light. Dim at first, but growing brighter as she willed her limbs to keep moving.

The darkness was suddenly gone, and she found herself in a jungle. Ahead was what looked to be an ancient stone platform. And standing on the platform was a pair of closed doors made of thick wood. Only the doors. No frame, no wall.

Cassia stepped onto the stone platform, her hand reaching out to touch the doors. From the seams where the two doors met, she felt a rush of hot air escaping. She was so cold and yet not shivering. But the air escaping from the doors felt warm. She needed that warmth. She placed her hands on the doors and began to pull.

Her eyes shot wide open, and she stared into the depths of the dark freezing waters. Several feet above her, she could see the strip of the water’s surface, the rest covered by ice sheets on each side. She had sunk deep into the water, and she was sinking still.

But her body was no longer cold or numb or tired. She looked down at her hands with surprise. It was as if she could feel all the muscles in her body and each was bursting with energy ready to be spent. But the source of that energy was not in the muscles themselves. It came from something at the center of her core, and that core radiated warmth.

Cassia darted forward in the waters, pushing the waters backward, kicking with a strength and vigor that she’d never felt before in her life.

Each stroke and kick propelled her several paces. The shore that seemed so distant minutes earlier was now fast approaching. She did not even need to rise to the top for a breath of air.

She gave a final kick and shot out of the water, landing on the deck of a wide pier. A smile found its way to her face. She had done it. She had swam to the other side.

Then she looked around and realized that she was the only one standing on the pier. Suddenly she felt guilty. Once again she was first without meaning for it to happen.

She turned around to see how far the others were behind her. But the waters were empty. However, in the very far distance, near the pier that she had leapt from, she saw several figures in the water and a few wrapped in bundles sitting on the ice. Not just apprentices, but also Masters, many that she had not seen since before the exam week.

“What is happening?”

Then she saw a figure running toward her on the ice. It was Master Kuedo. He moved quickly and reached her in little time.

“Cassia!” he said as he slid to a stop. “By Celeru, I thought you drowned!”

“Master Kuedo,” Cassia said. “Where are the others?’

“They’re getting fished out of the waters.”

“Oh no,” Cassia said. “Am I the only one to pass?”

“No, you’ve all passed. The test wasn’t for you to actually reach the other side. It was to make the jump. The leap of faith. To take an impossible task head-on. After you jumped in, the rest of them jumped in right after you. The other Masters were in hiding, still donning their seal suits and weren’t ready for all of you to dive in at once. We’ve got at least two cases of hypothermia because we didn’t get to them in time. They’ll be alright with some healing, but Celeru bless me, I thought we’d lost you.”

“But…” Cassia couldn’t understand what she was hearing. No one was supposed to pass the test? “But Master Kuedo…”

“Look at you, it’s below freezing and there isn’t a goosebump on your skin. You’ve awakened the Gate of Breath.”

“But that’s impossible…” Cassia said. The Gates were things of legend. Only High Templars and great heroes had awakened gates.

Kuedo grinned. “You have passed the final test of Templarship in spirit as have all your classmates,” he said in a sudden official-sounding voice. “In addition, you are the first person to pass the physical portion of the final test in over a century. As such, I welcome you to the Templarship of the White Church. Congratulations, Templar Hightower.”

***

A new position meant a new uniform. The next day, the boys and girls were given folded white robes and sent to separate dressing rooms to change. After getting dressed, they were to meet with the Masters and a small ceremony would be held to commemorate their graduation into full templarship.

The girls got dressed, giggling and laughing, relieving the stress they felt the previous day. Each of them had been certain they were going to die in the lake.

Only Netha didn’t seem to be in high spirits. “Cassia,” she said, after they had gotten dressed in their new robes. “May I have a word with you?”

A spike of anxiety shot through Cassia but she nodded. The other templars left the dressing room, leaving only Netha and Cassia.

“I wanted to ask you how you did it,” Netha said, her eyes intent on Cassia’s.

“The Gate? Oh um… I’m not really sure. It just suddenly appeared… and it was warm so I opened it. And suddenly I wasn’t cold anymore or tired. Um…”

Cassia didn’t know why she was so nervous. She’d been asked many times about it, each person wanting to learn how it was done. But Cassia did not know how to explain what she did. She did not understand it very well herself.

“I see,” Netha said.

“You do?” Cassia said.

Netha nodded. “It sounds similar to what every awakened says about opening a gate. The doors just appear. Usually in moments of near death.”

Cassia nodded and then there was a long moment of silence between them. Netha looked like she had more to say.

“I’m sorry, Cassia,” Netha said. “I was unfair to you. You are the best among us and I was jealous of that.”

“Netha, that’s not true, I-“

“It is true, Cassia. And the worst part is you don’t see it yourself. But I’m not going to give up. We are sisters of the Order of the White Church, and you are right that it is not a competition.” Netha smiled. “But you’re my rival. And I won’t lose to you.”

Cassia was unsure of what to say, but she thought she finally understood Netha. So she smiled back. “I won’t lose either.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Netha said. “Come on then, let’s go become templars.”

Cassia chuckled, “Let’s do that indeed.”

They opened the door to the hall, where they found Master Kuedo pacing back and forth. He looked up at them.

“What took you so long!?” he snapped. “Good Celeru, why is it that I’m always waiting for women to change!”

“I’m sorry, Master Kuedo,” Cassia said. She’d never seen Kuedo so worked up, and she wasn’t sure what he meant by that comment. “We’ll head to the Ceremonial Room right away.”

“Ceremonial Room? Oh, no forget that. Hightower, you’re coming with me. The Archbishop wishes to meet you. Yes, by the look on your face you now realize why we must not be late.”

“T-he Archbishop Katharis?”

“Do you know of another one?” Kuedo snapped and turned on his heel without waiting for an answer.

“Um…” Cassia turned to Netha who was watching her with flat dead eyes. “Netha…”

“Just go,” Netha said. “I-I will catch up to you eventually. Don’t forget it!”

Cassia nodded and followed after Master Kuedo who was barking at her to catch up from the other end of the hall.

Master Kuedo led Cassia to a building in the Catagolion that she’d never visited before. She was ushered up several flights of stairs, down three halls, and into a room, where the door was closed shut behind her.

In the room, sitting in a plain chair was a beautiful young woman who looked even younger than Cassia.

Cassia immediately kneeled. “A-rchbishop.”

“Oh don’t do that,” the Archbishop said with a voice no less beautiful than her face. “I want to have a look at you.”

Cassia stood but kept her eyes on the floor, feeling her heart racing.

“So it is true,” the Archbishop said. “The Gate of Breath. Very admirable. How old are you, my dear?”

“I am nineteen-years old, your eminence.”

“Mmm, to open your first gate at such a young age… yes… I think you will do well.”

Do well? Cassia thought.

“What is it that the Archbishop requires of me?”

“There is a man I want you to find. But before I can send you on such a quest, I must teach you a few things first. Are you ready to begin?”

Cassia looked up at her now.

“I am.”


Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *