Like many cultures, Clan Castanic has a coming-of-age rite that marks the transition to adulthood. The Crucible is a test that carries youngsters into the deadly wastes of Fyrmount. There they struggle to find a token, a relic, or something of value whilst avoiding near-certain death at the hands (and fangs!) of the denizens of that fiery landscape. This is one such tale...
The volcanic wastes of Fyrmount seemed to seethe at Taelrithia. The fiery streaks of lava bombs, the massive, hazy shapes of predators in the distance, and the utter sense of isolation might have cowed another mystic, but not Taelrithia.
“Are you mad? At least take your scepter!” her friend, Draccus had said, as she prepared for the Crucible.
Taelrithia had laughed, her eyes glinting mischievously. “It's not much of a test without risk.”
“It’s no test at all if you end up in a fimbrilisk’s gullet!”
“Relax. I’ll be fine," she said. "We're castanics—shrewdness and cunning comes with the horns and good looks.”
Draccus snorted and gestured towards the gate. “Look, just do what nearly every sane person does—run out of the city, grab the first pretty rock you find, and race back. The Crucible’s just a ceremony—it’s not worth your life!”
Taelrithia had shaken her head, then dashed through Castanica's northern gate, into the infernal landscape of Fyrmount. She’d glanced over her shoulder and yelled, “Fates be damned!”
She smiled to herself as a pack of ashstalker wolves howled off in the distance. Fates be damned indeed.
Fyrmount’s volcanism meant ores of great value could easily be found and most castanics did just that, but Taelrithia wanted to find something extraordinary, to stand out from the next batch of soldier recruits. As she stared down at the entrance to one of the mines, she lost count of the number of skeletal minions milling about.
Clever or not, she mused to herself, I don't think I can sneak past that many undead
That meant venturing deeper into the maw of Fyrmount.
Taelrithia crept along, careful not to get upwind of the wolves that stalked the well-trod trails. Taelrithia was quick and nimble, but hardly fast enough to outrun the creatures that made Fyrmount their home. She made her way over the craggy peaks, staying on the slopes to avoid detection. The narrow footholds made her feet cramp and the jagged rocks cut her palms.
“No pain, girl,” Taelrithia whispered to herself. “Just think of the adulation you'll get when you're the first centurion appointed straight out of training.” Her eyes gleamed and she flashed the nightmarish landscape another feral grin as she kept going.
She lost track of time. She'd never been this far north, nor quite this thirsty. Far below, she saw a massive basin of lava, roiling and spitting occasional fireballs into the dark sky. She choked on the thick ash and constantly wiped tears away.
A bright teal flash caught her eye. She saw a quartet of figures circling a fifth, taller one. She scurried down the slope, anxious to see it up close. Only the toughest veterans ventured into Fyrmount, so Taelrithia would likely learn something if she paid attention.
She dropped over the ledge, still fairly high, but landed easily enough. She stood up and took a step forward when she heard the loud, sepulchral growl. Fear shot up her spine and she tensed. Taelrithia slowly turned her head to see what infernal denizen she'd offended.
Eyes blinked back at her. Lots of eyes, framing a cavernous mouth studded with stalactite-like teeth. A fangspawn, drooling its toxic spittle, stared at her. It seemed to swell, then spat fire.
Taelrithia shrieked and leaped away—barely—from the fiery jet. The fangspawn roared and charged her. Taelrithia bolted for the nearest rock face, nimbly dodging the less agile monster. She leaped up to one ledge, then tumbled over to another. Fire scorched the stone where she'd stood and the fangspawn roared again.
Taelrithia threw herself at an overhang. Her fingers ached but she forced herself to push past the pain and fear. The fangspawn clambered up the slope. Taelrithia waited until it was just about to make its leap. She hung there, a tempting target.
The aberration leaped. Taelrithia dropped.
The fangspawn fell quite a distance, and rolled a bit farther. Taelrithia landed on her feet and started running. She chanced a quick glimpse backwards and watched it stalk back into its grotto with a mournful roar as she hurried to reach the fight. No matter whose side the fighters were on, someone was probably on her side. With luck, the fangspawn would give up and wait for easier prey.
By the time she reached the bottom of the slope, four figures lay on the ground. An elin priest, a high elf sorcerer, a human lancer, and an amani berserker. All federation.
The fifth figure strode towards the fiery caldera in the distance.
Taelrithia quickly checked for any signs of life. Only the aman held on, but she grew weaker with each heartbeat.
“S-stop her,” the aman whispered. “She's w-w-working for Akasha.” The berserker coughed and blood spilled from her mouth.
If Taelrithia had carried her scepter like Draccus had suggested, she could easily save the berserker. “I can't,” she whispered. “I've no weapons.”
“You must, little one.” The aman pulled a tiny scroll from a fold in her armor. “Get this to Castanica. Find an officer.” Her eyes fluttered and her body went slack.
Taelrithia glanced around. She grabbed a quartz cluster from the ground and felt its comforting heft. She could take it back as a symbol of her success. She felt the tugging on her heart, the urge to turn around and never look back. Returning the scroll would end her Crucible in a noteworthy fashion. The smart move was to return to Castanica and revel in her triumph. It would be so easy—everyone did it.
Taelrithia turned around and managed two whole steps before she stopped.
“If I leave now, I'll hate myself,” she murmured. “Blast and damnation!”
It wasn’t enough to secure the easy victory—any fool could do that. Taelrithia’s pride drove her harder, to win in spite of the odds. She couldn’t walk away now. She had to try.
Not that she had the slightest bit of a plan. She hadn't the strength to lift the greataxe, much less the lance and shield. The staff and disc were useless to her as foci. What could she do that four trained soldiers couldn't? And who was this person that they could stroll through Fyrmount without care? Taelrithia risked her life with every step, but whoever she was chasing didn't have those concerns. Not once did they turn back.
Or rather, not once did she turn back.
It was a shurian magus. She strode, tall and proud, heedless of the tiny figure that shadowed her. Taelrithia had seen a shurian only once before, but knew them to be powerful magic users, particularly fond of blood magic and loyal to Akasha.
Just another race foolishly obedient to the gods. Still, the shurian was rather tall, nearly three times Taelrithia's size. Taelrithia absently tossed the quartz in the air and caught it as she pondered her next move.
Let's even the odds...
The first rock missed the shurian’s ear by a hair. The shurian whirled around to confront her attacker—only to catch the second rock square in the eye. She shrieked as she clutched her face.
Taelrithia’s third rock struck the shurian’s ear.
The shurian drew herself up to her full height and glared down at the diminutive castanic. She aimed her staff at Taelrithia. “Devan runt! You'll die for your insolence, as many times as amuses me!” The shurian called forth her magic only to have a fourth rock—the crystal cluster—bounce from her teeth.
“Not so mighty now, eh, apprentice?” Taelrithia laughed.
“Apprentice? I am a blood magister, you whelp!” The shurian hurled a blast of magic at the girl, but Taelrithia dashed away.
The shurian gave chase, but Taelrithia's fear made her feet fleet. Twice, the shurian tried to smite the girl, but her aim was no match for castanic's agility. The blood magister caught up to Taelrithia just as the castanic hurled a trio of rocks into a dark cave. “You stupid runt—I'm behind you.” Dark magic swirled around her, ready to blast the castanic.
Taelrithia whirled and hurled one more stone at the shurian, who dodged. It threw her aim off, though, and her blast sailed over the castanic's head into the cave.
A tremendous roar erupted from inside the cave.
The fangspawn charged the shurian. She shrieked and hastily unleashed another bolt of power, but it only enraged the aberration. A jet of bright yellow flames engulfed the blood magister, who died screaming.
Taelrithia clambered up the ledge behind the cave before glancing back. The fangspawn glared balefully up at her, but turned its attention back to the smoking corpse.
She stared down at her dead foe. “Neither a whelp nor a deva, you witch. I'm castanic.”