To prove he has earned the rank of Master, one apprentice must wrest ultimate power from an ancient evil.
“Come now, don’t fall behind,” Imrit said without turning around. He quickened his pace as he approached the tree line.
The apprentices followed behind, occasionally glancing at each other. Their eyes were wide, but their faces were expressionless as they attempted to suppress their anxiety. Stopping at the edge of the woods, Tissa brushed imaginary dirt away from her yellow robe. Fiddling with her light-brown hair, she awaited further instruction from her master. Her stomach felt as though a million winged creatures were trapped inside as she stared into the woods.
Djo stood tall, his chest high in an attempt to appear confident. His deep-red robe flapped slightly on the wind, adding to his kingly appearance. With his sandy-blond hair and stunning blue eyes, he already had the look of royalty. Inside, his heart was pounding, but he was determined not to show any fear. This was the final step in achieving his dream, and nothing would hold him back.
Taren’s eyes glanced at each of his companions and his master in turn. He made no effort to hide his apprehension. His chest moved visibly with each breath, and he constantly tugged at the clasp of his dark-green robe. He looked everywhere except into the forest. Though he knew he would soon be inside it, he had no desire to think about it. Whatever was to come would come, but for this moment, he was standing in a familiar land that was safe and comfortable.
“At least one of you has to succeed,” Imrit announced. “It will be easier if all of you can stay together, but that might not be possible. Whoever is strong enough to retrieve the symbol will have earned the rank of master. We will unlock the symbol’s power together, sharing in its glory.”
“One of us?” Taren asked, his voice quivering slightly. “What of the others?”
“They will likely be dead,” Imrit replied, hanging his head low. “Your chances are better if you work together, and it might not be possible to complete the mission alone. I cannot say.”
The three apprentices exchanged worried looks, none of them daring to say a word. They could almost read each other’s minds, and each was frightened by the prospect of taking on this journey alone. Most apprentices completed their final tasks solo, thus earning the rank of master on their own. Their situation was unique, though. Master Imrit had finally discovered the symbol’s location, and he would break any rule to see that it was found and placed in his care. The challenge should prove great enough for all three to qualify as masters.
“Head south through the woods until the wool looks strange, and then continue until it’s normal again,” Imrit declared. “One of you must succeed.”
Wool? Taren wondered. Has he lost his mind? None of the apprentices had any idea what he meant by those words.
“It’s imperative you don’t use magic until you are beyond the borders of The Barrens,” the elderly master added. “There is a creature living in these woods who detests its use, and it will find you should you choose to disobey. Avoid the path at all costs, and good luck to you.”
Djo was the first to step forward, disappearing inside the dense trees of The Barrens. He did not look back. Taking a deep breath, Tissa followed him into the woods. Reluctantly, Taren lifted his right foot and stepped forward. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the proud smile on his master’s face. It was only slightly comforting to know that Imrit believed in their abilities. Why else would he send them on such a journey? Shaking his head, Taren pushed his way between the trees, immersing himself within the strange woods.
Though the light had been bright outside the woods, inside it was dark, as if dusk had already arrived. There was no vegetation on the ground—only stray rocks and fallen limbs littered the forest floor. His two companions had stopped as well to take in their surroundings. It was obvious none of them felt comfortable, but going back would only disappoint their master.
A single north-south path ran through the forest. This path would lead them on their journey, but they had been warned not to set foot upon it. Magic was forbidden here, and the path contained traces of ancient magic from the elves who had built the road long ago. Now the path was little more than packed dirt, visible only because of the difference between its dark color and that of the yellow-brown forest floor. The ground appeared to consist of decomposing leaves that had fallen from the massive trees. The air was stale, and a claustrophobic feeling set in upon the three of them.
Taren looked back once more to say goodbye to his master, but the forest had swallowed him completely. There was no sign of Imrit or his cottage in the distance. A sense of panic came over him, but he pushed it aside, determined not to look foolish in front of the others. Still, he would be more at ease if he could at least spot the smoke rising from his master’s chimney. Straining to see past the dense line of trees, he could see nothing but more forest. He felt as if he’d walked into another world entirely.
The trio silently began walking, carefully watching their steps as they went. They kept slightly right of the path, making sure not to step on it but also not to stray too far. There were no visible landmarks, and they would easily lose their way if they lost sight of the road. None of them had skills as woodsmen, so tracking each other would be impossible if they became separated. For that reason, they remained close to one another despite having to constantly split up to maneuver around the trees.
Taren observed no visible signs of life within the woods. There was no birdsong, and there were no squirrels running up and down the massive trunks. He thought it remarkable that there were no limbs at his level, which was likely the reason no deer or other creatures could be seen. If there were any living creatures in this forest, they must exist high above the canopy. Taren paused momentarily to look upward, wondering how tall these trees must be. They rose for miles, it seemed, blotting out the sunlight above with their thick leaves.
“Don’t fall behind,” Djo called from ahead.
Taren hadn’t realized how long he had been staring at the trees. “I’m coming,” he called back, hurrying to catch up to his companions.
“We should camp here for the night,” Djo said. “Darkness is falling fast.”
They weren’t sure if it was truly night or if it was only the lack of light making its way through the trees, but they were all feeling tired and grateful to take a rest.
“How long were we walking?” Tissa asked. Everything had looked the same as they journeyed, and her aching feet were the only sign she had moved an inch that day.
“We’ve gone at least twelve miles,” Djo declared. He seemed certain of this even though his companions had their doubts.
“Should we build a fire?” Tissa asked.
“Yes, but not with magic,” Djo replied. He scoured the immediate vicinity for fallen branches that were small enough to lift. There weren’t many, but there were enough to make a small fire that would help take away the chill of night.
Taren sat back against a large fallen log. Sifting through his pack, he made note of the potions he had brought with him. Not only had he brought some concoctions to restore and energize his magical stores, he had also brought a variety of medicines in case one of them became ill. With no way of knowing which plants would be available to him, he had decided to come prepared. Once he was content he hadn’t forgotten anything, he shut the bag and reclined against the log.
Tissa moved to sit next to him, pulling her knees close to her chest. “How long do you think it will be before we reach the end of The Barrens?” she asked.
“A few days at least,” Taren replied. Seeing her uneasy expression, he added, “I wish we were out of here now.”
Tissa nodded her agreement. She twisted at the small gold ring that she wore upon her left hand. It was a magical ring, a gift from her mother. Should she choose to use the small amount of magic it held, it would bring her comfort. Knowing that magic was forbidden here, she decided against using the ring. “It’s hot in here, isn’t it?” Beads of sweat had formed on her brow, and she was visibly uncomfortable.
“It does seem to be getting warmer,” Taren agreed. The light was fading fast, but there was no chill to accompany it. Instead, the air seemed to be getting denser.
Djo finished building the small fire and leaned back against the trunk of a tree. “We don’t need the heat, but it might keep any night creatures away.” Though it was unlikely there were any creatures in these woods, the fire was a sign of home. Looking upon it gave them hope and calmed their nerves.
Finally, the trio fell asleep in the long dark of the forest. When they woke, it was still mostly dark, and they were unsure how long they had actually slept.
“We might as well get moving,” Djo said as he kicked dirt over the smoldering remains of the fire.
Taren and Tissa retrieved their packs, and once again the apprentices resumed their march. The next few days went by slowly, with little conversation. Travel had proved uneventful until the fourth day. As he walked ahead of the others, Djo did not see the small branch that caught his foot. He fell hard, landing with his hands out to his sides. The fingers of his left hand brushed lightly against the path they were avoiding. Standing back on his feet, he brushed the dirt away from his robe. Taren and Tissa stared at him, wondering if he knew he had touched the path.
“I only brushed it,” he said, seeing the concerned looks on their faces. Both of them had fear in their eyes, and he felt uneasy as well. Inside, he tried to convince himself that nothing would come of his misstep. “Let’s get going.”
Taren and Tissa continued behind him until he stopped. Coming to his side, they stopped as well.
“Did you hear something?” Djo asked.
The other two shook their heads. They stood for a moment longer, listening before continuing on their way. After a few minutes, they stopped again. This time, an unmistakable growl sounded from behind them.
In unison, they turned and saw a manlike creature, who appeared to be made of stone. He had a wide set of wings similar to the wings of a bat. Crouched low to the ground, it was clear the creature was ready to strike.
“Run!” Djo shouted.
The trio dashed through the woods, hoping to outrun the creature whose heavy footsteps pursued them…
The Third Apprentice is scheduled for release in December 2014. Subscribe to be notified when the book is available.