The unforgiving heat makes the windless day all the more unbearable for a pair of travelling mages. The haze of the heat coming from the hot sand makes their target on the horizon hard to recognize. Identifying the distance proves to be even more of a challenge. The men’s lavish robes sit beneath coarse tan cowls that provide little comfort for their heads from the sun’s unforgiving rays. Ephraim lifts his water pouch to his parched lips to get some relief. To no avail.
“Empty.” He sighs. As he begins digging in his gem pouch in search of a Topaz, he looks over to his teacher with exhaustion in his eyes. “Are we even gaining any ground? Every mile we travel towards the temple, it seems to travel two away from us.”
His teacher keeps a calm resolve in the unrelenting weather. “All the better. You need quizzing prior to entering the temple anyway. It is sure to be lined with challenging traps. Elsewise someone before us would have obtained the Owl Agate from the statue’s eyes long ago.” Ephraim drops his shoulders with a sigh.
“Quizzing… How do you expect one wizard and his apprentice to get the stones if so many people have tried before us and failed?” He holds his topaz over his water pouch and his eyes begin to glow a light blue. As a light of the same color shines from inside of his hand, water pours out of it into the empty pouch.
“We’ll worry about that if we get there.” Roald adjusts the strap of his gem pouch. “Now, if you were to be attacked, by say bandits, what gem would you use for defense in this unforgiving desert? Concurrently, what would you use for offense? You favored Peridot when you were retrieving the Moonstone at the cave, but numerous granules of sand will prove too great of a challenge for an amateur Gemkith such as yourself to control. (From Ephraim: A Test of Aptitude) So I’m afraid the gold you spent on that Peridot when we stopped in Limone will have turn into a long term investment.” As the student finishes drinking the water in his pouch, he ties it back to his belt, reaches into his gem pouch, and pulls out the rest of his jewels with his Topaz.
“Well, I haven’t used my Aquamarine yet.”
“Ah.” The teacher raises his finger. “The arid desert air won’t provide enough humidity to use the water in the atmosphere, and you don’t want to use any of your Topaz’s essence to create water or we won’t have enough drinking water to make it home.” Ephraim sighs and drops his Topaz, Aquamarine, and Peridot back into his pouch, then opens his hand to investigate the remaining gems.
“Okay, well.” He takes a moment to study the minerals. “You want me to stick to elemental gems before moving on to the harder ones, so maybe my Citrine?”
“While there is a surplus of wind for you to control with your Citrine, the winds out here can already be fierce. Most bandits are geared with armor to withstand high winds, particularly if they spend any amount of time in this region, and most beasts that survive out here were created to endure them as well.” The apprentice begins to show a little aggravation as he drops the yellow stone into his pouch.
“All that leaves is my Garnet, but I don’t have any Ruby to create fire.”
“You’ll have to be creative. Fire is in any spark, and it will be easy to ignite in this dry air.” Roald pauses and runs his index finger and thumb down both sides of his jawline as he thinks. The black, and occasionally grey, hairs in his finely-trimmed beard bristle against his fingers. “I’m going to break one of my rules though in favor of a lesson. While fire is among the best offenses, it makes for poor defense. You may use your Amethyst for defense for this test. Normally I would have you use a different gem in this test than you used in the last one, but Amethyst has a plethora of ways it can be used.” Ephraim’s eyes light up as he looks back at the magnificent purple gem. He quickly drops the rest of the stones into his pouch and holds his Garnet in one hand and his Amethyst in the other. His memory drifts back to how he was able to project an image of himself to deceive the imps and dodge some attacks. “Last time you projected images of yourself, so you may not do that this time.” Roald’s statement deflates excitement, as his statements have a tendency to do. “Since Amethyst has so many capabilities though, you’ll need to make your focus shielding at this time.”
“What all can it do?”
“How do I choose what I do with the power? All I have done until now is control the element that the stone’s…” Ephraim’s words trail off as he begins to feel the ground shake. “Wha.. what’s that?” He looks over to see a look of knowing determination on his trainer’s face as he surveys his surroundings. The sand beneath their feet begins to sink into a forming hole nearby, causing the men to fall back. With just a short distance left to reach the temple, he contemplates making a run for the entrance, but after the realization that he won’t reach the building in time, Ephraim fixes his gaze on the hole forming in the sand. Suddenly a tower of putrid pink flesh emerges from the void in the silt and leans in their direction. As the grains sift from the top of the creature, the tip opens into three flaps that are lined with teeth.
“Braaaaaww!” It screams.
“Sand worm!” Ephraim yells. He looks over for a glimpse of hope from his trainer only to find the vacant seat in the sand he once occupied. “Are you kidding me? We get attacked by a monster and you leave me?”
“The teacher is always quiet during the test.” The invisible mage states. “This is an excellent learning opportunity for you. Just focus on our conversation and show this thing what you are made of.”
Excellent learning opportunity. Ephraim thinks. The young student looks back as the colossal beast begins to lunge at him. Sand flies from his arm as he quickly raises it across the top of his head as if to block the blow. A purple light begins to glow from his eyes as a translucent bubble forms in front of him just before the worm collides with it. The monster lets out another boisterous scream and begins snapping feverishly at the translucent dome. Panic begins to set into Ephraim’s face as he begins looking around for a comburent. The creature biting down on his shield is only worsening the feeling. He uses his free arm to quickly wipe the sweat from his brow that has been stinging his eyes as it pours into them. As the beast’s teeth clash against the purple guard, something catches the mage’s eye.
He is able to calm for a moment to think to himself. The clanging of the worm’s teeth and its irritated growls quieten as Ephraim is granted a moment of artificial peace while he concentrates on his thoughts. When his plan is set, his expression transitions from grimace to excited-determination. The glow of his eyes gains a red tint in the preexisting purple rays. His shield begins buckling under the invertebrate’s blows as Ephraim times his attack. Going to have to do this. The worm regroups for a massive strike.
“Your shield won’t take another hit, Ephraim. Find your fuel and attack now!” A voice shouts from beyond vision. The pupil throws his blocking arm from in front of his face, launching the bubble into the behemoth’s mouth. It bites down causing the shield to shatter into pieces. The glow from Ephraim’s eyes turns crimson red as he jumps to his feet and raises his other arm over his head, a red misty light in tow. A flame ignites in the sand worm’s mouth, and as its creator throws his fist to the ground, causing the blaze to travel down into its stomach. He remains silent and focused as the creature writhes and screams in pain, sweat glistening his body and his face contorted in determined rage. After a moment the fire explodes from within the monster. Flames spurt from its mouth as it falls to the ground and lays lifeless. After a short moment the body begins to slink slowly into the hole from whence it came, and the instructor fades into visibility between the beast and its conqueror.
“Great job, Ephraim.” Roald says, fighting back a proud smile. The teacher has long held the belief that keeping a solemn demeanor instills faith in his actions to his students and teaches them that cool, logically thinking in the heat of battle leads to more favorable outcomes. The belief stemming from a lesson that remains firmly in his memory. His teacher from Gemkith college let his emotions dictate his actions in battle, and in a fit of rage gave his advantage away to the enemy. It was a mortal mistake for the teacher. For Roald it is a lesson forever etched in a small scar above his brow, keeping it at the forefront of his thoughts. It is a mistake he does not plan to make with his teachings.
As he approaches his pupil a mighty wind picks up. All of their exposed skin begins to sting as the sand pelts them. They throw the loose material of their cowls in front of their faces to soften the burn of the bombarding granules. “Quickly! The temple is just ahead!” The teacher’s voice is muffled by the sound of the sandstorm, but Ephraim follows the instructor’s movements to the nearby safe haven. The sand has piled up from the frequent sandstorms of the desert to make the once profound staircase into a handful of steps. They quickly ascend the stairs and teacher and student push on the giant, stone doors but the wind and loose sand on the floor make it impossible to gather their footing. “Stand back!” Roald yells as he grabs a Peridot from his pouch. A green light emanates through the thin material of the cowl and another matching light trails his hand as he throws his arms out, commanding the doors to swing open. The teacher’s years of practice in gem magic make the tons of earthen rock slide as if they were pebbles. Ephraim’s amazement at his teacher’s prowess is quickly suppressed as the two run inside. Roald immediately turns inside the temple with a swing of his arm and slams the doors back shut. They pant for a moment, their short breaths stinging their lungs with grains of sand and hot, dry desert air. They look at each other as the sand in their lungs constricts their breathing. Almost simultaneously they realize that they have stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire by entering the temple. Slowly, they turn around expecting to find rooms and hallways filled with traps, but to their surprise they stand in one giant room. The room is a large rectangle that is lined with pillars. The architecture is as simplistic as the floor that is composed of large, square blocks of sandstone. In a corner of the room a mirror reflects a light from a hole high in the wall that gleams off of two gems that sit as an owl statue’s eyes across the room.
“Huh,” Ephraim huffs as he stands, stilling catching his breath, “it’s that easy? How could no one else, have made it here? All we have to do, is walk across the room, and grab the gems.”
Roald takes a deep breath through his nostrils trying to quickly regain his composure. “It pays to always be on your guard, Ephraim.” The instructor stands and brushes off his robe. “Things are not always as they seem.” As the teacher and student make their way across the room they notice piles of bones sitting atop the stone floor. Ephraim begins to become uneasy as he thinks of the sight. He looks to Roald to see if the view is as unsettling to him, but as always the teacher keeps a steel resolve.
“What do you think happened to them?” The apprentice’s question is hollow. He knows they were the ones who had tried before them and failed, but he asks the question with a false hope that his teacher will comfort his fear. Roald reads this in his tone.
“Ephraim, it is better to look at the situation accurately than in a false light with false hope. Painting an ugly picture with beautiful colors still creates an ugly product. If I didn’t think we could overcome this challenge I wouldn’t have brought you here. Sometimes you just have to call on your Faith for comfort.” While not the ease in spirit he was looking for, the words do queerly calm his nerves. He is able to, tentatively, square his shoulders and walk with more confidence.
As the two approach the statue the teacher’s firm beliefs slip, and he begins to show slight signs of discomfort. Ephraim notices his change in body language, closes his eyes, and hones in on his Gemkith senses to see what is causing Roald’s change in composure. A strange pulsing sensation washes over his body dizzying his balance slightly. Back and forth, back and forth almost drawing him in with each pulse toward the statue. He concentrates deeper. The pulse is coming from one of the gems in the statue. Immediately after he opens his eyes, the gems in the statue’s eyes begin to glow. Almost as if the statue was sentient and knew what the Gemkith was doing. Strangely both eyes aren’t glowing with a gray tone as he thought they would. One is a deep black that is emitting unnaturally dark rays of light. Roald turns to his pupil with a look of grimace. His typically strong and certain voice carries a tone of distress. “Ephraim, that is Black Topaz. Its essence carries the repulsive power of necromancy. I’m sorry that I brought you here.” As the instructor finishes his sentence, Ephraim’s stomach turns in knots. All of the bones in the room lift from the floor as if a puppeteer pulled their strings. The bones all lock together with unnerving knocking and crunching, furthering the unsettled feeling in the student’s stomach. There is a brief silence. After a brief moment it is abruptly ended when the shifting sound of the skeleton’s sliding feet fills the room as they all turn toward them. The holes of their skulls are suddenly and simultaneously ignited with light blue flames. They all bend down to pick up weaponry before standing. Deafening screams come from the animated bones and fill the room as they all begin to advance toward the two Gemkith. Ephraim covers his ears and his face gives a distressed look as the steeled composure returns to his teacher. Roald has resigned himself to his fate.
“Get behind me!” Roald yells. Ephraim scrambles to pull jewels from his pouch as he follows the command. The teacher’s eyes glow green lighting the look of solemn determination on his face as he lifts his hands to bring two stone slabs from the floor into the air by a skeleton. The large rocks slam together as the gem-master claps his hands. He separates them and places the flooring back in place as the heap of bone shards fall into a pile on the floor. In moments the shards reform to make two whole skeletons again. “That’s what I feared. We can’t physically kill something that is already dead. All we can do is fight to hold them back as we formulate a strategy.” Before he can finish his statement, a skeleton has reached them and swings an axe at Ephraim, but the attack freezes mid-swing. He looks over to see Roald’s eyes emanating a light blue light. As the grand mage raises his hand, the skeleton is lifted off of the ground. With a sweep of his arm, Roald slams the monster into its neighbor causing them both to explode into pieces.
The noise snaps Ephraim out of his trance. He quickly looks at the stones in his hand. Amethyst and Garnet. Manifestation and fire control. A sudden scream from behind him breaks his concentration. He turns around to see another skeleton about to strike him, but its skull gets crushed between two rocks. “Ephraim, focus!” Roald shouts. “Use this to get started.” The two rocks rub against each other and cause a spark. Ephraim seizes the opportunity by igniting a fire from the flash using his Garnet. As the flame floats by his face, it lights his look of hesitant confidence. In one motion he turns and swings his arm causing a giant flame to crash into a wave of skeletons. The clacking of bones knocking together accompanied by the whoosh of the flame fills the room as skeletons are pushed back into each other. He continues to move his arms to keep control of the blazing flame. One by one the skeletons are blasted by the flare.
“Do we have a plan yet?” The student yells.
“Hardly, but I am open to ideas.”
“It’s hard to focus while we are doing all of this fighting.” Suddenly Ephraim remembers the gem in his other hand. He lets the fireball dissipate as he uses the Amethyst to form a bubble around them that quickly becomes surrounded by skeletons pounding on it with weapons.
“Great thinking, Ephraim, but I’m afraid we are delaying a sure fate. There hasn’t been an instructor that has lived to tell how to defeat such a wealth of undead.” The student shakes his head in despair as he feels the knot returning to his stomach. In a last hope he pulls some gems from his pouch to look at every last option. He glances over every precious stone.
Citrine, wind control, nope; Garnet, fire control, nope; Pink Tourmaline, powers of the mind, nope. Just as he begins to lose all hope, he fixates on one particular jewel. “Diamond!” He shouts. “What if we tried to use the pure healing qualities of the diamond to counter the impure dark qualities of the necromancy?” Roald’s issues a well-earned look of pride in his pupil.
“Now you are thinking, Ephraim.” Several skeletons pound on the waning shield as the apprentice opens his hand toward his teacher, offering the diamond to him. Roald closes his student’s hand back around the gems. “You can do this. This is your lesson, even if it fails to our doom. Now, you have to focus much harder on a quality gem like this than you do with elemental ones, but I have faith in you.” The instructor takes the Amethyst from Ephraim’s other hand, and the shield glows a little brighter as his stronger power over the gem’s essence takes over. Ephraim’s body tingles with a mixture of excitement, pride… and fear. He drops the rest of the gems back into his pouch as his eyes turn white and glow. He looks up at a skeleton that is about to swing a hammer at the bubble with ferocity and throws a punch at it. It shatters to pieces and the shards emit a white light as they disintegrate. Roald looks over his shoulder at his student, his shoulder hiding his smile.
Suddenly a roar bellows from the stone owl. The ground around it crumbles as a body stands from beneath the floor. The owl head sits atop a well-toned, male, human body that towers almost as tall as the 100′ room. It raises its arm to pound its enemies. “Ephraim, you only get one chance at this! Make it count!” A hole forms above Ephraim and Roald’s eyes get a blue tint as he uses his Apatite’s telekinetic powers to launch Ephraim into the air. The statue’s giant fist smashes the shield which causes it to stumble back momentarily. As the teacher holds Ephraim in the air, completely exposed to attacks, the apprentice closes his eyes and clenches the diamond at his chest. The world feels like it slows down around him and the noise of the room turns to a whisper. He focuses, deeply. His veins begin to feel as if a hurricane is flowing through them. A light begins shining through where his eyelids meet. Finally he opens them and an immensely-bright, white light radiates from his eyes. When he speaks it sounds as if he and the feminine essence of the crystal speak as one.
“Be at rest!” He throws a punch and a massive beam projects from his fist as he is suspended in air. The temple begins to quake at the unleashed force of the beams projection and sand filters through the cracks in the ceiling all around him. As he slowly turns waves of skeletons evaporate in the beam.
During this time the giant effigy has prepared its second attack and swings its colossal arm at Roald. “Finish it, Ephraim!” He shouts as the stone fist bats him into the wall. As Ephraim begins his descent, he finishes the last undead enemy and pulls all of his gems from his pouch. He lifts his hand and a rainbow of colors shine from inside. In seconds the giant sculpture becomes contorted. Its body shifts into unnatural shapes for several moments before turning iridescent and blowing into tiny pieces. As Ephraim hits the ground, he falls to his knees and the shimmering shards of statue float as they fall around him reflecting light like a mass of glitter. He is physically and mentally exhausted. Every ounce of his being aches and screams in agony as he closes his eyes in utter weariness. He knows that he isn’t finished though. Looking into his hand, he notices that the Diamond is beginning to crack as what is left of its essence starts to leak out.
“I know you’re tired too, but I have one more job for you.” The Gemkith gathers what is left of his strength to stand. His body groans defiantly as he hobbles over to his fallen trainer. The echo of his feet dragging carries through the room for what feels like an eternity as he pushes himself across the battle-ridden floor. He falls to his knees again as he reaches Roald. With his last ounce of strength he puts the Diamond against the grand-mage’s chest. A faint light glows from underneath for a second before it fades and the diamond crumbles to pieces on the trainer’s fallen body. Ephraim collapses. Minutes of uncertainty pass in silence. Slowly Roald’s eyes open. He lets out an unobtrusive moan as he turns his head to look around the room. The muscles in his neck tense painfully. His subtle laugh is intruded by a small cough.
“You did it.” He whispers more to himself than anything as he looks on his unconscious student. Every muscle in his body screams in pain as he reaches into his gem pouch. He pulls his hand out slowly and picks out a quartz before dropping the rest of the stones back into the pouch. His fist smacks as it falls against the cold, stone floor as his strength fails and a faint orange luminance begins to shine from inside it. The two men begin to feel as if lightning is coursing through their broken bodies as the crystal gives them renewed strength and energy. The weariness of battle still sits heavily on them from the outside, but the vigor of strength from the Quartz dances with life inside of them. Roald stands up and dusts off his robe. Ephraim rolls onto his back with a look of confusion on his face. The teacher looks at him with his regained composure. “This is the first time you have been under the effects of Quartz I take it.” Ephraim sits up and rubs his forehead, the unmistakable ache remaining.
“Am I supposed to feel like I could lift off of the floor any second?”
“The feeling will pass.” As Roald bends down next to him, the orange light from his eyes glean off of Ephraim’s cheek, even at the foot and a half distance between them. “I’m not entirely sure what I saw before losing consciousness is correct, but I think you might have reached Cumulative Mass when you were using that Diamond.”
“Really? That’s.. wow.”
“Do you understand fully what that is, Ephraim?”
“Well, I remember a brief conversation in class.” Seeing the look of disbelief in his professor’s eyes, the illusion that he is fooling him fades and he changes his tone. “Uh. What is Cumulative Mass exactly?”
“I thought you might want to know.” Roald says with a mockingly raised brow. “Cumulative Mass is when you get so attuned with the jewel’s essence that it emanates within you. Almost to the point of combining with your essence. Your soul that is. It’s a dangerous process though, because your soul uniquely designed for you. Allowing the process to take full effect would be a great offense to your being.” He pulls Ephraim to his feet. “Ultimately when the two essences resonate so closely together your physical being expounds upon itself to the point of exhaustion. That’s why we are depending on this Quartz to get us to a safe place to rest.” Roald begins walking with his apprentice toward the jewels that fell from the statue that rest across the room. “Let’s go collect your prize before this Quartz gives way.”
As Ephraim bends down and picks up the Agate, he looks over at the Black Topaz. It captivates him, placing him a trance. The allure of the gem pulls at him as if a magnetic force was pulling him toward it. The room darkens in his sight and the only glimmer of light he sees is fixated solely on the mesmerizing jewel. The draw is broken as a stone hammer smashes the Topaz to bits. Ephraim jumps up in a fit of rage. His blood boils unnaturally as he stands with his face inches from Roald’s.
“Why did you smash that? We could clearly have used it! Can you imagine the hordes of armies we could obliterate with an undead army?”
Roald fights back his anger as he knows Ephraim is speaking from the remnants of the control of the gem. He speaks firmly. “Black Topaz uses a dark magic that tempts the user. Just as every time a man accustomed to doing good sins he can feel his soul blacken, every time you use that stone’s magic you feel a part of your being ripped away.”
“So don’t use it. I can use it. You shouldn’t have a say in what I use.”
“It would tear you apart, Ephraim. Take a look at how you are behaving now. You are clearly not yourself, and that’s after only looking at it.” The words ring clearly for Ephraim’s. He looks down to realize that he has grabbed his professor’s robe unknowingly. As he releases Roald and steps back he feels like a dark veil has been lifted from his mind, and it is replaced with embarassment.
“You’re, uh, right. I’m sorry.”
“Worry not. You weren’t yourself.” The instructor assures as he pats his pupil’s shoulder. The gesture does little to calm Ephraim’s shame. “We need to get moving to the nearest inn or this Quartz will give out and we may find ourselves resting unwillingly in a dangerous place.” Roald’s arm moves to the middle of Ephraim’s back for both physical and emotional support and the two continue to talk amongst themselves as they work their way back to the temple entrance.