THESE BRIGHT LIGHTS HAVE ALWAYS BLINDED ME: in which the Trials of the Mage conclude with a duel in the dark

After lunch, we went back into the second half of the challenges.

The sixth puzzle was hard. We were each given a hexagonal piece in our pockets with word fragments around it and asked to find out what the command word was to open the door. We’d have to speak it to the dragon statue guardians or get vaporized. Some of us had the same “word” fragment written on different parts of our hexagon. My hexagon had a red “R” in the center and the words “red herring” circling around it, which I thought was pretty cool until I found out that no one else’s hexagon matched mine.

Honestly, this one I had no idea what to do until we asked a hint of the wizard running this part of the trial, which was to find the command word, and I saw that some of the words around the hexagons spelled out “command word is…” but then time ran out before I could puzzle out the rest of it and we failed.

All in all, not my finest work.

The seventh puzzle was a massive chess game with many of the pieces removed. Our goal was to reach the door on the other side, with the firm instruction that we were not to touch the board or bad things would happen. Having an idea what those bad things might be, judging from the weapons each piece carried, we boarded the rook and rode it across the board to the other side without incident.

Harry had to hang onto the rook’s side versus riding on top with the rest of us because there just wasn’t enough room, but he managed to hold on thanks to sheer monk stoic endurance. There was also another “R” carved into the other side of the board.

The eighth puzzle was loud, and that was because it was a series of six pillars called “chompers” that smashed down and crushed everything beneath them. There was an order to the smashing, or chomping– first, third fifth, first, sixth, third, second, fifth, fourth– that would repeat every six seconds. The platforms were each twenty feet across, and to traverse them, we were given four Brooms of Flying. Etched into the handle was the letter “N.”

Being six people, we decided that the gnomes would share and somehow Awk got on my broom. I was already kind of worried about navigating this thing and having someone else depend on me not to smash them was more stress than I really wanted, but luckily Zeno and Felegum came up with a strategy to dodge the chomping. Felegum, being a big fan of wizards, was unsurprisingly good at logical puzzles, and Zeno’s musical expertise lent him an edge here.

I just followed along.

Flying was fun, though. I was still trying to keep my magic on the down-low, given that I wasn’t sure whether or not we’d need an ace in the hole for getting Milto’s stuff out of the vaults. I kind of missed it, but that last time when the girl in my dreams had flown into me had made me more cautious about using it. The fact that I’d managed to trick Felegum into not registering me properly at Paripas’ gates was icing on the give-the-magic-a-rest cake.

And it was nice not having dreams that caused me to bolt upright in the middle of the night and remind me of all the things I wasn’t doing.

But part of magic is that it’s just fun. And I missed flying, or falling with wings, or whatever it was that I did, even as I was sweating it out hauling Awk between giant chomping stone slabs.

We all landed, safe and un-flattened, and entered the ninth challenge.

This time we were in a room with three orbs, and an elf in purple robes told us to “choose the form of the monster you shall face.”

Finally. I cracked my knuckles. A battle.

There were three smaller pillars, each with an orb atop it. The first was an inky blackness, the second swirled with wind and snow, and the third was sand and wind.

I’d honestly had enough of wind and snow coming into this place, and sand and wind, as much as they felt familiar, also hit a little too close to home still. Inky darkness, though? Hell yeah.

The others seemed to be on board, though Harry raised a good point about maybe us needing to say the name of something we wanted to battle with the orbs merely deciding the environment (he was not keen on the darkness orb since, well, he was the only one of us who couldn’t see well in the dark).

So, Felegum took the black orb and said, “Goldfish.”

We were transported to a dark cavern, dimly lit, with three illithids facing us.

Despite the amount of tentacles they sported, I was pretty sure that these were a far cry from goldfish.

Harry, who thankfully could still see in the semi-darkness, moved closer. “Uh, hello?”

There was no immediate response. Zeno moved and got ready to unleash whispers from his bagpipes, and I hid against some rocks and moved closer, just enough to be within striking distance should any one pull any fanciness on Harry. I couldn’t see her, but it seemed like Helli had done the same.

Then there was that same hummingbird quickness I’d felt before in Borne when we’d been fighting Chip– everything around me slowed down and my heart sped up. I glanced back at Felegum, who’d just finished casting his spell, and I felt super cool.

Then the illithids unleashed a mind attack, or did something with their minds to Awk, Felegum, and Harry, who winced in the shadows nearby. Thus provoked, Zeno’s bagpipes whispered out at the creatures and Harry tore into them with a flurry of monkish blows.

I sped in from the shadows…and it was at that point that I realized that I had absolutely no items.

But I couldn’t just leave Harry there by himself.

No armor. No weapons. I was a little faster and that was great, but I’m not that strong a person. My first punch took the illithid Harry had hit by surprise, but my second was nothing to write home about. The other strike missed entirely.

Helli, meanwhile, called out that she’d found her weapons.

“My body is a weapon!” Harry called. I looked at my fist, decidedly not very weapon-like.

Then Awk, as Awk was wont to do, called forth a Moonbeam on the illithids and also on Harry and me.

“Sorry!” He called, even though we’d all lost track of the number of times Awk had hit us with something at this point. Well, maybe Harry hadn’t. I had a feeling that Harry kept a detailed record of these wrongs.

Somewhere behind us, Felegum tried casting a spell and the thing fizzled out. He called to me to use my newly bestowed extreme speed to explore the rest of the cave, which looked like it went farther back in the direction opposite of the illithids, except I was kind of loathe to leave Harry on his own.

Then the illithids did another mind thing on everyone, and it sucked. Like, it sucked so badly that Zeno and Felegum were just blinking for a little bit, and then Harry got a good old serving of tentacles to the face. I needn’t’ve worried, though, because he broke free of them shortly after and headbutted the one that had given us all gross headaches.

Seeing that things were (mostly) in hand and probably would be fine without me, I raced down the other end of the cave and found that it was a perfect spiral. I wasn’t in the world’s greatest condition after the first mind wave dealio, but it seemed a safe bet that there wouldn’t be anything over here. Inspired by Helli, I checked along the wall for another panel like the one she’d gotten her weapons out of. It took a little bit, but I found one.

Frustratingly, I didn’t quite have the strength necessary to wedge the panel open all the way immediately, but after a few shoves it revealed a hidden room with a button and the runes for “get a life!” in Common, Celestial, and a ton of other languages that I couldn’t read. The “G” was red.

Then another mind attack hit me through the walls, almost knocking me out. I punched the button and a surge of healing energy rushed through me and, I later found out, everyone else.

I ran back to the others as fast as I could, which turned out to be pretty fast.

And indeed, things had gone horribly wrong while I was gone: Zeno had been on the cusp on dying, Felegum and Awk had also been down, Harry had gotten mind-controlled, and Helli was deftly trying to avoid him. The heal had been timely.

Back up, Zeno’s bagpipes were whispering again and Felegum unleashed a Tidal Wave. Awk had become a bear and had a whole bunch of tentacles on his head, so I punched an illithid and winced. I had no idea how Harry did this on the regular; my hand just hurt and to add insult to injury, it didn’t even seem to be doing all that much.

Helli stabbed the second-to-last illithid in the eyeball and it departed the earth in a slump of tentacles, robes, and general dampness. There were Magic Missiles from Felegum and Awk tried to bite a tentacle and couldn’t get a bead on it.

The the illithid made this terrible grinding noise and it became abruptly clear that Bear-Awk’s skull was in danger of being drilled through. The bear form rippled and then his gnome self was back, head covered in tentacles.

Harry cleared his throat. “I believe you have my gnome?”

I almost had its brain, a weird voice said without actually speaking.

“We’re about to see how your insides look on the outside, bud.” Harry cracked his knuckles and then punched through the illithid. And with that, it was done and another seafood dish was ruined.

Freed, Awk slumped to the floor. There were a few moments when he didn’t move, but then he raised his head. “Lips or no lips?”

Zeno and I exchanged a glance, wondering if this was going to happen with every piscine entity we encountered.

But, we couldn’t linger too long. We went through a door that had newly emerged in one of the walls– I had a brief moment of concern wondering if Kheryph was still secretly hidden in a wall panel here– and into the tenth room.

It was just an alphabet of red letters. Our instructions were to choose one.

“It’s the Red Herring thing,” I said. “What letter are we missing?”

Felegum and Zeno yelled “I” and Awk took it and sprinted to the last door.

And this time, when it opened, we were back in the arena, full of spectators and light and cheers. There were other teams there too, ones who looked as exhausted as we did, and as we rested on the grass and waited for the rest of the groups to finish, names flashed on an illuminated board with scores: The Orc Squad, Stagger Lee’s Gang, the Red Right Hand, Handsome Bill’s Troupe, the Crows, the Jungle Scouts…and then the Sovereign Dungeoneering Company, with 387.

The team below us was the Red Right Hand with 380.

We did it. We’d won.

“Congratulations, Sovereign Dungeoneering Company, champions of the Mage’s Trials!” An announcer boomed, magically magnified. “You have earned an invitation to the Mage’s College.”

And on top of that, we’d also earned a writ of credit to the Archmage’s Foundry, which was a fancy way of saying that we had a coupon for one free magical item.

Some of us knew what they wanted right away: Awk went for a small discreetly colored bag that he said was a Bag of Tricks or something, Zeno got a Pearl of Power (it fit the theme), Harry got a Ring of Mind-Shielding, Helli got Gloves of Thievery, and after some thought Felegum selected a Periapt of Wound Closure.

I kept going back and forth between several. The boots I’d wanted from before that would keep Kheryph (and me) warm constantly were there, and there were things that would let me disguise myself more easily, too.

But ultimately, I kept thinking about how much I missed being out in random fields near Greenrest, wings out, and trying not to fall. And how it always left me feeling kind of sad that they only lasted for a minute before they vanished.

I took the Broom of Flying.

I’d need to look into making a lizard harness for it eventually, but, floating down the streets of Paripas above the others as we headed back to the Axe of Fire to celebrate, the sun setting against the mages’ towers and glittering on the ice in the distance, it was everything I wanted.

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