Fan fiction:The Mage Academy of Gea Kul/Chapter Eight
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Zia's time came, just two weeks later. Her trial was to be a special one, held with an audience composed entirely of Maesters. The advancement rituals were usually held in the largest auditorium, for dozens of students in a given level, with an audience of Maesters and older students. (But not younger, for they were permitted no advance knowledge of the trials they were one day to undertake.) For Zia's we decided to exclude all students, since her ordeal was to be a unique one, devised solely for the occasion. She was not being presented with any of the usual puzzles and tests of book knowledge and memorization. Instead, the girl was tasked with demonstrating a suitably-high level of skill at shaping and controlling three of the chief forms of magery: fire, ice, and lightning. After each of the three, a majority vote of the Maesters present would determine if she had shown sufficient skill to advance.
Though the testing method was original, the rest of the traditional elements were being preserved. Zia would still have to swear the standard oaths and bonds of loyalty, and she was to be marked with brands and tattoos, as all students of her level were. And of course, she would have to endure the ritual without the crutches any sort of armor or weapons. I wish I could report that several of the male Maesters had not spent the intervening period all but drooling over the prospect of seeing Zia unclothed. Their behavior was even worse on the day of the ritual, and before the girl had even appeared on the raised stage, any number of black robed dignitaries were seated in the front row, their brows beaded with drops of anticipatory perspiration.
I'd done away with a special box or raised dais for the Archmaester years before, and I entered with the other professors and took a seat in the back row, near Maester Shien. She gave me a little smile, clearly sharing my anxiety about the day's event, and when I looked hard at the eager men in the front row, then looked away in disgust, Shien caught my eye and whispered under her breath, her tone wry.
"Perhaps we should fetch them ales and urge them to clap and whistle, like sailors at a burlesque?" I chuckled, amazed as I so often was by Shien's ability to know just what I was thinking.
Before I could reply, Zia emerged from the rear of the stage and walked to a marked square. There she stopped at the command of Maester Balstoy, an aged man who had officiated the student trials for more than half a century. Following Balstoy's instructions carefully, Zia bowed to the audience, stated her name, recited a sacred pledge, and so forth. I'd tried to streamline the ritual and ceremony of these trials since my first year as Arch Maester, but had so far made no headway. In this area, tradition still held most firm, with the nearly unanimous support of the other Maesters.
Stifling a yawn, I tapped my fingers together. Despite my boredom I did not take my eyes off of Zia, and while I'd like to claim that was out of concern for her, it was more about the fact that she was going to drop her robes as soon as Balstoy told her to begin. The audience was nearly breathless, waiting for that magical moment, and as I sat amidst the trembling throng, I thought that perhaps this would give me the votes to update the rank ceremony. Enduring Balstoy's endless pronouncements was clearly trying the patience of the Maesters, when Zia's nudity waited just on the other side of them.
Finally, after an interminable delay, Balstoy was satisfied and gestured for Zia to proceed. She did so at once, and without ceremony she let her robes slide down her arms and puddle to the floor. There she was, suddenly nude before our eyes, and for a moment I was conscious of nothing else. Unlike most of life's other great anticipations, the sight of Zia naked lived up to and surpassed my every expectation. She was flawless. Thinner and more muscular than I would have guessed, and the nipples that crowned her high, firm, perfect breasts were larger and darker than I would have believed. A realization I made even as I felt a burning shame at making it.
When she strode to the first testing area, walking quickly on the balls of her feet, the tensing muscles in her legs elicited sighs of admiration. Sighs that changed to gasps when Zia reached the first station and immediately threw high her hands, causing a spinning ring of flame to appear a few yards above her fingertips. It hissed and crackled, the flames chasing themselves round and round like a headless dragon. Zia held it there for a moment, then lowered her arms, causing the wreath of fire to descend until it encircled her completely. If Zia felt the heat, which was intense enough that the front row of the audience was raising their hands to protect their faces, she gave no sign. Her expression was peaceful, her eyes half-lidded, and I thought I'd never seen her more beautiful.
After a long moment she caused the flames to grow wider, stretching up and down to obscure her from ankles to temples, and just as the flame threatened to hide her entirely from our gaze, she leapt through them, landing neatly on the stone stage beyond the ring of fire. Behind her the conflagration raged for a moment, the ring compressing to a pillar, before it suddenly collapsed, puffs of the inferno licking across the floor until they splashed into the stone barrier between the audience and the stage.
There was a moment of silence, before shouts and cheers, and even some applause rushed through the Maesters. No nays were voiced, and after a moment Maester Balstoy, the orator of the trial, struck his drum and spoke loudly.
"The novice has demonstrated her skill with flame, and passed through a wall of fire, as ordained. She will now show her mastery over the element of lightning."
Balstoy's deep voice echoed through the theater, cutting through the excited murmuring in the audience. United in awe, the Maesters watched as Zia strode quickly to the next station. It was fire all over again, with her arms raised the moment she was in place, and an amazing spell seconds later. This time she caused bolts of lightning to crackle down from the empty air above her, and somehow caught the arcs, holding them to her body. They crawled over her, sizzling and snapping like angry snakes as they writhed over her skin.
The effect was as amazing as it was erotic, and I watched with my mouth hanging open as the crackling blue and white light illuminated every inch of Zia's nude flesh. Captivated as I was by her exposed beauty, I also felt amazed at her magery. I'd seen wizards call down lightning bolts, and sometimes draw the crackling energy into their hands before launching an attack, but how was Zia maintaining the charges, and enduring their power as they ran over and through her body? How did her skin not blacken beneath their blistering heat?
There was no time to ask, and it was all I could do to clap along with the rest when Zia finally dispelled the lightning, sending the energy skittering along the floor like a simple spell of Charged Bolts. She hardly waited for Maester Balstoy to intone her success before she strode to the final station, having spent less time on stage than many students did just dropping their robes and preparing to cast their first spell.
Zia's third trial was ice, and while I waited for her to amaze us again, I reflected on the way these tests had been selected. There were many types of magery beyond fire, ice, and lightning. Teleportation for one, and while Zia had improved greatly, she was still little better than a novice at that skill. Her ability to wield the Arcane magics was also fairly rudimentary, and when none of the Maesters had suggested testing her in those areas during the long meetings leading up to this trial, I had breathed a sigh of relief.
Instead my fellows had selected fire, ice, and lightning for her test, and I'd known she would pass long before this day. She was even better with these elements than I'd expected, and as I watched her summon a black cloud, then stand beneath it as heavy flakes of snow began to blanket the stage, I could only smile. Snow poured down over the naked girl, forming drifts that heaped almost to her waist. A minute later she was neck deep, and as soon as the falling snow covered her head, Zia's enchantment refashioned itself.
The falling snow ceased, and was replaced by ice. Just pebbles of it at first, like hail, but soon the falling chunks were as long as a finger, than a hand, and then a forearm. Like the heads of spears, they plunged down, skewering through the puffy snow beneath which Zia had vanished. Some missed their target and crashed to the stones, and the musical chiming of breaking ice filled the room as shards bounced in every direction.
This bizarre bombardment continued for another half minute until the cloud was abruptly dispersed, the fall of ice ceased, and with a loud crack, Zia reappeared atop the pile of ice and show she'd constructed. Her arms were raised, her face was alight with triumph, and I am not ashamed to say I was one of the first to rise to my feet, applauding her demonstration. Even the skeptics, Gutherie and his contingent, had to join in. We'd all witnessed far less impressive displays earn men and women the status of Maester, and the idea that a mage of this much power, a girl who would hardly have been a first rank under any normal circumstances, was now a Fifth, amazed us all.
Zia's ordeal was not yet over though, and she knew it. She did not bask in the applause, and instead slid down the heap of ice and marched to an ancient stone chair that stood at one end of the elevated stage. As she walked Balstoy cried out her successful completion of the trial, and he was still speaking when Zia perched in the chair and submitted herself to two other Maesters and their ceremonial tools. They began the tattooing at once, permanently marking Zia, as we all had been, with scrollwork designs that denoted the Academy to which we belonged and the rank which we had achieved.
After the tattoos came the brands, which most students rightly dreaded. Zia was receiving two today, a prospect that caused me sympathetic pain. Only one was usually applied per ritual, but since Zia was leaping so far ahead Balstoy had decreed that she must take two in succession. She'd have to take two again, on her next advancement, just to catch up to the four brands that most sixth level students bore. Not that there was any guarantee that Zia would only advance one rank next time. My fellows would never let her leap right to Maester, not so soon, but she would surely deserved to be a Seventh or Eighth, if she continued to progress with even a fraction of the blurring speed she'd shown so far.
If Zia dreaded the brands, she gave no sign, and never once turned her head to gaze upon the two irons, glowing red in the flames of a brazier that stood not far from her chair.
As for her tattoos, the room was too dark and Zia too far away for me to make out anything of their design. No two tattoos were ever the same, for the Maesters who performed them claimed always that the Gods moved through them, creating original designs that were most in tune with each student that passed beneath their hands. One man was hard at work crafting a design across the outside of Zia's left knee, while the other was inking the top of her right shoulder. They worked with magical speed, the needles on their tools flickering up and down, enchanted ink, fortified with various rare elements, flowing and mixing with occasional trickles of shed blood.
During the inking their lips never stopped moving as they chanted a sacred litany. Zia matched them, repeating words as directed, but never looking down to mark their progress. I suspected she was lost to a euphoria at having passed the exam; I could hardly remember the application of any of my tattoos, so relieved had I been every time. The brands though... those I remembered, and almost unconsciously I ran my fingers over the one atop my right shoulder. I wore others on my forearms, my right shin, my left hip, and the worst of them, a curving serpent on my right buttock. I'd been unable to sit for weeks after receiving that one, a mark of achievement I received after advancing to the eighth rank, the final stage below Maester.
The location of the brands varied as much as did the tattoos; again it was said that the Gods determined the placement, and that the Maester wielding the iron was just a vessel through which flowed divine inspiration. That's what we told the students, anyway. I never thought they believed it. I know I hadn't, and during those weeks of eating standing up and sleeping on my stomach I'd often wondered what I had done to offend Maester Balstoy.
Yes, he was that old, ancient enough to have been the officiant during my time as a student. I'd never witnessed it, but there were rumors of certain wicked students receiving brands on their faces, or even directly on their genitalia. Shien bore one on her lower back, and had once confessed to me that during the ritual, when Balstoy had commanded her to turn around and bend over, she had nearly refused, suddenly certain he was going to use the glowing metal to sear shut her womanly orifice.
I hoped Zia would not fare so poorly, and crossed my fingers when the tattoos were finally finished and Maester Balstoy made an official announcement. All that remained was the branding and the final oaths, and when Balstoy raised high the first iron, the double cross design glowing red hot, then beckoned Zia to stand and turn around, I joined the audience in a collective intake of breath.
Balstoy took a few seconds to savor the moment, before lowering the iron to Zia's left shoulder blade and holding it there for a count of three. That was longer than the mark was usually applied, but Zia did not cry out or shrink away, even as a stink like scorched pork rose up from her scalded flesh. For the second brand, the sign of the twisted snake, the Maester pushed her back into the chair, then seized her left foot, tossing it up and over the arm rest. Zia was now exposed before him, though thanks to the angle and the high armrests, no one in the audience could see clearly the treasure that the old Maester was nearly face to face with.
Zia must have been terrified, her position worse than Shien's had been so many years ago, but she did not move a muscle, even as Balstoy moved the heated metal upwards, holding it near enough to Zia's inner thigh to singe hairs. As the glowing iron moved ever higher, I found myself standing, a cry at my lips. Shien was standing beside me, her face knotted, her hands pressed protectively to her belly, but before either of us could take action, Balstoy swung to the side and pressed the glowing metal into Zia's right inner thigh, midway between her knee and groin. She did not cry out, though I saw her fists clench the leather straps on the chair's arms, her grip trembling.
At last, after three seconds that seemed endless, Maester Balstoy stood back, took one last look at his handiwork, then hung the iron back on the hook beside the brazier. Zia remained motionless, her leg still up on the armrest, and at that point I realized how cruel a brand that had been. She would feel it with every step she took for weeks, as she would literally be unable to hold her thighs together without pain. Balstoy had meant some sort of lesson, that much was clear. Did he believe the rumors and think Zia a whore, one who deserved to be branded in a location that could not be overlooked every time she welcomed a man? Or was he making an ironic statement, by making it literally impossible for Zia to keep her thighs together, at least until the brand healed?
Stepping close to the chair, Maester Balstoy took her by the arm, forcing Zia to her feet. With her standing beside him, he recited the final oaths, waited for Zia to repeat them, and then announced that the student had successfully completed the ritual. And with that, Zia was officially promoted to the fifth level, an impressive rank that had never before been held by anyone so young.
And assuredly never will again, given how disastrous were Zia's few remaining months in the Academy.
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