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The door of the capital’s city hall slammed open and a dead body
skidded along the polished white marble floor, leaving a red trail
behind; worse, however, was the smell of rotting flesh. The mayor
didn’t believe his eyes.
Instead of the guards, a money bag sailed through the open
door, nearly hitting the mayor’s head and leaving a depression in the
wall behind him. The bag bursted and gold coins were scattered around
the whole room.
‘Your guards won’t come, my Lord.’
A large man entered the room, wearing a cloak as black as his
hair; he stepped towards the mayor.
‘I thought you might want to have your money back, my Lord.’
The mayor’s eyes filled with terror.
‘And while we are at it, I have slight doubts that you are the
right man for this kind of work. Too bad it’s a lifetime position. Too
bad for you, that is.’
The screaming sounded through the whole building.
Laiva was still standing in the hall. Judging from the movement of the
light beams, cast through the window, not much more than an hour had
passed. It sure felt like an eternity, though. To have something to do
she had started reading the mosaic patterns, but, somehow, she
couldn’t really make sense of them. Floor patterns could be found in
every house and she understood their symbolic language, as everyone
did, but the patterns in this hall were much more complex than
anything she’d ever seen before; half of the symbols she couldn’t make
sense of and the others appeared in strange combinations. And there
was something else. Either her memory was playing tricks on her or the
mosaic rearranged itself; one second she tried to make sense of a
special combination and the next moment she wasn’t able to find it
again. Something was going on and she wasn’t sure that she liked it.
For example, she could have sworn that that Azanee plant in front of
her had been a lime only one second before, and what looked like an
‘H’ and ‘I’, just left of it, had been a triangle the last time she
had looked. It took some time until Laiva caught up with her thoughts.
‘Does it do that with everyone?’ Laiva greeted the testers
when they returned. She was still standing were they had left her.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘The floor, does it talk to everyone?’
‘The floor? Either you are trying to fool us or hallucinating,
girl. Well, it seems the test of patience has been f…’
The two other board members looked into the puzzled face of their
colleague, then they followed his gaze to the ground.
‘Erm, fine, well done… I think.’
In front of them were big blue letters, forming the words
‘are’, ‘you’ and ‘sure’.
‘Follow us then.’
After passing a dozen passages and doors, the last one finally opened
to the outside. Laiva was at first dazzled by the bright light, but
when her eyes adapted she was, to her surprise, presented with an
overwhelming view. They were in a small valley, surrounded by high
mountains. Not a single cloud could be seen in the blue sky and a
small stream completed the picture. A picture by someone who didn’t
care much about realism; this looked just too idyllic to be real – and
yet it was. They were definitely not even close to the capital, for it
was in the middle of the plains and here, well, here were mountains.
Laiva looked back only to see that had just left a castle. What was
going on here?
‘Are we in Asterion?’ she wondered aloud, uttering the first
guess coming to her mind.
‘Yes, we are.’ one of the testers answered. So this was the
legendary bastion of the order, somewhere in the mountains – and far
away from the capital.
A small door opened to a garden. It was surrounded by a high brick
wall, shielding it from everyone’s views. On the second look the
garden turned out to be a combination of a meditation place and
training ground, rather than an ordinary garden. Between the trees
stretched a complex network of ropes, obviously for balancing and
climbing. There were poles in different heights, just big enough to
stand on, and the stones, seemingly placed completely at random,
completed a training course. You could even cross the pond without
touching the water. Whoever had designed this place had been a real
‘Have you any experience with these?’
One of the testers tossed Laiva a staff that had been leaning on the
wall. Laiva caught it.
‘Some, but not much.’
The tester waved with his hand and a boy appeared in the door;
about her age and quite a bit larger. He gave Laiva a pity look, but
didn’t say a word.
‘This is one of last year’s applicants. Just try your best.
You start on these flat stones in the middle of the pond. No magic. If
you touch the ground or the water you lose. Any questions? Good.’
Laiva and the boy took their positions on the stones. He
looked much stronger than her, was certainly used to fighting with
staves and knew the place. Her skills, on the other hand were quite
basic; she didn’t stand a chance against him in an open fight. Her
only advantage seemed to be that he was obviously underestimating her;
but perhaps there was another way to beat him than plain fighting.
‘All right? Then begin.’
With a quick movement the pupil pushed his staff forward – and
hit thin air. Laiva had already jumped back and was now running along
the course, jumping from stone to stone, from pole to pole. When he
realized what had happened, Laiva already climbed up one of the ropes.
He wasn’t sure what to do; that had never happened before.
‘Come and get me, if you can.’
Cursing, the boy started following her, but Laiva was already
hurrying along a rope, connecting the tree she had climbed with one in
the other corner of the garden. Using her staff to keep her balance,
she reached the far end, sat down on a branch and watched the boy
trying to do as she had. He fell instantly. Yet he managed to grab the
rope with his hands and started pulling himself along. Impressing, but
that wouldn’t help him. When he was directly over the pond Laiva threw
her staff like a spear, hitting his chest hard. He instinctively
groped for his it and, with a cry and a loud splash, he hit the water.