by Louis Kemner

Chapter 1

Aeron Pryce, a twenty-year-old wind-type mage and the nephew of the Mage Force Academy's headmistress, heaved a deep sigh.

"How much more studying do I have to do, Kenna?" Aeron complained as he slumped across one of the Academy library's many worktables. Several leather-bound volumes lay scattered around him. "It's getting late." His blue and black student uniform felt itchy.

"Not yet, Aeron," said Kenna Reece, pushing her glasses up her nose. She was a plain-looking girl with long brown hair, but darn it, she was smart. And Aeron needed all the help his friend could provide.

Kenna held up a volume entitled Mages of the Ages, perhaps the author's idea of a joke. She made a teasing smile. "You still need to cram for tomorrow's exit exams! Why did you have to put off your studying until the last minute?"

Aeron groaned, burrowing his head into the sleeves of his uniform. "I thought I knew it all already."

"Well, I beg to differ." Kenna gently shoved Aeron's shoulder. "Heads up. Let's review a little more. Can you tell me who Unster the Great was?"

Aeron managed to sit up, running a hand through his short black hair and stifling a yawn. "The leader of the group of guys who used advanced alchemy to create the art of magecrafting one hundred years ago."

"'Group of guys'?"

Aeron grunted. So tired... "His followers and students. They gave magecraft to those wealthy and powerful enough to be considered 'worthy'. The noble families, politicians, doctors, lawyers, their families... a toy for the rich. It was hereditary, to ensure later generations of mages along chosen bloodlines."

"Toy isn't the word I'd use," Kenna commented. "So many historical events were shaped by magecrafting's creation."

"For one, the civil war that tore the old Republic apart," Aeron pointed out. "Pretty gruesome. It was the biggest war that the continent of Talwydd had ever seen!"

"Yeah," Kenna nodded. She pointed out a passage in the book. "Here: 'Unsatisfied by the intense social imbalance of magecrafting, the common people demanded equality, but the mages quickly established social dominance and created a new world order'."

Feeling like his brain was wrung dry, Aeron mumbled, "And so, a bloody civil war broke out that resulted in the mages' victory and the creation of the Talwydd Ascendancy, ruled entirely by mages."

It disgusted him.

Snapping Mages of the Ages closed, Kenna chuckled and stood up. "Oh all right, let's call it a night and get back to the dorms. I suppose that it is late."

"Very late, you mean," Aeron said, rolling his eyes and looking at the large copper-plated clock that ticked over the library's double doors. Steel gears and pistons quietly clicked and spun behind the clock face, and Aeron watched for a few seconds, fascinated. More importantly, it was just after 2300 hours... and the exit exams were due to start at 0600 hours!

"Still..." Aeron admitted, scooping up some of the books and carrying them to their shelf, "I oughta thank you for helping me review so much. I'd have been screwed."

Kenna beamed and blushed slightly as she picked up a few books and slid them into their shelves. "You're welcome, Aeron, but it's no trouble. I've been your unofficial tutor for months; it's kind of my job, I suppose."

"Sure is," Aeron commented, stretching his arms high to relieve his cramped muscles. "If I knew how much work all this would be, I might have refused when Aunt Catrina made me enroll here."

"Come on, be nice. She's just looking out for you, Aeron."

"Kinda like you." Aeron grinned and pointed at her.

This time, Kenna went fully red. "H-hey, we're just study partners. Okay?"

"Whatever you say."

Kenna headed to the library's front double doors with Aeron in tow. "So, let's cross our fingers that we get assigned to the same platoon when we graduate."

"I know," Aeron said. "And let's hope that our future platoon commander isn't a total ass, like the drill instructors around here are."

"Like Sergeant Quinn?"

"Especially Sergeant Quinn. Did you know that he once made me do five laps around practice arena five when I forgot to shave one morning?"

Kenna laughed as she pushed the doors open and chilly autumn air washed over the two students. They marched down the stone-cobble path across the Mage Force Academy, the biggest college campus in the capital city Golau. They were alone, given how late it was.

The midnight curfew would set in soon, so Aeron and Kenna made haste toward the looming brick-and-mortar student dorms. Overhead, the sky was crowded with stars and the moon frosted the campus' nearly-bare trees with light. Autumn leaves lay scattered on the ground.

When Aeron and Kenna reached the path that split between the boys' dorm and the girls', Aeron shrugged and gestured to his dorm. "Well... good night. See you bright and early."

Kenna opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again.

Aeron blinked. "What?"

"I-it's nothing."

"You sure?"

"Yes. It's really nothing, just... good luck, Aeron."

Aeron grinned again. "Thanks. You too."

Kenna smiled back and left for the girls' dorm. "See you tomorrow."


"So, you maggots think you have what it takes to become soldiers of the Mage Force? We'll see about that!" barked Drill Sergeant Quinn. He paced back and forth in front of a square formation of his students, a hundred strong.

Aeron stood near the front of that group, but he wished that he was at the back instead. At least I remembered to shave this morning.

The students stood at one end of the training grounds, a huge field at the west end of the academy's campus. A large circular pool, a cluster of trees, and several trenches provided variety in the terrain. The flag of the Talwydd Ascendancy waved on its towering pole at the other end of the grounds.

From here, Aeron could easily see the Ascendancy's logo on the rectangular flag: a thin black ring with a sky-blue interior, with two black crescent moons inside, the smaller nestled in the larger.

Sergeant Quinn continued, "Today, we are going to sort out the washouts from the Talwydd Ascendancy's future soldiers! Ever since birth, you were graced by your parents or grand-parents with the ultimate gift that elevates us from the non-mage rabble! You may have all passed the written test, but now, your magecrafting abilities will be tested to their fullest, and if you think that it'll be hell..." He lowered his voice with a nasty grin. "You're wrong. It will actually be worse."

What a drama queen, Aeron snorted. He had rarely seen so many students standing in one place, and he took this time to scope out the competition. Kenna was standing a few students to his right, her chin held high and her glasses glinting with sunlight. Aeron knew that her psychic-type magecrafting would make her better off as a support fighter instead of a trooper, and he vowed to keep her safe during the exams.

In front of Kenna stood another girl, this one with long, silver-blonde hair. Her lithe, curvy body was complimented by her regal features, and Aeron could already feel his heart racing at the sight of her. Siana Stewart, daughter of a noble family. She ran from home to be here... I hope she makes the most of it! She's stunning.

To Aeron's right stood Cadoc, a brawny user of kinetic force-type magecrafting. By what Aeron had heard, Cadoc could amplify his strength and speed to inhuman levels and release blasts of sheer energy.

Meanwhile, platoon commanders of the Mage Force watched from the bleachers, to decide who to recruit into their platoons. One commander stood out to Aeron, a calm woman with long silver hair and blue eyes. She reminded Aeron of an older Siana, but she had an aura of cold efficiency about her, something ruthless.

"On this day, we salute the mighty Talwydd Ascendancy!" Sergeant Quinn shouted. "We are its eternal guardians, the keepers of the law! Without it, we are nothing. For the Ascendancy!" He made the traditional salute by thumping his left fist to his heart.

"For the Ascendancy!" one hundred students boomed as one, mirroring the salute.

"Very good." Quinn stood back. "Now comes the hard part."


The final test was set not on the training field, but the adjacent forest. Aeron had heard students call it "Terror Forest."

Now he knew why.

Sunlight barely poked through the forest's thick canopy, leaving only narrow gold shafts in the gloom. Aeron panted as he ran through the wilderness with his fellows, eyes alert for danger. Sergeant Quinn had gleefully warned them of "any and all dangers to your success", but so far, Aeron didn't see a thing. Maybe that was the point.

"Hey, Kenna. Find anything?" Aeron huffed as he leaped over a tree root. He could feel the one-hour time limit ticking away.

Kenna scowled as her magecrafting expanded in an aura around her. "Sorry. Nothing."

"Don't worry about it!" Cadoc called over. "I'll just smash aside whatever comes. You guys just stay close to me, okay?"

"Look at you, tough guy," Aeron commented. "When you're eyes-deep in hostiles, just try and take your own advice."

"Which part?"

"Not panicking."

"Of course," Cadoc grinned. "I would never -"

Cadoc yelped as as jet of flame burst from the green-tinted gloom. Just in time, he threw himself onto his belly and let the flames roar over him, but Aeron could smell his uniform smoking. "Hostiles!" Cadoc blurted.

"I see them!" Kenna said, pressing her fingers to her temples. "Four Drill Sergeants, coming from the north-east. Two flame-types, one ice, one earth."

Some of the other students sprinted past the developing battle, while others fanned out to meet the threat, various elements of magecrafting flaring up in their hands. Aeron had stopped running, now waiting for the Sergeants to emerge. He clenched his fists, and hardened air whirled tensely around them.

One second of silence. Two...

Knife-sized icicles shot out of the underbrush like bullets. Several cadets shouted in alarm and dove for cover, while others stood their ground. One of them melted a few icicles with a blast of flame, and another countered with his own ice. But one slower cadet cried out as icicles drove into his chest, throwing him onto his back. Blood seeped into his uniform.

"Aeron!" Kenna seized Aeron's arm, her eyes wide.

"There's bound to be medics on hand to take him away," Aeron said shakily, but he wasn't certain. "We've got to form squads and counter-attack."

"Everyone, on me," Siana Stewart said loftily. She tossed her silvery hair as more icicles and flames filled the air. "This is in my element. I'll take the lead."

Aeron knew what element Siana was, and he smiled. This should be good!

Now the earth-type Sergeant joined in. He stomped a booted foot, and a rippling shock wave tore through the ground, throwing several cadets aside while the others scrambled away. He swung his fists, and large chunks of dirt flew through the air, pummeling the cadets without mercy. Dirt exploded in the air as the chunks smacked the cadets aside.

"Kenna!" Aeron cried. He shielded his face from the sprays of dirt and loose rocks.

"I'm on it!" This time, Kenna braced herself, her eyes squeezed shut. Then, a wisp of purple magecrafting leaped from her head to the earth mage's scalp. The man twitched, then went slack, his eyes rolling up in his head. His shock waves subsided as he fell to his knees.

Encouraged, the other students rallied around Siana, Aeron among them. Together, the cadets rushed toward the Sergeants, flinging their elemental magecrafting as they went. The Sergeants easily deflected the blows with their fire and ice, but Aeron saw Siana's plan taking action, and he smiled.

One Sergeant blew aside two cadets with a flurry of fireballs, but he stopped when thick vines suddenly seized his legs. The man stumbled, his magecrafting fading as the roots clinmbed ever higher, binding him like a mummy. He struggled and strained, but Siana's plant-type magecrafting had already taken hold.

"That's our chance, guys. Let's run!" This time, the massive Cadoc took the lead, his skin humming with purple kinetic magecrafting. He threw a terrific punch that knocked over a tree, and the other Sergeants scattered as the tree crashed down on their position.

Almost there, Aeron thought as he sprinted to the east, toward the end goal. Siana's plants and Cadoc's strength can get us through whatever -

The air snapped and hummed as a jet of white lightning blasted into Siana's chest. The girl shrieked in pain, electricity coursing across her body. Before anyone could make a move, more lightning blasts coursed through the air, and Aeron winced as two more students went down.

"Kenna, where are they?" Aeron shouted over the din.

"I'm trying!" Kenna cried. "They -"

A stray bolt slapped her temple, and she stumbled back, stunned. Gnashing his teeth, Aeron raced to the forefront, his wind magecrafting howling around his fists. Just as another lightning bolt streaked through the air, Aeron let out a yell and threw a punch. A whirling air vortex rushed out to meet the lightning, and the two spells canceled out in midair in a shower of sparks.

Cadoc knelt and scooped up Siana in his arms. "I've gotcha, Siana," he assured her. He raised his voice and shouted, "LET'S MOVE!"

With a collective yell, the students rushed past the hidden lightning mage, with Aeron taking up the rear. The forest thinned out as they went, and sunlight glared in Aeron's eyes. Hiis lungs burned and his head pounded, but he couldn't stop. Almost there...

Pain wracked Aeron's body and he sprawled onto the dirt. He spasmed as loose electric bolts danced up and down his skin, and through the ringing in his ears, he could hear the lightning-type Drill Sergeant stalking him. The man's boots rustled through the underbrush.

"N... NO!" Aeron squirmed, fighting to roll himself and get upright. Too late; the lightning Sergeant, a lean-faced man with an Academy cap, stomped over to Aeron, more lightning in his clenched fists.

Aeron squirmed harder, aware that the other students had gone on ahead to the final objective. By the time they came back, if they ever did, they'd be too late.

"You fail, Cadet," the man leered, standing over Aeron. He raised a foot to smash Aeron's head and knock him out, then stomped down.

The sight of the man's incoming boot galvanized his will. With a shout, he conjured his wind magecrafting around him like a coccoon, and he threw out his arms with all his might. He didn't care that his arms burned with fatigue or his head was pounding in agony; like hell he'd fail like this!

A wall of air swept the Sergeant away, and the man grunted as he slammed against a thick tree trunk. He slumped to the forest floor, his head drooping on his chest.

He won't be out for long. Aeron grimaced and staggered to his feet, his legs wobbling like jelly. But from here, he could see a white flat fluttering on its pole, the objective. He staggered his way toward it as the other Cadets cheered him on. Twice he tripped and fell over, but he refused to stay down until he half-dragged himself to the flagpole and touched it with a sweaty, clammy hand.

"Well done, cadets!" Sergeant Quinn barked, striding over with his hands on his hips. "Or should I say, soldiers? Welcome to the Mage Force. Maybe there's hope for the new generation after all."

Aeron hung onto the flagpole for support, panting. "Thank you, sir."

But he couldn't help wondering if passing this test was worth what came next.