The doorway opened onto a hall. Numerous other rooms and doors led off of it, but these were as deserted as the hall itself. Mostly. Some rooms had no doors, or the doors were open, and through a few of these Evelos could see people milling about in the area beyond.
He stopped to watch the doings of a couple of the rooms. Both vaguely reminded him of the classroom his mother had sent him to in the next village over, where he had learned to read and do figures. A magister stood at the front, lecturing a bunch of other elven youths whom Evelos didn’t recognize. He couldn’t quite hear what they were talking about, but the classes didn’t seem like they were meant for him, so Evelos kept going.
He also paused at a door smelling of horse. What an odd choice, to have horses stabled here in the middle of a school, but then, he supposed the magisters needed a way to get to and from their work that didn’t rely on magic. Evelos hesitated, suddenly curious what breed of horse they used, and if theirs had horns or not, but he didn’t think it was the purpose of the Trials to learn about horses, so he moved on again.
As he continued to wander the hall, which didn’t seem to have an end, he wearily wondered if there was a purpose to the Trials at all.
As if mirroring his thoughts, the hall took an abrupt turn, and he found himself almost walking into the same red-haired magister who had checked him in at the front. Evelos glanced behind him, wondering if she had taken a shorter path or had merely teleported herself straight to him.
“Did you not find anything suitable?” she asked. Her tone was sharp.
“I wasn’t sure what I supposed to do,” answered Evelos, stammering.
“So you thought you could just wander around here like you owned the place?”
Evelos swallowed, but he remembered his annoyance at being kept to wait in the courtyard. That annoyance gave him enough courage to speak. “I did wait. No one showed. No one told me I couldn’t, until you appeared.”
“Every place has its rules. You passed several offices on the way here. You could have asked any one of the magisters in them for directions.”
Evelos shivered. She was right. Yet something did not quite feel right. The many gates, the many doors—it was almost as if the magisters were goading him to explore, but here she was telling him he couldn’t. “Is this part of the Trial?” he asked suspiciously.
She frowned hard at him. Then she laughed, relenting whatever act she had been putting on. “No, I am real. See for yourself,” she said and reached out her hand so he could touch it.
“I believe you,” Evelos said nervously, without taking it.
“Do you, now? What if I were an illusion? How would you know?”
Evelos answered like he was answering one of his father’s quizzes about the Light. “You could be a very well done one, and I’d probably never know.” He paused. “I’m not really sure why it matters, though. Most illusions trick people and draw them in. You’ve just told me to go away.”
“Perhaps I am the guardian of a secret treasure behind me, trying to keep you out.” She nodded towards the end of the hallway.
“Why would they hide a secret treasure in a school?”
“Don’t you want to go see?”
“If it’s going to get me in trouble, not really, no,” Evelos said. He tried to put his hands in his pockets, but the Trial robes had none, and he colored as the magister watched him gamely sliding his hands up and down his sides, a sardonic smile on her face.
“And if I told you all the doors here lead to places that are trouble?” she said. “Because that is life, you know. You can’t avoid it, as hard as you are trying to at present.”
Evelos clasped his hands as if that was what he had meant to do all along, then looked around to give himself time to think. “I don’t think I’d go through them, honestly, unless I really needed to.”
“So you choose to be difficult.” The magister sighed. “Shall we test what you consider necessary, then?”
Evelos shivered. “No.”
“These are the Trials,” she pointed out. “That’s kind of the point.” She smirked, then said an arcane word and disappeared.
Evelos felt a chill coming on. He stood still, waiting for the trick, the trap, the whatever, of the next Trial to spring. He nearly jumped out of his skin as a gray-haired magister came out of the door to his left. “I need someone to help sort my spellbooks,” he said, frowning at Evelos down his long pointy nose.
How did this test what he thought was necessary? “I-I’m sorry, I know nothing about spellbooks,” Evelos answered the magister. It seemed the safest thing to say.
Then another magister came out of the door to his right. She was very beautiful, reminding him of the jewelry vendor he had met on the way to Silvermoon. As the pointy-nosed magister moved away, grumbling about lack of good help, she sashayed closer to Evelos.He took a step back to keep an appropriate distance, but she didn’t seem to notice or care about his discomfort, walking right up to Evelos and running fingers with delicately painted nails along his cheeks.
“Er, hello?” Evelos stammered.
“You’re so handsome,” said the woman, drawing closer to him. She pinched his arm, and he yelped. “Ooh, and so firm. Do you train?”
“Leave me alone!” Evelos spluttered. Did the magister really think him so puerile? He was not going to be lured anywhere by some promise of lusty pleasure!
“Quick, get in here!” called yet another magister from yet another door. This one was young, with sandy-colored hair cut short around his pointy ears–probably about Evelos’ age. In a different time and place, maybe he and Evelos would have been friends, and Evelos realized the red-haired magister was probably banking on that.
“No, thanks,” he told the youth. “I–I’ve got other things to do.” Yes, other things, but what? He saw the question on the young magister’s lips. Evelos really saw no purpose to this, but he was trapped here until the magisters decided otherwise. Was this all the one with the red hair would throw at him?
Apparently not. Even as the youth beckoned at Evelos urgently, the beautiful woman began to sprout wings and a demon’s tail, her nails turning to claws that scratched Evelo’s skin as she clutched at his face.
Evelos jumped away from her in horror. All of these rooms are meant to test me, he thought wildly, but none of them are real. None of these people are real. It can’t hurt me. None of it.
The demon-magister struck out at him in frustration, and Evelos felt sharp, white pain lighting up his cheek as her claws dug in. ...or maybe they can.
Evelos turned on his heel and fled. Other doors opened as he passed them; other magisters tried to entice him, some with promises of power, of wealth, of knowledge, even of refuge.
“If you have an open mind, I am willing to teach you. Whatever it is you wish!”
“If the Light is true in you, I will guide you to your rightful path. Your ancestors will be proud.”
“Horses for sale! Well-bred, all cheap, perfect for matching to your already established bloodlines! Buy now and take them home today!”
“I just want out,” Evelos told them all. The hall winded increasingly tighter, and he knew he was lost. The way back wasn’t turning out to be the way back. Other magisters were appearing around him, some old, some young. These ones bullied him, chided him, made fun of his robes, his hair, even his masculinity.
“You are a failure, Evelos. You will never amount to anything!”
“Here now, that’s a demon clawmark on your cheek. If you don’t get it treated, your skin will wither and fall off!”
“Look, there he goes, the coward. Do you think he can do anything besides run away from his problems?”
“Look, it’s the new boy! He’s so strange. I don’t think he’s ever even kissed a girl–and maybe never will either!”
The remarks cut into him, but it wasn’t the only pain the red-haired magister had in store.
“Hey, loser! What, are you a crybaby? Is that why you won’t fight with me? Come over here and face my fist!”
Evelos hurriedly ducked the heavy punch coming his way, but the other elf grabbed him by his robes and spun him around. In the back of his head, Evelos knew faintly this would be the worst nightmare of some elves–the schoolyard bully–but his own village had been much too small to see other elves his age, and what other children there were often treated him with respect. It was the fists that were his problem, and he got hit more often than not as he tried to dance out of the way. One blow sent him flying onto his back, head ringing. He tasted blood and felt something loose in his jaw.
The bully called for his friends.. Two other elves seized Evelos by the legs and began dragging him to–what was a fire doing in the middle of the hallway? Evelos shook his head hard. He could feel the heat of the flames, but it couldn’t really hurt him, could it? The Trials weren’t deadly–why would they be? No parent would agree to letting his or her child go through them if so–
The bullies didn’t care about his whirling logic. They hoisted him up and flung him into the fire.
Evelos screamed as tongues of flame licked his limbs, then coughed and rasped as the smoke burned down his throat. Maybe the fire couldn’t kill him, but it certainly could still hurt!
“Stop it!” he shouted, coughing. “This is foolish! How could you tell anything about my life just in a day, magic or not? You’re making all this insanity up just to get me to react!”
He dragged himself to his feet by strength of will, telling himself the pain wasn’t real, wasn’t real, even as his body screamed that it was. He stumbled to a door on the other side of the fire from the laughing bullies, who were swiftly changing into something worse, with claws and horns and fangs. Demons? Evelos couldn’t see, his eyes watering, and he suddenly didn’t care. He clawed his way to his feet, using the wall to pull himself up. He felt a knob–a door. He pounded on it, still shouting.
“You wanted my reaction? Well, I’m reacting! I’m reacting by telling you I just want it all to be over with! That’s it! No revelations, no hidden strengths, no surprises! I’m just me, and the me that I am only wants out of this madness!”
“But how can I let you out, when you are still inside your own head?”
Evelos cast around wildly for the red-haired magister, but the flames and the dancing black forms of the devilish creatures that had been the bullies filled his sight.
“I’m not making this up,” she continued, her voice seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. “This is all you. Your own dreams and fears given form.”
Evelos tried to put his sleeve over his mouth so he could breathe. “But it’s all so ridiculous!”
“Yes, well, most are when you confront them. But if you really want to leave, I can give you the easy way out.” Her voice carried a note of derision.
Evelos would cry in relief, but it was much too hot for that. “Fine! Yes! Just get it over with.”
As if the magister had been behind the door the entire time, it jerked open and Evelos pitched inside. The room abruptly went dark around him.
“We found out what was necessary for you to enter one of the doors, didn’t we?” The magister’s mocking voice was the only thing Evelos could now perceive. “It’s always so boring, really. Our greatest enemy is always ourselves. Try to remember that, whatever you end up facing next.”