“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am Ragnar, the God of decisions and aether. The reason I am here before you is that you managed to condense my domain of aether into a core. This, by itself, is an impressive feat for someone born in the first realm, yet it is only one small step of many on the path to enlightenment.
I will help you discover your basic specialization. Feel free to ask me questions you desire answers to before we begin. Although the rules forbid certain advice, I can probably clear up most of your confusion.”
“How come information on how to form a core can’t be discussed.”
“I’m not entirely sure why the realms work the way they do, they’re more ancient than even the oldest of gods. What I can say is that the realms want those who succeed to do so on their own merit. It is a way to even the playing field giving the poorest a chance albeit a slight one.”
Mages and their stupid rules. At least I could find some joy, imagining a lazy lord struggling to form a core. Peasants were still fucked though. If I had never met Crom, I wouldn’t have ever taken the time to meditate and do breathing exercises. Life isn’t fair though so I didn’t give it too much thought.
“I think I’m ready to find my specialization. I’m not sure I know enough to know what questions I should ask you.”
“Very well, we will begin,” said Ragnar snapping his fingers
A large hulking grizzly stood before me, baring its large crooked teeth. Its eyes watched me carefully. I slowly circled the bear, keeping my distance from it. I wouldn’t fight it if I didn't have to since it could probably kill me in one swipe of its gnarly claws. The bear seemed to notice that I wasn’t approaching and sat down.
The forest morphed into an endless prairie filled to the brim with soldiers organized in lines. I sat on atop a wall looking down at them. The people around me were nervous. They were all crouched, peering out at a large menacing army on the flat prairie plains.
A soldier shuffled to my side and with a salute.
“Sir, the enemy army is at our gates. As the leading commander, it is your duty to lead our troops. How do you want me to allocate your men? What strategy will we employ?”
I had a few options. I could have the men fortify the walls before the inevitable siege on our outpost. It may work but I assumed the enemy would most likely expect and have prepared for that. Looking out at the hordes of enemy troops and ladders, I knew there would be heavy casualties on both sides.
Abandoning the outpost was another option. My army was much smaller and could be mobilized faster. It would, however, give the enemy the outpost and most likely the territory around the settlement. I knew I had to be proactive while keeping possession of the fort.
“Wait until it’s nightfall and have the troops prepare to march. We’ll strike them while they sleep” The officer nodded walking off to inform the sergeants.
I watched as the troops scurried about preparing for the strike against the invaders. Men were strapping on heavy metal plated armor. Various weapons were held in their hands, ready to stab, skewer, or cut.
They lined up in an organized fashion. Pikemen were together to form a phalanx, while archers lined the back of the army. Heavy infantry stuck to the flanks.
Scouts moved across the field to infiltrate the enemy camps with their torches letting off a dim glow. The enemy encampment was drenched in oils and set aflame. I hoped the panic induced by fire would scatter and confuse waking soldiers. If the enemies were unable to form a cohesive unit surely my troops would win. The Orange glow grew, enveloping the enemies’ makeshift base into a mass of flames.
I gave the signal and the army began their march out of the city gates. I bell rang in the distance. I could see panicked enemy soldiers scrambling to fend off my troops and put out the fire. They were pummeled. Spears impaled, swords clashed, and arrows rained down from above. The opposing general was surrounded fighting to kill as many as he could. I slowly sauntered over to him. A bright light flashed blinding me. As I came back to my senses, the same old man sat before me.
“You’re an awful tactician. No army would miss the bright glowing torches your scouts were holding,” stated Ragnar.
“But I won,” I responded.
“Everyone wins no matter what action they take. These trials were just tests to determine your aether affinity. How you acted around the bear determined the overall branch. The second trial is determined based on your first trial and is used further figure out the specifications of how you utilize aether.
For your first branch you chose to take a defensive stance which is fairly common, although full out aggression is the typical strategy people employ. In your second trial, not many choose to leave the confines of the fort. Those who take a defensive stance tend to prefer a defensive approach when commanding their soldiers.
I must say I’m curious how your powers will manifest. I will have fun watching you and your friend.”
“He’s not my friend. I barely know him.” Ragnar, while smiling, waved his hand and light emanated from it. A screen appeared in my vision:
Aether Class: Magma Core
Description: Magma burns from within these users. The users skin can be temporarily hardened into a slightly durable and sharp obsidian shell. User gains limited control over magma and is impervious to intense heat and basic fire.
“Now, you should check your status. All you have to do is think of it and it will appear.”
Aether Core: Magma
Obsidian Shell: Novice 1
Magma Bending: Novice 1
“What are stats?” I asked.
“They represent how capable you are in each aspect. An average person has around ten in each stat, except for Spirit. Usually you need to represent a god in order raise it so the average is closer to three.”
When I looked at my stats I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed with how low my wisdom score was. I already knew I wasn’t that strong but I thought myself to be wiser than what the stats indicated. I was, however, proud of my willpower stat. I had nearly double the willpower of an average person.
“How do skills work?
“Your skills are based on your competency. They range from Novice all the way to Master. Each skill rank is broken up into five subsets.” Ragnar paused giving me time to digest this information before continuing.
“If you look below your level you’ll see Realm Access. The world is broken up into fifteen realms, each one requiring a significant rise in power. The vast majority of people are stuck in the first realm: the only realm available for people who haven’t unlocked their core. You’ve just unlocked the second realm. You’ll need to find a Nexus to travel between worlds. At every tenth core level you’ll gain access to the next realm. Now I have fulfilled my duty.”
With a snap of his finger light vanished. I slowly opened my eyes to find Crom sitting in my chair.
“Getting your core formed this early is impressive. We were fortunate it happened now, outside the city. I was talking to the locals while you were passed out. They say that Hedvor is the capital of thugs and thievery.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that. They usually only target people that flaunt their wealth. It’s not like you or I have anything people wouldn’t find in a dump.” I scanned the disgusting mess of torn and dirt laden fabric that draped over my skinny body. I frowned thinking about the state of my clothing.
“We don’t have that much money right now but we’ll need to acquire some quickly to win the Dukes favor. He controls the access point to the nexus. The longer we wait the higher the chance that the King’s wizards inform him of my escape.”
“Why are the King’s wizards so dead set on keeping you locked up?” I asked.
“They’re leftovers of an insurgence group that tried to overthrow the three big sects who control the second realm. The Green Lotus, Brown Bear, and Peak Mountain sects banded together to root out any rebels that went into hiding. I’m a member of the Peak Mountain sect tasked with scouting the first realm for fleeing rebels.”
“Then we should probably get moving,” I stated. We had only been in this village for one day and I had already begun to grow tired of it, or more accurately tired of the plain boring walls of my room. I hadn’t spent much time outside since coming to this little village.
I watched Crom gather his meager belongings. It wasn’t a long trip from this village to Hedvor. If we traveled hard we could make it inside the city gates by nightfall.
The trail we took was fairly busy. Occasionally a caravan would pass Crom and me. Some waved as they passed but most ignored us as we travelled along the side of the road. The city could be seen in the distance. It’s gates were grand and majestic, making my old village seem small and insignificant. It was even larger than I had imagined it. The surrounding walls were made of stone. Guards stood atop the of them, peering down at all who entered and exited the city. As Crom and I got closer, roadside travellers had become increasingly frequent.
I was annoyed when I saw the long line of caravans waiting for approval to enter the city. I was never a fan of lines but this one was more aggravating than most. It was a blistering hot day, the sweat from walking had drenched my itchy clothes. Two guards cruised along the road asking each traveller their reason for entering the city. This happened occasionally, according to Crom, but it left me slightly worried. There was a decent chance we were the names they had been sent out to collect.
“How can I help you captain?” Crom asked as the guard reached us.
“These are trying times in the kingdom. We’re just here to stop any crooks or traitors from entering Hedvor.”
“We’ve been out of touch from kingdom for sometime. What’s got the Duke riled up?”
“All the aristocats are mobilizing their forces. The Duke thinks the king’s power is slipping and so do the other nobles. Royalty are like vultures. Any signs of weakness will send nobles into a frenzy, trying to lap up any available power. . All the king has are his mages and now he’s having trouble keeping them on his leash. Something or someone has riled them up.”
“Sounds like we better keep to ourselves then,” Crom replied nonchalantly.
“Now that’s a good thought. You two seem like decent folk. You’re free to enter the city,” the guard stated before moving along the nearly endless line of people trying to pass through the city gates.
Stone buildings lined the long cobblestone streets, which were crowded like a festival was taking place, but Crom insisted this was normal and that the city wasn’t throwing any sort of celebration. I didn’t believe him but it wasn’t something worth arguing over. I’d just have to rub it in his face when I found out he was wrong.
“Well, it’s best we look for some temporary jobs. Access to the nexus comes with a price.”
“Wait. Like normal everyday jobs?” I asked in a confused voice. This was not whatI thought I’d end up doing in Hedvor. Crom and I were wizards afterall.
“Well, we can’t exactly let Duke know we have mana cores. Mana cores are extremely rare in the first realm, and if he thinks we’re who the king is looking, I’m certain we’d be turned in.”
“What if the duke is vying for the throne. Wouldn’t he want some mages to back him up?”
“And lose our freedom? I don’t know what your plans are but I don’t want to become a duke’s pawn.” replied Crom.