By John Stevenson
“As you know, graduation is coming!”
The assembled students let out a cheer as their instructor, a fat balding man named Bariel, began his speech. They stood in the sand of Basileia’s southern coast, the salty air of the eternal sea gently sweeping away the oppressive heat of the sun. They stood in a semicircle in front of their instructor, whose long flowing blue robes and long white walking stick marked him as a full member of the University of Basileia, the most prestigious institute of learning in all of Pentar.
“Yet before you can officially graduate and join the ranks of the finest scholars in all of Pentar, you must take one final test.” Bariel continued, stroking his long scraggly grey beard. “It is the Physical Test, a test of strength and stamina.”
A murmur ran throughout the assembled crowd of students.
“I know, we Basileians of are of the mind. We are not savages from Norrmark or hotheaded Hiyammans. Yet the body is a vessel for the mind, and you must keep it healthy.” Bariel continued.
A sea of searching, confused eyes stared back at him. He had guided these children since their original admission to the college at the tender age of six. Now, after twelve years of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and literature, he was suddenly asking these future scholars to work their bodies. He could understand their confusion, he had been just as confused when he’d done the Physical Test in his youth.
“I know you are worried, but you must not be. This test is important yes, but never have I seen a student rejected for failing this test. You will all have your graduation so long as you try your best.”
“And what is the test?”
Bariel winced when he heard the voice: the same detached, monotone voice that had plagued him for the past twelve years. Bariel stared at the young man who spoke, he stood off to the side of the semi-circle of students, deliberately isolating himself from the crowd.
“Well Perdiccas, if you would allow me to finish.” Bariel said, staring back into Perdiccas’s cold brown eyes. Using his the tip of his long white cane, Bariel began to draw something in the sand.
The other students began to inch closer, even kneeling down to get a closer look at the picture coming to life in the sand. Perdiccas sidestepped three paces to the left so that he was looking at Bariel’s side and had a clear view of the picture.
Bariel’s hands may have been old, but he moved the tip of his cane around as if he were making delicate brushstrokes on canvas. Perdiccas found himself looking at the picture of castle sitting atop a plateau.
“This is the fortress of Bal Sharam, it sits in the center of the Great Sand Sea. As you should remember from your history lessons, the Great Sand Sea used to be a massive forest before the Ashen Cataclysm forced us to harvest it to keep warm, until there was nothing left of it. Bal Sharam was located at the center of the forest on top of a hill, but when the earth turned to sand and the winds began to whip across the embankment, the gentle slopes turned into cliffs. Now the only way to get up to the fortress are two very narrow footpaths on either side. Your test will be to travel from the southwestern tower of the fortress, to the southeastern tower on the other side of the castle.”
“Well that sounds easy enough.” Someone said.
Bariel’s slender lips curved into a smile, and suddenly he slashed the end of his cane straight through the center of the plateau.
“Fifty years ago a massive earthquake hit the area, and the center of the plateau collapsed, taking with it the center of the castle. So to get to the other tower, you will have to proceed down the footpath, cross to the other side of the plateau, and then make your way back up to the top. Finally, you can only bring what you carry with you. While there will be people along the path with water, they are there for an emergency only, and should you drink their water you will have failed this test. The idea is to pace yourself, this is not a race. There are no special prizes for coming in first.”
“There’s always a prize for being first.” Perdiccas said.
“Oh, and what is that?” Bariel asked, his brow furrowed.
“Being first, of course.”
The students were given a week to prepare for the test, and so the courtyards and parks surrounding the University of Basileia were filled with students jogging, running, doing pushups and anything else they thought might help increase their endurance for the coming trial.
Perdiccas sat in the library. He almost lost his place in the book he was reading when he instinctively rolled his eyes at the appearance of his “friend” Havian.
“Perdiccas, me and Vizarian are going to jog around the university grounds, do you wish to join us?” Havian said.
“No.” Perdiccas said flatly.
“Unless one of those books is instructing you on how to transform into a camel, what you need for this challenge isn’t in a book. You need stamina and learn how to ration your water.” Havian said.
“I don’t intend to go scrabbling through the desert, Havian.” Perdiccas said, his eyes returning to his book.
“You’re giving up without even trying?”
“I don’t believe that’s what I said.” Perdiccas responded.
Havian shrugged and left the library, wondering why Perdiccas was wasting his time on a book about architecture…
The next day Perdiccas went into the city, first stopping at a smelter and blacksmith, the smell of burning leather hanging thick in the air like a garish perfume.
“And what can I do for a student of the University?” The blacksmith said, recognizing the pale red robes that marked him as an initiate.
“I need something made.” Perdiccas said, taking out a rolled up sheet of paper from the satchel at his hip and unrolling it on the Blacksmith’s table.
What the Blacksmith saw was something that looked like a strangely overdesigned hammer, a thick heavy rectangular base branched into two heads at the top. On one side was a thick steel ball and on the other a long spear like protrusion that curved ever so slightly downward at the tip.
“I need the counterbalance to weigh exactly the same as the bladed point. And the counter balance has to be at least ten pounds.”
“Boy, do you know what you’re asking. The tip would have to be two or three feet long to balance out!”
“I know, that’s precisely what I want.” Perdiccas said. “I also need a hole drilled into the base exactly four and three quarter inches in diameter that extends the entire length of the object. Do this and I will pay you well for your work.”
Perdiccas studied the old smith’s eyes for a moment, dull and graying from the beginning of cataracts, but he could see a glimmer of excitement glowing in the back of the man’s eyes. That was all the response Perdiccas needed, and walked out of the smith’s shop.
His next stop was the artisan’s quarter, where he bought himself a long thin knife meant for wood carving and a long fine-toothed saw. With that accomplished he went to the edge of town where a large grove of bamboo grew and began to put his plan into action…
Finally the day of the test arrived and the students were taken by carriages to the ancient stone fortress of Bal Sharam, its gray decaying stones glowing red from the rising sun washing over it. Perdiccas’s bag sat on the floor of the carriage in front of him, so stuffed that the fabric threatened to burst apart at any moment. Most of the other students had nothing save for dozens of water skins.
“You’ll never make it with a bag that heavy, Perdiccas.” Bariel said, poking at Perdiccas’s comically overstuffed pack.
As the carriage came to a halt at the foot of the southwestern tower all the students began checking their boots in preparation for the marathon hike that was to come. All that is, except one.
“Perdiccas, what are you doing?” Bariel barked angrily, as Perdiccas casually tossed aside his boots and began rubbing his feet in the sand and dirt. “Stop it at once, you will not make a mockery of this test!”
“Bariel!” A voice snapped.
Bariel visibly jumped at the sound, whipping around to see a man kneeling on top of the crumbling walls of Bal Sharam. He was dressed in a simple grey tunic and similarly unremarkable pants, a haggard beard and dust covered face told Perdiccas that this man had been here for a while.
“You know the rules, no interfering with the students during the Physical Test.” The man said, a broad smile crossing his face. “If he wants to go barefoot across the desert, that’s his prerogative.”
“Of course. May I ask who you are?”
“Soter Nirvein at your service.” Nirvein said, standing up on the wall and taking a theatric bow. “I’m merely here to observe.”
“Soter? You’re from the Grey College?”
“I am indeed.”
Perdiccas’s eyebrow raised and he cast a pointed eye at Nirvein. The Grey “college” was nothing more than a refuge for the rejects of society, the people too stupid to endure the mental rigors of the University. Members of the Grey College graduated to become laborers and farmers, sometimes actors and musicians if they were lucky. They were insignificant.
So then why did Perdiccas get the feeling that something significant was about to happen…
“Okay, students, you know the drill! Get to the other side of this castle before nightfall! And the chasm is about two hundred feet wide, so I don’t recommend trying to jump it. Now go! Shoo! Get out of here!” Nirvein said, waving off the assembled crowd.
The students, a bit let down by the casual and anticlimactic start to their most rigorous physical test ever, slowly shuffled down the footpath leading to the ground, some casting looks over their shoulders as if hoping Nirvein would give them more of a sendoff. Perdiccas, however, did not go down the path. Instead, he lugged his giant pack over to the base of the tower and began to undo the straps holding the straining bag shut. Released from its bonds, the contents of the pack nearly exploded out of his pack, sending several short bamboo stalks rolling across the sand.
Grabbing a stalk in his hand, he ran his thumb over the grooves that he’d carved into each end with his wood carving knife. He’d spent the last week meticulously carving intricate grooves into the ends of nearly a hundred two-foot-long stalks of bamboo, sometimes shaving down the entire stalk several millimeters to guarantee a good fit. The end result was that the bamboo stalks now operated like screws, fitting together so perfectly that they locked together. One by one, Perdiccas began piecing together the bamboo, growing longer and longer with each segment he attached until it soon reached the top of the tower, nearly two hundred feet high.
Perdiccas’s pack was now empty aside from a single item, making it much easier to make his way up the steps to the top of the tower. Once there he brought out the head of his creation that had been so perfectly crafted by the smith, and attached it to the top of the bamboo pole. The bamboo fit snugly into the fitting.
Now came the tricky part.
He began to lift the bamboo rod straight up, his slender arms shaking with the effort. He had to keep it straight, the bamboo pole was now too top heavy. If it was allowed to fall too soon, he’d never be able to lift it back up again without the pole snapping.
Perdiccas kept repeating to himself as his arms grew numb and a dull pain began radiating down his back and into his legs. It almost fell a couple of times, but each time he was able to gently nudge it back into balance before it fell.
And then finally it was done. He gently brought the bottom of the pole over the parapets of the tower and toward his chest, slowly letting it slide through his fingers until the bottom hit the stone.
This was it.
“Fall…” Perdiccas whispered to it, pulling gently back on the pole so that the bottom lodge itself between the floor and the parapet wall of the tower.
Sidestepping out of the way, Perdiccas watched his creation fall back to earth, the long steel spike of the end glinting in the sunlight as it began to plummet towards the other tower. As if in slow motion the spike drifted lazily towards the ground at first, but every second it picked up speed as the heavy counterbalance pushed it ever harder and at the end all Perdiccas saw was a blur of light.
The ugly slicing, grinding, penetrating sound of the spear tip slicing through stone made Perdiccas grin, a broad toothy grin that cast his usually dour face in a whole new light.
Then he began to cross, now the lack of boots was an advantage. The smooth leather soles would have had difficulty gripping the smooth surface of the bamboo. His grit covered feet were far more up to the task.
The grin returned as the air sweeping through the chasm shot up at him, threatening to blow him off his precarious perch. The bamboo creaked and groaned under his weight. His heart was pounding in his chest so loudly that he couldn’t hear the wind shrieking in his ears anymore, though he could feel it biting at his face.
Perdiccas thought, staring down into the black abyss of the chasm below.
Suddenly a powerful gust of slammed into his body like a brick wall, and suddenly he was falling into the blackness.
Perdiccas thought, surprised at how calm he felt.
Then just as he finished falling forward, and expecting to continue falling down to his death, his body swung back around so hard that he found himself looking up at the cloudless blue sky as he almost made a full rotation on the bamboo. When the swinging of his body slowed, Perdiccas stared up at the bamboo rod to find out what had saved him.
His feet were hugging each other so closely he couldn’t tell where his right foot began or his left foot ended, and the bamboo pole was lodged firmly between his ankles; which, now that he was looking at it, actually hurt quite a lot.
I saved myself? Wow, I’m better at this than I thought. Perdiccas thought, a grin still lighting up his face.
Perdiccas swung himself forward, gradually picking up speed but never quite getting enough momentum to grab the bamboo with his hands. He knew there was only one way to do it…he just hated the idea.
Taking one last heavy swing backwards, Perdiccas swung forward and just as he began to swing up toward the bamboo…he unlocked his ankles.
For a moment he felt utterly weightless.
I wonder if this is what it’s like to be a bird…
He didn’t even look, he reached up with his hands as his body shot right side up again, his heart nearly stopping as each millisecond passed without the sweet feel of bamboo. Then he felt it!
“Got you!” Perdiccas laughed a laugh so powerful it went echoing through the chasm until it sounded like the ground itself was laughing with him.
Inching forward with his hands, Perdiccas finally reached the tower, and pulled himself up.
Still laughing he collapsed on his back and stared up at the sky… only to see the face of Nirvein looking down at him.
“Congratulations, Perdiccas. Now this will only hurt for a moment.” Nirvein smiled down at him.
Before Perdiccas could ask what he meant, Nirvein’s boot went slamming into his temple and the world went dark…
When the first of Perdiccas’s classmates arrived at the tower, sometime around dusk, there was no bamboo staff or any sight of Perdiccas at all. They would never see him again…but then again, very few even remembered he existed.
“Provost, he’s waking up.” A voice said, it was muffled, like Perdiccus was hearing it across a vast distance. Slowly the voice became clearer and sharper, and the world slowly melted back into focus.
“Where am I?” Perdiccus asked, and then seeing Nirvein added, “and why in the name of the Quintessence did you kick me in the head?”
“You’re not permanently damaged, relax.” Nirvein said. “If I wanted you dead well…do I really need to say it?”
“Enough Nirvein, he is to become one of our newest initiates, treat him with the same respect you do all Grey College members.”
Perdiccus looked at the man who spoke. He was a tall, slender man dressed in black leather armor and a strange metal mask hid his face.
“Who are you?”
“I am the Provost.”
“Provost is a title, Provost what?” Perdiccus asked, his head clearing.
“Just Provost. You’ll soon come to find that names are what get you killed.”
“Killed?! What’s going on here?”
“What’s going on here, young Perdiccus, is that you’ve been admitted to the Grey College. Congratulations!” Nirvein laughed.
“I am no mere laborer! I do not belong in the Grey College!” Perdiccus spat, his face growing hot.
“No, Perdiccus, where you don’t belong is the University.” The Provost said.
“I saw you out there, dangling over certain death. And you were laughing. Tell the truth, were you really looking forward to spending a quiet life of study and contemplating in the great Spires of the University?” Nirvein asked.
Perdiccus considered for a moment.
“That’s what I thought.” Nirvein said.
“Fortunately for you, the life you will be training for will never let things get dull.” The Provost said.
“And what life will that be?”
“The life of an assassin. You are now Soter Perdiccus, member of the Grey College and a keeper of the balance…”