|Tristan walked down the stone corridor beside Gregor. His slender fingers fidgeted with the edges of his grey robe's sleeves. His mentor glanced at him and said somberly, "If you are nervous, my pupil, we can delay the trial."
Tristan paused and the older man halted as well. The youth pondered for a moment before asking, "Would a delay make me any more prepared?"
Gregor's silk robes rustled softly as he shook his head. "I'm afraid not. I have taught you all I can about the power and how to control it. I have taught you our laws. I have taught you how to think carefully about all matters. What you have learned already will lead you through the final trial successfully or nothing will."
Tristan sighed. "Then I have delayed long enough. Let me be done with this one way or another."
"Wisely chosen, my pupil." With that, the sorcerer began walking down the corridor and Tristan followed suit. After a few more moments, they turned a corner and found themselves before a set of bronze double doors. The metal was covered in ancient sigils, and Tristan could sense the power that hummed from them.
A figure dressed in crimson robes stood in front of the doors. As the duo approached, he addressed the teacher. "Who approaches this sacred site?" His voice was deep and powerful, resonating through the corridor.
Gregor stepped forward, bowed slightly, and said, "I am Gregor Nightshade, sorcerer of the Krotoni order. I come to present a pupil to you, Grand Master."
Tristan stepped forward, bowed, and said, "I am Tristan, pupil of Gregor Nightshade. I have studied the ways of magic with him for forty three moons and seek to face the trial, that I might claim my place among my fellow sorcerers."
The grand master spoke. "I welcome you, Tristan. Gregor has spoken well of you. I acknowledge your request. Tell me, do you understand the significance of the trial?"
"I understand that it is an ordeal that I must face, and that if I face it successfully, I will gain the true power of our order, a power of which my ring only gives me a small taste." He held up his right hand, showing the gold ring with its black jewel and runic inscription.
The grand master nodded. "Yes, and you will find that power to be nearly limitless. However, you must understand that this trial is very serious because of that. Once it begins, it cannot be abandoned. You must either succeed or perish."
A small shudder ran down Tristan's spine. "I understand."
The grand master nodded. "For this reason, I offer you this final chance to abandon your chosen course. Take the ring of power you were given and leave this place. There is much you can accomplish with its power, as limited as it may be. You do not need to risk death today."
Tristan took a deep breath to firm his resolve. "I thank you, but I will pass. I will face the trial."
The red-robed figure nodded in approval and stepped aside. "Then enter the chamber before you and face what you might find there."
Tristan bowed to the grand master and then to his own mentor before approaching the doors. He pulled one open just far enough for him to squeeze through. Once in the chamber beyond, he closed the door and shuddered as he felt some locking mechanism click into place. He knew he was trapped.
He turned to study the chamber. It was a circular room dimly lit by torches spaced evenly along the outer wall. Most of the center of the room was taken up by a magic circle. On the other side of the circle from him, Tristan saw a young boy sitting in a wooden chair. He studied the child as he walked along the perimeter of the room. He guessed the boy was about seven years old and seemed distressed. "What's wrong?" he called to the child, who merely squirmed in his seat and let out a muffled moan.
Tristan frowned and summoned his magical sight to study the boy. Instantly he saw the invisible bonds that held the child and gagged him. Tristan studied them, considering how he might break them. After a moment, he decided that he couldn't. Only a full sorcerer could unravel the spells holding the boy.
"You must fit into my trial somehow," the man said. He then noted the parchment on the stone floor next to the boy's chair. He picked it up and read it. He gulped as he realized what was required of him next. He took his ring off, turned to face the magic circle, tossed his precious source of power into the middle of it.
Feeling his own powerlessness, he took a breath then read the incantation on the parchment aloud. "Heznah inferna! Kalbini deimos! Krotus aparo!"
His precious ring burst into flames. As he watched, the inferno filled the circle. He watched in fascinated horror as a demon rose from the flames. The creature was twice as tall as Tristan and stood on two legs. Its body was black and scaly. Two great bat wings erupted from its shoulder blades and its four arms ended in long, sharp talons. Its crimson eyes fixed on Tristan. It spoke in a grating voice that made the would-be sorcerer's skin crawl. "Who dares summon the Krotus demon Hellbane?"
Tristan stepped forward, wondering how his teacher could possibly believe that anything they discussed could have prepared him to face a demon, especially without his ring. "I am Tristan, apprentice to Gregor Nightshade, sorcerer of the Krotoni order." The demon let out a hissing laugh. "Oh ho! Then you are the one who seeks the power I promised to give!"
"You are the source of the power I seek?"
"It is the way of your order. Each Krotus demon blesses a ring of power and vows to bless it's bearer with all the demon's might when the human's training is complete. You were given my ring."
Tristan frowned. The thought of receiving his powers from such a creature made him uneasy. "So what must I do to force this blessing from you?"
The demon laughed. "Force me! As if you could! No, I shall freely give you the blessing so long as you give me my tribute."
"Tribute? I have no trib..." Tristan's voice trailed off as he realized that a tribute sat right behind him. It took him several seconds to find his voice again. "No, surely they don't expect me to sacrifice such an innocent child to you!"
"That is the arrangement, and has been since the founding of your order. If you wish to possess the power I offer, then you must give me the boy. I will feast on his blood and soul for centuries, perhaps even millennia."
"No, I can't believe Gregor would expect such a thing of me. I can't believe he would've done such a thing himself."
"And why not? After all what's one life if it buys you almost limitless power? Power that can be used to save thousands of other lives. It's such a small price."
Tristan shook his head violently, but the demon's words had struck a nerve. He thought of the countless times that Gregor had spoken of the greater good and the need for sacrifice at times. He pondered how harsh and calculating his mentor sounded when speaking of making hard choices. Could this be one of those hard choices that Gregor considered necessary for the greater good? The thought turned his stomach, but he saw the logic in it.
The demon sneered. "Yes, I see that you are starting to see reason. He's just one boy. Let me have him, and you can have the power to do so much. You can spend your life - which will be counted in centuries - making up for it if you wish."
Tristan hung his head as he turned to face the boy. He thought of how he might try to make amends for such an atrocity. He knew there was nothing that would ease his conscience, but he felt trapped.
He finally looked at the child's face, intending to offer a week apology. A single tear ran down the boy's cheek. The man starred into the innocent blue eyes of his intended sacrifice, and his heart broke. With it, his resolve broke to.
He turned to face the creature. "No, I will not do it. No matter what good might come of it, I will not hand over an innocent to the denizens of hell to be tormented and devoured." Silently he also cursed his mentor for putting him in a situation where he was tempted by such a choice.
"So be it. The contract is broken. The blessing and your life is forfeit."
Tristan sighed. "Very well. At least the boy will be safe."
The demon roared with laughter. "Foolish man! I shall still claim my tribute. Even now the protective circle weakens. Soon I will be able to reach out and both slay you and grab the boy.
Tristan's heart sank. He could see the circle's glow fading. The demon was right. H begged, "No, please don't. Spare him."
"Never! I shall have my soul-feast and you cannot stop me!"
Tristan's mind latched onto the demon's words and realized they were a lie. He could stop the creature after all. He could banish the demon. All he needed was the power to channel. The magic circle was full of such power, and he knew he could tap into it.
Of course, he would have to step inside the circle to do it. It was a certain death sentence if he did. What's more, Hellbane would probably claim his soul in retaliation. But at least the boy would survive.
Taking a deep breath, the man stepped over the magic barrier and gasped. Immediately agony wracked his body. He had made a fatal error. There was too much raw power and it tore at him. He tried to channel some of the power, but he could not focus. He was only dimly aware of the demon laughing at him. His flesh barely felt the talon close around his waist. He barely heard a loud shriek as he felt fire dig into his flesh and start to run through his veins.
And the. The agony was gone. He could still feel fire coursing through his body and it burned, but it no longer felt like it was destroying him. It now felt as though the flames were changing him, strengthening him.
After what seemed like an eternity, he found himself kneeling inside the circle. The glow of magic was gone. He looked up and found the young boy standing before him, smiling. "Greetings, Tristan Hellbane. I am the angel Trueheart."
Tristan stood shakily. "What just happened?" "Your act of total sacrifice destroyed the demon, allowing you to absorb his power."
"Wait, you mean I have his power now? But how?"
"When you chose to forfeit even your soul to protect me, you demonstrated a goodness that no Krotus demon can be around. When he grabbed you, that goodness destroyed the demon, but not his power. That power found the most convenient home at hand, namely you."
"So that was the trial?"
"Indeed. You are now a Krotoni soceror. You passed."
"And if I had failed? If I had sacrificed you instead? Or let the demon take us both?"
"Then I would have destroyed you both."