Shades of Shadora

The Conundrum

Taken from the text of “The Conundrum: A Primer” by Magnus Archibald Leek III -

“Traveling the conundrum is an intricate walking enchantment ritual which casts both the Create Familiar and the Apprentice Bonding Spells. The Spells are cast once the student emerges safely from the dark maze. Within the maze the Apprentice Candidate will encounter their Familiar and must prove themselves worthy via a series of tests that the Conundrum chooses. The tests are unique for each student and are considered a deeply personal journey. The candidate may only take their staff, a dagger, and attuned magic into the maze. The challenges will test the candidate’s power, knowledge and skill within their element. Many take the test, most fail and some die. Those that survive sacrifice find themselves bound to both their Familiar and their new Master.

At the entrance of the Eman Conundrum stands a small statue of Eman Zelen, the First wizard after which all the Eman are named. The statue’s face appears to smirk at the viewer. The statues inscription is written in the Journeyman tongue as. “Behold! The perpetual learner approaches.” Most believe that this message is a subtle reminder of the sorcerer’s paradox of discipline and humility: The discipline to study constantly and continue learning, and the humility to realize that their learning will never be complete.”

On this morning, Ellisandra and Prospero arrived at the entrance to the Eman Conundrum, where over one hundred students milled about with their masters, making last minute preparations for their trial, giving and receiving encouragement, and generally bustling with activity. The sudden sound of a gong broke through the noise of the gathered participants, causing all to be silent for the master of ceremonies. “The time has come for the walking of the Conundrum,” said the wizard, “All participants begin filing into the mouth of the cave, your test will now begin.”

When the wizard finished speaking, the clumps of people began to move as one towards the mouth of the cave, vanishing into the darkness. Ellisandra and Prospero moved with Master Balardus towards the mouth of the cave, and when they entered the darkness, there was a moment of disorientation, and the three found themselves alone together deep in the recesses of the Conundrum. “Conserve your power, you will need every last bit,” said Master Balardus looking at Prospero and Ellisandra both in turn, “If you fail and live, you may take the test again next year. If you pass, Prospero, you will be a mage, and Ellisandra, you will be a full apprentice. If you fail and die, you will not be resurrected. Good luck to you both.”

With a quick implosion of air, Master Balardus was gone. Prospero fished in his robes, and finally brought out a stone, which he pressed into Ellisandra’s hand. “This is an Aid stone. You may call on me for help once and only once during your trial. Do not lose this stone. Good Luck.”

Prospero cast a light spell on Ellisandra’s harp, and another implosion of air left Ellisandra standing on her own deep in the maze of the Conundrum. She stood for a moment, not sure where to go or what to do, when she began to feel a faint breeze on her face. She turned until she was facing the breeze, and stepped forward into the darkness. A short while later, Ellisandra stepped into a cavern, where what appeared to be a small tornado stood in place. A face appeared in the tornado and rotated slowly around to look at her. “Sooo mortal. You would ssssseek to have me assss a familiar? Very well, let usssss put your ressssolve to the tessst. If you would have my ssssubmissssion, you musssst prove your dominance!” the creature said ominously.

Ellisandra stepped back and thought of which skills she had that would help her in this situation. Brute force and magic would not stand her in good stead in this case, so she began to persuade the elemental creature, using her best logic. “You are an elemental creature. You were caught by mages and are bound into the service of a mage before you can return to your normal plane of existance, is this correct?”

“Yessss,” replied the tornado.

“Once the mage you are serving dies, you will no longer be bound to service and you can go to your own devices, is this correct?” she continued.

“Correct again,” replied the tornado.

“You realize that I am the lowest level of mage, and I still have to survive the rest of the tests of the Conundrum? If you accept me as your master now, you may be free of your obligation within minutes, if I die in the Conundrum. At most, your seventy or eighty years service could start now, and be over that much sooner,” she said reasonably.

“What you say has merit, mortal,” said the tornado in a more normal tone of voice, without the sibilance that it had been using previously, “You reason soundly, and accept the inevitability of your death. This may be interesting. I will accept you as my mistress, Ellisandra Ambire,” said the sylph. “My name is Maelstrom.”

Ellisandra smiled, “I gladly accept you as my familiar, Maelstrom, and offer you my friendship as well.”

“We shall see,” rumbled the sylph as the pair headed further into the caverns of the Conundrum.

Ellisandra and Maelstrom followed the corridor as it branched right. The walls began to narrow, and she could feel the earth closing in around her. With a sudden rumble and a shake, Ellisandra was thrown from her feet, and as she reached out for Maelstrom, her arms caught only air; she was alone again.

“Ellisandra,” began a voice that sounded as if two giant stones were being ground against one another, “You have been betrayed by your element. Flee this place and live. Stand against me, buried deep in the earth, and I will grind you to dust, and none will find your mortal remains!”

A golem lumbered out of the darkness, and Ellisandra began singing and firing bolts made from the energy of her songs into it, finally rendering it asunder even as it reached out to grab her. Standing waist deep in gravel, Ellisandra dug herself out as Maelstrom reappeared next to her. The pair moved further through the tunnels, this time going left, until once again, they came to another cavern. Maelstrom vanished and Ellisandra began to feel a sense of despair as she realized her companion was gone and she was alone in the darkness that had grown around her. She stood still, for fear of falling into the pits like she had passed going down the hallways. Suddenly, a quiet voice whispered laughingly from the darkness directly in front of her. “Ellisandra…You have been betrayed by your element. Flee this place and live. Stand against me, alone in the dark, and I will freeze your flesh and still your heart.”

The darkness surrounding her eased slightly, and Ellisandra could just make out a darker, human shaped shadow creeping stealthily towards her. She began singing again, and bolts flew forward into the shadow until it blew apart with a dark flash and Maelstrom swirled quietly at her side once more.

A voice said from within the cavern, “Not all problems can be solved with violence, student. Sometimes magic helps in other ways. Show me how this could be.”

Ellisandra brought her harp up in front of her and began to play, a tune designed to influence the listener with sorrow, and directed the energy into the room. As she completed her song, the voice said, “Very good, student. You have completed this task. However, not all problems can be solved with magic. A wizard of the line of Zelen must be both brave and wise, as well as accomplished in magic.”

A man appeared before Ellisandra, “I don’t believe you are strong enough to be a magician. Persuade me otherwise.”

Ellisandra thought carefully about her argument before speaking, “I am in the Conundrum, I have a familiar that I didn’t have when I entered. I have defeated Earth and I have defeated Darkness, and made the intangible feel sorrow. I stand before you after completing years of study as the ‘whore wizard’ and I’m unbowed. I have the strength for the tests, both magically and emotionally.”

“So you have,” said the man as he melted into the floor.

A table appeared in front of Ellisandra, with five similar shells on it. All five shells lifted and revealed that one had a small marble under it. “Watch carefully, student, you must tell me which shell has the marble under it at the end,” said the voice.

The shells slapped against the table and began to move, faster and faster until they became a blur. Ellisandra watched until she could no longer distinguish which one was the one that had the marble under it. “Choose wisely,” said the voice.

Ellisandra began to panic, because she had lost track of which shell had the marble under it. She then took a deep breath, and with the studiousness that had gotten her through many nights of study, she recalled the table and the shells before they began moving. Studying the table in her mind, she suddenly realized the shell with the marble under it had a small chip on the back that none of the others had. Looking over the table, she found the one with the chip in the back, and lifted it with a swift movement, revealing the marble. Her success was short lived, however, as the table immediately disappeared and creatures of Chaos slithered out of the darkness towards her. The voice intoned, “A wizard of the line of Eman Zelen knows no fear, and abide not the chaotic and their evil ilk.”

Ellisandra began singing, and bolts of magic flew from her, blasting the creatures who continued to swarm out of the darkness.

Prospero moved forward into the first room of the Conundrum. A few steps in, he realized that the ground was damp and he was moving into a room filled with water. He picked Grimclaw up and walked through the knee deep water and began to wade through to the exit on the other side of the room. As he reached the center of the room, a jet of water shot up from the pond and struck him in the chest, causing him to drop Grimclaw as he slipped and fell on the slick floor of the room. As he sputtered and sat up, all the water in the room sucked into the middle of the room to form a huge standing wave with what appeared to be a darker humanoid shape inside it. A guttural gurgling came forth from the creature, “Prospero, you have been betrayed by your element. Flee this place and live. Stand against my current, and I will dash your broken body upon the rocks.”

Prospero stood and cast a banishment spell, sending the water elemental back to its own plane of existence. He walked across the now dry room and out the exit to another tunnel. The tunnel led him to a large empty cavern, and the light flickering from his staff bounced off the walls. As he made his way across the cavern, a thunderclap sounded, the concussion of which knocked him to the ground. As he shook his head, he could see a cyclone forming in the middle of the room, with flickers and sparks of electricity dancing on the edge of the newly formed sylph. Prospero’s hair stood on end as the sylph intoned, “Prospero! You have been betrayed by your element. Flee this place and live. Stand against my storm and die.”

Prospero’s banishment spell made short work of the sylph, banishing it back to its plane, and leaving the cavern ominously quiet. A voice rang out in the cavern, “Not all problems can be solved with violence, apprentice, retrieve the relic from within the cage.”

As the voice faded into the darkness, a glowing cage appeared with a crystal ball on a stand in the middle of the cage. Prospero reached out and touched the cage, and got an electrical shock from the cage, causing the glow to dim. He stepped back and swung his staff at the bars, throwing a shower of sparks, but without any other noticeable effect. He circled the cage, and could see no way through the outside of it or over the top of it. Inspiration struck and in an instant, Prospero cast a burrow spell and came up under the cage next to the crystal ball. He picked the ball up, and immediately the ball, cage and stand winked out of existence.

“Very good,” said the voice, “A complex task now faces you, apprentice, for not all problems can be solved by magic.”

As the voice faded, a large tome on a stand appeared in the middle of the room. Prospero approached the stand cautiously and opened the cover. It was written in Journeyman! He began to translate, and finally made out the first paragraph, “First were the Elements, who are forever. Next came the Giants and the Dragons, keepers of lore. Our magics have shaped the world and will affect all who come after us, making them GODS!”
Prospero spoke the words from the translation, and the book and stand disappeared. “Noooo!!! All that knowledge!! I must study it!!”

The voice from the darkness came again, “No, apprentice. You may not study it; it is simply a portion of your test. Perhaps another time. In the meantime, a perplexing riddle faces you, a wizard of the line of Zelen must be both brave and wise.”

A table appeared in front of Prospero. On it was a painting that had been cut into squares within a frame. One square was missing and the picture itself had been scrambled. Prospero began to rearrange the pieces in the frame, and within minutes, the painting was once again whole. The voice said, “Very good, apprentice, very good. As you know, a wizard in the line of Eman Zelen knows no fear and abide not the chaotic and their evil ilk.”

Immediately, the table and painting disappeared to be replaced by a gibbering horde of creatures of Chaos. Prospero threw his staff in front of him and cast a blast spell. The force blew the creatures in front of him apart effortlessly. As the parts of the creature slowly evaporated like ice in the sun, Prospero’s staff began to hum as he held it in front of him, and with a great burst of energy that lit the gloomy chamber, he could feel a piece of his soul being drawn into the staff. Suddenly he was very weary, and he moved towards the exit of the cavern. As he crossed the threshold of the cavern, he suddenly found himself in front of Master Balardus. “Welcome back, Mage,” he said to Prospero as he shook his hand.

Ellisandra finished the last of the creatures of Chaos, and stepped toward the final room of the Conundrum. As she crossed the threshold into the final room of her path, she felt a surge of power flow into her from the walls of the cavern itself. She touched her harp to Maelstrom, and began to speak the words that filled her mind in the tongue of the Journeymen. “I now make this oath, on both my honor and my blood, that I will be faithful to you, without deceit and will never cause harm upon you, and that you shall forever be familiar to me. If you harm another, I shall answer for you, and any who harm you shall answer to me. So I swear until permanent death shall take me, or I release you, or the world shall end.” Ellisandra felt drained by the familiar bonding ritual, but strangely energized as well. An opening appeared in the stone wall in front of her, revealing a long tunnel with sunlight at its end. She stepped into the tunnel, and the walls began to rush past her at an inhuman rate of speed, as if traveling many marks within an instant. Prospero was standing at the mouth of the tunnel and beckoning her forward, out of the cave. As she exited the cave, she could see a weatherworn, mossy statue of Eman Zelen. He stood with his ruby staff raised before him, with Bara, his hawk familiar at his shoulder, and his right hand held aloft in a clenched fist. Around this wrist is the shackle of a slave bracelet with a shattered chain. The inscription on the statue reads, “Go forth new learner and bend the elements to your will!” Ellisandra stepped forward to Prospero and knelt before him with her head bowed, raising her harp in her outstretched hands. He grasped the top of the harp, creating a surge of power through the instrument that they both could feel. Journeyman words filled Ellisandra’s mind and flowed through her brain as she recited the following oath, “By all that is Truth and Honor I swear by the power in my soul, by the mind within my body, by the Sun over my head, by the Earth under my feet, and by the harp in my hands that I will give faith, and aid, and fealty to you my master, until I am honorably released from this service, or permanent death take me, or the world shall end.”

While the mages were walking the conundrum, Nightshift took the shiny gold coin that Prospero had given him and found a cozy little bar called ‘The Bloody Bucket’. The sign had a picture of a bucket of chum which had been augmented with a severed hand, foot and head, lying on the table next to it. “Looks fun,” thought the troll to himself as he walked in. Though everyone looked up as he walked in, none of the patrons seemed to give the troll as second thought as they resumed their drinking. Nightshift walked up to the bar, and the bartender said, “What’ll ya have?”

“Your strongest alcohol,” said Nightshift in what he thought was his most high class voice.

“You got it,” replied the bartender as he went to get the drink.

As Nightshift sat on a stool near the bar, the front door swung violently open, crashing against the wall, revealing one of the wizards who had accosted the party with Master Belmeer a few days ago. “That bitch has killed my beloved Jenna and has no doubt slunk off to the Conundrum to screw her master to get her robes.”

He pointed at Nightshift, “I will have my vengeance troll, and I will have it on you!! So says Belamy the Red!!”

The hastily aimed bolt whizzed past Nightshift’s head, causing him to stand and ready himself for the next attack. The wizard attempted another spell, but something apparently went wrong as he grabbed his head and fell to the floor, even as a fireball erupted near the far end of the bar. “Little man, you say many words fast, but me understand vengeance!” said Nightshift as he grabbed the barstool nearest him and ran towards the prone wizard, pausing briefly to throw the furniture at him. Belamy ducked beneath the flying chair and as the patrons of the bar erupted into a wild melee around them, he cast another fireball spell that went wide of its mark. Nightshift grabbed a bench as he advanced on the wizard, and threw it at him, stunning him briefly when it knocked him to the ground. As Belamy stood up, he was greeted by the large form of the troll who had swung across on the chandelier, kicking him and landing on him with his full weight. Belamy collapsed in a heap crying. “Funny little red man, why you say big words and throw flaming sun at me?” asked Nightshift.

The wizard wet himself in fear as he looked up at the troll. “Do what you want to me, you abomination. Jenna is dead, her throat slit, and they found that whore Ellisandra’s silver dagger in her back. Master Belmeer is swearing out a warrant for the whore and her so-called master.”

With this, Belamy fainted dead away in the grip of the troll. Nightshift drug the unconscious wizard to the trash heap and deposited him on top, then walked through the chaos to grab his drink that had been left untouched in the chaos. He looked around approvingly at the fight, guzzled the drink and rushed to join the fray. The bartender and the bar staff had just succeeded in pushing the entire fight out into the street, and barred the door from the patrons returning when the sounds of the city guard could be heard drawing nearer. Without any further hesitation, Nightshift took off at a run towards the caves of the Conundrum.

Master Balardus handed Prospero a necklace of claws. “These are the claws of a dirt hulk, formed into a Necklace of the Burrower. Pull one of the claws and you will be able to burrow further and faster than normal.”

“Thank you master,” said Prospero.

Turning to Ellisandra, “And as is traditional, I have a gift for you as well,” he said, handing her a stone ring. “This ring has one of each of my spells on it, for you to use in our travels, as I won’t always be right by your side to get you out of trouble.”

As they stood talking about the gifts and the challenges they faced in the Conundrum, Nightshift came running up. It was obvious that he had been in a fight, and he was carrying their bags of equipment. “Guards looking for you,” he said with a grin.

Master Belardus cast a quick telepathy spell and read the trolls mind. “Prospero, they think that Ellisandra has murdered someone, an apprentice named Jenna. Belmeer has sworn out a warrant for your arrests. This must be related to the ring. Flee to the Black Gate, I will send to the Master of Circles, he will send you to Ard, and I will clear your name here, but you must flee now!”

The party began running away from the Conundrum towards the Black Gate, Maelstrom picked Ellisandra up and carried her through the city streets as a mother would carry her baby. Prospero summoned three elementals, charging them to delay their pursuers. Screams erupted from behind them as the golems blocked the roadway and the city guard crashed into them. More guards began to pour in from the side streets, and Grimclaw pounced among them, scattering them briefly, but allowing the party enough time and room to get by. As they ran, Nightshift grabbed a wagon and threw it across the road behind him. “Ellie, did you know red man’s mate?” he asked.

Ellisandra ignored the question as she tried to wriggle around in Maelstrom’s grip to be able to get a spell off at their pursuers. Ahead, the party could hear the clatter of horseshoes on the cobblestones as mounted guardsmen joined the chase. A group of horses and riders appeared in their path, and Nightshift punched one horse in the mouth, knocking it and its rider down as he roared as only an angry troll could. The horsemen scattered, and Nightshift called over his shoulder mockingly, “You need more guards.”

Another group of horsemen appeared further up the road, and behind them, giant hawks with riders swooped through the skies in pursuit. Ellisandra finally managed to get a spell off, casting a barrier across the sky in front of the giant hawks. Unable to see the barrier, and unable to stop, even if they had, the hawks crashed into the barrier, and fell into the streets, well away from the party’s path. Prospero summoned two sentinels to disable the pursuit behind them, and all that was between the party and the Black Gate was a group of incoming horsemen. Ellisandra cast another barrier, and the horses and their riders were lying in a convulsing heap as they entered the Black Gate. The Master of Circles was waiting for them as they burst into the room, and moments later they were on their way through the ether to Ard.

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