Lightning lit up the countryside in ethereal shades of blue and white. The resulting boom of thunder was only slightly louder than the constant pounding and splashing of the torrential rain. The deafening cacophony made the young knight’s horse rear up, crying into the night in fear.
The knight turned the horse and dismounted. The horse shuffled and hopped nervously. The knight removed her helmet and shook down her black hair.
She rubbed the horse’s neck. “Easy, boy. I’ll walk from here.” She led the horse to a stand of trees and said a silent prayer for his protection.
She slipped her helmet back on and started the slow trek to the castle in the distance. The ground here was soft, saturated by the unending deluge. Each step felt like three.
At last she stood before the castle. The great oak doors swung open as she approached. So she was expected. She wearily walked into the Great Hall. The doors behind her shut with a boom, moved by unseen hands.
She removed her helmet to better see her new surroundings. She stood upon a plain cobblestone floor. The walls on either side of her were studded with intricate stained glass windows that stretched fifteen feet in the air. Torches between each window lit the hall.
Several feet in front of her began a wide, red carpet fringed in gold and silver thread. It stretched up onto a dais upon where a great throne resided. Between these two points stood an old man.
His long white hair blended in with his equally long beard. He wore long, dark blue robes fringed with gold. His eyes were kind, but his demeanor was stern. “Welcome, Alanna. Are you prepared?”
Alanna bowed deeply. “I am ready to face the trials.”
“Once begun, they cannot be stopped. Succeed or die.” The man’s face softened subtly. “Good luck, child.”
The robed man disappeared in a rising puff of smoke. Out of the smoke came running a wiry warrior in leather armor twirling a bo staff. He stood at a short distance, twirling and dancing the staff along his body. He swung the staff up and across his back and waited.
Alanna calmly sat her helmet on the ground beside her. She pulled her sword from her sheath and prepared herself. The warrior smiled. Breaking his bo staff free from his back, he ran at the knight.
The warrior brought the staff down on Alanna. The knight deflected the blow with her armor-clad arm with a thonk. She winced despite the padding the armor afforded her. She swung back, missing the lithe warrior’s flank by inches.
The staff whirled and struck first one side of her, then the other. Alanna swung her sword true and cleaved the staff in two. The warrior stared at her in wide-eyed indignation.
Alanna relieved him of his life, his head dropping separate of his body onto the cobblestones below. The body faded away before her eyes. A loud boom brought her attention back to the opposite end of the room.
A towering knight in gleaming silver armor stood where the old man had been a short time ago. His hands rested atop the hilt of his long sword. He hefted the impossibly large weapon and assumed a battle stance.
Alanna found her helmet and brought it down on her head. She tapped it with the end of her own sword before assuming an attack position. She crept forward, edging to one side as she approached the behemoth.
The knight tracked her movement as she approached. Alanna screamed out, breaking into a run. The knight moved much swifter than his size and heft should have allowed. His mighty sword crashed broadside into Alanna’s ribs.
She cried out, flying through the air. She crashed to the ground in a heap of squealing metal. She found her sword and quickly stood. She hugged her side, wincing.
The knight swung his mighty sword up and in. Alanna feinted to the side and brought her own sword around. The strike missed the knight’s arm. Alanna scrambled backwards, trying to put distance between them.
The two warriors paced to one side, squaring each other up. Alanna scanned the knight from head to toe, looking for any weaknesses, and found none. The knight lifted and stretched his neck, making it crack loudly. Alanna smiled.
She stopped and stood, resting her hands on the hilt of her sword as the knight had before they had begun their dance. The knight paused, dipping his sword. He raised it suddenly, stepping forward to strike.
Alanna did not move. The knight swung his sword at the girl. Alanna flicked her sword up and jumped. The massive sword whistled through the air just below her lifted feet.
The knight yelled out in frustration as he arrested the weapon’s movement. He hefted it high above his head. Alanna smiled, springing upwards once more, her sword leading the way.
The tip of her weapon found the narrow slit between the knight’s chest armor and helmet. She could see the knight’s wild eyes widen in horror through his slotted visor. He released a strangled, bubbling scream as crimson blood poured from the fatal wound.
Like the first warrior, the knight faded from existence, leaving Alanna’s sword hanging in the air. She leaped forward as it began to fall. She rolled forward as she grabbed it and stopped on one knee.
The vaulted ceiling above her boomed and rattled. Dust fell from the buckling roof as a great, unseen beast howled into the night sky. Alanna stood, swiftly walking backwards.
Half the roof gave way, crashing into the Great Hall. The driving wind and rain extinguished the torches, leaving the hall in complete darkness. The ground below Alanna suddenly gave way.
She hit the unseen ground with a deafening clunk. Her helmet popped free of her head, skittering clear of where she landed. She cursed in her mind as she groaned and curled on the rubble-strewn ground.
Her sword lay close beside her, having been tightly gripped in the fall. She grabbed it and stood with great effort. She found it hard to breathe, but she could still fight.
Wherever she found herself was pitch black, and completely silent. No, there was something else. Some unseen foe flashed by her. She cried out, slapping her hand to her cheek. There was a thin cut there now.
Something hissed nearby. Alanna swung out with her sword in a blind panic. The dark foe knocked the weapon free from her hands. It scraped against the ground as it was lost to the darkness.
Alanna pulled free her dagger and gripped it tight. She strained her eyes as she tried to see her surroundings. Her breathing became ragged, harried. Something growled as it thumped into her chest.
She flew backwards onto the ground. She cried in pain as old wounds were teased awake by the impact. Somehow she held tight to her dagger.
She willed herself to her feet once more. She fought to control her breathing, closing her eyes. Silence wrapped around her like the darkness.
A nearly imperceptible hiss floated to her from her right. Then came the slight sound of nails scraping on rock as the unseen creature looked for purchase. Alanna reeled about and aimed her dagger.
She thrust out, finding flesh in the darkness. She pushed forward, burying the dagger deep into the unseen foe’s flesh. It let loose a high-pitched squeal as it grabbed at Alanna’s forearms.
Its grip slowly loosened. The slain beast slipped off the dagger, collapsing to the ground before her. A blinding light fell on the ground, revealing a twisted, black creature dead on the ground. It, too faded away to nothing.
Another light illuminated a figure a short distance away. Alanna froze, mouth agape. The figure was dressed in battered armor, and was armed with a long sword. The knight was missing her helmet, revealing the face of Alanna.
The true Alanna snapped her attention to the ground, looking for her own sword. The impostor Alanna started her run. The true Alanna found her weapon and scrambled to the ground after it.
She brought it up to counter the impostor’s blow. She kicked at the impostor’s knees. She cried out as her own knees burned. She rolled to the side and fought back up to her feet.
The impostor Alanna was on her almost immediately. The two knights’ swords clashed and clanged as they both fought for an opening. The impostor landed a successful kick to Alanna’s stomach, doubling her over in pain.
Her double raised her sword to strike. Alanna crashed her fist into the other’s chin. It was Alanna who cried out, spitting blood onto the floor. The impostor grinned wildly, swinging her sword back around.
Alanna dodged it and quickly put distance between her and the doppelganger. She thought desperately as the two foes paced around each other. Alanna came to a stop.
The impostor also stopped, a look of confusion upon her face. Alanna cast her sword to the ground and stood staring at her double. The impostor’s sword shattered in her hand, falling to dust at her feet.
The doppelganger snarled, snatching her dagger from her belt. Alanna fetched her own, then dropped it atop the sword at her feet. Like before, the weapon fell apart in the double’s hand.
Frustrated, the impostor Alanna charged at the real Alanna, fists raised. She thrust out as she approached. Alanna feinted to the side and embraced the impostor. The double cried out as Alanna squeezed tight. The doppelganger’s body began to glow with pure white light.
The light faded away. Alanna blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision. She stood in the Great Hall once more. The roof was intact, the torches burning brightly. Her sword and dagger lay inside their respective sheathes, her helmet tucked under one arm.
She stared at the old robed man with a look of disbelief. He smiled back at her, nodding his head gently. “Bravo, young warrior. I welcome you to the fold.”