James quickly understood why there were so few upperclassmen at Aux Arc Academy. The world's most exclusive and prestigious college of wizardry and spellcraft was hell on First-Year students. The difficult testing and application process was nothing compared to what awaited the freshmen, even on their first day.
The uniform was simple, like that of the lowliest apprentice -- simple tunic, loose pants, no shoes. Students in Second Year and after could cast some degree of protection on their bare feet. James and his fellow First Years had no such privilege. He even had to cast the proper obfuscation upon his tattoo. Out of respect for certain Traditions, the instructors no longer burned them off, but they still did not want to see them. His only jewelry was the school pendant, worn at all times. The red central stone signified First Year status.
"It is a stone about your neck in more than one sense, as you will soon find out," the Dean said that first day. "But it is also your one means of escape."
If a student grasped the pendant a certain way, gave a quick mental incantation and squeezed, he or she would be instantly transported to a comfortable bed in a Eureka Springs hotel, to await friends or family. They would take the drop-out home, never to find the halls of Aux Arc again. To loved ones, this inspired more disappointment than shame, as so many had taken this route from the Academy. But it was nothing next to the pride for those who stayed in.
The first task for new students seemed simple enough: Enter the Red Room and gather one's supplies for the semester.
Suspecting this wouldn't be easy, James approached the door wondering what test lay beyond. Would it be a dimensional inversion, with up-and-down or left-and-right reversed or canted at impossible angles? Or perhaps gravity suspended, sped or slowed? Items in motion? Optical, auditory or olifactory conflict?
It was all of the above, and more.
As he worked through the room, his perspectives constantly shifting around him and under his feet, all senses feeling untrustworthy, the pendant felt like a lead weight about his neck. Without thinking, he touched the stone, and it seemed to beg him to take hold. One little squeeze, it beckoned. You don't belong here. You don't need this. One quick squeeze and its over.
With an effort, he pulled his hand from the stone, and into the pages of a book that painfully snapped shut on his fingers. He was about to fling it away, when he checked his reflex and noted it was a tome he needed. Head aching and swirling, stomach churning more every moment, he continued his quest to fill the impossibly long list of books, jars, pouches, and other essentials. What felt like an eternity later, he stumbled out of the room.
With gravity only pulling in one direction, the bulk of his burden bore down at once, nearly causing him to drop it all. By force of will and dumb luck, he didn't, grateful -- as any fragile item he broke, he would have to go back in to replace.
He looked around him as the class made its way to the dormitory, noting that already a third of the First Years were gone.
James was not surprised to find that their quarters were at the top of numerous flights of stairs. At least, once there, everything was downhill, he thought -- until they were summoned for lunch.
He took his first step on the stairwell and felt himself lurch forward, his foot landing on what would have been the front of the step. To climb down the stairs, he must walk "up" them, his legs gaining no relief while his inner-ear insisted he was falling. The school pendant felt warm against his chest, letting him know this was its doing, and the way it would be from then on.
So continued Academy life. Difficult classes, strenuous exercises and exhausting exams punctuated by the constant need to go up stairs, whether the room was upstairs or not, to every destination. It wore down even the strongest students. One was wearing nothing but a towel when, after reaching the communal shower room after a very difficult day, his legs shaking, he realized he had forgotten his soap. He screamed, grabbed his pendant and disappeared.
James had grown up in the mountains, but that didn't make this any easier on him. After all, he figured he'd spent half his life making his way downhill. His roommate Edmond constantly complained at the sadistic nature of it all, determined that the Professors wouldn't get the pleasure of seeing him broken this way. James held his frustrations in, while Edmond let them out, but both managed to complete the semester.
"It serves no purpose, Jim," Ed said to him once during the evening meal. "They just want to whittle our numbers down, so that only a few make it to the upper classes -- where we get the big secrets."
At the beginning of the next semester, they walked into the Red Room together. Knowing what to expect seemed to help. For a while, the two young men laughed at the confusion around them. Suddenly, a flying onyx divining mirror swept through, shattering the glass items Ed had carefully stacked. Horror took over his face, and he collapsed into the maelstrom around him.
James reached out to rescue and steady his friend. With recently-honed skill, he stabilized a table and they sat upon it. Ed's hand was upon his pendant.
"I can't... I can't..." he mouthed the words more than said them. James wasn't sure if Ed meant that he couldn't go on, or he couldn't let himself quit.
"Look at me," James demanded, "You can do this." He gently pulled Ed's hand from the stone, and for a moment the glamour lifted from the tattoo on James' arm.
"That's your Order?" Ed asked, startled.
"Yeah," James said, "it's a family thing."
"Okay," Ed stood. He resumed gathering his supplies, his moment of doubt gone as quickly as it came.
After the two left the room, things seemed different between them. James couldn't put a finger on it, but he didn't have time to consider it as he poured himself into his studies.
James had discovered one thing about his second visit to the Red Room. All the strenuous uphill climbing and spatial distortion had trained him to be so much stronger and able to focus on his surroundings, no matter what chaos ensued. As one teacher had told him early on, "wizard" is of the same root as "wisdom," and both required a clear mental command of the situation.
To test himself, he volunteered to reenter the Room at the end of the year, to put away books and supplies left behind by the numerous dropouts. As he suspected, it had become nearly as easy as walking into his father's library. Rather than fighting the patterns of movement and dimension around him, he sensed them, flowed with them.
"Need any help?" He hadn't noticed Ed come into the room. He also seemed to have just as good a command of the elements there, as they swiftly completed their task. "I never thanked you," Ed said.
"It's no big deal," James said. "You'd have done it for me, right?"
Edmond smiled in answer. For a moment, a tattoo flashed on the side of his neck. It seemed oddly familiar.
They exited the room to find the Dean standing before them.
"You've done well," the old wizard said. "How do you feel?"
"Good, sir," James answered.
"In control," Ed responded.
The Dean reached to them, James, then Ed, grasping their pendants for a moment. They looked down to see the stones shimmering with many shades of purple. "You will be happy to know that you are now in command of which dimension you occupy. Feel free to have a walk downstairs -- and welcome to Second Year."
As James started to make his way to that long-overdue downhill stroll, he heard Edmond asking the Dean, "Is it possible to change room assignments?"
- - -
This is my entry for LJ Idol, Season 8, Week 34, Topic one of three: "Barefoot, Uphill, Both Ways."