"Freaking Hel," I gasped.
The pain in my chest, intense and all-consuming, vanished in the seconds it took for me to blink my eyes open. I was on my back and staring up at an unfamiliar afternoon sky with clouds the color of late autumn leaves.
"It feels like I just died," I said.
"That is what they all say when they first arrive," answered a low-rumbling voice.
A man was standing just a few feet away from where I lay. Well, calling him a man might have been a stretch as there weren't any eight-foot dudes on Earth who could rock that pale green skin as he could. He was bald with a freshly shaven face, dark green lips above a chiseled jaw, a wide hooked nose, and ice-blue eyes that matched the hue of the Viking-style tattoos on his face. He was also big in that way a bodybuilder might get if he had giant's blood in him.
I sat up—my face filled with anticipation—and asked, "I made it then?"
"You have... An impressive feat for one so young." The half-giant fixed me with the most intense scrutinizing look I'd ever seen. "Few dare to cross the rainbow bridge in the heart of New York's Central Park for that path is reserved only for those with the resolve to answer the call of adventure."
"Yeah, that's me." Although I was feeling a bit woozy from my brief bout of unconsciousness, I still managed to pick myself off the ground with the vigor of a kid about to enter their favorite theme park. "I'm ready for some ad—"
My eyes widened at the view.
"Whoa," I breathed. "It's..."
I was standing at the edge of a wooden bridge that stretched out for miles toward a city that had been hewn from a tree so massive its canopy of autumn leaves nearly blanketed the sky. Its many thick roots—like the one connected to my bridge—stretched out in all directions, their tips snaking across the dark expanse of space and disappearing into the distant stars wheeling around this great tree.
"That is how all react when they first glimpse Yggdrasil, the great city of the Realm Ethereal, the nexus at the heart of all known realms," the half-giant proclaimed proudly.
Truthfully, this wasn't the first time I glimpsed the world tree, but every damn time brought the same feeling of wonder gushing to the forefront of my mind. You couldn't help but feel the goosebumps rise on your skin. It was just that kind of epic sight.
The half-giant patiently waited for me to pick my jaw off the floor before leading me across the bridge and onto the highway that was Yggdrasil's Root Seven. I wasn't sure how long we walked in silence like that. It felt like hours, but time was wacky in the Realm Ethereal, especially for immigrants from other realms. During this silence, I snuck side glances at my guide while wondering if everyone in Yggdrasil had the same fashion sense he did.
His green-skinned chest was bare and covered in the same blue tattoos that marked his face. Around his waist was a thick leather adventurer's belt lined with pouches that seemed to hold up his frayed and baggy cargo jeans. He was barefoot too, but I guessed this was because no one made sneakers in his size.
The half-giant eventually broke the silence with a question that I couldn't help feeling excited by. "Are you of age?"
What did he mean by that? Well, the age limit was the barest of requirements for someone like me to partake in their traditions of my own free will while knowing full well that death was an actual possibility for me. Not that 'being of age' was the same number for every race in the realmsverse.
"I turned fifteen two hours ago by Earth time," I grinned.
"Congratulations... this may prove an auspicious day of birth for you then," he replied.
We walked on in silence while our feet carried us closer and closer to a large circular structure at the base of the root we were traveling on. I was fine with the quiet because I honestly wasn't used to people yet. I'd spent years training under a recluse whose interactions with the outside world were mostly limited to deliveries of Blu-ray movies, comic books, light novels, and pork bowls. Our trips to big cities were more about hunting monsters than socializing with the locals so my master didn't bother teaching me any social skills.
"You just need to be strong," my master would often say. "People will naturally respect the strong."
There were other sights to see as well because the world tree was filled with life and wonder and beauty beyond imagining. Several branches many miles above us were like tiny cities, with each one showcasing an architectural style born from diverse cultures that were far removed from anything I'd seen on Earth.
I watched the longboats—vessels made of Yggdrasil's hardened leaves—float across clouds of air as they ferried people from one city branch to another.
"This place is so cool," I whispered.
Much later, as we drew right outside our destination—its high wooden walls casting shadows over the surrounding grounds—the half-giant asked me another question. "How is your master?"
"Last I saw Divah she was knee-deep in dökkálfar blood and happily preventing another dark elf invasion of Manhattan," I answered.
"Ah, yes, New York, the greatest city on Earth-realm, a most coveted trophy by the worst scum in the realmsverse," the half-giant nodded appreciatively. "I for one have immensely enjoyed your local cuisine—the Shaker Shack—on my many excursions to the Big Apple."
"Portobello mushroom burgers with fries on the side and a large vanilla milkshake to go with it?" I guessed.
"Indeed," he grinned pearly white teeth at me.
"You have excellent taste," I chuckled. "Um, I'm not sure if New York's the best, but based on all the crazy things I've seen whenever we visit, it's definitely the most interesting city on Earth… I think that's the appeal for those conqueror wannabees of the realmsverse."
"And they are summarily repelled by the unruliest dragoness in the cosmos who now calls your world home," the half-giant replied knowingly.
"Unruly might be too nice a description for my master," I laughed it off and kept my face as impassive as I could, but the memory of Divah's hellish training was a shiver up my spine that I couldn't quite repress.
The half-giant probably noticed this because he'd just given me a sympathetic nod. Yep, he was certainly my master's acquaintance.
"That you are here seeking the Crucible with a cheerful temperament"—he strode toward the structure's thick wooden gates and they swung outward automatically to let him pass—"gives me hope that Divah sent us someone fit to survive the coming of winter."
The half-giant ushered me into the circular structure, past a long cylindrical passage formed of thick tree branches, and into a wide sandy floor arena surrounded by a circular twenty-foot wooden wall. Above this wall was row upon row of bleachers, all packed to capacity with beings of all shapes, sizes, and colors.
A myriad of banners floated in the wind, some I recognized, most I didn't, and only one I knew well. It was a white banner with a blue dragon devouring its tail at its center—the crest of Dragonflail, my master's old guild.
Yes, the half-giant had brought me into an arena whose sandy floor reeked of that familiar copper scent I knew all too well. Why did he bring me here? Well, that was pretty obvious, wasn't it?
While we walked over to the middle of the arena, the crowd remained silent. Almost like they were holding their breaths for what they were about to witness, which made me think that they were pretty disciplined for a bunch of adventurers-in-training.
Once we reached the center of that sandy pit, the half-giant turned to face me. Then, in a voice that could be heard by even the seats at the very top of the stands, he roared, "Novices, at last, a new challenger has come to us from the realm of men!"
The silence broke. A great amount of booing ensued.
Yeah, Earth wasn't the most popular realm in the realmsverse. It probably had something to do with how most species viewed humanity as warmongers who were almost as twisted as the dökkálfar or the jotuns or the draugr that were constantly raiding across the realmsverse. I took no offense at this as I thought it was a pretty accurate description of my people. Hel, I'd say we were worse. No one else built WMDs quite like humans could.
Don't get me wrong, I wasn't the only human there. The bleachers were filled with them. It's why I found it ironic that it was my fellow humans who were booing me the loudest of all.
"This youngling seeks entry into our academy so that he might learn the ways of the adventurer," the half-giant's booming voice was like a clarion cry that silenced the masses.
He pointed toward me with a flourish, which I thought was kind of redundant seeing as I was the only one there not in uniform. Apart from the half-giant, nearly everyone present wore matching outfits in the three shades of red, green, and blue of their famous schools.
"Tell us your name," the half-giant urged.
"Will, Will Wisdom," I answered in that confident tone made famous by this British spy from that movie franchise my master liked to gush over.
"Do you know why I brought you to this proving ground, Will?"
In almost perfect sync, the audience answered his question for me, "Crucible, Crucible, Cru-ci-ble!"
"Look around you, Will," the half-giant suggested. "Here live the brave, the bold, and the inquisitive—trailblazers who would risk all that they are for a chance to explore unknown lands and challenge unseen dangers. All in the name of riches, fame, and honor!"
He raised his hands to the crowd, and they threw their hands up too in frenzied pride.
"Tell me, does the existence of these soon-to-be champions excite you?"
"Do you seek a place among them?"
"Do you believe you are worthy?"
I grinned. "Obviously..."
He grinned back. "I would expect no less bravado from the apprentice of one of our most distinguished graduates."
As if on cue, cracks formed in the air like there had been a mirror in the space between us this whole time. Three floating cracks evenly spaced out streaked across the empty air like spider limbs. They broke like so many shards of glass, and in their place appeared three objects, each one floating at about my eye level. On the left hung a crooked wooden staff with a softly glowing blue sphere set at its tip. In the middle was a longsword, its shiny blade gleaming in the afternoon light of the Realm Ethereal's blue sun. Over on the right was a wooden bow that had been expertly carved to resemble knotted roots.
"When the Academy was first formed back in the springtime days of Yggdrasil," the half-giant began, "Its founders, the three great adventurers of the age, knowing full well the perils of the seasonal quests, devised a test that would allow only the worthy to enter our hallowed halls and learn the secrets and stratagems held within. We call this test the—"
"Crucible, Crucible, Cru-ci-ble!" the crowd chanted.
I could sense their bloodlust. It was that palpable. Like an ice cube rolling down my back, and not in a fun way.
"Each of the founders had their favorites..."
The longsword in the middle grew a fierce red aura, drawing everyone's attention to it.
"Argon the Warrior valued the brave and honorable above all else. These stalwart champions who would stand when all others would flee."
The green aura surrounding the bow began to brighten next.
"Logi the Trickster was a master of skullduggery, and so he enjoyed the company of the crafty and cunning. These bold rogues who would relish the hunt as he did."
Finally, the staff began to glow a fierce blue hue.
"And Mythriel the Sorceress favored the erudite and inquisitive. These dazzling mages who've found the wisdom to wield their craft for a righteous cause."
In a nutshell, I was asked to choose which of the three schools in the Academy I wanted to learn from. Also, yes, the Crucible really was the real-world equivalent of a magical sorting hat. I already knew my answer, though. For to survive the Crucible later on there was something I needed to learn now.
My right hand's fingers tightened on the longsword's hilt before I raised the weapon high and bathed in the uproar that followed.