Tessa glanced up at the tower as she entered the glade. The shadows seemed to cling about its spire, and the sun seemed to shine less brightly upon it. The old stone building radiated an aura of awe and foreboding. Were a less intrepid mind to combine this feeling with all the tales the bards had spun about this place, a response of deep fear might be evoked.
But not from her. She strode down the path toward the tower without hesitation. The narrow gravel track crossed a lawn of bright green grass, spotted by the occasional tuft of a yellow dandelion. Somehow, Tessa thought, the flowers made the place seem less ominous. What truly horrible place would have dandelions growing in the front yard?
She felt decidedly uncomfortable walking in the new robes the village Elders had insisted on providing for her. In their “infinite wisdom”. At least she had been allowed to pick the color. The turquoise cloth provided a bright contrast to her red hair. She'd always liked wearing the color. But turquoise or no, the garment hampered her movements almost unbearably. She thought with longing of the soft deerskin breeches she'd been forced to leave behind. But the hide-bound idiots had informed her that if she was to be tested for apprenticeship with a wizard, she would go to the testing looking the part. Tessa brushed an unruly lock of hair away from her eyes. The Elders were a bunch of busybodies with too much free time to meddle.
She pulled a worn leather belt from where she'd kept it hidden beneath her robes. She buckled the belt around her waist, gaining confidence from the familiar weight of the knife on her right hip. Tessa had no idea what the Elders would think of their “young lady” wearing a six inch blade at her side. She didn't care, either. That dirk had been a gift from her father, and she'd be damned before anyone would take it from her.
She reached the front door. It was constructed from thick oak planks, bound together by twisted bands of iron. A silver knocker hung in the middle of the door. Tessa ignored the implied request for courtesy and lifted the latch instead. At her insistent push the door creaked open.
The room inside was larger than it had looked from the outside. A crystal carafe filled with clear liquid sat upon a table in the otherwise bare room.
But it was the Efreet which immediately drew her eye.
The man-shaped creature towered over her. Tessa's eyes took in his red-hued skin and sharp ears, proof enough that he was not human, but something else. He was clad in fine attire, although his clothes had an odd, foreign quality. Waves of heat rolled from him, keeping the room stiflingly hot.
Tessa met the Efreet's gaze. Its eyes were full of cunning, power, and...pride. There, perhaps, was a weakness she could exploit if she needed to. He smiled at her, bowed shortly, and then spoke in a deep and rumbling voice.
“I am Kazirar. If you have come to be tested, I am to provide your test, little one. I hope you fare better than the last five. I tire of this duty, and of burying the scorched bones of those who fail.”
“I am,” Tessa replied, keeping her voice steady with an effort.
“Good! And your name, little one?”
“Tessa Windrose.” She paused for a moment, then continued. “I am here because one of your master's other servants found me on Search, and...”
The Efreet rippled with rage. “No one is my master but myself! I am a Caliph among Efreeti! No mortal can command me!”
“We seem to be in similar circumstances, then. Both of us are in a situation we would rather not be in, but are in it of our own choice,” Tessa said. She fought to contain a smirk. She'd found a soft spot in the Efreet's hide after all. That would teach him not to try to bully her around. She carefully composed herself, then said “I meant no insult, Caliph Kazirar. What is to be my test?”
The Efreet looked back to Tessa, his brow wrinkling in amusement. Tessa had the terrible feeling that the Efreet knew precisely how she'd just played him, and thought it humorous.
“It is simple, little one. You must ask me to complete a task for you. You may ask three questions before you name the task, but these questions must ask what I can do, not what I cannot. If I fail to accomplish the task you set, I will go, and you may pass. If I can perform your task, you fail.”
He paused, then added, “Do not fail, little one.”
Tessa tried to remember everything she had heard about Efreets. They were an elemental race, made from fire it was said. As such, they had great powers over it, and were generally powerful in other magical arts as well. Perhaps she could ask the Efreet to go somewhere extraordinary.
“Where can you travel to?” she asked.
“I can fly through the air, and the spaces above the air,” came Kazirar's reply. “I can melt through rock, or tunnel through dirt. I can go to other worlds, or other planes. With some effort, I can traverse time itself! The fire at the core of the hottest star cannot harm me.”
Tessa was sure there was something missing from that list, but it was getting too hot for her to concentrate. The Efreet's heat had drenched her robes in sweat. The room was already hotter than the hottest summer day she'd ever felt, and it was a dry heat, baking the moisture out of her. She wondered if she passed out, would it be considered a foul or a forfeit?
Kazirar seemed to notice her discomfort. “The carafe is filled with water. Help yourself to a drink, little one, if you are too warm.”
Tessa walked over to the table. She removed the stopper from the carafe and sipped a bit of the water. “What magical powers do you have?” she asked.
"I can hurl great balls of fire, or put out the greatest blaze. I can cause earthquakes, or boil a lake into vapor. I can shape the wind, so that it may do my bidding. My power over all of these things is great.”
Tessa took another sip of the water, and splashed a bit on her forehead. Where the water dripped and beaded, her skin felt refreshed and cool. Cool! The heat and fire were beaten by...
“I have your challenge, Kazirar! The thing which you cannot do, for all your powers.” Tessa was sure of her idea. It felt right, had to be right.
“And?” the great Efreet replied archly, “What is that?”
“I will pour the rest of the water out of this carafe into your hands. Your task is to return all of the water to the vessel without losing a drop.”
Kazirar furrowed his brow for a moment, thinking. Then he smiled.
“You have won, little one. I cannot touch water – it would turn to steam ere it reached my skin – and my magic has no power over it. You have passed your test.”
He clapped his hands and laughed aloud. Then he looked deep into her eyes, as if seeking her soul there. “And you have won my gratitude, little one, for by winning you have freed me as well. Now, you have your new life to begin, and I must return to mine. But I will remember.”
Then he took a step back, burst into bright flames and vanished in a bright flash of light.
When her eyes cleared enough to see again, Tessa noticed a door on the far wall which had not been there before. She stepped up to examine the door, which looked like a twin to the one she used to enter the tower. She reached for the knocker, then checked herself.
Smiling, she shook her head, and opened the door without knocking.