The heat in Death Valley was unbearable. Well, unbearable without magic at least. The mundane world had its national park and tourists would drive their cars, scurry from air conditioned conveyance to a viewpoint, snap a photo or two, and dash back before heat exhaustion claimed them; and sometimes they still didn’t survive. It was a unique place, so hostile to life, and yet life prevailed, so barren, and yet so beautiful.
The students of Flower Mountain Escuela Mágica on the other hand had no cars, no air conditioning, and no park rangers. They inhabited a world that existed side-by-side with the mundane, and yet hidden from it. The students only had what they had learned, what they could carry, and three days of survival ahead of them. Those who passed the rite would eventually graduate the preparatory school for aspiring wizards and move onto one of the actual wizard colleges, and eventually to the actual title, with the rights and responsibilities it entailed.
The world of magic, wizards, dragons and all that — the Magimundi — was still new to Mietto Brack, as he watched the valley bake in under the relentless sun, nervous about what was to come. He was aware that by all accounts he should soon die a gruesome death. Unlike so many other students, he had had no idea about the existence of magic until a few years earlier, and with no parents or siblings to coach him, his progress in mastering it was, charitably put, slow. Where his fellow students would simply summon a bubble of comfort, or a nice misting raincloud to keep them cool, he had bet everything on a much more abstract and mystical strategy. Following the Path of the Shaman in school there was a heavy emphasis on altered consciousness and leveraging alternate dimensions. Whether these would actually be real enough to save him, that was an altogether different question. And yet not going through with the rite never seriously crossed the young man’s mind.
No, he would go out there, find a bearable spot, and leave this world. Either his faith in his teachers would be rewarded and he would return from that journey, or — he hoped — he would die in relative comfort. He triple-checked his satchel; he had water, the necessary potions he had brewed, assorted herbs and crude charms, and an assortment of random tools and supplies. Most importantly, though, he had his wand. Where other students had fantastically ornate and gorgeous wands crafted by the finest artisans, his looked like a stick. But he could tell it was so much more than that; as soon as his grandmother handed it to him, there was an instant connection. If only he could learn to actually use it to its full potential. Until now it had just as soon made things backfire and go awry than produce expected results, or at least results expected by the teachers. Mietto had a sneaking suspicion that at times the resulting magic was a lot more appropriate for the task at hand than what the teachers had asked for, but that did not help much when it came time for grading.
The school had set up a magically cooled pavilion with refreshments and local foods, but for now the faculty was lined up to send the children off into the desert. He nodded briefly to his classmates; they were rather fond of giving him grief for his lack of wealth, lack of a family, lack of understanding of their world, and most notably about him being a nagual, a fox shapeshifter, without full control of his powers. In return… Mietto really didn’t care much for them. If anything, he was being taught just how cruel humans could be to those they considered something else.
Mietto could tell the way the atmosphere began to wind up. The other students felt it too and lined up at the edge of the pavilion. All the speeches had already been held, and now it was just a matter for the school’s ancient diviner to declare the correct moment. Her bony fingers were playing with the mallet, and then, without further warning she struck the gong. While it was a simple little instrument, somehow that sound seemed to permeate the world, and went through Mietto’s very bones. Other students dashed off, some meandered, and some looked scared. Mietto wasn’t sure how obviously spooked he looked, but it took him nearly a minute to overcome the lingering vibrations from the sound and finding it in him to start walking.
The moment he stepped out of the shade of the pavilion the sun hit him and by the time he had gone a dozen steps he could feel the sweat evaporating and beginning to dry him out. Merely looking at the landscape was hard to do from the brightness of the sun, but at least he was prepared and knew which way to head.
Mietto set out over the sun-baked salty ground towards a set of hills. Simply walking over to them had seemed like such a simple task earlier when he was playing the plan out in his mind, but now, with the full force of the sun on him, he began have his doubts. Turning back was no option, and so he continued to trudge on, even when it became hard to lift his legs and his head began to throb with the signs of heat exhaustion. He began to doubt whether he would actually make it, and tried to pick up the pace. He fell twice, skinning his knees on the rough ground, but managed to find the overhang he had spotted earlier, and the relative safety that shade gave him. He opened his bag and looked at the water he carried; the amount suddenly seemed all too pitiful. And yet… he took one of the bottles and poured some on himself to cool down, then drank the rest. The empty bottle he put back in the bag, littering wouldn’t even cross his mind.
He looked at his little alcove, smiled when he found the snake hiding in its hole, and a few scorpions, and felt a little less alone. The other students had vanished within minutes of setting out, each with their own plan and strategy. He made himself comfortable, with at least a bit of thought of leaving his mummified remains or skeleton in a vaguely flattering pose, then pulled out a vial from his satchel. It was small, and the liquid in it was a shimmery red, a very nice, potent color, better than any Mietto had managed to brew before. He said a little prayer to whichever deity would care for a fox, and downed the sharp, acrid potion. He stoppered the vial, and put it back into his satchel.
As he closed the flap of his bag, he noticed a deeper shadow; crouching down to take a closer look, it turned out to be a small crack, perhaps even an entrance to a cave. He wasn’t sure how he missed it before, but there it was, and it seemed cooler than his current spot. It wasn’t big enough for a human, but that wasn’t a problem. He took off his clothes and put them in his bag. Shifting forms into a fox had never been hard for him, and indeed as soon as he thought about it the familiar balance of four feet and a tail, the heightened hearing and sense of smell greeted him. He sniffed at the opening, but couldn’t scent anything recently living. He grabbed his satchel with his teeth and began to drag it into the opening.
The opening turned into a tunnel; a kind of geological formation that seemed rather out of place for the area, Mietto thought, but as it kept getting cooler the further he went, he didn’t think about it too hard. Finally the narrow tunnel opened into a wider den, with some old vegetation and scents of mammals from long ago. Mietto set his bag to the side and took some time to examine his surroundings. He had one of his utility charms wrapped around the shoulder straps of his bag, and it was providing a soft glow in the darkness. There was no branching of the tunnels, just that one way in and out. Although… he couldn’t tell what kind of plant matter the old, dried leaves on the floor were from, but he was pretty certain there weren’t any plants with leaves within the vicinity.
He wasn’t sure how long had passed — time occasionally was hard to tell as a fox — when there was a noise from the end of the tunnel. Mietto perked his ears, and began to crawl towards the odd grunts. The closer he got, the less mysterious the sound became, and when his nose finally poked out of the hole into the shaded spot into which he had originally settled, he could clearly hear words.
A giant California Condor was perched in the shade, looking miffed. “About damn time,” it said, its words a bit muffled by the fox skull it had in its beak. It dropped it in the dirt in front of Mietto, then used its beak to roll it towards him. “There. You know what to do. Get on with it. She says she has faith in you, and knows you’ll know to do the right thing when the time comes.” Mietto began to open his muzzle to ask what the condor was talking about when it cut him off and snapped, “I have no clue what that means either. Do I look like an oracle? Anyways. Good luck, kid.” With that, the bird turned around, and with a push of its powerful legs launched itself into the air.
Mietto tilted his head and watched the bird circle off and vanish behind the hills. He then turned his attention to the fox skull. It was completely bleached, obviously old. There wasn’t much of a useful scent to it either. He carefully picked it up and returned to the den.
Mietto had never been all that great at artificery class, and the idea of having to craft a magic item in the wilderness had seemed like a nearly impossible task — and yet, this was clearly it. He poked at the skull a bit more with his nose, then undid the straps of his bag and dug out the various supplies he brought with him. Despite the limits his fox form gave him, he proceeded to mix pastes and ointments, and chant spells, imbuing the skull with magic. Common wisdom, and his experience, knew that a nagual couldn’t work magic as an animal, but this didn’t seem to apply here, and he kept at it, going by instinct, only occasionally stopping for a little sip of water.
By now the fox had thoroughly lost all track of time, and just kept chanting, scratching ritual circles, and sprinkling potions on the skull; something deep in him knew exactly what to do and how, and he followed that intuition, even if he could hardly ever tell what spells he was actually weaving, or how.
Eventually, the urge to enchant began to ebb, and after a few more finishing touches the fox backed off, sat down, and looked at the pale white skull glowing in the dim light of the den. It seemed significant somehow. Not like it had a soul or intelligence of its own but like it was somehow linked into time and fate in complicated ways. Now sniffing it made his nose tingle. The fox also realized just how bone tired he was, and lay down for a nap.
A rustle of a scorpion woke Mietto up. He couldn’t tell what time or day it was, but the skull was still there. He picked it up carefully and put it in his satchel. He gave the scorpion a nod in way of greeting, then began to drag his satchel back out of the hole. Once outside he stopped for a moment in the shade to watch the valley, the harsh beauty of it, before shifting back into his human form. He took his clothes out of his bag and dressed. While reaching in, his fingers found the skull, and he pulled it out as well. It felt cool to the touch, and he imagined he could almost feel a tingle against his fingers. He donned his hat, and with the skull in his hand set out into the heat, back towards the school.