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You are an apprentice Gatherer. And you have waited years for this day.

It is early morning in the high mountains, and you are seated in a reputable student’s lodge built and refurbished by many generations of mantis noblemen. In front of you sits two pieces of high-quality rice paper, one quite large and almost covering the desk, and one rather small and thin in comparison. One for practice, one for the words chosen, you know. You glance around the room and notice some of your fellow apprentices shivering slightly from the cold (some of your class hail from the deserts—such a long way to travel for knowledge!) and moving closer to the crystal-capped lamps stationed at the edges of the room, one for each desk.

It is said that the lamps were placed here as a gift to the mantis clan, by Master Gatherers who earlier had the privilege of hunting through the clan territories for the mythical components needed for various enchanted apparatus and spells. The snow-covered peaks would yield their prizes only to the most skilled of Gatherers who entered, so while the team was there to assist a patron, the clan simply asked that they pick up another allotment of crystals on the way down the mountains. Anyone else would have gotten lost in the snow flurries, else only picked up useless stones.

You look at the lamp again. They are a marvel, made of elegantly carved pine wood worked into the shape of an upwards-traveling spiral. The crown of the piece forms the shape of a sunburst or a flower, and is set with colored crystals you have no name for, but you know without a doubt must have been collected by Gatherers such as yourself.

Well, not yet, you remind yourself. You are not a full Gatherer… yet. But soon. You move a hand over the crystals on the lamp—the top of it sits roughly at eye-level. The blue-tinted crystals pulse slightly with the proximity, and the light grows a little brighter. Move your hand to the red-tinted gems, and the warmth given off lessens slightly. You smile. Maybe one day your skills will be put to work constructing works of art like these.

There is the sound of rustling—bird feathers, heavy desert-dweller robes, the one flower mage’s wings—as the entirety of the twelve-seat class turns in their chairs to observe the arrival of long-awaited guest of honor. You look with some surprise at her: she is a petite mantiskin with mismatched-pattern antennae, hands calloused from work and from what little of her arm-scythes you can see when they’re hidden in wide sleeves, there is wear to them. She must have been a fighter in a previous time.

You look again, and notice that the carapace at the back of her neck is red, though her face is carefully powdered white. A noble-lady fighter, you amend mentally. From what you know of the mantis court hosting this session, they say nearly all of the noble class have red in their shells.

So your teacher here would have access to clan-held searching grounds, and the means to test the viability of the materials she gathered, you realize. You listen intently to her as she explains today’s task: determining Words of Power. Finding a phrase to unlock the full potential of the Gatherer’s skills, and for those who were ambition-bound, finding a collection of words that would be whispered alongside their name as they worked their way into the closed circles of history and exclusivity.

Once these Words were determined, the apprentices would use them to imbue a staff of their own creation. All the acolytes sitting in the lodge today had spent the last month working on the first major craft of their Gatherer career, the staff that would accompany them on their journeys and serve as the prime indication that they are a legitimate Gatherer of repute (and of course, it was one of the most powerful apparatuses for spellcasting in existence, given how closely attuned it was to both world and wielder).

It was quite the series of trials, you remember to yourself as the mantis-lady turns her back to the class to unroll sets of wall scrolls for display. You glance briefly through the revealed poetry fragments, declarations of piety, and other Words of Power as you think back to the last month’s work.

First to the Seven Forests to find the base (you chuckle quietly to yourself when you think about the half-golem, half-goliath member of your class who insisted on using darkmines-metal for the shaft and not the traditional wood. He also insisted that the security protection cast upon the staff should not be fire or frost or a swarm of bees, but simply that no one besides him could lift it). You and a few others had gotten lost in the shifting tree canopy mazes, but when it came time to depart, the golem-goliath stomped his way through to guide everyone out.

Then to the valleys of the departed, where it was said evil spirits dwelt amidst the bones of those who had fallen in battle. Those who were brave enough could pry jewels and cloud-stone from the grasps of these long-lost soldiers who had slowly succumbed to the rock-growing beetles that made their home in the mist-covered place. You briefly look at the two eaglekin siblings seated in front of you. Predictably, they’re trying to figure out a pair of Words that will complement each other, but still invoke a sense of individuality. They went everywhere together, and together had declined to enter the valleys, those weeks ago. They knew that with their past of having lost their mother to the sky skirmishes, attempting to place a combat-deadman’s crystal in their staff would jeopardize their abilities to attune to it.

Then to the volcano seasides, where one could pluck fire-flowers and all other means of enchanting botanicals on the shores of black-sand coast. It was there that two of your classmates decided they would walk the ways together when the trials finished—in three moons, they would be wed. Your Master was beside himself with happy tears. ’Tis one of the Gatherers’ misfortunes, you see, the travels, he said. “When traveling lonely, it wears on the soul. Travel only with those you trust, but if you can, travel most with those you love.” You remember how when the news went out, patrons immediately sent letters and calling-cards and little tokens for the wedding, even though the two were still apprentices. Gatherer spouses are rare, and it is often said that only skilled, devoted couples could even hope to locate the more esoteric reagents needed for spells that could change the heart.

You return to the present. The last of the staff-crafting trial finished up not too far from where you are seated now—the mountains to the south, where thunder elementals dwelt and staffs were given their final set of spell protections. You remember the couple from the seasides needing to make their case on the highest cliffside, requesting that they be able to use each other’s apparatus to cast spells in times of need. Such trust inspired the elementals to grant them an additional protection: so long as one flourished, the other could never be broken.

You cover a smile with your non-writing hand as you look at the two seated at the front of the class, practicing writing their names in various flourished scripts. You feel like you could have predicted that they would choose each other as their Words of Power. They probably could have completed their staffs ages ago and been on their way in the world.

It occurs to you that you may be the only student who has not yet made progress. You discreetly dart your eyes at the papers you can see from where you are seated. Only about three members of the class have finished their scratch work and are carefully practicing their lettering on the small piece of paper, the one to be used as a reference for the final engraving on the staff. There are two others who have not yet written anything. You presume that they will likely default to the Gatherer’s creed: “Strong of heart, clear of mind, keen of sight, Gather-kind.” They would not be the first to do so, as plenty of Gatherers started out in the world not knowing much of who they were. When they determined their chosen Words of Power, they could choose to either craft a new staff, or appeal to the elementals to rework their current one.

You look again at the papers of your fellow apprentices. The flower-spirit has finished writing seven sets of two words each, and is staring intently at them. She’s even done a little sketch of how she would like the words to display on her staff. The golem-goliath, on the other hand, has his stylus delicately clamped in his enormous rocklike hand and is quickly scribbling various lines of arcane poetry across the large sheet, in the tiny neat-but-cramped handwriting he’d become known for when the class first began lessons all those years ago. It seems he has decided he wants poetry, but is unsure which verse. The eagle siblings are discreetly poking each other with their writing quills.

You look at your sheets of paper. They are both empty. But your mind is full, and that is what matters.

You pick up your brush, and begin to write.

You are an apprentice Gatherer. Today you claim your identity, tomorrow you seek your fortune.

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