Where did the magic come from? It came from the air around her, the hard wooden desk she sat at, and herself. It flowed through her blood, ran through her hair—it was in her. Ceria reached into her inner self and found magic there. With each breath she took, with each pump of her heart, the magic lived through her.
She drew a portion of it out now, and gave it shape. She pushed, and made the magic condense into a small ball, drawing in itself. Becoming…
Water. The clear liquid flowed into existence, forming a shaft of brilliance in the sunlight. And then, as Ceria held it in place in the air, she froze it.
Water pooled and stiffened, the clear liquid clouding, becoming solid. Ceria watched as the pointed tip of the icicle gleamed, ready to be launched. It was a small missile she’d made—barely longer than her middle finger, in truth. But the [Ice Dart] spell had been designed for rapid-fire attacks en masse. With it, she could turn a Goblin into a pincushion or overwhelm another type of monster.
This dart was of better…construction…than most. That was to say, when Ceria usually used the spell she was concentrated more on speed than aesthetic or form. As a result, some of her darts would have jagged edges or be angled awkwardly, as if the icicles had bent while being frozen. That could cause them to veer off from their targets, or fail to do as much damage.
But this? This was an ideal form of the spell. Ceria stared at the frozen missile floating in front of her and smiled. It was the perfect example of her magical talents, and her superior half-Elven heritage. She’d barely felt the effort of making the spell. That would prove—
“And just what do you call this?”
A hand reached out and touched the floating shard of ice. Ceria blinked as a rather tall, dark-haired man in robes lifted the product of her spell up and regarded it with disdain. He sniffed at it, and then snapped at her.
“Focus, Springwalker. Your [Ice Shard] spell mixes the cold and water aspects together. You are freezing the water you create rather than forming the shape and solidifying it as separate stages.”
His hand didn’t glow red, but for a second the air rippled with heat around his hand. In a moment, Ceria’s [Ice Shard] was gone, evaporated in a puff of steam which instantly dissipated.
“Try again, and this time concentrate. Your spells need to be well-formed, not leaking pools of wasted mana.”
“What? What’s wrong with my spell?”
She couldn’t help the words as they burst from her mouth. Ceria glared indignantly up at the [Mage] who’d dissipated her spell. He stared back, eyes cold and annoyed.
“Your composition was weaker, due to the air trapped within the icicle as you froze the water while making it. In addition, the spell itself was not straight—it deviated slightly near the tip. Finally, the point was unsharpened; merely a blunt tip.”
Ceria knew it was true. Even so, she felt the need to deny the criticism.
“It’s almost fully correct! Those are just minor details!”
“Details are what set apart true mages from amateurs. If you wish to lower your standards, Wistram is not the place for you. Try again, and this time concentrate properly.”
Ceria heard laughter around the class and felt herself going red. Blood rushed to the tips of her pointed ears, but she said nothing. She ground her teeth as she focused again on the spell, trying to tune out the world around her.
The man who’d admonished her so casually—the senior [Mage] in charge of this class’s magic lesson named Rievan Forstrom—walked on without a backward glance.
That had been humiliating. And unfair! Ceria tried to focus on her spell again, but this time her concentration was shot. The magic in her and around her was harder to control, and she was having trouble condensing it into a physical form.
There were still people chuckling in the large room Ceria was taking her second class of the day in. She heard one particularly obnoxious voice laughing louder than the rest.
Charles de Trevalier made no effort to conceal his glee at Ceria’s upbraiding. Worse, Rievan didn’t seem to mind. The mage walked over to another student and began talking in a loud voice, lecturing the unfortunate girl about the quality of her spell, a bundle of sparks that was supposed to be the [Electric Jolt] spell.
After he’d gone, and the other students were talking again, comparing notes, complaining, or just making conversation, the young man sitting at the desk next to Ceria leaned over. Pisces lowered his voice so only she could hear him as he whispered.
“I thought the spell was appropriately formulated. I rather think the true crux of the issue is that he doesn’t like you.”
He nodded to Rievan, and Ceria saw their instructor was showing the Human girl how to do the spell properly. Neat, focused webs of lightning flashed from one of his palms into the other. He was certainly critical of the girl, but he wasn’t being nearly as sharp with her as he had been with Ceria.
She made a face. Yes, their instructor for the new students taking the Magical Foundations class did seem to have it out for her. And she was under no illusions as to why.
He was Human. Ceria was a half-Elf. But more importantly, she thought that he might be a Human who’d originally grown up in Terandria, which would explain his dislike for her.
“As if he’d ever tried casting a spell while fighting off a Goblin tribe.”
She grumbled as she tried to form the spell again. Maybe she should give up and try [Stone Dart] or [Flame Jet] instead? But no, he’d probably just reprimand her for giving up on the spell. Pisces looked sympathetic as Ceria tried to spin the water out from her fingertips and hold it in position before she froze it again.
They were in class. It was slightly odd for Ceria to be sitting in this neat room at a small desk—she’d never gone through anything like this growing up—but Wistram taught countless students each year, and they’d developed a process to teach their students as a whole.
One of these ways was giving the prospective students a variety of mandatory courses to take during their first month. Each day, the students had countless lessons and magical theorems and basic spells hammered into them by various mid-level [Mages]. And in one of those classes, this one, the basics of magic were being re-taught to Ceria, much to her displeasure.
Basic magic. Pure magic. People had many names for the subject, but this class had been introduced as elementary magic by their instructor. Ceria hated it.
The study of basic telekinesis, magical composition and fundamental aspects of magical theory like spellcraft were lumped into one category by most mages. It was a branch of magic few practitioners focused on, outside of learning how to levitate small objects and refine their mana flow and so on. Nonetheless, it was vitally important for any mage who wanted to cast spells, and so most mages grew passable at forming their spells properly. A bent [Ice Shard] spell would be far less effective, just like how a poorly-made warding spell might not block all the arrows properly.
It was important, yes, but tiresome. Mages specializing in this rare field liked to refer to it as ‘pure’ magic. Others, Ceria included, thought of it as boring magic. And she was all the more angry because her spells were good, damn it!
She didn’t need to work on her [Ice Shard] spell. What Ceria wanted was to start learning more advanced spells, but she was stuck. Probationary Wistram students took all the classes they could, and Ceria knew that the efficacy of her spells would be tested during the examination process at the end of the month. So she gritted her teeth and reapplied herself to forming the best [Ice Shard] spell she could.
At the desk next to her, Pisces focused on his own spell. He didn’t know any Tier 2 combat spells, so he was casting [Electric Jolt] as well. Rievan had taught the entire class the spell, but he’d insisted that anyone who knew a higher-Tier spell should practice that instead. The more complex a spell was, the more a mage benefited from working with it.
The young man let a spark of electricity jump between his fingers, almost in a straight line. He seemed focused and at ease at the same time—eager to learn, and not at all bothered. He kept talking as Ceria labored over her spell.
“I really hadn’t considered the implications of altering a spell in its base state. Had you, Ceria? Certainly it makes no sense to significantly alter basic constructions and increase the complexity, but had you considered what would happen if you turned your [Ice Shard] spell into, say, an orb? Wouldn’t that completely change the nature of the spell?”
Ceria grunted irritably as she tried to make the point of her shard sharper.
“The mana cost’s the same, and so is the amount of water you can work with. What’s the point? A ball of ice isn’t useful, and round shapes are harder.”
“Well, I was just thinking, if we can alter basic spells like that, what’s the point in learning spells at all? We could just learn basic fundamental magics and extrapolate from there. It might take a long time, but if we could teach ourselves magic—”
“I see you have time to talk rather than practice.”
The loud voice made Pisces and Ceria both jump. She cursed as her attention wavered and the water she was holding in place lost its form. The young man sat up quickly as Rievan loomed over his desk, looking down his sharp nose at him.
“You are new, are you not? Your names is…Pisces.”
Pisces looked ahead respectfully while Rievan scowled at him. He didn’t appear intimidated, just alert and wary. And confident. Ceria didn’t see a bit of doubt in his posture.
“You have not yet been admitted as a full student to Wistram. I suggest you dedicate yourself to studying, while you have time. But since you do not feel the need—show the class how far you have progressed with your [Electric Jolt] spell.”
The other practicing students looked over as Pisces raised his hands. Rievan was clearly expecting Pisces to make a mistake and pounce on it, but to his surprise—and Ceria’s—a steady stream of purple-blue lightning crackled from one of Pisces’s hands into the other, looking for all the world like a bright river of electricity.
Drops of water spattered on Ceria’s desk and evaporated as she lost control of her own spell. She was gaping. Just a bit. Pisces’ control of the spell was immaculate. Both she and Rievan knew it. After a moment, the mage nodded. He looked at Pisces with a hint of respect and addressed the other students as a whole.
“Acceptable. Observe, class. Young Pisces has managed to divert the whole of the spell into striking his other palm, without letting the individual threads of magic separate as the electricity desires. Emulate his example. Learn from it. We will focus on the same tomorrow, by refining your basic levitation spells. Class dismissed.”
He whirled and walked towards the door. Pisces paused, letting himself smile a tiny bit. Then he turned to Ceria.
“Shall we go?”
“How did you do that?”
“It’s just a matter of adjusting the spell.”
“I know that—”
Ceria snapped as she hurried after Pisces. She had to walk fast to keep up with him—Pisces was taller than she was, and he had an effortless stride despite the small bag he carried. She was carrying a similar one, and Ceria didn’t like the weight it put on one shoulder. The strap was digging into her flesh. Why didn’t Humans use backpacks? They were more practical, if not as easily accessible.
They were walking through the corridors of Wistram, leaving the class they’d just been in. Ceria and Pisces stopped in a large corridor and found a number of other students—all young, prospective students like them—milling around there.
They were in one of the sections of Wistram devoted to teaching. As such, a branching corridor led to several hallways with classrooms, and it was the intersection here where students could find a class, or walk to another intersection to go elsewhere in Wistram.
“Why are you so amazed? It’s not as if the spell was Tier 3, or even Tier 2. Your [Ice Shard] spell was far harder to maintain.”
“In terms of mana, maybe. But your mastery of the spell was nearly perfect. Even the teacher left you alone! Are you sure you didn’t know the spell beforehand?”
“Very sure. I just don’t find Tier 1 spells that challenging, at least in making them work in the most optimal way. It’s like having a map with your destination circled; it’s obvious what needs to be done.”
Ceria blew out her cheeks, partly exasperated, but mostly impressed. Pisces certainly was gifted. She looked around the other corridors and frowned.
“Where to next?”
Pisces frowned. He stared at one of the windows. The sun was nearly directly overhead. Wistram had other ways of telling time of course, but this was the easiest to use.
“Um…illusion class, I think. After that’s destruction magic.”
“So we’re free?”
“Unless you’ve figured out where the illusion class is being held yet?”
Pisces shook his head. Ceria looked around and saw the other students were milling about, equally confused as to where to go. She gritted her teeth, annoyed.
“I can’t believe there aren’t any signs.”
“Or a map. That would be quite helpful.”
There was a trick to Wistram. Actually, more than one trick; it was like walking into a dungeon full of traps, really, but there was a trick to being a student that Ceria had quickly realized. And it was that being a student meant you had to learn everything. Not just magic. Even basic things like directions, where the bathrooms were located—all of that vital information you had to find out for yourself, because no one would teach you.
Class, for instance. Ceria had heard of royal academies some nations had founded to train [Strategists], or [Scholars] and even [Mages] of their own, but where those places were neat, highly-regulated affairs, Wistram clearly believed in finding things out for yourself.
Case in point. The first day Ceria and Pisces had been in Wistram—the first full day, not counting their exciting voyage and rescue—they’d been given a tour of Wistram, as well as supplies to be used during their time here. Ink pots, quills—even a low-level spellbook of their own! Calvaron had been one of the students who’d shown Ceria where to go and not to go, and what places were off-limits to new students like her.
Only, it appeared that while older students like Calvaron had been only too willing to show the new students around the first day, they hadn’t pointed out specific classrooms. Thus, when class had actually started, Ceria had had to run around with Pisces, walking into classes in session before they found the one they were assigned to.
This was embarrassing, but not the worst part. Some classes were easy enough to figure out, and the teachers had even posted directions on the large message board next to the dining hall. But no matter how hard Ceria and the other students had searched, they still hadn’t found some of the other classes they were slated to attend. The illusion classroom was supposed to be somewhere on the ground floor, but no one had found it yet.
Ceria was certain that was some kind of twisted joke. She scowled as she wondered what she might be learning if she was in the right class—she didn’t know any illusion spells, and she would dearly love to learn one or two. But she yawned once, which prompted Pisces to yawn as well.
“I don’t wish to seem lax, but I very much doubt three more hours of unsuccessful searching would do either of us any good, do you?”
“Then I shall return to my rooms for a quick rest. Would you like to…?”
Ceria thought about it as Pisces eyed her hopefully. Her instinct was to say ‘no’, but it wasn’t as if Pisces was inviting her into his room. And besides—
“Fine. Let’s go.”
She and Pisces began walking out of the intersection. Their departure seemed to make up the other new student’s minds, and they began to leave too. Soon, the wide corridors were packed with busy people, some tripping over their robes.
Robes. Ceria snorted as she walked along in her normal, practical leggings and tunic. Over half of the new students were wearing long robes, usually dark blue or black. They’d bought it along with a low-quality wand, as if it were prerequisite for being a [Mage]. All it really did, in Ceria’s opinion, was make you look like an idiot. The older students, Calvaron and Beatrice included, didn’t wear robes. Then again, Calvaron was a Centaur and Beatrice was a Dullahan, so perhaps that was an unfair comparison.
This time Ceria took the lead, which meant that she could set the pace. Pisces walked next to her, easily keeping up as they turned left and right and went up a flight of stairs. Both had to concentrate on where they were going—there wasn’t much traffic in the hallways except at the busiest of intersections, but Wistram was a labyrinth. It was all too easy to get lost and turn the wrong way and find yourself quite a ways away from where you wanted to be.
“I thought that was a rather informative class, don’t you?”
Ceria grunted as she walked along. She made a face. She was still sour over being reprimanded.
“I certainly benefited from someone showing me how to cast the [Electric Jolt] spell, and the way our teacher optimized the spell was quite interesting.”
“That I’ll grant you. Still, learning to make a weak spell slightly more effective wasn’t why I came here.”
Ceria stopped at an intersection where two paths split off diagonally from each other. It was odd architecture, and Ceria couldn’t remember which way led to their rooms. Pisces pointed.
“I think we go right here. Well, what did you expect?”
“I don’t know. I guess I thought we’d be picking up higher-Tier spells, not working on the basics.”
“I would like that. But we are new students, aren’t we? If we don’t improve on our fundamental abilities, we wouldn’t be able to cast better spells anyways.”
That was true. Ceria knew [Ice Shard], but she could barely create more than twenty darts before she had to sit down. That was a far cry from a good mage’s capabilities, let alone a Gold-rank [Mage], for example.
“I guess you’re right. Still…”
She scowled, not wanting to put her feelings into words. She walked briskly forwards, and Pisces stepped a bit more quickly to catch up.
She knew they had to make an odd pair. Ceria was a half-Elf, and Pisces was…well, a young man who looked more like a peasant than a student. There were odder pairings, Calvaron and Beatrice for example, and Ceria had seen Drakes and even a Selphid walking down the halls just this morning. But it was strange to be talking so familiarly with a Human, given where both came from.
Pisces cleared his throat.
“I noticed the lecturer was ah, slightly hostile towards you, Ceria. Maybe it’s because of your…”
“My race, you mean?”
Ceria grimaced as she twitched her ears in annoyance. Pisces made a noncommittal sound.
“Straight ahead here, I believe. Do you think he’s from Terandria?”
“He could be. If he lived in the north or eastern parts of the continent…or not. It doesn’t really matter—half-Elves don’t have a good reputation anywhere.”
“Really? I know that some nations in Terandria ah, don’t have the best relations with your people, but everywhere?”
“You’ve heard the rumors about half-Elves, right? We’re thieves, we can’t be trusted, we hate Humans—”
“But those are rumors, surely. Just like how you can’t let a Selphid into a graveyard, and a Gnoll will bite your face off if you offend them.”
“Yeah. I mean—yes. Come on, it’s this way.”
Ceria turned away from Pisces. She wasn’t used to someone taking her side, and it was uncomfortable.
“Okay, maybe in other parts of the world we’re more welcomed, but half-Elves keep to ourselves no matter where we go. And if he is from Terandria, there’s bad blood. Lots of it. Centuries of conflict.”
“Indeed. I just didn’t think he was being that fair in his critique of you, that’s all.”
They walked on. Ceria began to recognize their part of the citadel as the view in the windows changed. She and Pisces occupied some sort of overlook right above the rocks of the isle, and as she stared out at the calm, peaceful bubble of water surrounding Wistram, she spotted their rooms.
“Here we are.”
“Here we are indeed.”
Pisces nodded to Ceria.
“I’ll ah, take a nap. Would you like to have lunch together later?”
“I—guess so. Okay. See you later.”
He nodded, smiled, and yawned. Ceria yawned too, and she found herself fumbling with the lock in her keyhole. She tossed her heavy bag onto a chair, wincing as she heard a sealed pot of ink clink against the wood, and rubbed at her shoulder. Then she yawned again.
It was strange. Ceria was exhausted, and the day wasn’t even truly begun. Five hours had passed since they’d woken up. Well, six, but the first hour had just been comprised of dressing, eating, and finding their way to class. The other five had involved studying.
Maybe if it was just studying in the sense of reading books and listening to someone talk Ceria would have been more awake. But in Wistram, studying also meant casting magic. She’d been taught several basic spells and forced to use her mana to prove to her teachers that she could perform basic incantations. That wasn’t hard, but she’d had to do it again and again.
Repeatedly casting spells, even low-Tier ones, was extremely draining. The result was that even at midmorning of their second day, both Ceria and Pisces felt physically exhausted, if not mentally. They wandered into their rooms and fell asleep for a few solid hours before waking bleary-eyed and restless.
Of the two, Ceria was the most exhausted. She barely managed to rouse herself for a very late lunch after Pisces knocked on her door, and she stumbled into the grand dining hall with a scowl as she got her food.
Raucous laughter greeted both her and Pisces as they sat at one of the tables. Calvaron and Beatrice were seated at a large table next to the couches, and they waved the two new [Mages] over. Ceria hadn’t seen them much yesterday, but she saw the two older students were studying at their table while they ate.
Spell books, expensive, magical, and sometimes literally glowing with the spells inscribed on them, were carelessly propped open by bowls and mugs. The Dullahan and Centaur looked like they’d been eating and sitting for a while, judging by the mess on their table. Calvaron swept some dishes aside as he called out to Ceria.
“Your hair looks like a tangled spiderweb, Springwalker! Did you get a bit of rest after all the magic practice this morning?”
She glared at him as she put down her food—thick slices of roasted mushrooms in a sauce and what she thought was pork—on the table.
“I’d laugh—but I forgot that I don’t like jokes.”
“Ooh, touchy. Are you in the same class as Ceria, Pisces? I’d sit far away from her if I were you, or she might bite your head off.”
“I can leave. Or throw these mushrooms at you.”
Calvaron ducked his head slightly as Ceria raised her fork with one of the dripping mushrooms.
“Don’t, please. I hate mushrooms.”
“I’m allergic to mushrooms.”
The Centaur, Human, and half-Elf all looked at Beatrice. She was calmly eating some peas, chewing without much expression.
“Sorry. I can take them away if it’s a bother.”
“Just don’t drop them on my armor.”
Ceria nodded and settled down as she began to eat her meal. Calvaron wasn’t done teasing though. The Centaur grinned at the two others.
“Did you just wake up? Exhausted, are we?”
Pisces nodded as he stuffed his face full of meat. He’d completely ignored the mushrooms as well.
“I had no idea—mnph, this is good—that the lessons could be this intense. Will they always be so hard?”
Beatrice looked mildly disgusted at Pisces’ display of eating. She moved her head off the table and onto her lap as Calvaron nodded and laughed again.
“Everyone always complains on the first day. Have you two never been taught by another [Mage] before?”
Ceria shook her head, ruefully.
“I learnt all my spells from books. I taught myself.”
Pisces hesitated before replying.
“There was a local [Hedge Mage] in my…village who agreed to teach me.”
Calvaron nodded as he reached for a drink of dark purple juice. Ceria smelled grape and wished she’d gotten some.
“The first lessons are always the hardest. Once they’re sure you’re not making novice mistakes in how you form your spells, the teachers will go easier on you.”
“I hope so. But do we have to take classes at all? I thought Wistram let mages study how they pleased.”
Scowling, Ceria bit into another mushroom, chewing hard. Someone hadn’t cooked these thoroughly enough. Beatrice and Calvaron shrugged in reply.
“Some people just study by themselves. But until you’re sure that’s the way you want to go, I’d pay attention in the lessons and try to impress the mages assigned to teach you.”
“For the exam.”
The Centaur grinned as Ceria’s stomach gave a small lurch and Pisces paused long enough to look worried.
“Will we learn any complex spells before then?”
“Some basic ones, yes, but complex? Not unless your teacher’s quite odd. You lot are only here for a month—all of your courses are the most basic ones.”
“Golem creation, scroll scribing, trap spells and enchantments—all of that only gets taught when we’re in our second years at the earliest. Most students don’t get to those kind of lessons until year six. Talented ones get there sooner, but…”
Ceria muttered as she drank her own cup of water. Pisces looked dispirited as well, but then he turned to the older students hopefully.
“If you’re going to be helpful, mind telling us where the illusion classes are being taught? No one’s found the classroom so far.”
“Oh? Illusion class?”
They laughed. Well, Calvaron laughed and Beatrice chuckled. Ceria frowned at them.
“What’s the joke?”
The Centaur scratched at his head and smiled enigmatically at the two of them.
“I…could tell you how to find it, but I’m afraid I’d have to charge you two for that.”
“What? You’d ask us for money?”
Ceria was outraged—she’d thought the Centaur and Dullahan were friends, or at least friendly!—but Calvaron was shaking his head, trying not to chuckle.
“No, you see—ah, Beatrice, what should I do? If I explain it, I’ll lose the chance to charge them for that as well. Do you think we should just give away a secret like that?”
The half-Elf had no idea what they were talking about, but Beatrice paused for a second before nodding her head with her hands.
“It’s not a big secret. You should tell them to be friendly. Or she’ll throw mushrooms at us.”
Calvaron glanced at Ceria. She was indeed considering heaving her dish at his head. Pisces just watched the other two thoughtfully. At last, Calvaron sighed, sounding put-upon.
“I suppose we can. Okay you two, you’re about to learn a bit more about how Wistram works. For free, no less.”
“What are you talking about?”
“They are a currency. Secrets.”
Calvaron paused, mouth open and looked over at Beatrice with a frown. Ceria and Pisces just stared at the two of them.
“Thanks for ruining my moment, Beatrice.”
The Dullahan shrugged impassively. Ceria stared at her and the resigned Centaur.
“You heard her. Wistram runs on secrets, not coin around here. You would have figured it out sooner or later, but…”
“I still don’t get it.”
“It’s very simple. If you want something—a spell, a favor, or even another secret, you have to pay for it. Unfortunately, or fortunately for those of us without money, the most valuable thing around here is secrets.”
Ceria felt like she was speaking another language. Calvaron wiggled his eyebrows as he smiled at her.
“That’s right. Secrets about where treasure’s buried, unique classes, spells no one’s heard of—I say secrets, but it’s more general knowledge in most cas—”
“What are you talking about?”
“Secrets, Springwalker! Secrets!”
Pisces stopped Ceria from getting up and kicking the table over. He smiled at her.
“I believe Calvaron is saying Wistram uses a bartering system.”
It took a while, but with Calvaron to explain and Pisces to clarify—and Beatrice to nod silently—Ceria finally got it.
Wistram used secrets like coins. Small secrets, big secrets—they were what [Mages] and students alike traded each other for favors, or even real objects.
“Like coin? You could trade a secret for a—a bag of gold coins?”
Calvaron nodded happily as he ate something yellow and strange he called a ‘banana’. It looked disgusting to Ceria.
“That’s right. Wistram doesn’t have much use for coin, although there are always merchants sailing in to harbor…but secrets and magic are the real coin around here.”
“But how does that work? Are there really that many secrets there? No—how could you keep that many secrets for so long? How could a system like that keep functioning?”
The Centaur shrugged.
“It works because it has to. We need some kind of currency, and money isn’t good enough. And secrets have a weight of their own. True, if you went around telling everyone then the secret’s worthless. But if there were a room only you and someone else knew about—or a part of the academy that you have to have a password to get into—”
“Which there are.”
“—Which there are, thank you Beatrice. The system might not work anywhere else, but Wistram has so many secrets and hidden surprises that even now people are finding new things out. Just the other day, someone found a wall that disappears if you say the right words.”
“Oh? And what was behind the wall?”
Pisces was curious, but Calvaron just waggled a finger at him.
“If I told you that, you’d have to give me a secret. A small one to know and a big one for the actual words, which I don’t in fact know. I’d have to trade some secrets for it, you see.”
“That is the stupidest way of—”
Ceria rubbed at her head. This had to be a joke. She closed her eyes and came up with a flaw after two seconds of thought.
“What if—and hear me out here—what if someone traded you for a secret, and then didn’t pay up? How would anyone prove you’d lost anything?”
“If someone doesn’t make good on your favor, all you have to do is go around telling people they’re a lying backstabber. No one will trust them, and your problem’s solved.”
“Something that can only work in a place where magic users are as common as dirt.”
Pisces looked approving. Calvaron grinned as he nodded.
“Of course, some people have more secrets to trade than others. Some people just use secrets when they have to—they trade gold for secrets, or get someone else to make all the trades for them. Like me.”
“I’m a broker. I have a lot of secrets in my head, and even more that I don’t even know myself. Spelled parchment that erases itself when opened—that was popular a while ago. Messages in bottles, that sort of thing.”
Ceria eyed Calvaron slightly askance.
“And you trade secrets, is that it? If I have a juicy one, I can trade it to you for something else?”
“Anything you want to know. I accept all kinds of minor secrets; if you’ve got gold or gems I’ll take that too, but I prefer secrets.”
He grinned at both half-Elf and Human sitting at the table. After a second, the half-Elf rolled her eyes.
“This place gets weirder by the second. Okay, remind me to never ask you for a favor.”
“Aw, don’t be like that. Look, because we’re friends I’ll share a secret with you. On the house.”
Both Ceria and Pisces eyed Calvaron dubiously, the former with considerably more suspicion than the latter. Calvaron laughed lightly again. He looked around and muttered something—Ceria saw his fingertips flash for a second—before he spoke to them in a quiet voice.
“Here’s a free secret for you new students: most magic-based classes require at least ten levels in [Mage] to learn. A lot of them take at least twenty levels. That’s why most classes just teach the basics—they want you to have a high [Mage] level before you try to specialize.”
“Is that really true?”
Ceria wasn’t sure if she should be impressed or not. It was probably true, but was that really a secret worth trading?
“This would be a small secret, wouldn’t it?”
“Pretty small, unless you knew the exact requirements for a class. That would constitute a large secret.”
“And you’re just giving this one away because we’re friends, huh?”
“Just a sample. Now, if you want to know anything else, we can negotiate.”
“That’s very mercenary of you.”
“Hey, we’ve all got to eat. And if I can build up a bit of credit on the side—”
“So you’re not going to tell us anything else unless we pay you.”
“That’s not fair. Tell us at least one more secret—an obvious one.”
Calvaron raised his eyebrows, looking mildly exasperated.
“I just gave you a secret for free.”
“Yeah, a pretty useless one. We’ll get our classes no matter what happens—who cares about what’ll happen ten levels from now? Tell us something we can use in Wistram.”
She frowned at the Centaur and he frowned back, but he did seem to consider her suggestion. He nudged his friend gently in the side of her armor.
“I don’t know. Beatrice?”
With a put-upon sigh, Calvaron nodded.
“Fine. Here’s another one, but this is the last secret. It’s about your books.”
“You got new spellbooks on the first day, right? Come on, let’s see them.”
Reluctantly, Ceria and Pisces pulled out their spellbooks. They had indeed been issued mostly-empty books for apprentice mages. The first few pages had been filled with notes and spells in another person’s hand, but the majority was blank. Calvaron chuckled as he showed the students the empty pages.
“Thought so. Here’s something the academy does all the time. They take old books—the ones left behind by students—and give them to new students. You’ll never find anything beyond a Tier 2 spell in the spellbooks, because the older mages will sort through the lot to make sure they don’t give anything good to the new students.”
“Huh. So there are better spellbooks out there?”
Calvaron and Beatrice nodded.
“Yup. You’ll be able to read them as you rise in, well, status. You can take out books from the libraries, but only experienced students know where the good books are hidden.”
“And you would know where they’re kept, I presume?”
The Centaur raised his hands.
“Me? Perish the thought. If I could trade for that secret, I would. But the locations of the secret libraries and tomes are among the biggest secrets you can trade for.”
“And that’s your big secret. Again, it sounds more like something you could’ve just told us to be friendly.”
Ceria crossed her arms, annoyed and slightly disgusted. She saw Calvaron exchange an amused glance with Beatrice, and scowled fiercely.
“All of your ‘secrets’ sound pretty useless to me, Calvaron.”
“I don’t know about that.”
He avoided her gaze, an amused smile on his face as he snagged a slice of pork from her plate.
“All knowledge is useful to someone else. And there are secrets and secrets. For instance, the fact that Miss Springwalker here is a half-Elf? Not really a secret. But the knowledge that Pisces here has a rapier and a silver bell? That’s important knowledge. Someone might ask where he came from, knowing that.”
“How did you—?”
“And that this morning, Pisces managed to impress even Rievan during class? And that he didn’t like Miss Ceria?”
The Centaur cut Ceria off. He looked directly at her.
“And of course, there’s your origins. The records are sealed of course, but anyone can look up old records. And half-Elves have long histories. In fact, if you looked back at certain Terandrian city arrest warrants, you could find a small bounty on a certain half-Elf kid for theft, property damage and—”
Ceria slammed her hands on the table, cutting the Centaur off. He stared at her surprised. She was shaking, and Ceria saw Beatrice grab Calvaron’s side warningly. But she didn’t say or do anything that would start something else. Without a word, she stood up and walked away. Calvaron called out after her, but Ceria ignored him. She stalked off, leaving her unfinished meal behind.
“Ceria? Ah! Ceria, please wait!”
She heard the voice calling out after her as she stomped away. At first Ceria just walked faster, but the voice kept shouting her name. In the end, she grudgingly slowed to let Pisces catch up.
The young man slowed and panted—theatrically, Ceria thought—as he caught up with her. He smiled nervously as she glared at him.
“I ah, I just wanted to walk back with you.”
Ceria started walking again, and Pisces hesitated before matching her pace.
“Calvaron is, uh, apologetic.”
“Good for him.”
She gritted her teeth. Pisces paused again before he adopted a placating tone.
“They were trying to help us, or so I feel. I understand that they went too far—”
“I came here to learn magic, not to find out secrets about other people and trade favors and gossip like a pack of simpering [Noblewomen].”
“As did I.”
Pisces took two strides forwards, and looked at Ceria. She glared at him, emotions running hot.
“Nothing. I would just like to opine that, well, we are new to Wistram.”
“So, rather than get too upset—why don’t you forget Calvaron’s transgression, and have a drink with me instead? It does no good to get too worked up right away, in my experience.”
“Oh really? Well, how much experience have you had?”
Pisces grinned at her widely, and Ceria’s face went slack before she laughed unwillingly. The anger drained out of her as quick as it had come, leaving her feeling more than a little silly.
“Okay, okay. I should…rot, I should apologize to Calvaron. I didn’t mean to storm off like that. It’s just when he brought up my past—”
The young man interrupted with surprising tact.
“I shouldn’t worry about that. Calvaron feels he went too far. I think he’ll be the one apologizing when you two next meet. Until then, we should really have a drink.”
“A drink? Here? But they don’t serve free beer.”
If they did, Ceria would already have downed a few mugs to take the burden of the day away. But Pisces just gave her another smile.
“They do not. But there are places where it is sold, quite cheaply too. All one has to do is trade for the secrets…”
He waggled his eyebrows and Ceria snorted.
“Don’t tell me you traded Calvaron for one of his secrets.”
“Not as of such. I ah, may have told Calvaron that I would intercede on his behalf if he told us the best place in the isle to find alcohol, preferably for free. He informed me of a party that should be beginning tonight. Would you care to join me?”
Ceria thought about it, and then smiled slightly wickedly.
“You’re telling me you blackmailed Calvaron for free beer?”
“He’s not as good at negotiating as he thinks he is, and I do believe he wants to be friends.”
The two began to walk off in another direction. Ceria was smiling against her will and Pisces tried to tell jokes and speculated on what secrets might be worth trading for. She found herself answering back, wondering about the illusion and destruction magic classes, and before she knew it, they were talking again.
Just like on the boat. And best of all, she hadn’t made a scene—well, not that big of a scene—and ruined a potential friendship with Calvaron and Beatrice. And thanks to Pisces, she was going to be drunk, or at least tipsy tonight.
Pisces. Ceria glanced at him sideways as the mage tripped over his robes. He was coolheaded when she was not. And he had a quick tongue and a fast mind. He was also a talented [Mage]; in short, all the things that should have made him the competition for Ceria. But he was also friendly, and helpful. He seemed like a good…friend. A Human friend? Now, wasn’t that an odd thought.
A week later, Ceria had gotten used to Wistram’s quirks and peculiarities. She had gotten over the system of secrets, resigned herself to at least one class with a teacher who didn’t like her, and surprisingly enjoyed and learned quite a lot from all her classes. True, she wasn’t exactly learning how to cause earthquakes, but there was a whole basis of magic she had never understood until now. Maybe this was why Wistram Mages were always considered better than other mages; they might not be higher level, but they knew how spells worked.
The other thing that the half-Elf had learned after spending some time in Wistram was the architecture of the building. It really was simple, once you got over the varied passageways. There was a general, central area containing dormitories, classrooms, general storage—everything a new student needed. Central hallways branched out or spiraled upwards leading to these individual sections, but the higher levels and the lower recesses of Wistram were off-limits.
There were actual magical barriers in some places, locked doors or Golems standing guard duty near stairwells in others. They were there to stop new students from going too high or too low, where more dangerous magical experiments still ran wild, and the most powerful of mages worked and lived. In short, that was where the real magic happened, but until she got to that point or even became a full student, Ceria was content just to find her way around.
And it was a good thing she could get to places on time, because Pisces certainly couldn’t. The young man had to follow her to get to all their classes, and on a day like today where both of them were rushing, Ceria was just glad for his long legs.
“Are you sure this is the right way!”
“I’m positive! And if you’d bother to memorize the way to class, we wouldn’t be late!”
Ceria snapped over her shoulder as she and Pisces ran down a corridor, running past a plodding Golem made of stone and amused older students who called out to them as they passed by. Pisces muttered as they rounded a corner and went straight down a seven-way intersection.
“Why don’t they have signs?”
“Because that would make it too easy. And being a [Mage] is hard work. Come on, we’re nearly there!”
“Why are we going to class? We just finished Rievan’s lecture a half-hour ago!”
“I don’t know! Cessic just told us to get to the classrooms.”
“Cessic? You trusted him?”
“Has he ever lied?”
Cessic was another one of the new students Ceria and Pisces had gotten to know. He was a Lizardman, and as such, he’d naturally gravitated towards Ceria when they’d been in class together. The Humans—the overwhelming majority of new students—tended to stick together, and Ceria still felt a lurch of anger when she saw Charles and his group strutting around their circle. But the non-Humans had their own cliques, and Ceria had sat next to Cessic more than once.
“Here we are!”
The two mages skidded to a halt and found a large group of students, both prospective and older ones—waiting outside of one of the classroom doors. Ceria blinked. This classroom she’d never been in, and she was fairly certain none of the teachers had used it before. She spotted a tall Lizardman with multicolored scales and edged over to him.
“Cessic! Hey, Cessic! What’s going on?”
Cessic turned his head and fanned his neck frills out slightly as he spotted Ceria and Pisces.
“There you two are! You’re just in time—I think we’re about to get our first class in destruction magic!”
The two mages stared at Cessic in disbelief. Although they’d taken quite a few classes, they still hadn’t managed to find the class that taught illusion magic (Pisces had suggested that such a class didn’t exist and it was a prank pulled on new students; Ceria had agreed), and as far as they’d known, the teacher in charge of teaching combat spells hadn’t shown up to any of her classes.
“How do you know?”
Cessic pointed to the other students.
“Apparently, the Council—the leaders of all the mage factions in Wistram—chewed out the mage in charge of this class—told them to start teaching right away. I got the tip-off from Calvaron; he sold it to me cheap, since word spread so quick.”
“Of course he did.”
Ceria sighed, although she wasn’t actually that mad. She’d gotten used to Calvaron selling secrets, and she’d even bought two off him for small favors and secrets in return—one to find out where the bathrooms on her floor were, and another for a shortcut that saved her several minutes getting to the banquet hall each day. Apparently, a rather irate [Illusionist] had grown fed-up with waiting in line for the bathroom each day and enchanted her own private restroom, until word had spread of its existence.
“Who’s the mage? Are you sure they’re coming?”
“Fairly. I mean, if they didn’t offer the class they’d be punished, and I don’t think they’d want to risk—”
Cessic cut off and the hubbub around Ceria died. She looked and saw the door to the classroom slowly opening. She held her breath, not sure whom to expect. What she saw was a tall, older woman—perhaps in her late thirties—stepping out of the room. It was actually hard to place this Human’s age, because although her hair was slightly greying, she had no wrinkles. Her face was smooth and flawless so Ceria supposed her hair was just naturally grey. What the woman did give off though was an aura of cold, both in mannerism and temperature.
And Ceria recognized her, vaguely. She was the woman who’d cast [Ice Lance] on the first day at the Ghouls. She was…
“My name is Illprhes. I specialize in ice magic, and I’m assigned to teach you all some spells to use in actual combat.”
The woman spoke abruptly and without any hint of welcome. She raised her voice so the silent students could all hear her. Ceria exchanged a glance with Pisces. This sounded like the introduction the other teachers had given a week ago! And why were they all here? Was she going to teach all the students at once?
Illphres’ eyes swept over the assembled students once. Then she spoke again.
“However, I don’t want to be a teacher. I was forced to take this job by the Council, even though I have better things to do. So I’m going to give you a test. Pass it and I’ll teach you magic.”
So saying, Illphres turned and pointed towards the open doorway.
The students in the crowd stepped back as ice rose from the ground, forming out of the suddenly misty air and freezing into a thick, impenetrable wall that sealed off the entrance to the classroom. Ceria heard confused voices as she felt the temperature in the corridor drop so suddenly she shivered. People moved back in front of her, stepping away from the extreme cold.
Illphres didn’t seem bothered by the chill. She was wearing light robes, and she touched the ice as if it were just stone. But she had confidence in her spell as well, because her next words were a challenge.
“Melt the ice. Gain entry to the classroom and I will teach you. Do it yourselves, without an artifact or another mage to help you. That is all.”
Without another word she stepped aside. The students stared at her incredulously. So did Ceria.
One of the students, a young Drake, stepped forwards angrily. He pointed to the wall of ice.
“You expect us to melt through that? How? We came here to learn combat spells! Some of us don’t know any flame magic!”
“Not my problem.”
Illphres stood with her arms crossed, waiting for someone to make a move. Ceria hesitated. She knew her best flame spell, [Flame Jet], wasn’t nearly good enough to melt through a wall of ice. Maybe if she had time—
She was too busy staring at the wall to see another student stride up to Illphres angrily. He was corpulent—fat being too general a term. He was wearing robes and by the looks of him he was an older student, given that he was brave enough to call Illphres out to her face.
“This isn’t fair! We’re supposed to be taught by you unconditionally! You don’t get to impose a restriction like—”
He cut off sharply as the temperature around Illphres lowered. Ceria felt it lower from where she was standing; she saw the student’s robes suddenly frost over, and then he was stumbling away, sobbing, his clothing crackling with frost.
Illphres flicked a bit of frozen spittle off her robes as if nothing had happened. She spoke quietly, calmly to the other students.
“I’m allowed to test you. So I am. I don’t feel like teaching children who can barely cast [Light], so this is my condition. Pass it or fail; it matters little to me.”
Another student moved up. He was a Dullahan, and his fingers burned with flames as he put his head on his shoulders. He raised both his hands and aimed it straight at the wall of ice.
Ceria watched as a long stream of fire blew outwards from the mage’s palms, licking over the door and raising the temperature in the corridor several degrees. She exchanged a look with Pisces—he looked impressed as well. It was a [Flaming Swathe], a Tier 3 spell, but the student held it for over twenty seconds, which had to have taken quite a bit of mana.
When he eventually lowered his hands, the Dullahan was panting, sweat standing out on his head. He wiped it away with one gauntlet and smiled confidently as the smoke cleared. But then his face fell.
The barrier of ice stood in the doorway, not even slightly melted by the fire. Illphres shook her head as she look dismissively at the older student.
“A Tier 3 spell. Not even a good one at that; if you want to clear snow, use that spell. For this, you’d better have something better.”
She stared at the panting Dullahan. He couldn’t meet her eyes as he stepped back. Illphres looked around.
“Anyone else want to try? No? Then I’m going.”
She began to walk away. Silence followed her footsteps. Ceria couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Before she knew it, she’d raised her voice.
“We came here to be mages!”
Ceria shouted it at Illphres’ back. She couldn’t help herself. She raised her voice in outrage as the woman turned and regarded her silently.
“If you don’t want to teach us, take it up with the Council! But we’ve just started learning, and we need help, not an impossible task!”
A few students around her raised their voices in agreement. More spoke up, and then they were all shouting at Illphres. The woman just stared at them all without expression. She didn’t smile or frown—she didn’t even blink. It wasn’t just having a still face; it was as if her own face was frozen in place. It was so unnerving that after a few seconds, the noise had faded from the hallways once again.
When Illphres spoke, it was in a flat voice as she met Ceria’s eyes.
“Real [Mages] don’t need help. They forge their own paths. If you want someone to hold your hand, find another teacher.”
She turned and walked away. Ceria clenched her fists, helpless, as the blurred shape of Illphres disappeared down the corridor. Pisces patted her on the shoulder, and Cessic said something Ceria didn’t quite catch.
Slowly, the students began trooping down the corridor, not saying much. But they paused when they saw a ten foot high wall of ice right as the corridor opened up into the intersection. The wall left a feet of room near the ceiling, but besides that it was impenetrable.
In consternation, the students stared at the wall of shimmering ice. One student disbelievingly put their palm against it and found it stuck. As the shouting started, Ceria stared at the wall, and then at the mage standing at the far end of the intersection. It was hard to see the woman’s face through the distorted ice, but Ceria could swear she was smiling slightly. Then she turned and walked away.
Pisces stared at the ice as Cessic and Ceria just stood there in silence. He looked at Ceria.
“…How are we supposed to get out?”
“We’re going to die here.”
Cessic made that announcement after twenty minutes had passed and the fifty-odd students had made no progress breaking down the wall of ice magic. Over half the students knew at least one flame-based spell, but no matter how they’d pooled their spells and attacked in unison, the icy barrier had resisted all the flames.
“It has to be a Skill! A normal [Ice Wall] spell would melt, however slowly. But this ice is practically resistant to flame!”
Pisces looked equally happy as she did concerned as he stared at the ice. Ceria just glared. Her spells had washed right over the wall without doing anything to it; and none of the other students still blasting it with low-level spells were having any better luck.
They couldn’t touch the ice, either, or they’d risk getting stuck to it. Several students had already tried climbing the ice, but they’d stopped after leaving good bits of their skin on the frozen surface. Now, most of the students were just standing around and talking, waiting for a higher-level mage to come by and rescue them.
“We’re all going to die.”
The only problem was that some people couldn’t handle waiting. Cessic was pacing back and forth, hyperventilating as he panicked. Ceria sighed and edged away from him; the Lizardman was apparently claustrophobic, and he gave off fear that was starting to spread to some of the other new students.
“We’re not going to die, Cessic. Stop pacing. Just—stand over there and don’t look at the wall, okay? Look out one of the windows?”
“Do—do you think I could jump out of one?”
The Lizardman looked hopefully at one of the windows. Ceria shuddered and grabbed his tail.
“Don’t. It’s a long way down. Just wait, okay? Someone will melt the ice soon enough.”
“Okay. Okay. I’m going to…I’ll just put my head out the window.”
Cessic staggered away. Ceria and Pisces stared at him until they saw he was just looking out the windows rather than climbing out, and then they went back to sitting. In silence.
“I really don’t like her.”
“She does appear to have a most objectionable personality, doesn’t she?”
Pisces nodded to the other wall of ice blocking off the classroom. Ceria scowled and flicked a bit of dirt off the floor. She looked around and saw most of the other students were seated—save for a knot of furious students in robes. They were all older students, a group of five, the Dullahan, and the fat Human who’d gotten frosted by Illphres. They were talking fiercely, and Ceria couldn’t help but edge over a bit to listen.
“We’re third-year students! Illphres was supposed to teach us as well, but the woman doesn’t even respect other mages!”
The over-pudgy mage was talking to the others angrily, and they were nodding as they stayed out of spit-range. The Dullahan was wearing a sour expression as he stared at the ice wall.
“If I had a Tier 4 spell, I could have melted that ice. I wish I could have wiped that smug expression off of her face.”
“Well, if you want to learn it, there’s always the book. If we could pay someone to get it for us, then—”
The older students looked around, and saw Pisces and Ceria standing not-too-subtly near them. They broke off immediately. After a second of scrutiny, one of them raised their voices.
“You two, you’re new students, aren’t you? Shame you got Illphres as a teacher.”
Ceria and Pisces walked over. The other students introduced themselves.
“I take it this isn’t what normal teachers do?”
The overweight student snorted. He gestured towards the classrooms.
“Last year we had proper teachers, but this year the Council decided to make the selection process random. Hah! This is what we get. It looks like you two won’t be learning any combat spells unless you pass your entrance test.”
Dismayed, Pisces and Ceria exchanged a glance. The older students nodded in agreement. One of them grinned at the new students.
“Still getting to know the academy? I remember how confusing it was when I was a new student here.”
“That’s right. We still haven’t found where the illusion class is being taught.”
“Hah! Good luck with that. You could get the location from Calvaron, but he’ll change you an arm and a horse’s leg for it.”
The older students laughed again, but the Dullahan paused as he stared at Pisces.
“You’re that Pisces, aren’t you? If you trade me a rapier and a bell, I’ll tell you where the illusion classes are being held.”
Pisces blinked in surprise, and then smiled apologetically.
“Sorry, but my personal accoutrements are not for sale.”
“Pity. Well, until we get this damn barrier melted, we’d best save our mana rather than waste it on this.”
With a flick of the hand the Dullahan indicated the ice barrier. He jerked his head and the other students walked away, saying goodbye to Pisces and Ceria. They found a secluded part of the corridor and began to speak intently again, this time making sure no one was near them.
“That was an odd offer, don’t you think?”
Pisces and Ceria stood in front of the ice wall, talking. Pisces nodded as he looked over to the other students.
“An offer to tell us where the illusion class was being taught for a duelist’s, that is to say, my, bells. That was the most direct trade I’ve heard so far, I believe.”
“Maybe you should have taken him up on the offer.”
Ceria joked, but Pisces just shook his head. He was very intent as he studied the older students from the side.
“Did you notice his companion’s expressions? They clearly didn’t expect his ruse to succeed, once again adding to my theory that the illusion class is, in of itself, an illusion.”
“Why offer if it wouldn’t succeed, then?”
“For the bell. Another clue. If he wants that for simple directions—well, if the class were so easy to find, it would be a very one-sided deal.”
Ceria raised her eyebrows.
“It’s that valuable? That little bell?”
“It is, to some at least. I—”
The young man broke off, shaking his head. Ceria knew he didn’t want to talk about his past, and let the matter drop. Instead, she perked up her pointed ears, trying to listen to what the students were saying. She caught only a fraction as the conversation from other students entered a temporary lull.
“…spell book. I’m sure it has at least one Tier 4 spell in it, but the protections—”
Then the babble rose and Ceria lost the thread. She sighed. More secrets, and this one sounded promising. A spellbook?
Pisces was looking repeatedly over to the group of students as well. Ceria saw him tap his lips thoughtfully, but he didn’t make a move to sidle over. She thought she saw him whisper something, but it might have just been a trick of the light.
As Ceria turned to check on Cessic, she saw a dark shape flit towards the older students. She turned back quickly, but whatever it was had gone the instant she looked.
She shook her head at Pisces and made a face.
“Great. There are rats trapped in here with us.”
“Rats? Are you sure?”
Cessic said that, coming over from the window to rejoin the other two. Pisces frowned as he looked around, and Ceria did too, although she couldn’t spot the dark shape.
“Either that or some large bug.”
“I wouldn’t mind a bug or a rat if that’s all we’ll be eating. You know, I skipped lunch for this.”
The Lizard moaned as he rubbed his stomach. Ceria was about to tell him to suck it up or go searching for the creature in question when Pisces suddenly called out.
“Hello? Is anyone there? We’re trapped here; we could use some help!”
Ceria turned and saw a tall figure through the distorted ice. It stopped and walked over towards them. Ceria held her breath as she saw a porcelain face, and saw the seven foot tall creation move as gracefully as a dancer. She heard Cessic gulp and the other students go quiet.
Piesces smiled in relief at the stone woman who looked as though she had traded stone for flesh. Cognita’s smooth face smiled slightly as she looked down at them.
“You are Cognita, yes? I hesitate to ask, but we’ve found ourselves trapped, you see. A [Mage] made this barrier and we can’t break through it.”
The Truestone Construct, the Golem who acted like a person, nodded. She regarded the ice wall as if she was staring at a speck of dust as she spoke.
“Ah. This is the work of Illphres. Stand back please, and employ any protective spells you know. I will remove this barrier.”
So saying, she let the students scurry backwards twenty feet before she lifted one delicate arm. Her dress rippled as her stone fist casually punched straight through the wall of ice with an impact that sounded like an avalanche.
Ceria and Pisces gaped as bits of ice showered down around Cognita. She raised her hand and punched twice more, and the wall collapsed. With ease, the Golem kicked the ice fragments aside and nodded to the students.
“The path is clear. I will have the rest disposed of soon enough, although the binding spell has already been broken.”
She nodded politely at Pisces and walked away. In silence, the students watched her go. After a minute, they began to file out, avoiding the jagged bits of ice.
Cessic paused after he’d cleared the broken ice wall. He put one hand against the stone wall, looking pale.
“I think I need to go have a lie down.”
Ceria and Pisces agreed with the sentiment, even if they weren’t so ill as Cessic. They slowly began to walk towards their rooms. Ceria stared at the broken ice, and wondered if she’d ever be able to match any of the beings who walked these halls.
The two mages were tired after their small adventure, so they had agreed to take a brief rest before going to dinner. Ceria wanted to have a drink to wash away the stress, so they had agreed to find another party afterwards.
The funny thing about Wistram was that while all the mages studied magic, there was always at least one mage not studying and instead imbibing as much alcohol as possible. Something about rigorous and intense concentration brought it out in people, and the new students were only too happy to drink as much free liquor as possible until someone started throwing spells around.
But there was nothing in Ceria that really wanted to have a drink and relax. She stomped into her room, teeth clenched. She’d been in a bad mood all day, ever since she’d met Illphres. Now that she was alone, Ceria could give vent to her feelings at last.
She screamed as loudly as she could in her locked room. Ceria hurled her possessions around and then raised her finger and started shooting [Stone Dart] at one of the walls.
“That stupid—arrogant—mold-headed, sun-baked piece of tree fertilizer! That inbred—”
Shards of stone broke as the rapid stone missiles shattered against the enchanted stone. Ceria felt some fragments strike her and stopped as one cut her.
“Ow! Damn it!”
That just made her madder. She punched the bed, and then started ripping the covers and pillows off and stomping on them.
“Real mages? Real mages? I’ll show her a real mage! I’ll—”
She began kicking everything on the floor before she moved on to punching her bed and then a wall. Ceria let out her aggression on anything in sight—she normally found a quiet bit of forest to raise hell in when she was angry, but Wistram was extremely forest-deficient.
She’d always had a temper. As a child, Ceria could remember getting angry enough to burst and then chasing woodland animals around, punching foxes, biting sticks in half—
“Ceria? Ceria, are you okay? I hear noises.”
Ceria looked up, part of her pillow in her mouth. She spat out the feathers and called out, somewhat sheepishly.
“I’m—fine, Pisces. Sorry.”
“Ah, do you want to talk?”
A few minutes later, Ceria edged out of her doorway. Pisces only caught a glimpse of floating feathers and a very ransacked room before she practically chased him back into his room.
“Sorry about that. Did you hear—much?”
“No in so many words. Just…noise. I was concerned.”
Pieces offered Ceria his bed, since he only had one chair. She sat on it, and looked around. His room was different than hers; he had a large bed and an actual balcony on his, but besides that his room was very clear—almost austere. His rapier sat in one corner and Pisces had a few clothes in a pile on one side of the room, and nothing else.
“I shall take that in the spirit it was intended. I ah, notice you redecorated yours just now.”
Ceria grinned sheepishly.
“Sorry. Was I that loud?”
“Allow me to say it this way: you were audible through the stone. Was that ice mage that upsetting to you?”
The half-Elf shrugged, turning a bit red.
“It’s—okay, yes, she was. But it’s not just that. It’s just—I thought when I got here things would be different. I thought I’d learn magic, not get involved in petty…politics.”
“I must confess, our entry here has been a bit different than what I expected.”
Pisces murmured as he sat next to Ceria. She flicked a feather out of her hair and laughed softly.
“I guess. I shouldn’t be surprised. But doesn’t it feel like we’re not learning everything we could be? I mean, our basic magic classes are fine, but without combat magic—learning that was the entire reason I came here.”
Pisces nodded, his expression troubled. Ceria let out her breath, giving vent to more of her hitherto unspoken worries.
“And we don’t have that much time, Pisces! If we had a year—or even half of one I could relax. I could prove myself but we have one month. And I don’t know what their exams are, but I can’t just believe they’ll take me because I know a few spells and I’m a half-Elf. I have to be a student here and I just don’t have anything special to offer.”
“Neither do I.”
“Oh come on. You’re the best in our class at our lessons.”
“Best in a class full of new students. That is hardly a ringing endorsement.”
Both students sat together gloomily. Ceria rested her head in her hands, wishing she’d had a real book of spells to study, or that she’d apprenticed under the half-Elves spellcasters back in her village. Pisces sat in his chair, head bowed, apparently lost in thought. Then he slowly raised his head and spoke in a low voice.
“What if there was something we could do?”
Ceria looked at him. Pisces’ expression was unreadable, but his fingers twitched and his foot jiggled with nerves. He looked at Ceria and licked his lips.
“I uh, well, you know when we were listening to those older students talk? Before they spoke to us, one of them mentioned a spellbook in conjunction with a Tier 4 spell.”
“I remember that.”
Ceria frowned as she remembered.
“Yeah, they said that. But so what? If they’ve got one—”
“Ah, but they don’t. Have one, that is.”
Pisces raised a finger as Ceria stared at him. He licked his lips again.
“I—happened to overhead the rest of their conversation.”
“How? With a spell?”
Ceria looked at him in disbelief. Her ears were far better than any Human’s and she’d been standing right next to Pisces. He hesitated.
“Something like that. A spell, yes. I’d prefer not to say.”
Pisces was acting oddly, but Ceria was intrigued now. She scooted over on his bed as he lowered his voice again. No one could hear them in the room, but both felt the need to be secretive.
“I heard the rest of their conversation. They were talking about a spellbook, yes. A book they do not have. There is a book in a hidden part of the library—in a secret section. The students have located it and they are sure it has potent spells, but the book is warded. If they try to take it, it will kill them.”
Ceria’s hair rose at the thought. A trapped book? Wistram had more than one library section, but all the books she’d found were normal books or the lowest-level spellbooks full of cantrips. No wonder the other sections were secret if the books had wards like that.
“I also…happened to overhear where the section is, and how to get in. We could gain access to that section.”
“And look around for other spellbooks?”
Ceria’s heart lifted at the thought. But then she thought of the dangers and hesitated. And Pisces was shaking his head.
“Not just that. If we gain access to the library, too many things could go wrong. We aren’t allowed to read higher level spells as new students, and besides, there could be more warding spells. But if we could somehow obtain that particular book they were talking about—”
“You mean steal?”
The half-Elf looked at Pisces in disbelief. His lack of a response was her answer.
“I have a plan. I hesitate to carry it out, but I am sure it would work. I just don’t know whether I should try.”
“It is stealing after all.”
“True, but—it is not as if these students own that book. It is in the library, for anyone to take.”
Ceria slowly let out her breath. Something was tickling her stomach, the same feeling she’d felt back when she was younger.
“Anyone with the courage. And the intelligence to get it without dying.”
“Precisely. It may not be safe. And if we are caught—well, I doubt we will get into that much trouble. But there is danger, especially if the other students find us as we are retrieving the book.”
“And getting it in the first place.”
Pisces waited. Ceria considered their options, and then shook her head. But not to say no.
“The way I see it…we’ve only got a month—three weeks, really. We can either play the good students, or we can take a risk.”
The young man’s eyes gleamed with excitement as the half-Elf smiled at him, showing teeth. He reached out a hand and Ceria took it.
“I believe so. If we wait, the other students may attempt to retrieve it earlier. And I can execute my plan quickly. We just need time, and the right moment when no one is around.”
“Okay then. What if we—”
Ceria turned her head, and paused as she saw an irregularity out of the corner of her eyes. She turned her head.
Something moved in the corner of Pisces’ room, by the dresser. Ceria sat up instantly. She only saw a flash of grey fur before the creature darted back out of sight.
“There’s rats everywhere!”
She stood up, annoyed more than she was upset. She’d eaten rats before, but she didn’t like the disgusting things. She went to the dresser, but Pisces stopped her.
“Oh come on. Where there’s one there could be a dozen. We need to destroy the nest before—”
“I have taken care of it. Don’t worry, Ceria. We have more important things to do.”
“Oh. You got them?”
“Ah, yes. I had a small infestation of mice in my room. This one must be a straggler.”
“Have. Excuse me. I must have neglected to round up all of the vermin in my last sweep. It should be of no consequence.”
Ceria hesitated. She pointed to the dresser.
“Are you sure? One [Flame Jet] and they’re cooked. It’ll smell bad for a while, but—”
“I’m sure. I have my own methods of disposing of such creatures, and we mustn’t waste time. Let us go to dinner, and then we’ll begin the plan.”
He ushered her towards the door. Ceria nodded reluctantly, but she stopped Pisces as he closed the door to get ready.
“Just be sure it isn’t a rat. Mice will leave you alone, but some of the nastier kinds of rats will nibble your nose off as you sleep.”
“I have everything under control.”
Pisces shut the door as Ceria went back into her room to clean up in the few minutes before they left to eat. He breathed a sigh of relief, and then scowled as a small shape slowly climbed up his dresser.
He stared at it. The ‘rat’ stared back with hollow, unblinking eyes. It was no rat. It was a mouse. And it was dead.
Pisces raised a finger, and the mouse scurried over to him. He carefully picked it up and tucked it into the pocket of his robe. And then he opened the door and walked into the corridor.
“Ceria? Are you ready?”
“Coming—just got to stuff the feathers back in here.”
Ceria emerged from her room, blowing away some more feathers. She smiled at Pisces and his heart skipped a beat.
“To dinner, then. And afterwards…”
“Let’s go grab a spellbook.”