The stone halls were dark at night in Wistram. True, the mage-lights provided decent illumination, but the magics that controlled them dimmed the intensity of light that each floating orb of light or eternally burning torch gave off.
Many mages didn’t care to wander outside of the thick walls that made up the citadel that was Wistram academy. Thus, this change in ambient light was the only clue some had that it was time to sleep. In parts of the citadel where there were no windows, mages could wander for hours without ever seeing the sun.
“I hear it’s dimensional magic. Very complex stuff. I wonder how big Wistram really is. Has anyone ever tried to measure it from the inside and compared it to the outside?”
Most mages preferred to walk the halls at night with orbs created by the [Light] spell. However, the two new students who crept from shadow to shadow used no magic now. They were trying to be quiet.
“I’m just saying, who created this place? It had to be an [Archmage], but how many additions were made over the years?”
“Pisces, for the love of leaves, shut up!”
The half-Elf in front snapped at the young man creeping along behind her. Pisces closed his mouth, and she prayed he’d keep quiet.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way? I thought we should have gone left back there.”
Ceria hissed with annoyance and straightened up. She paused in the shadows between two globes of light and looked around to make sure no one was walking down the corridors.
There wasn’t anyone. They were safe. Mages did like to stay up at odd hours, it was true, but this wasn’t a particularly well-travelled part of the academy in the day. Most students up this late would be drinking or having a party elsewhere. As for the mages, they’d be studying books, or doing the same thing as the students.
Still, Ceria lowered her voice as she spoke to Pisces.
“We’re trying to be stealthy here, don’t you get it? And the oval library with the staircase is this way, I’m sure of it!”
Pisces frowned, but Ceria knew her sense of direction was better than his. Wistram was confusing, but she’d gotten used to wandering around forests where every tree looked like the last one.
To his credit, Pisces kept his voice low, but he still kept chattering. Both he and she were nervous, and so he kept talking while she led them onwards.
“I don’t see why we’re hiding. It’s not as if we’re doing anything wrong.”
“We’re going to steal a book from other students. And we’re going to one of the restricted libraries to do it!”
“Well…it’s not their book.”
Ceria knew what she was doing might well get them kicked out of Wistram. But she was sick of sticking to the rules. She’d had to deal with Rievan, the rude, arrogant Human teacher who seemed to hate half-Elves, and Illphres, who had refused to teach them magic. She hated Wistram’s stupid secrets and the way everything was give and take around here.
And she was afraid she would fail the exam that was only a couple of weeks away. So Ceria had decided to break the rules and help Pisces steal the magical spellbook.
“They didn’t expressly forbid us from entering this section of the academy.”
Ceria frowned at Pisces.
“They told us this place was off-limits!”
“Ah. Yes. Well, I believe that may have been a warning rather than an inviolable rule. From all we’ve seen, I surmise that these restrictions are meant to test how we react to such impositions, not actually stop all of us.”
“What? Stop using complex words!”
Pisces paused. He chewed at his lip and rephrased his statement.
“We can break the rules—if we’re not caught. They’re expecting us to.”
Ceria thought about that and nodded.
“Makes sense. Okay, let’s get in there. Why couldn’t you have just said that from the start? You always use too many complicated words!”
“But I like complicated words.”
Pisces muttered as he and Ceria snuck down the empty side-corridor. She knew he was right, at least in a sense. It didn’t seem like Wistram had many totally absolute rules. But still, she had to point out a flaw in his reasoning.
“The problem isn’t whether we’ll be caught by other mages and get punished. It’s whether anyone sees us and sells someone else the secret that we were sneaking about right before a spellbook got stolen.”
“Ah yes. Secrets. That would be problematic.”
Behind Ceria, Pisces grimaced. Here in Wistram everyone’s actions and words were carefully noted by people around them, to be used and traded like currency. Secrets were the lifeblood of the mages here, and it meant their presence in this part of the academy would be noted by anyone they met.
Ceria peeked around an intersection and then moved down it when she saw no one was there. She glanced up at a painting on the wall—some relief showing a bunch of adventurers battling a Goblin Lord. That meant they were close.
“You’re sure the other students aren’t going to try and grab the book tonight?”
“They said they were going to talk to another mage who specialized in dispelling wards. I think we’re safe. The magic killed or nearly killed one of their friends. I don’t think they’ll be too eager to try again without preparation.”
Ceria stopped. She turned to look at Pisces. He was nervous, but his pale face also looked excited. She was less sanguine.
“One of them got killed? Are you sure this plan of yours will work?”
“Fairly. I believe there will be no risk to either one of us, even if it fails. The only thing we have to fear is being seen.”
The half-Elf shook her head.
“I wish you’d explain.”
“Too many ears back in the banquet hall. And I’m still not sure the older students don’t place eavesdropping spells in the hallways. I can tell you now if you want, but it’s faster this way.”
“Tell me later, then. We’re close.”
The two moved onwards. Ceria knew her footsteps were almost inaudible, but Pisces shuffled around a bit in his cheap robes. Still, she didn’t expect anyone but another half-Elf or a species with good hearing to pick up on the faint sounds.
“How did you know what they were saying, anyways? Do you know a listening spell?”
She had to ask. Pisces hesitated. When he spoke quietly, his voice seemed uncertain.
“Something…similar. Suffice it to say I heard every word they spoke. Now…is this it?”
They’d reached a pair of double doors, set right next to a diagonal intersection of three corridors. Ceria stared at the doors and then at the way the wall ended a few feet ahead of the doors. Architecture and the laws of space didn’t seem to matter in this place.
“This is it. Keep an eye out and make sure no one’s coming.”
Pisces nodded and looked around while Ceria put her ear to the door. She knew the room beyond the doors was large, but she listened hard for any sounds of people moving about. After a minute she’d still heard not a sound. Satisfied the room was probably empty, Ceria opened the door and she and Pisces slipped inside.
The oval library with the staircase was one of a multitude of libraries in Wistram. Most contained books, as befitted libraries, but some were dedicated to one subject, or all comprised of books from a certain era. One library had a pool of water in it, and all the books were waterproofed to let mages read and bathe.
Wistram was very odd. But this library was fairly normal, as libraries went. The room was indeed ovoid, and a central staircase led up to four walkways around the room where shelves of books sat side by side.
Ceria had never seen so many books before coming here. This place alone easily held a fortune in old, sometimes cracking books of dust and ink. She coughed and Pisces sneezed as they walked into the room.
“Rot. Golems haven’t dusted in here for a while.”
Pisces nodded. Eyes watering he sniffed and pointed.
“Too many…books. Ah, but look. You can see someone’s been here.”
Indeed, Ceria could see places where the dust had been disturbed. She and Pisces made their way up the staircase, following the cleared areas and found themselves on the second level, staring at a wall of books.
“Is there some kind of mechanism here? Some activated spell?”
“I think so. But let me see…hey, these are all real books!”
Pisces pulled a few tomes out of the shelves. Ceria stared at them. It looked like this entire shelf was dedicated to Human history. She spied different genealogies, historical accounts, and personal bibliographies, all from Human kingdoms she’d never heard of before. She frowned at Pisces as he flipped open a book and stared at the writing inside.
“They’re real, yes. So what?”
“Well, apparently if you do this—”
Pisces pulled one of the books from the shelves and switched it with another book higher up. The instant the two books had been pushed into place, the entire bookshelf suddenly faded. Ceria gasped, and Pieces whistled quietly.
“Truly impressive. They’re books that were all spelled with the same enchantment.”
He waved a hand, letting it pass straight through the bookshelf. Ceria stared through the intangible books. There was a tunnel in the wall, one that leads straight into another room.
“A second library?”
“Yes. That’s where we’ll find the spellbook.”
The two students stepped into the secret tunnel cautiously. Ceria gasped as she looked around the circular room occupied by a shelf full of books, and of all things, a bed and dresser! There was a small table and mirror which were both covered with dust.
Pisces sneezed and raised a small cloud of dust, and Ceria coughed and wiped at her eyes.
“Dead gods. Is this some secret bedroom?”
“Looks like it.”
“Who’d make a secret passageway into a library of all places?”
“Someone who values their privacy?”
Pisces sidled away as Ceria kicked at him.
“Or someone who likes books. Or…”
He nodded towards the passageway that led back to the main part of the library.
“Or perhaps this library was ideal for whomever lived here. Most of the books seem to be largely historical in this section. Few people would bother to peruse the stacks. So whoever lived here might have constructed this hiding place in a time when the mages of Wistram were less…amiable towards each other than they are now.”
Ceria shivered at that thought. She imagined mages fighting each other, sneaking about in hidden passages like this.
“You’ve got a twisted imagination Pisces, you know that, right?”
He shrugged self-consciously.
“I prefer to think of myself as pragmatic. Now…my plan should be working as we speak. We just need to find the book.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard.”
Ceria walked over to the bookshelf.
“Ah—don’t touch any of them!”
Pisces cautioned Ceria as she reached for a book. She snatched her hand back.
“What? I thought the books were spelled against opening.”
All the spellbooks she’d heard of were warded against being read, but Pisces shook his head.
“The one we’re after apparently killed the student who tried to take it out. And we cannot be sure the other ones aren’t trapped in the same way.”
“Dead gods. Who’s so paranoid they’d use a spell like that?”
Ceria groused as she and Pisces studied the books on the shelf at a respectful distance. It wasn’t too hard, just difficult to see the covers with all the dust clinging to the books. Pisces suggested blowing it away with a spell, and after that it was much easier.
“I’m assuming this is a personal spellbook, right?”
“Correct. There should be no title on the spine. And if we use [Detect Magic]…aha! These two books seem to be the most powerful.”
Pisces pointed to two of the tomes. One was thick and it looked to Ceria’s untrained eye like the spell on it wasn’t that powerful. She guessed it was just a valuable book of some kind, warded against tearing or decay. But the other book shone in her vision, not brightly, but with an intensity that made it seem realer than the other books in the room.
“That’s the one. I’m sure of it.”
“I think so too. Now, what was your big plan? Pry it out with something? A pair of sticks, maybe?”
“Don’t be silly. The spell might activate! No, we just have to wait—”
Ceria held up one hand, suddenly alarmed. Her ears twitched and she put a finger to her lips. Pisces went still and Ceria crept back towards the entrance of the tunnel. She whispered to Pisces.
“I hear footsteps.”
They must have been loud, for her to hear them. Ceria held her breath as she realized someone was definitely coming towards this very library. She looked at Pisces, suddenly worried.
“No—I think it might be someone else. If it’s who I think it is—”
Pisces opened his mouth, but the door opened before he could tell Ceria. She flinched back into the tunnel, realizing too late that they’d left the transparent bookshelf! Anyone would be able to see something was odd in an instant.
But the being that walked through the doorway was no mage, and certainly no student come to take the spellbook. A tall, inhumanly perfect woman made of grey stone seemed to glide through the doorway. She was eight feet tall and the stone clothing she wore rippled as she walked, as if she was alive.
Cognita turned and stared around the room. Her eyes found Ceria, hiding behind the transparent bookshelf at once. The half-Elf jumped and shuddered, but Cognita just strode towards her with the same look of calm on her face as always.
“Ceria Springwalker. I hope you are having a good night?”
“What? Um, yes. Yes, I am. Cognita. Uh—”
Ceria stammered and took a step back as the Truestone Golem stopped in front of her. She was enormous. Ceria had no idea why she was here, but Pisces stepped forwards and Cognita’s head nodded fractionally.
“I have just received your note, student Pisces. May I ask what is the matter?”
The young man coughed and stood a bit straighter as Ceria’s head turned from him to Cognita rapidly.
“Yes, thank you Miss Cognita. I was hoping you could help me retrieve a book, you see. It’s warded with some kind of spell, but I would like to study it to advance my grasp of spellcraft.”
Cognita’s face changed slightly as she stared down at Pisces. Ceria saw something shift in the Golem’s usually impassive features. Was it curiosity? Then the eyes shifted to Ceria and the half-Elf felt a jolt in her stomach.
“I assume your friend is here for the same reason?”
“Ceria? Yes, she’s just here for ah, moral support. The book is this way. If you would…”
Pisces gestured, and Cognita stepped forwards. He smiled up at her, letting the tall Golem bow her head to enter the tunnel. He would have followed, but Ceria pulled him back and hissed at him.
“You called Cognita? That was your plan?”
Pisces looked blankly at her.
“What’s the problem with that?”
Ceria spluttered, unable to explain. How could she convey the unease she felt when she looked at Cognita, or rather, felt the Golem’s eyes on her?
The eyes of the Truestone Golem had been sculpted to perfectly mimic the eyes of a Human woman. But they were not alive. They moved as if they were, though, and Ceria knew there was some intelligence controlling the thing that called herself Cognita. But it was not the same as living and it scared Ceria.
She knew other students in Wistram felt the same or more strongly. Some mages avoided Cognita in the hallways. Ceria could get along with the Golem because she was helpful and acted quite normally, but she didn’t like Cognita’s eyes.
Pisces however acted as though Cognita was no different than Ceria. He walked after her as the Golem studied the shelves and looked around the room.
“You see Cognita, we ah, happened to learn about this room you see, and I note that its previous occupant is probably long since deceased…”
Cognita nodded once and looked back at the two students.
“This is the residence of Nemistra Verdinan, a Selphid who lived here for many years in hiding. She is long dead, but it is good to see her room has finally been discovered. I will have other Golems collect the lost books and return them to their proper locations.”
Both mages blinked up at Cognita, caught off-guard by the matter-of-fact response. Pisces coughed.
“Yes, well, I am, ah, glad. But could I trouble you to ask whether taking her former spellbook would be permissible? It’s the one on the second shelf from the bottom you see—”
“Yes. I see it.”
Cognita studied the tome, eyes unblinking. Ceria and Pisces held their breaths. When the Truestone Golem turned, she nodded again.
“The tome is guarded by several wards that would melt the flesh of anyone attempting to retrieve it. I can remove it without issue to myself, following which the wards would be broken.”
Pisces rubbed his hands together happily, but Ceria was uneasy.
“So you’ll just give us the book? Really?”
“That is acceptable. However, Wistram law now dictates that mages below the third year only be allowed one personal spellbook for their use. You have already been issued one. If I give you this book, you must return your spellbook.”
Ceria groaned. Of course. There had to be a catch. But Pisces was undeterred.
“Very well, Miss Cognita. I would happily trade in my spellbook for this one. Would you ah, like me to retrieve it before…?”
The Truestone Golem turned, and the stone woman calmly pulled the book out of the bookcase. Ceria held her breath, expecting something dramatic to happen. But all she saw was a slight ripple in the air as Cognita pulled the book out—then she calmly turned and held it out to Pisces.
He was reluctant to take it. Pisces’ hands trembled a bit as he reached for the book, and Ceria saw him visibly brace himself. But when he gingerly grasped the book and Cognita let go, nothing happened to him either. He nearly dropped the book in surprise.
“The wards have been broken. It is safe to read.”
Pisces stared delightedly at the spellbook in his hands. He beamed at Cognita.
“I cannot thank you enough. Please, accept my profuse gratitude for your help rendered in—”
Ceria kicked Pisces in the shins. He yelped, but she just smiled at Cognita.
“Um, thank you Cognita. This was a big help. We couldn’t have gotten the spellbook alone.”
“No. You could not.”
Cognita’s eyes found Ceria’s, and the half-Elf saw only cold marble there. But there was something in Cognita’s tone that suggested the Golem understood what she’d done. And she’d done it anyways, knowing it would help Ceria and Pisces.
“Most mages would not have turned to me for help. Your decision to do so is interesting.”
Ceria had no idea what to make of that. She cleared her throat nervously.
“Um, well, Cognita, about this. We’d prefer to keep this secret—would you mind not telling anyone you helped us?”
Both she and Pisces held their breaths as the Golem pondered for a moment. Cognita shook her head.
“I care little for squabbles between mages. I am bound to be truthful, so I shall be. Thus, I shall relate all I have seen here.”
Ceria closed her eyes and Pisces groaned aloud. Cognita continued calmly.
“If I am asked about these specific events, I will share what I have seen. But only then. I suspect your secret will be safe, young mages.”
She nodded at Ceria and Pisces. The half-Elf and young man saw the Golem’s lips curve upwards slightly, and then the Golem turned.
“I must be going. I have other duties. I am pleased to have been of assistance to the two of you tonight. Sleep well.”
She walked away quickly, leaving Ceria and Pisces at a loss for words. They stared at her back, and then jumped as the Golem closed the double doors with a click. Ceria immediately began hurrying towards the doors, but Pisces called her back.
“Wait! We’ve got to cover our tracks! Let’s get this bookshelf back the way it was.”
“I think we just replace the two books in their original positions.”
Sure enough, the instant the two books were in the right spot, the bookshelf became real again. Ceria and Pisces pressed on the books and shelf, but it refused to budge.
“Admire it later! Let’s go before someone sees us!”
The two hurried out of the library, closing the door securely and moving quickly back towards their rooms. On the way, Ceria questioned Pisces, who was trying to walk and stare at the pages of the spellbook at the same time.
“That was—did you know Cognita could do that?”
“I had an inkling after she shattered that ice wall. If she can break Illphres’ enchantments, why not the trap spells on a book? And it seemed easy enough to ask her for help. After all, the Golems of Wistram are bound to help the students, are they not?”
Ceria had to agree with that, although she would have never considered the idea. She doubted the older students would have either. She frowned as she led Pisces down a passage and flight of steps.
“How did you send Cognita a note?”
He grinned at Ceria impishly. She glared at him and he raised his hands.
“Really, it is a secret Ceria. I…it’s rather complicated. I’m sorry.”
She frowned, but let the matter drop. Soon, they were back in Pisces’ room and only then did Pisces open the spellbook on his table and let Ceria peer at it.
“Dead gods. Look at all the spells!”
Pisces had a wild grin on his face as he and Ceria flipped through page after page of uneven handwriting. Whoever had written the book had done it in a foreign language, but the nature of the magic spells was something any mage could decode with enough effort.
“I can’t understand what that spell does. Do you see…?”
“No. But I’m sure it will come in time. And look! This is clearly some kind of flame-based spell. Can’t you tell from the way it’s formed here?”
Ceria was giddy with excitement. They had a spellbook! A real spellbook, not one filled with useless spells! Her excitement faded a bit as she realized it really wasn’t her spellbook, though.
“I guess you’ll be able to learn a lot, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
Pisces turned to Ceria in surprise. He held the book to her.
“This was a joint effort, Ceria. This book is as much yours as it is mine. We can take turns reading it—”
“No, it’s yours. You didn’t need me at all! You could have done all of this by yourself!”
Pisces shook his head, offering the book to Ceria as she backed away.
“Not true. Your expertise in subversion and stealth were quite essential. And the addition of another pair of eyes and another mind to cross-check my conclusions were invaluable.”
“What does that—”
“Look, we worked on it together. And I want you to study it as well. If we can learn some spells from this, we might stand a good chance of passing the exams at the end of the month! This is an opportunity for both of us, Ceria.”
Slowly, it began to dawn on Ceria that Pisces had intended to share the book with her the instant he’d figured out how to take it. She looked at him awkwardly, not sure what to say.
He was a Human, but he was genuine and clearly wanted to help her pass. She smiled at him, and Pisces grinned back in delight.
“Well—okay. We can study together. Two arrows are better than one. But it’s your book, okay? After all, you’re going to have to give Cognita your other spellbook.”
“True. I’d better pretend I lost the other one.”
Pisces nodded at Ceria. But then he smiled widely again, overcome with delight.
“Let’s see how many spells we can identify! I’m sure there’s at least one Tier 4 spell in here!”
The two got back to poring over the book. Ceria squinted at the magical writing, guessing some of the spells with Pisces.
“Hey. Isn’t that…[Stone Fist]? That’s a good Tier 3 spell!”
“Really? I thought it was Tier 2?”
“I think it’s Tier 3. You see, when you use it you create this rock armor around your hand.”
“Isn’t that really heavy?”
“You’d think so, but I saw a [Druid] using it once. He cracked a boulder like it was nothing!”
“I bet we could learn that in time for the exam. What do you think?”
“Maybe. But look here. This is some kind of movement spell, I’m positive of it! Can you see what the nature of it is?”
Ceria bent forwards to look at the spell Pisces had pointed to. In doing so, she realized that she was sitting in a room in the middle of the night. With a young Human man.
A few years ago—she would have put an arrow in Pisces’ head, or run away. But now she was sitting next to him as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Ceria paused.
He was a good person, albeit a bit clumsy and wordy. But she liked him, and thought of him as a friend already. In fact, she quite liked him. Ceria had no idea how she felt about that.
The next day, Ceria had trouble keeping her eyes open in all of her classes. She was exhausted from staying up and trying to puzzle out the spells in Pisces’ book. She nearly fell asleep twice in her class studying basic enchantments and how to decode magical auras, but she didn’t dare close her eyes in Rievan’s class.
“I trust you’ve all memorized the lessons from yesterday?”
He stared around the classroom, staring at each student in turn. When he met Ceria’s eyes Rievan’s nose wrinkled slightly and he looked past her. He pointed.
“You there. Pisces. Where is your spellbook?”
Pisces jerked upright, blinking rapidly.
“Yes! Where are your notes?”
Pisces folded his fingers together as Ceria tried not to stare at him.
“I lost my spellbook, sir. But I can recall my notes from last class quite well.”
One of Rievan’s narrow eyebrows rose as he glared at Pisces.
“Then you will surely be able to recall my statement regarding the dangers of overabundance of mana in the system? Repeat my words back to me.”
Ceria winced, but Pisces just cleared his throat, looking quite calm.
“Mana, sir, may over accumulate in any living being’s body as a result of a spell or influx of mana in a charged environment, but more often than not it is a result of imbibing a mana potion improperly. For a mage, casting any spell will usually resolve the issue, but for those without mana, time and rest are the only usual solutions. A competent mage may attempt to drain the excess magic from a person, but this action is not without risk. And in high concentration, excess mana may well lead to rupturing of blood vessels or parts of the body overloading or shutting down.”
Ceria and the other students in the room gaped as Pisces delivered a perfect summary of Rievan’s lesson from yesterday. The [Mage] stared hard at Pisces as the young man finished and sat down.
He said it grudgingly, and turned away from Pisces without another word.
“We will continue our lessons from yesterday! Clear your desks and begin forming your spells again. I want to see more attention to detail, Springwalker! And you—Elkrin, is it? Your control of your [Fire Orb] spell is abysmal! Focus your flames or don’t bother to cast the spell at all!”
The lesson ended without incident, which was to say Ceria ended up being scolded for her lackluster performance. But she was more concerned with Pisces. After it was over, she walked down the corridor with him.
“I can’t believe you memorized all of that!”
“I paid attention in class, and I have a good memory.”
Pisces scratched at his hair self-consciously as they entered the banquet hall. Ceria saw Calvaron and Beatrice at their usual spot and waved to them. She got her food and made her way over. She and Pisces had to pause as an older man carrying a tray nearly ran them over. He grunted and without a word of apology went to sit at an empty table.
“Stupid Human. I nearly dropped my plate!”
Ceria grouched as she sat down. She’d taken some pork chops roasted in a sauce that smelled like peanuts today. Pisces had a more balanced meal; he’d taken one of the pork chops and several sweet red fruits that tempted Ceria. He stared after the man, frowning.
“Isn’t that poor Elkrin? He seems upset.”
“Shouldn’t he be? You two were in Rievan’s class just now, weren’t you?”
Calvaron laughed and cleared part of their table so Pisces could put his food down. He and Beatrice were nearly finished their meal—some kind of small, round pasta-like food drizzled with a thick sauce and accompanied by steamed vegetables.
“That’s right. Rievan tore a strip off of Elkrin for his spellcasting.”
Ceria nodded as she began to cut her meat apart. She still felt grouchy from having to deal with Rievan. She paused and narrowed her eyes at Calvaron.
“Wait a second. Isn’t that a secret I should be charging you for?”
He laughed and slapped at the lower, horse half of his body.
“Not everything is a secret, Ceria. Something as normal as that is just juicy gossip. But it looks like Elkrin’s not taking the dressing down well, is it?”
Ceria half-turned in her padded seat to look. Elkrin did have a murderous scowl on his face and no one was sitting with him. Calvaron shook his head as he tsked.
“Attitude problem. He may be a good adventurer, but you have to be willing to learn if you want to stay here. I bet he’ll be gone within the week.”
Pisces and Ceria exchanged a glance at this. They could understand not liking Rievan, but leaving because of that? Wistram was their dream.
Calvaron noticed the look.
“Only a few people actually quit, but they’re usually only adventurers. Some of them—even the good ones like the Gold-rank adventurers who come here to improve their craft—they don’t like being told the magic they practice is inefficient. So they leave.”
Beatrice put that in. The Dullahan was spoon-feeding her head on the table as usual, and she seemed content to let Calvaron do all the talking. Ceria had to agree with her, but she yawned as she opened her mouth. That made Pisces yawn too.
“Oho! You two look tired! Did you keep each other up at night, or is it just a coincidence?”
Calvaron dodged the rolled-up napkin Ceria hurled at him. He twisted his fingers and the ball of cloth flew back at her, forcing Ceria to duck or let it smack her in the head.
“Don’t throw things unless you can catch them when they come right back at you, Springwalker. Telekinesis and levitation spells come later in the year though, I’m afraid.”
“Great. I’ll be sure to heave my plate at you when your back is turned, then.”
Ceria growled as she picked her napkin up from the floor. Calvaron just laughed again. He was already ready to smile, which made Ceria wonder if all Centaurs were so good-natured. Beatrice on the other hand was as prone to smile as a rock.
“How were your other classes? Did you like learning about enchantments? I always found that class dull, myself.”
Ceria shrugged and Pisces smiled.
“Our teacher—Fedric—is fairly good at saying as little as he needs to.”
“Fedric? Oh, he would be. Dullahans are like that, aren’t they, Beatrice?”
Calvaron nudged Beatrice’s body, and her head on the table scowled at him.
“I say what I have to. I don’t run my mouth, Calvaron.”
“I’m surprised to see so many Dullahans in Wistram. No offense, but I’d barely heard of your people before coming here.”
Ceria looked at Beatrice with interest. Fedric, their teacher for their class on enchantments, was an old male Dullahan. She’d seen a number of them in the corridors as well.
Beatrice just shrugged her shoulders as she swiveled her head to talk to Ceria.
“Not too many. But all good spellcasters get sent here from Baleros. One continent means lots of Dullahan applicants.”
Calvaron nodded. He pointed across the banquet hall, and Ceria saw a group of six Centaurs walking down the hall. They were far bigger than most students, and so they had to walk single-file to get in line.
“My people don’t usually go in for spellcasting, but like Beatrice said, the best come here and there are a lot of us on Baleros. That’s why you’ll see quite a few species that are rare in most places. Selphids, for instance.”
Ceria and Beatrice shuddered a bit at the mention of that race. Ceria had seen the deathly-white students walking the halls, dead bodies controlled by their parasitic owners. Calvaron shrugged stoically.
“They’re not so bad when you get used to them. I know they get a bad rap back home, but the ones here are all very polite.”
“Wistram truly does have more species than I’ve ever seen before.”
Pisces wiped at his mouth with a napkin. Calvaron grinned.
“We’re way more diverse than most cities, it’s true. Anyone who can become a mage or learn a magical class is welcome here—if they’ve got talent and coin. Of course, not all races are as gifted as others. That’s why you won’t see many Minotaurs, although I’ve heard they can make good mages. But most Minotaurs don’t like to use magic, so they’re not inclined to study here anyways.”
“And I bet some species aren’t as numerous or trusting of Wistram.”
Ceria said that thoughtfully as she chewed on some cow’s tongue she’d found under one of her pork chops. Calvaron grimaced and looked away as he replied—he hated to eat identifiable body parts, although he was surprisingly unconcerned about eating cows. Ceria had wondered if he would have been bothered by meat, but apparently Centaurs were far enough away from cows to eat them without guilt. She wondered how they felt about horses.
“You mean half-Elves, Ceria?”
She shrugged. She’d seen a few half-Elves roaming the halls, but they were far from common. She’d been tempted to talk with them, but it wasn’t as if she was back on Terandria and she had to stick with her own kind. Plus, she was a new student and she wasn’t sure if she’d make it past the exams.
“I know my people are naturally good at magic. But…I can’t say I’m surprised there aren’t many around. We’re not exactly welcome to strangers.”
“You and the Gnolls. You know, of all the species in the world, the only race who won’t set foot on Wistram are the Gnolls?”
Both Pisces and Ceria frowned at Calvaron. Ceria tried to think of a Gnoll, but only had a vague image of a furry dog-like person, similar to one of the Beastkin tribes from Baleros. She’d never seen one in person before; she heard they lived on Izril and seldom ventured as far as Terandria.
The Centaur nodded, frowning a bit as he explained.
“It’s a real pain too, apparently. A lot of Gnolls are famous [Merchants] and [Traders], you know. They’re pretty resilient and their tribes like to move about exchanging goods. But none of them will do any kind of business with Wistram, even through middlemen. It’s some kind of grudge, although I’ve never heard what it was about.”
“Really? A Gnoll grudge? I hear they keep those for lifetimes.”
“Too right. It’s a shame too, because I’d bet their tribes would benefit from having a few of their number learn magic. But…”
Calvaron shrugged. Beatrice raised her head so she could get everyone’s attention.
“A Gnoll did come here to study once, though. About a decade or two ago.”
“A Gnoll? You’re pulling my hoof, Beatrice.”
“Nope. He came but dropped out before his first year was up.”
The Centaur leaned towards Beatrice, but the Dullahan closed her lips in a slight smile.
“Secret. Pay me and I’ll tell.”
Everyone chortled at that. Calvaron was fairly rich in secrets Ceria had learned, and many students and mages came to him to exchange tidbits for goods and services. But Beatrice had her own collection of secrets, as any longtime mage in Wistram did.
“I don’t know if it’s worth a juicy secret. Would you consider a trade for something else? How about other goods and services rendered…?”
Calvaron wiggled his eyebrows at Beatrice and she smiled a bit wider.
“Not worth my time.”
They liked each other. It was quite obvious from the way they flirted. Calvaron did it openly, Beatrice with deadpan remarks that might be serious or a joke; you could never tell which.
“Looks like you’d better cough up a secret if you want to know, Calvaron. Me and Pisces don’t have enough to cover the costs.”
“I’ll pass. You don’t collect as many secrets as I do by spending them frivolously.”
Calvaron waved a hand. Pisces looked intrigued and leaned forwards over the table.
“Just how many secrets have you obtained during your stay here, Calvaron?”
“That’s a secret in itself, my dear Pisces. But suffice it to say, I’ve got more than one person’s little tidbits locked away in my head.”
The Centaur tapped his head importantly. Pisces looked impressed as he nodded, but Ceria thought the Centaur was full of it. She raised her eyebrows.
“You mean, you’re a secret keeper? Ooh. Fancy.”
Pisces snorted. Across the table, Beatrice choked on her food. She had to place her head on the table while the rest of her body pounded on her chest. Ceria and Pisces nearly fell over themselves laughing as Beatrice’s face contorted and Calvaron had to reach over and slap her on the back a few times. When she was done, the Dullahan turned her head with her hands so she could glare at the two.
“Not that funny.”
“It was pretty funny. No one calls people like me secret keepers or—or shadow brokers or anything like that, Ceria. I’m just a broker, a middleman. Or middle-Centaur if you like. It doesn’t roll off the tongue as smoothly. I buy and sell.”
“And make a good profit, I’ll bet. You’re rich!”
“Wistram rich, my dear half-Elf. It’s not the same as being actually rich. If I left this small isle no one would know my name. Here I have a bit of power.”
“Which explains why you maintain your independent status. Any faction in the academy can treat with you without fear you’ll trade their secrets away. It’s a valuable position to be in.”
Pisces observed that as he glanced carefully at Calvaron. The Centaur’s eyes focused on Pisces and he gave the younger man a nod of respect.
“Sharp, aren’t you?”
“He hides it well. Tell us more about these factions, Calvaron. How did they pop up?”
“I don’t know. It’s a long story…”
Calvaron glanced at one of the windows that let bright sunlight into the room. Ceria knew this was just theatrics; the Centaur had very few classes she understood, and he liked to lounge around in the banquet hall with Beatrice.
“Come on, you’ve got time and we don’t have classes for the rest of the day. Give us new students a bit of history.”
The Centaur grinned as he popped another grape into his mouth.
“What, for free? This isn’t just gossip. Some of this stuff is important. I can’t just give it away! You know how it works. Secrets for secrets.”
Pisces and Ceria both groaned at the same time. Ceria was going to tell Calvaron she didn’t want to know that bad when Pisces raised a finger.
“Would a small one do?”
“For general history? I suppose.”
Calvaron’s eyes sharpened, and the Centaur leaned forwards. Ceria saw Beatrice’s hands move; the Dullahan’s head whispered something and Ceria felt magic around the four of them. Some other students looked around, but most seemed used to what was going on.
It was an exchange of secrets. Calvaron and Pisces spoke to each other, but Ceria only saw a blur around their mouths and heard nothing. The Centaur had pulled a small crystal out of a belt pouch; it glowed bright red as Pisces spoke. The Centaur nodded, and in the next moment the bubble of silence dissipated.
“Well, I’d say that qualifies. How did you find out?”
Pisces smiled enigmatically at the Centaur.
“Secrets for secrets. To learn my method, you’d have to pay quite a lot, my dear Calvaron.”
“I suppose I deserved that.”
Ceria was dying to know what Pisces had told Calvaron—it could be just pointless information, but how had Pisces found out? She knew she wouldn’t get an answer from the Centaur though, so she pointed at the gem that the Centaur was putting back into the pouch at his waist.
“Is your truth crystal broken? It glowed red when Pisces spoke.”
He shook his head, grinning.
“Nope. It’s a little trick. Most truth spells glow green or blue or white when someone tells the truth, right? I’ve enchanted mine to do the opposite. Sometimes you can throw someone off with it.”
Pisces nodded as if this was perfectly sensible, but Ceria just rolled her eyes again.
“Everything in Wistram seems like a trick or mind game.”
“That’s just because you’re new. You’ll get used to it quick enough. Now, I believe I owe you some history?”
All four students took the moment to refill their plates. Ceria took some cold cubes of ice and splashed them into a sweet drink of fruit, delighted at the luxury of it. She sipped at her drink as Calvaron began speaking.
“I suppose you know Wistram has been around for thousands of years. It was founded oh, way back, when a lot of nations were at war and mages wanted a place to learn and teach in peace. Well, Wistram may have gained and lost power over the years, but it’s always been independent. No nation controls us—we have an army of our own here and only a truly grand fleet could make it to our shores with weather spells raised against them.”
“Not to mention Wistram provides many services.”
Beatrice put that in. Calvaron nodded proudly.
“We do provide the best spells and mages. You can trust a Wistram-certified enchantment. And we can enchant weaponry and other artifacts as well. We do a booming trade with adventurers who want better gear or to have something analyzed—”
“Yes, yes. Wistram is great. That’s why we came here.”
Ceria cut in, impatient to get to the good part.
“What does this all have to do with factions? From what I’ve heard, they didn’t always exist.”
“No, Miss Busy half-Elf, they didn’t. And if you’d let me explain, you’d know that a few centuries ago, mages competed in Wistram quite fiercely. It was every mage for himself and they formed their own groups—but there was no faction. Instead, powerful mages attracted people to them. One of them was Archmage Zelkyr. Mind you, he wasn’t just an Archmage, but an actual [Archmage].”
“He obtained the class?”
Pisces’ eyes were shining, and Ceria scooted forwards on her seat. Calvaron nodded, looking just as excited by the idea.
“It’s a matter of history. The class does exist, and he and the other [Archmages] who ruled Wistram at the time all had them. But Archmage Zelkyr was the best. He was a Drake – famous, you know, for being able to damage one of the Walled Cities’ walls. But he was more famous for his ability to create Golems.”
Beatrice said it quietly. Calvaron nodded.
“Her and an entire army of Golems. They eventually made it so that Zelkyr was in undisputed control of Wistram. He alone explored the higher reaches of the citadel, searching for ancient magics left behind by the greatest mages in Wistram’s history.”
“Higher up? You mean, there’s places not yet explored in Wistram?”
Calvaron nodded as if it were obvious.
“Of course. How many mages do you think lived in Wistram? The greatest of them—legends who could cast countless magics—all settled the highest floors. If you go exploring higher and higher you’ll run across their creations, spells, and maybe their rooms. But imagine the amount of traps and dangerous spells up there! Just trying to break into a former mage’s room is deadly.”
“But Zelkyr had the monopoly on that, right?”
Ceria was beginning to understand what had happened, and why the upper floors were off limits now.
“He did indeed. Zelkyr ordered his Golems to guard the entrances to the upper levels and seal it off so only he could learn from the mages above. Of course, the other mages didn’t accept that and there was a huge battle. But in the end his surviving Truestone Construct—Cognita—imposed a new order on the surviving mages. They could live and study in Wistram, but the upper levels were for Zelkyr and the few he trusted alone.”
“Hence their current inaccessible state?”
Calvaron pointed a finger at Pisces as he stole a grape from Beatrice’s plate. She jabbed him with a gauntleted finger.
“Gah! Damn it Beatrice, it hurts when you do that!”
“Then don’t steal. Yes, Pisces, the upper levels are closed. The top three are only off limits for new mages, but after that—there is a door. Cognita and many golems guard it. It leads further up.”
“Okay, but why hasn’t anyone gotten Cognita to open it? Zelkyr is dead, right?”
“I’m getting to that! Hold on!”
Calvaron took a long drink, enjoying making Ceria and Pisces wait.
“One day, Cognita came down from the upper floors and announced that Archmage Zelkyr was dead. Ever since then, she and the other Golems have been maintaining Wistram. They still fulfill his orders by helping us, taking care of the academy, fighting off intruders and so forth, but his other order still stands. No one may venture above. So while Wistram is safe—”
“The higher magics are off-limits?”
Pisces looked dismayed at the thought. Calvaron waggled a finger at him.
“Just the ones that belonged to the greats. There’s plenty of mages here capable of casting Tier 5 spells, or even Tier 6. But higher than that…? You’ll have to get past Cognita first, and that’s pretty much impossible. If you challenge her, you’ll be fighting her and Zelkyr’s best creations.”
Beatrice’s armor shuddered a bit and she turned the corners of her mouth down.
Ceria thought that was ironic coming from a Dullahan, but she had to admit that for all Beatrice was a disembodied head and a body covered in light metal armor, she was clearly alive. Cognita and the other Golems were not. There was an important distinction there.
“So Cognita’s not just a nice, friendly Golem?”
“She’s as nice as a Golem can be, which is sort of. But try to get past the door and…you’re dead. No one’s gotten past her since Zelkyr died.”
“And so far no one’s tried?”
“And so far no one’s survived.”
Beatrice said it quietly. Calvaron nodded soberly.
“Of course, countless mages challenged Cognita and the Golems in the past. Some did it by themselves, others attacked in groups or tried to catch the Golems off-guard. None succeeded. The Golems are powerful, and Cognita’s the strongest of them all. I’ve never seen her fight personally, mind, but there are other guardian Golems that Zelkyr made. Occasionally some group of mages decides to challenge them, but they’re always killed.”
Both Ceria and Pisces shuddered. Beatrice looked between them and shook her head with her hands.
“Don’t worry about it. So long as you never try to get past the door, you’ll be fine. And there are other places below the door that are still unexplored.”
“Like below. There’s plenty of passages unexplored there, although we do have a problem with the undead. There are a lot of bones stored in the catacombs and they sometimes reanimate people who get killed down there.”
“Lovely. And…wait, how does this have anything to do with factions?”
“I’m getting to that. You’re the most impatient half-Elf I know, Ceria.”
“I’m the only one who’ll put up with a Centaur like you, Calvaron.”
“Hah! True. Anyways, the factions in Wistram popped up because there’s no one mage who’s powerful enough to really control everyone like there used to be. Now our Archmages are just the greatest mages among us, not those with the actual class. And factions are just mages with similar ideals.”
“Like the Revivalists. My faction. You two should join if you pass the exam.”
Beatrice smiled at Pisces and Ceria. Calvaron rolled his eyes and tipped her head over.
“Stop that, Beatrice! Ignore her, you two. You don’t want to get wrapped up in factional politics before your exam. That could really hurt your chances to get in.”
“Why? Surely if we pledge to one faction, they could help us succeed?”
Pisces seemed curious. Beatrice took the moment to respond—she’d cast a spell that made all the hairs on Calvaron’s horse-half stand up, which the yelping Centaur was having to dispel.
“They might. But other factions don’t like giving one strength. So it’s a bad idea. Sorry.”
Calvaron gasped as he managed to remove Beatrice’s shocking hex. He glared at her, but she gave him a satisfied look and he decided not to escalate the situation.
“You won’t have to deal with them too much. Just know that some mages belong to a group with certain ideals. They differ in how they agree of course, but they stick together when it comes to voting or pushing their agendas. Illphres, for example. Remember her?”
Ceria ground her teeth together. She was still sore about not being taught any combat magic all this time she’d studied here.
“Well, she’s an Isolationist. Thinks we should only allow mages who are already strong to join and that we should be reaching for greater heights in magic. That’s why she didn’t want to teach you.”
“Can’t the other factions force her to teach?”
“They can…but Illphres is stubborn and it’s not worth the battle. They’ll use her not teaching to their advantage instead; the others will be able to say the Isolationists don’t contribute their fair share and be able to vote against them. So Illphres is harming her own faction, but she’s too influential for anyone to stand up to her.”
“And meanwhile we suffer for it.”
Ceria angrily stabbed her cold pork, but Calvaron just shrugged.
“It’s bad luck I’m afraid. Sorry. But there are other factions in Wistram you should know about. Your good friend Rievan, for instance, belongs to the Libertarian group. They want us to start taking sides with different nations and throwing our influence around.”
“Sounds like a bad idea.”
“Don’t let any of the Libertarians catch you saying that. A lot of them are from Terandria, and they take a deep interest in the politics from there.”
“So factions are something else we’ll have to worry about?”
Ceria didn’t like the thought of that, but Calvaron just chuckled.
“Not for a while, and certainly not until you pass your exam. And if you get strong enough, you might be able to deal with factions on your own. The more important you are, the less your connections and factions matter. Then it’s just about who you are as a [Mage].”
“But it sounds like unless I’m a powerful mage, I’ll need to join a faction or be in danger.”
Ceria pointed that out and Pisces nodded in agreement. Calvaron paused before shaking his head.
“Not necessarily. You see, the factions keep each other in check so that the independents like me can function. How can I explain it? Okay, let’s say someone—a certain angry Elementalist teacher for instance—wanted to harass you. Because he doesn’t like your ears.”
“He doesn’t like me because of my ears.”
“Yes, but he’s not actively trying to harm you or get in your way, is he? That’s because if he did start attacking you, the Revivalists and the Preservationists would be all over him. They don’t want him to alienate your people—or spread the rumor that Wistram is a speciesist institution.”
“Preservationists? That’s a long name, isn’t it?”
“They chose it, not us. Anyways, Mister Angry Elementalist would have to have a lot of support from his faction to get at you. He’d also have to consider your friends, and how much the other factions would retaliate if he went at you. Mind you, you’re hanging out with second and third-year students who aren’t powerful. Beatrice is a [Runeshaper] and I’m just a generalist [Mage], so we don’t have much clout.”
“You study runes, Beatrice? You never said.”
Beatrice nodded. She tapped at her armor where Ceria now saw some carved symbols etched into the metal.
“Working on some personal enchantments. Rune magic is very popular among Dullahans. But not powerful in faction.”
“Right. But don’t worry—Rievan’s not going to try anything. It would be too much trouble if he did and you’re not worth it.”
“Hey, it’s just politics. Like how you got stuck with Rievan and Illphres anyways. That was due to a squabble with the factions.”
“Really? Would you mind explaining how that happened?”
Pisces was interested, although Ceria wasn’t. Calvaron shrugged.
“You really want to know?”
“Well, I’ll tell Pisces and you can just eat your dead pig, Ceria. Now, the current mages teaching are mostly mages who like doing it. Some mages earn their keep and just live here by teaching. It’s not going to make them influential, but it is necessary and so they keep doing it. But a year ago, Tshya, the old Drake who taught me and Beatrice, died.”
“He had scale rot. Very nasty odor. He never cleaned himself right near the end.”
“Well, he didn’t! Remember the smell? And he was old. But he was in charge of a lot of lessons, and so the council wanted another of the oldest and most inactive mages to take on the job. Unfortunately, that would have meant choosing Belfore—he’s a Preservationist, just like Yim, the other teacher who was taking on a lot of classes. But that would have meant that the Preservationists were essentially doing all the teaching, and they didn’t want to let that happen in case it became precedent. So they insisted that the teaching be taken up by mages from all factions, which led to, among others, Rievan getting tapped for the job.”
“He’s not that important. So he got the job.”
“I see. But what about Illphres? You said she was important?”
“Yes, well, the Centrists—they’re the ones who want us to make every mage in the world part of Wistram and declare ourselves a nation—they’re always fighting with the Isolationists. And they really don’t like Illphres, so they nominated her. And she’s got a lot of enemies so they passed the vote and made her take the classes.”
Ceria clutched at her head while Pisces nodded and kept asking more questions. Ceria went off to get dessert—a lovely bread with sugar baked into the crust and glazed with honey. Mages ate well at Wistram, but this was a treat. She returned to the table and suffered through more discussions of politics. Pisces looked hurt when she suggested they leave.
“You don’t find this interesting? There’s so much depth here!”
“Depth is for people who want it. I came here for magic, not politics.”
Ceria groused. But she had one thought. She turned to Calvaron and Beatrice.
“What about Amerys? Does she belong to any faction?”
The two older students blinked at her. Calvaron slowly shook his head.
“Amerys? Some factions wouldn’t have her simply for what she’s done. Others might, but Amerys has never approached anyone. The mage of the King of Destruction’s Seven stands alone.”
“She has friends.”
“More enemies than friends by a long shot. No, Amerys is alone, for all she’s an Archmage. I’d walk clear of her if I were you. No one forces her to do anything. And she’s unpredictable at best.”
“Like when she went out to fight the Sea Serpent. That was a surprise.”
“Not really. You know she likes battle, Beatrice.”
“I thought she did it to gain favor with the Revivalists, or maybe the Centrists.”
“Her? Hah! Never. Now, I can see one of the other Archmages doing that. Old Verdan Blackwood for instance could have taken down the Sea Serpent, but Amerys volunteered. Do you know what happened after that? Pisces, you’re not going to believe this…”
Somehow, it was dinner time before the conversation ended. Ceria and Pisces loaded up their plates with more food and chatted with Calvaron and Beatrice for another hour until Ceria decided they really did need to get back to their rooms to study.
“I can’t believe we talked for six hours!”
Ceria exclaimed out loud as she and Pisces headed back to their rooms. He only smiled, looking as happy as she’d ever seen him.
“It’s wonderful isn’t it? This place is such a haven of learning. I feel like I’m right at home when I have discussions like these.”
“More like a place to get fat. I ate too much.”
“Good food, magic, and interesting people to talk to. What’s not to love?”
“Rievan. And Illphres. And Charles de Trevalier.”
“Well, besides them.”
Both students laughed as they went back to Pisces’ room. There they pulled out the spellbook and stared at it. Ceria wanted to learn another combat spell, and Pisces was still staring at one spell he claimed to half-understand already. After a while, Pisces spoke.
“They’re betting on us.”
Ceria raised her head with a frown.
“Beatrice and Calvaron. I heard they’ve put money that both of us will pass the exams.”
“People bet on who’ll pass? Wait, of course they do.”
Ceria sighed. She felt annoyed that Calvaron and Beatrice were treating her getting into Wistram so trivially, but Pisces took the opposite view. He smiled at her.
“Don’t be angry. If they didn’t like us or care they wouldn’t have made the bet. I think they’re trying to help us. They give us tips and secrets for free all the time, don’t they?”
“I guess. It’s just—we’re going to need more than a bit of help if we want to be sure we’ll pass.”
Ceria sighed, dispirited. Pisces raised his eyebrows and tapped the book in front of them.
“That’s what this is for. Look here—I’m certain this spell is in fact [Flash Step]. I had to get to one of the encyclopedias to look it up, but the spell’s description seems to match this spell exactly!”
Filled with sudden interest, Ceria peered at the spell. She nodded.
“You could be right!”
Then her face fell.
“But there’s only three weeks left until the exams. Not enough time for either of us to learn it.”
“I think I can do it. At the very least, I want to try.”
Ceria stared at Pisces. She knew he was smart. But this? [Flash Step] was a Tier 3 spell.
“You’re going to try?”
“Of course. And you can learn [Stone Fist] as well. If we work together, we’ll pass the exams.”
Pisces grinned at her. Ceria felt her heart pounding in her chest. Just heard it. She smiled at Pisces, and held up a fist for him to bump his cautiously against.