On a controversial report published by one of the foremost [Emissaries], Trixal Therest in the year 2 A.F., he listed Wistram as one of the most powerful factions in the world. Trixal’s report was issued to one of the Great Companies of Baleros who had hired him to write the primer, but it soon became widely disseminated across the world.
Other [Historians], [Diplomats], and other notable cosmopolitans soon voiced their outrage over Trixan’s report, which was claimed to be inaccurate and grossly misleading not to mention biased. However, while many charges were leveled at the characterization of other world powers, no words were spoken against Wistram’s position. For Wistram was an undisputed world power, if an often quiet one.
Mages. They worked for lots of gold and sometimes caused trouble, but they were indispensable. Of course, any organization that trained young spellcasters could be a threat, and other nations competed with each other to create their own institutions of magic now and then. But Wistram was safe from such politics, or indeed most wars due to its famed neutrality.
If the mages of Wistram did take part in a war, it was by declining to provide services, boycotting specific groups or countries, and so on. Few times in recorded history did mages fight on battlefields against a specific kingdom or empire. When mages did take to the field in numbers, it was against common enemies such as the Demonfolk of Rhir, or against a Goblin King or similar calamity.
Still, were it not for the benefits Wistram provided to all, it surely would have been taken over by one nation or other over the countless years it had existed. Wistram occupied a central point for all ships crossing the ocean, providing them with a place to trade, sell, and resupply. Yet few armies had ever taken Wistram by force, and none had ever breached the gates since the Golems of Archmage Zelkyr’s had been created to protect the isle.
But what kept Wistram alive? Trade was only a part of the mage’s economy, and that by itself would not allow mages to live in such splendor. No, it was the unparalleled quality of their education. A mage may be made of any fool with a basic grasp of magic, but of Wistram mages, it was said that the weakest of them was a match for any Silver-rank adventurer.
And that was broadly correct. A mage passed by Wistram was almost always a studied graduate of at least six years, capable of casting many spells and studied in a wide variety of fields. She or he or they owed it all to the rigorous training given to them by their teachers, older mages who imparted their knowledge to the new students.
That was the true value of Wistram. Its teachers. Each one defined the experience the students would go through year to year, and so it was small wonder the students quickly learned which teachers could be appeased, which ones were competent and which were barely able to convey their subject matter and of course, which ones were to be feared.
The teacher for basic combat magic this year was not happy. Few teachers saddled with the job were. Teaching magic to the newest students, those that had passed their entrance exams, was not an easy job, and the salary provided by the council was meager. It was a task mages fought to avoid.
Perhaps that was why this mage was angry. Then again, it could have just been her personality. All the new students knew was that their teacher was as terrifying as she was good at ice magic. And whenever they saw her in the hallways, or now, entering the banquet hall for breakfast, they took care to greet her deferentially while clearing a path.
“Good morning, professor.”
It was a title of respect. And fear. The students backed away from their magic teacher, letting her select her food and pile it onto a plate before moving away to their collective relief. The teacher stalked away towards a far table, face frozen with a hostility that her students had grown to dread.
“Hoi, teacher! Over here!”
Someone waved to her. The mage turned. Her face changed little, but she scowled as she sat down with a few other mages for breakfast. One of them grinned at her.
“Hi there. How’s it going, professor Ceria?”
Calvaron stared at Ceria Springwalker’s glaring face for a few more seconds and then burst out laughing. He howled with mirth as he pounded the table Beatrice and Mons sat at. Ceria kept glaring until the Centaur had finished.
“You done? Because if you’re not, I’ll shove an icicle so far up your—”
“Whoa there, don’t take it out on me! Please, professor, show mercy!”
The Centaur raised his hands in mock fright. He grinned at Ceria, still sniggering at her. She wanted to throw her plate at him, but it wouldn’t be worth it. Calvaron had been laughing about the title her students had given her since the year had started. She growled as she cut into the steak slathered with butter on her plate.
“I keep telling them not to call me that.”
“Yes, but you know students. They have to have a nickname for their teachers, and I think ‘professor’ suits you quite well. Don’t you, Beatrice?”
The Dullahan looked up from her plate and nodded her head with her hands. She had a book open by her head and was alternating between staring at that and nibbling on cheese.
“It’s a better name than Scaleslough. That’s what they called our old teacher.”
“Dead gods, I’d forgotten! We used to call old Tshya that all the time! That brings back memories.”
The Centaur smiled at the memory, but Beatrice did not. She looked at Ceria.
“How are classes going?”
“How do you expect? Badly.”
Ceria made a face as she forked a dripping piece of meat into her mouth. She wanted to grimace, but the hot meat made her too happy to properly grouch. Instead, she only sighed, sipping at the sweet juice in her cup as she stretched out on the comfy cushioned seats she’d grown used to.
“All these new students don’t know the difference between a fire spell and a water one, I swear. Their magical composition is terrible, they can’t compress their mana correctly, their aim is so bad I have to put up a ward or they’ll hit each other—”
The half-Elf broke off, affronted as Calvaron and Beatrice laughed at this. Mons had to smile too, although she tried to look away from Ceria. Ceria growled as she eyed her friends.
“What’s so funny?”
“Sorry, Ceria. It’s just that—every teacher always says the same thing about their students.”
Calvaron chuckled as he explained.
“All the mages who have to teach say it. And all of the older students say it too. Why, not two years ago I heard all the older mages saying it about your year.”
“They did not.”
Beatrice nodded, smiling.
“Did too. And now you’re saying it. It’s funny.”
Ceria turned her head to stare at Montressa. The younger girl turned red, but she grinned sheepishly at Ceria.
“Calvaron and Beatrice said you’d complain, Ceria. But it’s a good thing you do, isn’t it? It means you care about your students.”
“Well…I’m their teacher. I have to care.”
Ceria hunched her shoulders defensively. Calvaron wagged his finger at her.
“Ah, ah. Don’t be modest, Ceria. I hear good things about your class. You may torture your students—”
“I do not—”
“—torture them with lessons harder than all the rest of their classes combined, but they’re learning a lot from you. The students can tell, for all they think you’re the scariest half-Elf they’ve ever met. You’re doing a good job.”
Ceria couldn’t think of anything to say in reply. She tried not to blush, but knew her ears had turned slightly red.
“It’s just a job. I didn’t want it. It’s a pain and it’s keeping me from studying—anyways, it’s fine. What about you three? I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to catch up with you all this year.”
The other students sitting at Ceria’s table shrugged. She eyed Calvaron and Beatrice, largely unchanged since she’d gotten to know them. The only real difference was that Calvaron was a bit heavier, having gained weight, and Beatrice had upgraded her plain metal armor with a new coat of paint and what looked like steel mixed in with the common iron.
They had grown. But so had Mons, and in far more dramatic ways than the other two. In the year after the infamous day when Ceria had been caught up in a battle at sea with a powerful pirate navy, the young girl had turned into a young woman.
Humans grew up so fast. In one year, Mons had finished most of her adolescence and become, well, as physically old as Ceria. She had grown two inches taller, and her hair had gotten longer. Her breasts were a bit bigger, she had a bit more muscle, and she was more confident than the girl Ceria had met.
Now Mons smiled at Ceria, the depths of her pale saffron-topaz pupils glinting in the morning light. She looked rather strange to Ceria, with her red hair and bright eyes. Half-Elves didn’t have red hair. Staring at her now, the half-Elf felt a pang in her chest. In one year, Ceria had barely changed, but Mons had transformed. How much different would she become by the time Ceria graduated?
“And you, Mons? How are classes in the second year?”
“Good! I’m really enjoying my classes on ward spells. I don’t know why, but I’ve got a real knack for casting them. I’ve gotten a Skill – [Layered Ward]! I think I could really specialize in that field!”
“That’s great news, Mons.”
Ceria smiled at the young woman while Calvaron and Beatrice made similar complimentary noises.
“You never told me you got a Skill, Mons! When was this?”
“Last week. And I told Beatrice, but I didn’t tell you because she said you’d just sell the secret to someone.”
Mons’ eyes twinkled as Calvaron spluttered and turned red. Ceria laughed.
“Well, I’m glad you’ve learned how to put Calvaron in his place. I thought you’d be in real trouble with me gone.”
“It’s not been the same without you, Ceria.”
Calvaron sighed and shook his head.
“Mons and Beatrice try, but no one has your sharp tongue—or penchant for kicking and throwing things at people. I keep telling them, only you can kick like a real Centaur.”
“No, I’m serious. Ever since you went off and had to become Illphres’ apprentice, things have been so lonely. How could you just abandon us like that?”
“You’re disgusting. Didn’t you win a bundle for betting I’d be able to do it when everyone said I didn’t have a chance?”
“Of course. But that’s that and this is this.”
Calvaron smiled smugly, causing Ceria to flick her fingers and spray a cloud of snow in his face. He yelped as the freezing snowflakes melted on his fur.
“Aah! That’s the Ceria I know and love!”
She had to laugh at that. Ceria eyed Calvaron as she finished her food. He really hadn’t changed much. And yet, she knew he had taken his own steps towards becoming a mage over the year.
“How’s your own work going, Calvaron? You’re in your sixth year, now. One more and you’ll be able to call yourself a mage. Excited?”
“Hah. Terrified is more like. I’m practicing my tail off for the exam, but really, I’m more worried about collecting secrets and coin right now.”
Calvaron flicked his fingers, making the water on his face and arms vanish in a puff.
“Being a mage means I’ll really get embroiled in faction politics. I want the coin and secrets to, well, keep doing as I’ve done. I figure that without classes, I’ll be able to establish myself as a really influential broker between all the sides in Wistram.”
“Or you could take one and keep studying instead.”
Beatrice turned her head to frown at Calvaron. He avoided her gaze and Ceria sighed. She knew he and Beatrice had been fighting about his future. Calvaron was content to earn a living and continue being the affable Centaur everyone went to when they wanted to sell or buy things, but Beatrice wanted him to join her faction, the Revivalists.
It was an argument Ceria wanted no part of, so she sat back as Calvaron cleared his throat awkwardly.
“I’m…not interested in their goals, you know that, Beatrice. I support some of their agendas, but other things they say—I can’t. Anyways, I need to be neutral. You know that.”
She said nothing, just narrowed her eyes. To break the tension, Mons turned brightly to Ceria.
“So, um, Ceria. How are things between you and Pisces? Have you seen him around?”
The mood at the table—froze. Beatrice turned the head in her hands to stare at Mons and the girl flinched. Calvaron covered his face with his hand and Ceria stopped eating.
“I haven’t seen him around recently.”
“Neither have I. I suppose he’s studying quite a lot. But you know, that’s how it is. We’re so busy studying—Ceria, how are lessons with Illphres going? Does she expect as much from you as you do from your students?”
Mons ignored Calvaron’s desperate attempt to shift the conversation. She stared at Ceria.
“I spoke with him the other day. He was teaching me about how to use the [Flame Arrow] spell more effectively.”
Ceria looked at Mons, surprised.
“You still…keep in touch with him?”
“I see him at least once or twice a week. He’s busy—studying—a lot, but he could use some visitors. I think it might be good if you talked with him.”
Mons met Ceria’s eyes squarely. The half-Elf didn’t know what to say. Across the table, Calvaron fiddled with his fork and Beatrice turned her head back to her spellbook without a word.
“I’ll—think about it.”
That was all Ceria could come up with. Mons nodded, and the table fell into a deep silence.
Even after a year, there was one word, one name that couldn’t be spoken aloud.
Ceria closed her eyes and pushed her plate back a bit, no longer hungry anymore. Even now, after so many months—
It still hurt. It still made her stomach churn.
Pisces was a [Necromancer].
The entire academy knew about it, now. The new students learned this fact within days of arriving. There was a necromancer studying among them. A twisted, deranged madman who experimented with the dead.
What could be more abhorrent? What could be more wrong? Necromancers had existed since the dawn of magic, but today they were shunned and feared. Famous examples among their kind had been used to haunt children’s dreams for generations, and the tale of Az’kerash, the horror that had brought death to two continents for hundreds of years before being slain, still lurked in everyone’s memory.
Necromancy was evil. Few species could look into the rotting, dead eyes of a corpse and see anything but wrongness there. Perhaps the Selphid students sympathized with Pisces, and maybe there were those who quietly thought he did nothing wrong. But they were silent and the rest of the academy turned their backs on him.
Including Beatrice. The first time he had come to sit with them after his trial she’d nearly attacked him herself. Calvaron had—he hadn’t attacked Pisces, but neither could he look the young man in the eye. Ceria couldn’t either. Only Mons had stayed by Pisces’ side.
The young woman nodded to Ceria, looking around the table seriously. She still trusted Pisces, still talked with him. Ceria could understand—but not condone.
He raised the dead. If she came to grips with that, he had still lied to her about who he was. She’d known him for over a year and he’d lied to her.
“Well, I think I’m ready for an after-breakfast dessert. Anyone want something?”
Calvaron heaved himself up and Beatrice caught at his arm.
“You’ll get fatter. Don’t eat.”
“Actually, before you go Calvaron, I did have some business to discuss with you.”
Ceria interrupted the upcoming squabble. She saw Calvaron brighten as he looked at her and saw Beatrice’s smile of gratitude. Ceria tilted her head slightly as Calvaron sank back down.
“I’m always willing to help a friend out! What did you need, Ceria?”
“A ring or amulet with enchantments that resist ice and cold temperatures. I need good stuff, Calvaron. Not a shoddy spell, but one with the best binding available—something I could use if I had other enchanted items on me.”
Calvaron’s eyebrows raised.
“You need cold resistant magic? What, Illphres is too chilly for you?”
Ceria scowled at him.
“I need what I need, Calvaron. The question is, can you get it for me?”
He looked affronted.
“Of course I can! But it’ll be very expensive, you know that Ceria.”
“Price is no object. The highest-grade enchantments you can get, Calvaron, so long as they have no magical leakage. And I’ll need two of them.”
“Two? What for?”
Calvaron was alight with curiosity, but Ceria clamped her lips shut. She wagged a finger at him.
“Ask me no questions and I…won’t freeze your face off.”
“Ooh. I’m so tempted but—very well. I’ll ask around. You’re sure two? And you’re good for—alright, alright, I trust you! Talk to me in a week or two and I’ll let you know what I find. Okay?”
Ceria smiled and stood up. Beatrice looked surprised.
“Going so soon?”
“I’ve got to. Sorry. Illphres doesn’t have that much time and I have classes to prepare for—you know how it is.”
“Well then, stop by another time Ceria. You know where to find us!”
“Will do. See you Calvaron, Mons. Beatrice.”
Ceria waved and walked away. She levitated her plates into a wicker bin designed to hold them—a new addition to the banquet hall after the [Chefs] complained they were running out of dishes since students would pile them up ten feet into the air rather than send them into the kitchen—and walked out of the banquet hall.
By now, Ceria knew most of the academy back to front. The only places she hadn’t gone were the highest levels and deep into the bowels of the academy. It was still dangerous to wander in those places incautiously, but Ceria knew all the best shortcuts everywhere else.
So in less than five minutes, she was standing outside a door from which cold emanated. Ceria rapped on the frozen surface, ignoring the chill that made other students and mages hurry past her. She’d long since learned several spells to help with the cold.
After a moment, the door opened. A woman walked out. She nodded to Ceria—Ceria nodded back.
“You have eaten?”
“Just now. Do you want to have breakfast first or—?”
Illphres walked down the corridor slowly. Ceria followed. Her relationship with her master, Illphres, was a simple one. Illphres ordered and Ceria usually obeyed. They didn’t waste time with greetings or chitchat, mainly because Illphres had no tolerance for it.
“Don’t call me that.”
Illphres turned and scowled at Ceria. The half-Elf took the glare unfazed.
“I get called ‘Professor Springwalker’ because of you. If I get called names, so do you.”
Illphres paused. She moved her hand past her mouth, and when she lowered it, she was smiling.
“They call you that? Hah.”
“It’s your fault.”
Ceria scowled as the woman turned and kept walking slowly down the corridors. Illphres just shrugged.
“Most masters don’t make their apprentices teach their classes for them.”
“They should. It’s convenient.”
Ceria glowered. That was the thing about Illphres. She didn’t care at all about your feelings, and in fact seemed to delight in annoying other people.
And she usually came up with inventive ways to do it. Not that she’d deliberately gotten herself a teaching position for another year on purpose—that was just politics. But it had definitely been Illphres’ idea to make Ceria do the teaching instead.
Most masters made their apprentices get them food, or clean their rooms, organize their notes, assist with spellcasting and so on. But Illphres hated for anyone to do any of that for her—she wouldn’t let Ceria pull her seat out for her. And yet, she had no problems ordering Ceria to spend half her day teaching and preparing her next lesson for students when it suited her.
“I’ve barely had time to practice with all my lessons, you know.”
“But you do practice, don’t you?”
“Hmm. We’ll see.”
Illphres led Ceria to a well-used set of rooms, looking at glowing stones on the doors until she found one that wasn’t lit.
They entered into the practice room. It was just an empty room, really. Some had furniture or other objects that could be used for magic practice, but most were just empty. This one had a white marble floor—enchanted of course, to protect against the spells mages would test in here.
Illphres paused in the center of the room and turned to face Ceria.
“Now, attack me.”
There was no warm up, no preamble. Ceria just raised her finger and started casting magic.
“[Ice Dart]! [Ice Spike]! [Frost Arrows]!”
The spells shot from her fingers in the form of deadly shards of ice, some as long as Ceria’s forearm and twice as wide. They shattered harmlessly on the sheets of thick ice that had materialized in front of Illphres. The woman let the slabs of ice hover around her, creating a multi-layered shield Ceria strove to break.
Her [Ice Dart] spell did little to the thick ice, for all it was a rain of projectiles. Ceria’s newly learned [Ice Spike] spell created a few cracks, but the heavier shots didn’t do much. And her final spell, a storm of fourteen arrows that shattered against the ice barrier and left Ceria gasping for air—did nothing.
Ceria gasped for air and wiped at her brow, despite the chill in the air. Illphres let the icy barrier around her dissipate, the ice melting into water which vanished, and nodded.
“Not bad. If you ignore the fact that you’d be dead if any of your opponents knew magic of their own or had a bow.”
That stung. Ceria looked up, glowering at Illphres.
“Most students my year can’t cast a Tier 3 spell half as many times as I can! My offense is fine—”
“But your defense is terrible. Why didn’t you raise [Barrier of the Winds] before casting?”
“I don’t know it yet. You’re the one who told me to focus on ice magic! Why don’t you teach me [Frozen Shield] instead?”
Illphres’ face didn’t change, but the tone of her voice was definitely a sneer.
“Bah. [Frozen Shield] is a terrible spell. Just buy a real shield if you want to block something. You’ll be better off learning [Wall of Ice] when you’re at a higher level.”
The two mages continued to argue as Ceria and Illphres took a position facing the far wall. Illphres made colored targets of ice appear and Ceria hit them, Illphres correcting her as they bickered.
“Don’t I get a say in what I learn?”
“Of course not. You’re an idiot whereas I know what spells are best. Your [Ice Spike] spell is flawed—see there? Correct it.”
Ceria gritted her teeth as she did.
“Why won’t you teach me more advanced spells? I want to learn more, not keep practicing one spell over and over!”
“Mastery of the [Ice Spike] spell is key to learning the [Glacial Spear] spell. Besides, you don’t need variety—you need to perfect the basics first.”
Ceria grumbled under her breath and her ears drooped, but she finished practicing without any more complaints. Illphres was an excellent teacher even if she taught in much the same style as her element. Slowly, exactingly, choosing to perfect every spell before moving on to the next one. Still, Ceria couldn’t complain. She had an excellent teacher. Although she sometimes wondered…
As Illphres was walking towards the door without a word of goodbye, Ceria called out.
“Call me that again and I’ll freeze your toes off.”
Illphres turned, her face a scowl. Ceria shrugged insolently.
“…Master, why do you need two enchanted items to protect against the cold? I know it’s not for me.”
The ice mage scowled deeper, reshaping the ice mask on her face to do so.
“Of course it’s not for you. If you couldn’t handle my cold spells by now I’d have gotten rid of you already.”
“Then who is it for? I talked to Calvaron, but he says it’ll be a week or two before he can find anything.”
Illphres hesitated. Ceria waited, hoping she would get an actual reply. Illphres’ eyes pierced her apprentice, and she seemed to come to a conclusion.
“Maybe you’re ready. But—”
She glanced around the empty room meaningfully. There was no one to listen in, but Ceria knew that an eavesdropping spell might not be detectable even if they cast [Detect Magic].
“I will tell you later.”
Ceria nodded and asked no more. She felt happy Illphres was willing to confide in her. Usually the woman just gave her orders and suffered no question. But perhaps she was trusting Ceria more? They’d been master and apprentice for over half a year now, and Ceria felt like she knew Illphres almost as well as anyone in the academy.
Drained from her practice session with the woman, Ceria exited the practice room, walking slowly down the hallways. She did not walk back towards Illphres’ room where she now had her own quarters. Instead, Ceria took a familiar route, one she hadn’t used in a long time. She walked down to the first level, and soon found herself standing next to a familiar door.
Pisces still lived in the same room he had when they were first-year students. He had no master. Ceria knew the room she had used to live in—and indeed, most of the rooms around his—were empty.
She stared for a long time at the door. Thinking. At last, she raised her hand to knock. Ceria hesitated.
Then she turned and walked slowly away.
Ceria had no intention of talking to Pisces. It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the meeting, it was just that she didn’t want to speak with him. But fate conspired against her, or perhaps it was the finite amount of space even in a place as large as Wistram.
About a month later, Ceria found a knot of students and raised voices that was the sure sign of a duel, either magical or verbal, going on in one of the hallways. Pushing her way into the group, Ceria saw the duel was of the latter kind, and going on between a fourth-year student and—
Ceria’s heart skipped a beat when she saw him. Pisces was standing across from his opponent in a ring of bodies, speaking loudly. He had changed much since she’d seen him last.
Gone were Pisces’ rapier and the silver bell. It now belonged to Timor du Havrington, Ceria knew. And gone was Pisces’ smile, and indeed his normally semi-neat appearance.
Now his robes were dirty, a sign that he had little time or inclination to clean. They looked slept in, and ragged. Pisces had no coin to buy new ones. Ceria listened as the other student, a loudly-speaking cross between a dog and man—one of the Beastkin—concluded his point.
“—and so your foul practice drags down the status of mages everywhere. No nation respects a [Necromancer], and thus, why should Wistram? Why should we condone a school of magic condemned by the entire world?”
A murmur of agreement ran through the students listening to the debate. Ceria saw Pisces draw himself up. His posture was different. He hunched his shoulders more, and glared at his opponent as he sniffed and launched his counter argument.
“Necromancers have no place in the world? Who decides such things? Popular opinion? If that is the case, I must inquire, what of Archmage Nekhret? Was she undeserving of her title despite being tainted, as you seem to insinuate, by the foul practice of necromancy? She was a true [Archmage], not some pretender to the class! She represented the soul of Wistram over a thousand years ago—her bones still lie in the catacombs below the academy itself!”
“She lived over a thousand years ago!”
“Age is immaterial! My point is that she was an Archmage, someone who represented Wistram. Should she be condemned? No—more broadly speaking, can any group of mages be condemned for the actions of a few? I put to you, what about the actions of the infamous Burning Killer, Calico, who was just caught and executed in Chandrar? Do his actions define mages as a whole? Should we look askance at every [Pyromancer] because of him? Let me ask to you this question—”
As she watched, Ceria knew Pisces would lose. His arguments were sound, but he had lost his audience, probably before the debate had begun. When they voted, the group of students chosen to listen to the debate all voted unanimously. Pisces had lost, and so the winner collected his spoils—a small bag that might have had coin or something else—and walked away without another word.
The students dispersed, leaving Pisces to stare murderously at the ground. Ceria approached half-unwillingly. She hesitated before she spoke, but she did speak.
“I hope you didn’t bet anything valuable on that debate.”
Pisces’ head jerked up. He stared at Ceria in disbelief.
She met his gaze levelly. The shock faded and Pisces’ expression returned to normal. Now it was a bitter scowl and a sardonic crook of the mouth that was supposed to be a smile. He turned away from her, brushing at his robes.
“Ah, you mean the debate? I wagered nothing of consequence, I assure you. I am…used to the bias of the masses even when presented with the most rational of arguments.”
“So I see. Why bother debating at all, then?”
He glanced back at her haughtily.
“I suppose it is to prove that I have a voice, and perhaps to sway opinions. They are bound under a truth spell to vote for whomever presents the best case, you know.”
“But they hate necromancy.”
“Not all! I have had a few vote in my favor—”
Pisces paused. He sniffed again, and frowned at Ceria.
“Not that it matters. Why, pray tell, have you sought me out?”
“I didn’t. I was just walking and saw a debate was going on.”
The two stared at each other. Ceria shifted from foot to foot as Pisces stared over her shoulder. It was…so hard to see him like this. At last, Ceria sighed.
“I talked to Mons a while ago. She says she studies with you.”
“Mons? Ah—she does. She hires me on occasion to provide her with instruction.”
“That’s good. For you, I mean.”
“Yes, it does…help.”
More silence. After a moment, Pisces cleared his throat.
“You know, I am studying combat magic in my spare time.”
“Really? I thought you gave up dueling.”
“Ah, yes, well, I cannot seem to find a match. I have no desire to duel practiced mages and I seem to be boycotted by all other students—but I am attempting to refine what spells I know. Mons claims to have benefitted greatly from practicing with me.”
Ceria tried to smile, but all she did was lift the corners of her mouth.
“That’s great, Pisces.”
“Indeed. You are—you would be welcome to join us if you had the time. I realize you may be somewhat preoccupied with your classes, but…”
Part of her wanted to say yes, but she couldn’t. Slowly, Ceria shook her head.
“I don’t think we’re friends anymore, Pisces.”
He looked her in the eyes then. She saw hurt and pain in his, but Pisces didn’t say what was clearly on the tip of his tongue. He was about to, but bit back the words. Then his eyes focused on Ceria’s again.
“In that case, are we enemies?”
He stared at her, searching for something, eyes gaunt and bloodshot, his robes dirty. Ceria felt a pang in her heart and glared at him.
“Don’t be stupid.”
She whirled and walked angrily away. But Ceria knew Pisces was smiling, just a tiny bit, behind her. She murmured under her breath.
“We couldn’t be enemies.”
Four days later, Ceria found herself sitting at a table with Illphres and four other mages. She was nervous, terrified out of her mind, and nearly knocked over her drink twice when she reached for it.
Illphres glared at her.
“I don’t see how she could, with you glaring at her so, Illphres.”
A tall Dullahan seated next to Ceria said that. His name was Jurix, and he was a powerful mage specializing in combat magic and physical reinforcement magic. Sitting across from Ceria, a Drake named Bastam winked at her reassuringly. Ophelia, the Stitch-woman smiled at Ceria, and the last mage, another Dullahan named Qum, nodded impassively at her.
That made Ceria feel a bit better, but she was still on pins and needles in the presence of so many important mages. She was sitting in the banquet hall, but at one of the tables usually claimed by older mages. It was made of some kind of expensive wood and the chairs were clearly expensive, if a bit worn, but Ceria would have preferred cushions.
And yet, it suited these mages well, because these five were all individuals who commanded quite a bit of influence and power of their own within Wistram. Each one was old; Ophelia, the youngest, was in her early thirties and Bastam, the oldest, was in his sixties, although he didn’t look it.
Any one of them—including Illphres—could cause an upset if they threw their influence into a political fight. Three of them were Isolationists—Bastam, Jurix, and Ilphres, while Qum was undeclared and Ophelia was a Centrist. That was surprising in itself, given the Isolationist and the Centrist’s longstanding rivalry, but apparently they had an understanding.
This was Illphres’ group of allies, and Ceria felt out of place and very small sitting with them. But she was here for a reason.
“This is my new apprentice. Ceria. She’s annoying, but she’ll help get the equipment we need.”
That was Illphres’ way of introducing Ceria to the group. Jurix laughed as the others greeting Ceria. He put his head on the table to reach over and shake Ceria’s hand—she remembered to stare at his head while she shook, rather than at the empty space where his head should have been on a normal body.
“I’ve seen you about, and of course I saw you fighting those pirates a year ago, Ceria. If you managed to convince Illphres of all people to take you on as an apprentice, I have no doubt you’re a capable individual able to do pretty much anything.”
Ceria blushed bright red, but Ophelia looked at Illphres with concern.
“Just so long as you’re not planning on making her our sixth. That’s not your intention, surely?”
Illphres passed her hand over her mouth to smile wryly.
“Hardly. I didn’t want an apprentice and I still don’t. But she insisted.”
“Good. No offense Ceria, but I don’t want you getting killed for nothing.”
Ophelia nodded at Ceria and, confused, the half-Elf nodded back. She hesitated, but then cleared her throat.
“Um, what is this about? I know Illphres said she needed the rings enchanted against ice magic—I have them right here, they’re about Tier 4 enchantments which is the best I could get—but what is it for?”
The mages stared at the rings Ceria put on the table, courtesy of Calvaron and a very large amount of gold, and then at Illphres. After a moment Bastam burst out angrily.
“Ancestors, Illphres! You didn’t tell her what we’re going to do?”
Illphres shrugged, smiling wickedly. She seemed to enjoy the others’ consternation.
“Should I have? Teaching her is all I have to do. Why bother telling her something that she can’t change?”
The others groaned and covered their faces, but none of them looked surprised. They too were used to Illphres’ way of doing things. Ceria looked from face to face, wondering what was going on.
“Okay, I’ll tell her. Unless you object?”
The others shook their heads and Jurix turned to Ceria. She heard Ophelia casting a ward against eavesdropping as Jurix put his head on his shoulders and smiled at her. Then he turned and pointed. Ceria followed his finger and saw a Golem, one of the most primitive types, a crude man made of brown stone slowly wheeling out more food on a table.
He put each dish slowly and carefully on a table as students flowed past him, some taking food right off the plate as he paused so as not to bump any of them. He was just one of the many Golems in Wistram, practically the scenery that Ceria had gotten used to.
“See that Golem, Ceria? Well, he’s our enemy. Him and every Golem in Wistram. At the end of the year, Illphres, Bastam, Ophelia, Qum and I are going to challenge Cognita. We’re going to destroy her and open the doors to the rest of Wistram.”
He grinned at her. Ceria turned to Illphres and stared into her master’s eyes. The ice mage smiled deeply at Ceria. Ceria blinked, looked at the Golem serving food, and then flipped the table.
Golems. They were a rarity in most parts of the world—unless you lived in a desert or if it snowed. Then they were more common, but you’d still only see the weakest, most primitive of Golems. Sand Golems, Snow Golems and so on were functions of nature, of excess mana and intention.
But Golems, the kind that were manufactured and sculpted or built and brought to life with magic, those were different. They were expensive, hideously so, to make, and only a powerful mage could create one.
Well, Ceria supposed even she could make a primitive, small one with work. But to create it would take months of study, and it would be hardly useful. She couldn’t imagine the effort needed to create a more advanced Golem.
The half-Elf walked through the halls of Wistram, distracted, hurrying past students without a word. Now that she looked, there were Golems all over Wistram. Okay, not many, not compared to the students, but too many.
A Golem passed her with a basket of laundry in his hands. He was a crude stone one, capable of following basic orders. She stared at him and shuddered as he passed. Okay, he was a simple one, but her idea of ‘simple’ had been skewed by living here.
A simple Golem? He was capable of obeying most instructions quite well! He could fetch and carry and fight or lift extremely heavy objects if need be. Forget simple, he was worth thousands of gold coins by himself, possibly ten thousand coins alone! An undying, tireless servant capable of killing lesser warriors with a body made of rock? He was powerful, not simple.
And he was the least of the Golems walking through Wistram. Ceria shuddered as she saw a suit of armor, gleaming and polished, meekly carrying a stack of books while he passed her by. He was a Golem built for war. His steel body was far more agile than the stone Golems and he had a sword and shield. If he used it—
But of course, he wouldn’t. Right? The Golems of Wistram had been made to protect and serve by Archmage Zelkyr. And enforce his will. But they were a valuable asset to the academy. They did chores, defended the isle against attack—
And kept the highest parts of the castle under lock and key. Ceria knew that—she’d known it since her first year. But she’d given little thought to it since then.
Wistram’s highest corridors and rooms were out of bounds. So what? There was plenty to do below it.
Only—there wasn’t. Wistram was only a quarter, or less of what it was. The true magics and real spells that would turn good mages into great ones were all above, locked behind a door guarded by Golems. That was what the five mages had told Ceria as she’d sat in the banquet hall in disbelief.
“You see, Ceria, there is a limit to the heights mages can reach here. Level 50, let alone Level 60 is the utmost limit we can strive towards. People like Archmage Feor or Amerys—they’re the top. And yet, it didn’t use to be this way. Once, we had real [Archmages].”
“Once we were true mages.”
Jurix and Illphres’ voice rang through Ceria’s ears. It wasn’t hard to understand what they were saying.
Cognita, the Golems of Wistram, they protected the academy. But they also held all mages within hostage. No one could reach beyond a certain level, not without more spells to study. Oh, a mage could study by themselves, but that meant their growth stagnated. In this place they had countless centuries—millennia of experience to draw upon, but it was all out of reach.
Guarded. By Cognita and four other Golems. Sentries, designed to be a test for mages to challenge. All those who had tried before had died, but once again mages had gathered. Five of the most powerful mages of Wistram had come together to challenge the Golem’s authority. And they would win or die.
It was too much for Ceria to take in. This was why Illphres needed the rings protecting against ice. She was going to fight alongside the others, and they needed protection from her deadly attacks.
Ceria had seen Illphres fight. She could freeze the air, raise huge structures of ice or hurl massive pillars of it at her enemies. She was going to use that magic to fight Cognita.
It was unthinkable to Ceria. She couldn’t believe—well, she could believe Illphres would keep it a secret. But the rest?
It was too much for her. That was how Ceria found herself at Pisces’ door, pounding on it and demanding to be let in. It took a while and she heard him bumping around inside, but eventually he opened it, glaring.
“Who in the name of—Ceria?”
He let her in, looking bewildered. Ceria stepped into Pisces’ room and found chaos. Dirt, mess, fragments of parchment and bits of food—that was the least of it. Ceria saw a pile of bones in the corner and nearly backed out of the room in horror.
“Is that—dead gods, Pisces!”
“It’s just mouse bones! Please, Ceria! I’ll—let me just clean this up!”
Pisces waved his hands at her, desperately shifting things about with gusts of wind and levitating them into corners or into his dresser. Ceria looked away from the pile of bones, shuddering, and didn’t ask where Pisces had put them when he told her she could come back in.
“I’m—sorry. I just—I need to practice, you understand, and I—”
“You’re not plundering the catacombs?”
Ceria eyed Pisces. She knew that quite a few mages were buried underneath the academy, even if she’d never dared go exploring for the crypts where their remains—if there were any—were interred. Pisces shook his head.
“I fear that would be…well, let’s just say I doubt others would take kindly to the knowledge that I were robbing graves.”
“Yeah, they wouldn’t. But rat bones?”
“Is there a difference?”
Pisces shrugged. He fidgeted on his bed as he faced her—he seemed barely able to believe she was here, talking to him.
Ceria had no idea why she was talking to Pisces either. She was so shaken by what she’d just learned she had to speak to someone. And she had unconsciously come here. Now that she was actually facing Pisces, though, she didn’t know what to say.
“Well. It’s been a while since I last came here.”
“Yes. It has.”
Pisces cleared his throat awkwardly.
“You look well.”
“You look—awful, frankly.”
He blinked, and then smiled at that. Ceria grinned shakily at him. Pisces looked around his dingy room.
“Yes, well, my circumstances have changed quite a lot since—before. My fortunes have fallen, so to speak.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I hardly think you can make the same comparison, given—”
“No, I mean, tell me about it.”
He paused. Ceria looked at him.
“Tell me, Pisces. Tell me everything. And tell me why. And maybe—”
She didn’t say the rest. But slowly, Pisces relaxed his hunched posture. He straightened his back, and looked at Ceria like he used to.
“Well, if you insist…”
“Will you challenge them all at once?”
“We have to. The Golems fight together. Cognita will be there—and four others.”
Ceria stood with Illphres by the ocean, aiming at targets as the sun came up. Across the rocks, Bastam, Jurix, Ophelia and Qum were all doing the same.
She was a part of their group now. Not the same—she was the only apprentice and student among them—but they had no other confidants, no other apprentices to tell. Ceria knew, and this secret was one she’d never reveal.
“It might not matter if you do. But others would try and stop us or get in the way, or make it political. We’re doing this to end politics and factions once and for all.”
Illphres aimed at a target, an ice pillar three hundred meters away, the ice tinted red, and shattered it with a single spear of ice. Ceria nodded as she took aim at her own target.
“But I mean, why five of you? Is it because there will be five Golems, including Cognita? Is there a rule of some kind?”
Illphres snorted as she raised more targets out of the sea.
“There’s no rule—other than that if you try, the test doesn’t end until you’re dead or the Golems are destroyed. We could attack them in the hallways if we weren’t afraid of all the Golems joining in. And every mage in Wistram could take on the challenge if they wanted to.”
“They why don’t they? Why only you five? If you got five more mages, surely—”
“They won’t try. They’re afraid of dying. Cowards.”
Illphres said it shortly. She shot a flurry of [Glacial Spears] out, shattering a dozen targets at once.
“They are afraid, and content to live like they have. Not us, though. All of us—the Isolationists who aren’t afraid to risk our lives and Ophelia and Qum—we see that mages cannot live like this. We want to grow, not die old at this level. We want to be true mages.”
The word floated in the air between them. Ceria stared across the ocean and tried to imagine what lay beyond the door. But she couldn’t imagine the door itself.
“I’ve never seen the Golems. You said there are four of them, not counting Cognita?”
“Would you like to see?”
The door was stone. Not just any stone, but obsidian, shining and dark as night. Ceria could see it was warded as well. Across the room, it shone with a thousand sigils and runes, twining together to form the most powerful ward she could imagine.
She only dared look at the door from afar at the other end of the massive room, hundreds of feet wide and nearly forty feet high. That was because the guardians stood at the other end.
Three Golems. Ceria only saw three, but each one made her heart quake in her chest. Illphres stood next to her, which was the only reason Ceria didn’t run.
One was a Golem made of magma. It burned as the molten rock flowed around it, onto the floor, and back up, covering its body. It was fire incarnate, a core of something so bright it shone through the melting stone glowing at its heart.
The second was a creature of metal, something that looked like no species Ceria could ever dream of. Two thin, curved legs made it stand twenty feet tall. Each leg was incredibly thin and seemed to taper off into an edge like a blade. A narrow, metal body was its torso, roughly the same size as a normal Human’s, twenty feet up. It had two arms curved like the legs, half as long, and as sharp as scythes.
It had no face, and the way it stood so still made Ceria uneasy.
The third Golem was a simple one to understand, but no less frightening for it. It was a giant armored Golem, like one of the suits of armor but scaled up on a massive level. This Golem was a colossus, and it held a sword in one hand that was twice as tall as Ceria was and a shield of equal size and weight. It crouched, staring across the room at Ceria.
Only three Golems. Ceria didn’t see the fourth. The Golem made of shadows stood next to her, noxious breath wafting over her as its jaws hovered close to her head.
The room stank, despite being clean. It smelled to Ceria of death, or perhaps it was her own fear she smelled. She saw Illphres was gazing at the Golems and shuddered.
When they left the room and the doors closed behind them, Ceria had to sit down in the empty corridor. Her legs had completely given out.
Ceria couldn’t even form the words to say ‘yes’. Illphres nodded.
“Each Golem in there is a masterpiece. A nightmare. Only a true mage could create one of them, let alone four.”
“Four? I saw—”
Ceria closed her mouth as she remembered. She hadn’t noticed it, not at all, but one of the Golems had been standing right next to her. A thing of shadows and flesh and—
She threw up. Illphres stood next to Ceria dispassionately, but she did magic away the vomit when Ceria was done.
“You noticed it? Good. It took Bastam three tries to figure it out. It looks like a Shadow Golem—I’m not even sure if you could make such a thing to begin with, but it’s really a Flesh Golem. It’s only enchanted to be covered in shadows and mess with the mind.”
“Dead gods. It was right next to me and I—I—”
“Remember them. They’re the enemy. But also remember, Cognita will be there as well. And of the five, she’s the most dangerous.”
Ceria couldn’t imagine Cognita stacking up to the Golems she’d seen in that room, for all she was terrifying in her own right. Illphres nodded.
“Don’t underestimate her. Truestone Constructs are the pinnacle of Golem creation for a reason. I have no idea what she can do, but I think she’ll be the most dangerous. But the others will be just as deadly. At least the armored knight Golem seems easy.”
“Easy? That thing was as big as a house!”
“It’s not one of the original guardian Golems. I know because records show the original one was destroyed. That’s a replacement, one of the Golems that normally defends Wistram. It may look dangerous, but it’s not nearly as bad as the others. I could take that one out by myself with no problem.”
Ceria stared at Illphres, but she knew the other woman was serious. That was the difference between her and her master.
“You’re really going to do this?”
“I’ve prepared for this day for over a decade. I gave my life to magic, and I will give my life to this battle if I must. But I believe we will win.”
Illphres smiled then. She looked at Ceria, and the mask of ice betrayed her true feelings. Her cold eyes burned with life.
“This is what we will challenge, Ceria. Don’t you see? This is what it means to be a true mage.”
Ceria saw, but she was still afraid. Illphres helped her up. The woman’s hand was surprisingly small on Ceria’s arm.
“I gave up everything for magic, Ceria. Everything. You saw my face. I’ve made mistakes, hurt myself, but always, always, I strived to reach higher. This is the ceiling I have come against. This is what I must overcome. And I will do it. And when I do, this academy will change. We will change it.”
The half-Elf looked up into the Human woman’s face. She knew, she remembered the fearsome enemies that stood in that room, waiting for their challengers. But she looked into Illphres’ eyes and believed.
“How can I help?”
“Cast the spell, Ceria!”
Jurix screamed at Ceria as spells flashed around her in the largest of the practice rooms. She raised the wand he’d given her and gritted her teeth.
It was a spell she could only cast with a wand, not being wholly proficient at it. It streaked across the room at Illphres. The woman turned, raised her hands.
Ceria didn’t hear the word, but the fireball exploded, and when she could see, Ceria saw a huge wall of ice. Not just a wall—
A fortress. Illphres stood atop it, throwing magic down at the other mages around her as they besieged her. She raised walls of ice, froze the ground—
It was a battle between the best of mages. And it was only a practice session. Ceria watched as the other four mages slowly wore Illphres down, but it was hard, even for them. At the end she raised her hands in surrender and panting, they walked back towards Ceria to review.
“Those walls you make really are hard to crack, Illphres. I believe we might be able to lock down all the other Golems with it, save for the magma one.”
“And Cognita. She can shatter my ice.”
Illphres was sweating. She nodded at Ceria as the half-Elf passed her a flask of water. Ceria had food and drinks for the other mages, and they thanked her as they kept talking.
“Ceria saw her smash through my barrier. It may be I can freeze her if I don’t give her room to move her arms—I can cast thicker ice walls than the one she broke—but I won’t bet on it.”
“Even so, if we can count on your abilities…”
Afterwards, Ceria talked with Illphres. The woman smiled as Ceria gushed over what she’d seen.
“It was incredible! You held them off, four other mages! Are you higher level? What was that spell?”
“[Fortress of the Ice Queen]. It has other names—it’s a famous spell. I’ll use it right off in our battle to shield the others.”
“Do you—do you think it’ll stop them?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll improvise. It doesn’t matter. We don’t stick to one plan. We’re all experienced mages and we’ll find a way to beat them one by one.”
“I can’t believe how powerful you are. Why aren’t you an Archmage yourself?”
“Don’t want to be.”
Illphres shrugged as Ceria gaped.
“I might be able to, but that’s politics and I told you, I don’t care. Amerys—she’s famous for fighting on battlefields, but I think she’s only got eight levels or so on me. Maybe six.”
“Enough. If it came down to a duel between us she’d win.”
That wasn’t what Ceria wanted to hear. Illphres just smacked her on the back of the head.
“Don’t look like that. It’s about our combat styles.”
“What do you mean? You two are friends, right? Why won’t she help you fight? I’m sure she’d love a chance to battle such powerful enemies.”
Illphres snorted and nearly laughed outright.
“Us? Friends? What gave you that idea? I can’t stand her.”
“But you train all the time! Every morning I see you two—”
“We’re competing. And yes, we sometimes train together. That’s because we’re a good match. She’s lightning and air and I’m ice and water. She prefers rapid all-out assaults and I use traps and fight drawn out battles. She doesn’t think and I plan every move.”
“And she won’t join us. I asked.”
“She’s waiting for her King.”
That was all Illphres said. She and Ceria sat in silence, staring at the melting ice. After a moment, Illphres spoke again.
“If I had a minute to prepare, or if it was a double battle—”
“I’d win. I’m one of the best mages at fighting defensively. You saw my barriers. That will be my role in the battle. So long as I live, I will protect my teammates.”
So long as I live. Ceria shuddered at the words. They were a frank statement about what might happen. But she didn’t want to think of it.
To distract herself, Ceria went to Pisces more than once over the months that followed. Sometimes she came away happy, relieved that he hadn’t changed. Other times she stormed out of his room after a fight, or left wondering how the earnest young man she’d known had disappeared and been replaced by this thing. But it all came together a month before Illphres and the others planned to challenge the Golems, as Ceria let her anger explode at Pisces.
He was busy showing her the newest spells he’d learned. Ceria tried to focus; she knew Pisces had a terrible time obtaining new spellbooks or learning from anyone. But as her attention wavered from the brilliant [Flame Rapier] spell he had mastered, she stared at something covered with cloth in the corner of the room.
Pisces, engrossed in fencing with the flaming blade, whirled as he heard Ceria shout in surprise. She was backing away from the thing in the corner, the cloth in her hands.
She pointed, finger shaking.
It was a deformed thing, barely recognizable. It was humanoid—barely. It had been made of wet clay that had dried and sculpted to look like a Human, but the sculptor, Pisces, was untrained and so the body was lumpy and the arms deformed. It had two stumps for legs.
“Ah, I see you’ve found my latest work. I was going to show you, but—”
“Pisces! What is it?”
He looked surprised at Ceria’s reaction.
“A Golem. One of my own creations. Don’t be alarmed; it’s barely functional. Worthless, really. Can’t you tell? I admit, the workmanship might be a tad shoddy, but—”
“Get rid of it!”
Ceria backed away from the clay thing. Pisces frowned at her.
“What? Don’t be alarmed, Ceria, it’s not animated!”
She rounded on him furiously.
“What are you doing, making a Golem? Aren’t there enough around here?”
He took a step back and stammered as Ceria shouted at him.
“Well, I was taught.”
The word doused the flames of Ceria’s anger in a second. She felt a chill in her stomach and stepped back from Pisces.
“Well I—I’ve been talking with her, Ceria. You see, Cognita’s one of the only people—beings—in this academy who will give me the time of day. She’s quite brilliant, you know. She’s seen more magic than anyone in Wistram, and she taught me so many things about Golems and mage craft. She taught me how to make this Golem. Did you know that she thinks I have real aptitude? She even—”
“Don’t talk to her! Don’t go near her!”
“She’s the enemy!”
Ceria shouted at Pisces. He didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain. She stomped over to his Golem and punched it. The brittle clay broke under her fist and Pisces shouted.
“What are you doing? Do you know how hard I worked to—”
“Why are you doing this?”
Ceria turned to Pisces. She thrust a finger in his chest, making him stumble back. His face was red with anger, but she was even more furious.
“First necromancy, now—this? Why can’t you practice normal magic? Why can’t you just be a normal mage? Everyone would accept you then? Why don’t you get a normal master and stop—”
“Don’t you think I’ve tried?”
Pisces shoved Ceria’s hand away. She blinked. His eyes were wide and bloodshot. Pisces nearly shouted, his voice cracking with passion.
“I’ve gone to every mage—every one I know or thought would consider having me as an apprentice. I’ve asked—none of them were willing to teach me even when I told them I’d swear off necromancy as long as I studied under them! No one will teach me, and I’m not going to afford the fees for next year! Don’t you understand!?”
After his outburst there was silence. Ceria stared at Pisces and slowly sank back into his chair. He couldn’t look at her.
“Necromancy? That’s just raising the dead. Some might object, but It’s no curse. But the fools who claim to be mages here treat it as such. Thus, I suppose the curse is indeed real—though by the prejudices and limited understanding of others.”
“You’re going to leave?”
He looked at her, on the brink of tears.
“I have to. I have no coin, no one to speak for me. The only hope I have is a master, but who would take me as their apprentice?”
Ceria’s mind raced. The word came out before she could think about it.
“Illphres. My master. She might.”
Pisces stared at her, but then shook his head, closing her eyes.
“She will say no. I know Illphres—she would never agree.”
“I could ask—”
“She’ll say no.”
Pisces turned away. He walked back over to the broken Golem and stared at it.
“Leave me, Springwalker. I am—busy. I have work to do, especially if this year is to be my last.”
She stared at him, and then slowly walked out of the room. Only after she felt a bit of liquid dripping from her hand did she realize the clay Golem’s shards had cut her skin.
“Take Pisces on as an apprentice? No. Don’t be stupid.”
Illphres looked at Ceria as though she were mad when Ceria brought it up to her the next day. The two were sitting on the edge of the walkway above the ocean.
Just sitting. Ceria had gotten over her fear of heights, mainly because Illphres had made her come up here to practice. A mage could have no weaknesses, after all. She stared down at the sea below, fighting her belly.
“Why not? He’s smart, gifted—he needs a master or he won’t be able to stay!”
“Too bad, I guess. But I’m not teaching him.”
Illphres took her time in replying. She’d grown—not warmer, but maybe a bit softer towards Ceria over the year. In the last month, she was downright friendly at times. Both could feel it. The time of the challenge was approaching fast.
“He’s not my type.”
Ceria nearly tumbled off the bridge in shock. Illphres clarified after giving Ceria a smack on the arm.
“I mean that he will never be an ice mage. You might, or at least, you’ll learn Skills and change your class from what I’ve taught you. But that boy is a [Necromancer] through and through. I don’t feel like teaching someone who won’t follow in my footsteps.”
“But if you’d speak for him—”
“I don’t need to. And none of the others will take him on as an apprentice either, Ceria.”
“Why? Pisces is—”
“Don’t you understand? After the end of this month, none of it will matter.”
Ceria’s eyes widened. Illphres nodded.
“That’s right. After the challenge, i—when we win, all of the bickering , the factions and the politics…”
“Well, it’ll probably go on as normal. But we’ll be on top.”
“How? If you defeat the Golems—”
“We’ll prove that our way works. Mages will rally to us, and those that don’t will have to fight to venture higher. But we’ll be guarding the entrance. It might be a war, or it might be quiet, but the Council won’t sit and pass decisions any longer. It will be every mage for themselves, as it used to be. As it should be.”
Ceria tried to imagine it. She thought of Calvaron and Beatrice fighting for more power and shook her head.
“I think things might still be the same.”
“Really? You might be right. We’ll see. But one thing I can promise you: when we open the higher levels of Wistram up, I’ll use my influence. You, Pisces, and all the other mages who have a spine and a brain will stay.”
“As the Isolationists?”
“As mages. True mages.”
That was all Illphres said. Ceria stared at her, and realized that Illphres was the first Human she’d ever known that she truly looked up to. She’d admired Pisces for his brilliance, but Illphres was different. She was actually a bit younger than Ceria, but she felt so much older. She shone, and she stood higher than the half-Elf, reaching for the stars.
Ceria couldn’t say any of this out loud, of course. If she did Illphres would probably toss her into the ocean. Instead, she just turned and stared at the dark night sky.
“When the day comes, I’ll be waiting for you outside the doors. So make sure you finish the battle quickly, okay? I don’t feel like waiting long.”
Illphres’ voice was amused. Ceria didn’t look at her, but she knew the woman was smiling.
“I’ll take as long as I please. And when it’s over I’ll make you practice twice as hard learning all the spells you need to be halfway competent.”
The woman was silent for a long time. After a while, she sighed.
They stared out across the ocean. Ceria felt a humming in her bones, a tightness in her chest that didn’t go away when she slept. She felt as though she could run a thousand miles from sheer nervous energy, and that she didn’t want to move a muscle at the same time.
There was one month left. One month.
Until it would all be over.