It was the silliest of notions. A fanciful request. After all, by his calculations it was probably late March in this world, early April at the very latest. If the months even lined up the same way as they did back at home. It was far too many months away from October, and there weren’t even any children around to begin with.
But to Blackmage’s greatest surprise, it turned out that the Mages of Wistram loved the idea. Within the hour, illusion spells were being cast across Wistram and the banquet hall turned into something right out of his dreams. Sugary treats were heaped up along with the daily banquet of food. No one objected. That was because [Mages] loved dressing up and having fun. If there was anything Blackmage had learned so far, it was probably that. Oh, and how to shoot lightning from his fingers. He was particularly pleased about that, too.
His name was Blackmage. Actually, it was Aaron Vanwell, but he hadn’t been called by his real name since entering this world. Within the Academy’s walls he was referred to as Blackmage and went by that as his name. But since most of the [Mages] found the name incredibly amusing, they often just said ‘new student’, ‘Human’, ‘otherworlder’, or ‘you’.
However, Aaron would admit that every time Archmage Feor, one of the few most powerful spellcasters in the world called him Blackmage, he grew slightly giddy inside. Now he watched as the aged half-Elf sat only a few feet away from him, his silvery-white beard practically glowing as he inspected the hat in front of him.
It was a wizard’s hat. That was to say, it looked like what most people would imagine a wizard’s hat to be, rather than, say, any hat that happened to fall on a wizard’s head. Blackmage had expected glowing stars or maybe a few glowing mystic words, but the [Illusionist] had sneered at such basic spells and enchanted the hat with a nimbus of light that shimmered like the aurora around the hat. To top it off, little flying dragons made out of magefire flew through the colored lights, roaring soundlessly.
The half-Elf who’d presented the Archmage with the hat clearly thought it was an abomination of design that should be burned, but the Archmage laughed instead.
“Dressing up as [Witches]. How amusing.”
Archmage Feor chuckled at the quaintness of the idea. He inspected the pointed hat, smiling at the illusion magics. Then he placed it upon his head.
“As for [Wizards]…well, I suppose the look suits the occasion. Tell me young Blackmage, is this custom of dressing up solely reserved for this holiday in your world? Halloween?”
Two pale blue and silver eyes peered at Blackmage. The pupils were bright in a way that had nothing to do with the ambient light. Blackmage felt a jolt as they met his. That was the real magic. Feor’s hat shone, but the half-Elf himself was timeless. And when he looked at you, you could feel the power in his glance. The young Human man, barely nineteen years old, stammered as he replied to the half-Elf who was easily twenty times older than he was.
“That’s uh, right, Archmage Feor. Well, sometimes people dress up for fun for other events. But the holiday only comes once a year. But I thought it would be appropriate for the new students. Because it’s a celebration. And it’s like Hogwarts.”
“Ah. The fictional magic school of your world.”
Feor’s eyebrows rose slightly. He looked down the banquet table at the other mages. The head table in Wistram’s grand dining hall was reserved for the highest-level [Mages] in the academy. Well, it wasn’t reserved, but any arrogant young [Mage] strolling up to the table probably would be subjected to some kind of hex to put them in their place. It was rare to see more than ten bodies at the long table except for dinner, so Blackmage, Feor, and the third half-Elf had plenty of space to sit.
Not that Blackmage felt quite comfortable up here. He was aware of the staring from the other students and mages in the room, but Feor’s personal invitation meant that he could sit with the other elite mages, none of whom looked younger than forty. He saw half of them were also wearing hats or had spelled their already enchanted robes to look more grandiose for the occasion.
“It is incredible to me that a place of fiction can be known throughout your world. Almost as incredible as the notion that magic does not exist where you come from. I must wonder if our worlds are tied in some way. That both would have a center of magic, an academy where mages gather—if only as an idea in your world—speaks to me of some kind of resonance. And certainly, this idea has quite enlivened the academy. Still, dressing up as wizards and witches…”
Feor laughed again. Blackmage saw his pointed ears raise a bit and stared. He had to. Even after several months of staying in Wistram, seeing Elves or rather, half-Elves in the flesh was incredible. He shifted in his seat and coughed.
“Archmage Feor. May I ask a question?”
The half-Elf peered at Blackmage and again, the young man had to try not to shiver with delight. There was something entirely too Gandalf-ish or perhaps, Dumbledore-esque about Feor. Not that Blackmage thought of himself as having entered the world of Harry Potter. It was only his favorite book series and movie of all time. He was aware the world he was in wasn’t like that. But still.
“Archmage Feor, I understand that a [Witch] is a—uh, weaker spellcaster in this world than most [Mage] classes, but what about [Wizard]? Why does Wistram have [Mages] rather than…[Wizards]?”
The question made Feor smile, and earned Blackmage a silent glare from the female half-Elf [Mage] waiting patiently by the table. It was a stupid question he was sure, but Feor only pondered a moment before replying.
“A [Mage] or [Magus] is commonly understood to be a general practitioner of magic. By contrast, Wistram does have a few [Wizards]. They would be considered more scholarly and wield magics in the form of prepared spells or items. It would be easiest to understand them as ‘[Mages] who rely on wands’, whereas a [Mage] may choose to use an artifact or not as the situation demands. One is a general class, the other is specific, even cumbersome to obtain. Does that make sense?”
“It does. Thank you.”
“Very good. It would make sense for an academy of magic to boast a higher percentage of [Wizards]. As for [Witches], well, we have had a number of them in our halls from time to time, but they generally keep to their covens. Their magic is more specialized—a blend of alchemy and spellcraft. I do not mean to impugn their abilities, but they are considered weaker in purely magical terms to a [Mage] of the same level. Now, I believe this hat will suffice, and a small demonstration would not go amiss. I shall consider the appropriate spell. The first ships should have already arrived in the harbor—why don’t you inspect the new arrivals as they enter the hall? Teura shall escort you.”
Feor nodded to the half-Elf woman and she inclined her head. Blackmage stood up hurriedly. He’d hardly eaten his poached egg, but a flick of Feor’s fingers sent both his plate and the Archmage’s floating over to a cart laden with used dishes. It turned out no house elves or disappearing plates in Wistram, much to Blackmage’s disappointment. Not that he was comparing the two places! Not at all.
“This way, please.”
Teura beckoned and Blackmage stood. He followed her away from the table, out of the dining hall, and into one of the many corridors of Wistram. Dark stone and bright windows replaced the lit dining hall and Blackmage had to hurry to pass before a giant figure carved of stone. The Golem waited as students passed in front of it, its hands gripping one of the laden carts. The Golem’s face was crude and it looked weathered from years, centuries of service. But it moved with a steady, unwavering pace as it followed Blackmage and Teura into the academy.
This was Wistram. Blackmage’s heart beat faster every time he passed by a gossiping group of Lizardgirls holding wands and spellbooks, or saw a ghostly pale Selphid wearing magical robes flicking colored sparks of magic up into the air. Everywhere he walked, every time he turned his head he saw magic.
To say he was enthralled would be an understatement. Sometimes Blackmage wanted to run about screaming. He was here! In a magical world. When he’d been ten, he’d dreamed of magic, and he’d counted the days until his birthday. When he’d been eleven he’d been crushed. Now, eight years later it felt like he was a kid again.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. Blackmage knew that. In fact, after the jubilation of seeing Archmage Feor wearing a magic hat had faded he stared at the half-Elf he was following with some degree of annoyance and chagrin. She too was a half-Elf and like Feor, she radiated magical power. Unlike Feor, Blackmage would have given anything to not be around her.
His trailing footsteps meant that Teura was moving faster than he was. Blackmage hoped she might turn a corridor and lose him, but she seemed to notice and stopped. She turned her head and he instantly quickened his pace.
Teura was a half-Elf. She had bright red hair, sable eyes, and the kind of effortless grace that made Blackmage flush and stumble every time he focused on her. So he stared past her instead. The half-Elf clicked her tongue softly as he caught up.
“Archmage Feor used to teach one of the highest-level magic courses for students in their eighth year. He still has quite a number of apprentices and fellow mages whom he advises. His private instruction is something you should be honored to receive.”
“I am, uh, Mage Teura.”
“That is most wise. Please try to keep up. And as I have informed you, please do not openly identify any of the new students. Speak to me in private once the banquet has begun.”
She nodded and strode off. Blackmage stared at her back. Identify them? And how was he supposed to do that? Humans looked the same in both worlds! Okay, the ones here sometimes had identifying elements like actual swords at their waists, but it wasn’t as if he could make sure of anything! He stomped after Teura, noting how the students and some of the mages got out of her way.
She was one of the better mages of Wistram, as Blackmage understood it. He didn’t know her level—that was a secret, and the mages of Wistram guarded their secrets as fiercely as a Dragon guarded their treasure. But Teura, like Feor, stood at the higher end of badass. She was senior to many [Mages], having lived in Wistram for over six decades. Too, she was part of Archmage Feor’s personal faction. As was Blackmage himself.
Factions and power and politics. Again, sort of like Hogwarts. But not. Blackmage resolved to stop making the comparison soon. The first month he’d been here he’d annoyed everyone in earshot mentioning Harry Potter references, and they hadn’t even understood what he’d been talking about.
How would he explain it to the others? Blackmage tried to figure it out as he walked. Wistram was…well, it was an academy located on an isle in the middle of the sea. Literally in the middle of the sea. The bubble surrounding Wistram kept it from being besieged by waves, but sail just a bit away from the academy and you could find yourself in the middle of a storm. But Wistram was a safe haven. The citadel sat on an island, large from the outside, but enormous once you passed through the metal doors.
Because Wistram was magical. Within its halls you could run for hours and still not reach from one side of the academy to the other. If there was even a straight line in Wistram. So many mages had built and added onto the academy over the thousands of years that it had stood that it contained more secrets and hidden spaces than anyone could guess at. And it was knowledge of those secrets that defined Wistram. Mages traded in secrets like coin, and they fought with each other to gain more influence, power, and above all, magical knowledge.
There were factions in Wistram. Almost any powerful mage would be in one of the major factions that controlled Wistram’s Council, or allied to one of the big players. Feor was part of a faction in Wistram, the Centrists, but he also had his personal group of half-Elf mages whom he trusted implicitly. Teura was one of his best [Mages] so she watched Blackmage like a hawk.
That would be the downside of it all. Blackmage stared at another Golem he passed in the hallway. This one was sand. Living sand. Its body shifted constantly as it walked, bearing a load of mana crystals which all shone different colors. Blackmage would have loved to follow it and stare, perhaps ask about how it had been made, what it could do. But he had to follow Teura. Because he was a prisoner. Of sorts.
Blackmage wasn’t an idiot. Okay, [batman] had called him an idiot, but she’d sounded really paranoid when they talked. Even if she was right about some things.
It had been months since the day when Blackmage had appeared out of nowhere in the room with the Golems. He remembered walking to the door of his college dorm to get a pizza and opening it—
Before finding himself standing in a room with three Golems. They rose as Aaron stared. One was a being of fire, a creature of burning magma formed into humanoid form. The second was a giant metal knight, armed with a sword that was twice as tall as he was. It couldn’t be real.
Aaron’s gaze turned to the third, a tall, thin creation of metal that looked like it had stepped out of some kind of sci-fi movie. It was too thin, insanely tall! Three giant creations stared at him across the room. The fourth bounded towards him, a creature of stitched flesh and shadows. It rotted as it bared its teeth, its jaws opening wide, wide—
He’d screamed then, and fainted. When he’d woken up he’d found himself staring into a white, porcelain face. She’d called herself Cognita. She had demanded to know how he’d come here. After many explanations she’d summoned four people who called themselves ‘Archmages’. They had debated, cast magic on Blackmage, and then accepted his words as truth. Thus, he had entered Wistram. He had not left since.
A Human from another world. Blackmage understood the significance, especially after he had managed to actually tinker with his phone and get it to actually call the other iPhones in this world. Over eighty [Mages] had linked to perform the spell that he and Feor had worked for two weeks on.
Blackmage could still remember the sweat on his hands as he typed responses and the [Mages] of Wistram debated every line that had appeared in the air. He remembered the shock as they read the King of Destruction’s declaration, realized that someone was spying on the chat. Funny, he’d laughed as he read [twinTrouble_53]’s messages. Now he realized the significance.
He had not left Wistram. For his protection. Teura was there every time Blackmage turned his head, or another one of the half-Elves that Feor trusted. Again, for his protection. The mages of Wistram let him take classes, learn magic, and they’d given him his own personal rooms, spellbooks, and a wand! But they were determined not to let go of him.
One example of the danger he was in—might be in—was Blackmage’s name. He hadn’t asked to call himself Blackmage. But as soon as it was discovered that someone was scrying others by their real names, Feor had informed Aaron never to use his real name in Wistram’s halls. Wistram guarded its own, but an individual could be bought, and a true name could be used for more spells than just scrying.
Sometimes Blackmage stayed up at night thinking about that. But mainly he tried to live in the positive side of things. Magic was incredible. He was learning spells—he’d already reached Level 18 in [Mage], which was incredibly fast! He would have been content to stay in Wistram his entire life, especially if he could find more people from Earth. Just without Teura glaring at him, thanks.
They were nearly at the entrance hall when Blackmage carefully spoke.
“Do you really think there will be any people from…my place will be with the new students?”
“Perhaps. That is what Archmage Feor wishes to know. The first group of students has already disembarked. You will inspect them as they pass. These…decorations and the dressing up is meant to aid in that inspection, is it not?”
Teura had a witch’s hat on her head and she looked good in it. Also peeved. Blackmage nodded quickly.
“Oh, totally. But uh, aren’t the odds really low of anyone coming to Wistram? I mean, I know we’re looking for people from Earth—”
He broke off as he remembered not to mention Earth in public. Teura frowned at him. Blackmage blushed.
“I mean, people I know. But Wistram is hard to get to, right? People have to pay lots of money to get in. Couldn’t you waive the fee or something?”
The half-Elf sniffed.
“And let a horde into Wistram’s halls? That is a Revivalist notion. I will admit, the Council deliberated on that idea to attract those like you. But the change in policy would have been too drastic. We are simply relying on those you contacted to make their way here.”
“Yeah. Okay. I guess that might work.”
“Indeed. As for the others scattered across the world, the Council is preparing to send teams of [Mages] to each continent.”
“I wish they’d hurry up.”
“The Council does not move without due deliberation. Now, we are nearly at the hall. Stay behind me and keep si—”
Teura walked forwards and froze. She looked up and nodded slowly.
“Mage Teura. And student Blackmage. Greetings.”
Someone stood in the entrance hall. Not a person. A Golem. A towering woman carved out of stone turned, her dress rippling. She was eight feet tall, a giant. She inclined her head as Teura walked carefully past her.
Blackmage grinned up at her. Cognita was a Golem, the leader of the Golems of Wistram, the mage’s silent, tireless workforce. She alone could think. She was a Truestone Construct, an adjudicator of Wistram’s laws and beholden to no one. Not even the Archmages. He enjoyed seeing Teura get nervous around Cognita. Then he remembered why she was nervous and got a bit nervous himself.
Cognita guarded the upper floors. To pass into the higher levels of Wistram, one would have to defeat her and the other four Golem guardians that Archmage Zelkyr had placed there as a test. To Blackmage’s knowledge, no [Mage] had ever attempted the test and survived. Still, Cognita was unfailingly polite and helpful in all other capacities, so Blackmage edged over to her as Teura stood several paces away and watched the doors.
“Hey Cognita, everyone in the banquet hall is dressed up. Even Archmage Feor. I was wondering if you would—”
The Golem woman turned her head and stared at Blackmage with a neutral expression. She had been carved so perfectly that she looked like she really was a living person, albeit eight foot tall and made of stone. Her mouth moved and her eyes blinked, the stone moving like flesh. Blackmage hesitated.
“I will not. My role as steward, protector, and guide of Wistram will not be compromised by your desires.”
It was fairly hard to argue with that, so Blackmage stood and waited. He did not have to wait long. Within minutes of arriving in the entrance hall, he saw the double doors slowly open. He heard a loud voice.
“New students, welcome to Wistram!”
A Lizardman strode through the doors. Blackmage recognized him instantly. Cessic, his rainbow scales polished and the red frill at his neck bright, stepped into Wistram. He had a hat on his head and a wand in one of his clawed hands. He grinned at Blackmage and turned. Behind him streamed in students.
They had come by ship, through the stormy waters, from every continent. From Rhir, Baleros, Izril, Chandrar, and Terandria, they had paid or been given scholarships for outstanding magical ability and been sent here to learn magic. Blackmage saw young Human faces, a pale Drake with blue scales staring around wildly, a pair of Selphids wearing the bodies of twins—fresh students.
Wistram admitted new students at regular times each year and this spring crowd was the first Blackmage had ever seen. He grinned in delight as they filed in, exclaiming at the mage lights hung in the air, the staircases high above where [Mages] walked, the Golem made of rusted iron who passed by—
Teura’s voice made Blackmage stiffen. He realized he had been caught up and guiltily started inspecting all of the Humans by face. They weren’t a majority in the crowd, but they were the largest minority. Humans were one of the most prolific races on this world, although it looked like this crowd had come mainly from Baleros. Unfortunately, Blackmage couldn’t tell if they were from Earth. They were all staring around wide-eyed.
Everyone jumped when Cognita moved. She had been standing so still she had literally been a statue. Now she strode forwards. Cessic gulped and moved out of the way as Cognita stood before the first crowd of arrivals.
“Oh yeah. Um, everyone, this is Cognita—she’s—uh—”
He was cut off as the Truestone Construct spoke. Cognita’s voice echoed as she spoke loud enough for even the students still climbing Wistram’s steps to hear. The new students stared up at her, some afraid, many simply wondering.
“I am Cognita. I am a Carved Golem, or rather, a Truestone Construct designed to oversee Wistram and its mages. I and my kindred maintain and preserve this building and will assist you for the duration of your stay. In a few moments you will be led to your rooms, but before that I must tell you of the rules of Wistram.”
She stared down at each person in turn, her emerald eyes serious.
“Firstly. You must never venture into the high parts of the castle or the lower reaches unaccompanied and even then, only with great cause. Dangers lurk within Wistram, ancient magics and spells and creatures called here and never destroyed. Too, the very enchantments keeping this citadel intact sometimes fray. Only a mage with true power is allowed into such places. Second. Some of the Golems here were made as I am, but most lack any form of intelligence and simply obey orders. Do not attack or obstruct them in any way or they may react unpredictably. Third. Anyone attempting to cast area-wide magics must first consult with I or an experienced mage. Unpredictable results may occur if a spell affects a wide area of the academy at once. Is that understood?”
No one spoke. Blackmage saw Cognita pause. She stared down at the students and then nodded.
“That is all. Follow me, and I will lead you to your rooms and give you your keys.”
It was the same speech she gave every year. She’d given Blackmage the identical speech, word for word. Cognita strode off and Cessic jumped. Remembering his job he called out.
“First years, this way!”
He winked at Blackmage and the young man grinned in delight. He’d said the thing. He heard Teura sigh as the students hurried after both Golem and Lizardman.
“Did you sense anything from the Humans present?”
The slight hope in her voice was dashed by Blackmage’s denial. Teura shook her head.
“Very well. You will have ample opportunities to study the other students in time. You will be placed into the first-year classes when they begin.”
“What? But I’ve been studying from Feor for months!”
Teura looked reproving.
“Archmage Feor’s instruction has indeed given you far more levels than any typical first-year student should hope for. But the fundamentals of magic theory require years of study. And Archmage Feor does not have the time to personally tutor you.”
Too late. Teura was already striding back to the banquet hall. Blackmage stared darkly at her back. So, he was losing his usefulness if they were going to make him a regular student. That was fine. The less attention on him the better. He had a plan of his own tonight. After a moment he followed Teura into the hallway.
The first banquet was wondrous. Archmage Feor was as good as his word and conjured a giant, spectral Dragon to fly across the banquet hall and awe the first-year students. The other mages were dressed up more than usual, and the stunned arrivals found themselves eating and gaping at the magicked banquet at the same time.
“This was a good idea. Dazzling the new students takes little effort and it befits Wistram’s reputation. I cannot believe we were so casual in years prior to this. A little custom and ceremony should be part of our traditions.”
“Indeed. Appearances must be kept up. To that end, I’ve put a motion forwards to tinker with these ah, movies that the academy’s producing.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“I quite insist on adding a mandatory opening to each one. Something that mentions Wistram. ‘This production a courtesy brought to you by Wistram Academy’ or some such. What do you think?”
“I like the notion. Not the wording.”
“Well, what would you write? This is only a motion.”
“Of course, of course. Pass the buttered bread, will you?”
Blackmage saw a basket of bread float past his head. He watched it go to the mages as they talked at the high table. He was sitting a ways down from them, near Archmage Feor and a group of very senior [Mages]. He felt out of place. But Feor had insisted he be present and with good reason. The talk between Wistram’s elite mages—those who sat on the Council or were otherwise in the know enough to know who Blackmage was—turned instantly from the first years to the various subjects of debate that they always had when Blackmage was present.
“These movies. Agh. What a word. I quite like the idea, though. We’ve always had moving images, but mass-producing them and selling the recollections? A splendid notion! If only it were as simple as enchanting a bunch of crystals.”
A Drake sitting across from Blackmage spoke, waving a fork filled with some kind of meatball. The Human next to him nodded and floated over a tureen of soup. Blackmage wished he could do that.
“Production will be extremely limited. However, displaying the siege of Liscor was well worth the effort. We’ve already seen interest from countless [Merchants]—even some of the nobility who might invest in this venture. I agree with the idea of creating ah, movie theatres to view such entertainments in, though. They are apparently quite popular where you come from, young Blackmage?”
She smiled at Blackmage as a grandmother would to a child. He nodded nervously as every eye turned to him.
“That’s right. Movies are uh, a household staple. Where I come from. People who make movies—producers, we call them—are very rich. Very rich. They make billions of d—gold coins each year.”
The sigh that rippled around the table was long and satisfied. Blackmage bit his tongue. It was hard to speak in code with the other mages. They seemed perfectly at ease. Feor smiled at Blackmage and he remembered the injunction not to talk about certain things. Even among Wistram’s Council, there were things Blackmage had only told the Archmages.
“A profitable enterprise indeed. As was the idea of creating an interconnected communication network across the world. Of course we have Mage’s Guilds, but they are not affiliated with Wistram by and large. A central network produced by the academy would benefit Wistram’s interests greatly.”
A Dullahan nodded, adjusting her head as she fed herself some corn.
“As would a number of other innovations. I am still seeking a number of [Alchemists] to procure a supply of ingredients for our workshops. As for electricity, we have any number of mages, but the [Engineers] and [Alchemists] I’ve spoken to have no idea how to produce what I seek based on vague descriptions. I wonder, Blackmage, if you might have time to do some sketching? Or perhaps some unobtrusive mental divination so we might have a clearer idea of how to produce a few of the more…interesting concepts you have presented the Council.”
She peered over her plate at Blackmage and he felt a jolt. Feor’s smile cut off any response he might have made.
“All in good time, Mage Gelia. Mind magic is by its nature somewhat intrusive. Let us first focus our attention on what is easily producible.”
“As you like, Archmage Feor. But I have detected a number of inquiries in the same vein. Those asking about black powder. A suspicious run on high-quality steel. And I believe my inquiries were also traced back to Wistram.”
All the [Mages] glanced at each other. Blackmage held still. There were more Humans out there. And someone else might have had the same idea. He had no idea how gunpowder was made—or electricity. He had an [Engineer] class, but it was only because he’d painstakingly taken apart his watch and iPhone, relying on Feor’s [Repair] spell to put it back together. Actually generating an electrical current—he wished he’d read a textbook.
Technology was a prized possession in this world, even for the powerful mages of Wistram. True, they could do almost everything he could. Record sounds? They could use a spell. Take a picture? Spell. But the fact that Blackmage could do with ease what a [Mage] had to study for years to achieve was telling. Blackmage wished he could duplicate his iPhone somehow, but no [Blacksmith] could replicate the fine metalwork.
And Feor had told him that the [Repair] spell could mend, but not recreate. Creating new material, new, permanent material like duplicating components of Blackmage’s phone or watch? That was high magic even he didn’t have access too.
“Well, we shall just have to take advantage of what we do know. Movies for instance. I would quite like to see one showcasing Wistram’s splendors. Perhaps with commentary from a few select [Mages]?”
“Like yourself, Foulton? Hah!”
“If you have a complaint…”
“Forget movies for a moment. I’m more intrigued with all of these little cultural advancements. You know, I’ve had a craftsman working on a deck of cards. It should arrive with the next shipment from Izril. I would like to invite you all to a small session. Perhaps with wagering?”
Blackmage saw a few mages look up at that. He hadn’t just told the mages about technology. Things like card games and even chess had been of great interest to them. Especially since chess already existed in this world. Feor had asked many questions about that.
“Gambling already, Welaiat? I should have known a Libertarian would throw his money around carelessly. Just so long as your lot doesn’t want to waste Wistram’s resources, you can enjoy such trivial pursuits.”
One of the Drakes leaned forwards and smirked at the Human [Mage] who’d been offering the card game. The mood at the high table soured. Blackmage groaned as he anticipated what was going to come.
“Of course a Preservationist would lecture me about coin. Still saving copper coins, Failess? Or are your coffers not deep enough to afford enough spellbooks for your newest members?”
The Drake flushed and made a fist. Sparks spat out of his mouth as the mages sitting between the two leaned back.
“The very notion of spending recklessly is the exact reason why you Libertarians keep trying to drag us into continental affairs! You have to keep running back to those with deeper pockets to finance your spending! Whereas a proper, budgeted system—”
“Hah! You’d have us cut everything that attracts prospective students to Wistram! Food, supplies—this is what makes the academy thrive!”
“And I should blindly vote to take loans to finance projects like these fanciful movies? Ridiculous! Spend what we have, don’t overspend!”
“A loan pays for itself. Moreover, debt is not something that need concern the academy. Any lender knows that what they give will be repaid with interest. It is not a debt, in fact. It is an investment—”
“Hah! Don’t mince words. How can any nation, any institution survive permanent debt? The very idea of being beholden to a band of [Merchants] is surely ridiculous.”
“Not according to our young guest. Blackmage, pray tell us what you spoke about when we talked about ah, the economy of debt.”
Blackmage gulped. Welaiat of the Libertarian faction gestured at him and again the [Mages] stared. He hated this. The Drake known as Failess looked at him.
“Nations from your homeland truly endure crippling debt, Human?”
“Well…yes. It’s sort of how we operate. I mean, we try to balance the budgets, but we always spend more than we have.”
“How could that be viable? The instant someone called in their debts—”
“They don’t. They get interest each year. I think. And my nation keeps repaying debt and getting more, I think. They spend more money than they have to thrive.”
“Spend to thrive. You see Failess?”
The Human Libertarian grinned at the Drake Preservationist. Failess scowled and replied sharply, but some of the other [Mages] were looking thoughtful. Blackmage sat back, sweating, afraid to even touch his food.
He didn’t think he’d explained the way America managed its debt well. The problem was that the [Mages] wanted to know everything about his world and that Blackmage, in a very real sense, knew very little about the underlying economic, cultural, and other structures of Earth. He told them what they could and they used it in their debates. Archmage Feor smiled at Blackmage as the conversation turned into a hot argument about Wistram’s spending budget.
“Teura tells me you did not spot any familiar faces in today’s arrivals, Blackmage. Perhaps tomorrow will be different? It would be reassuring to see more companions, I am sure.”
“Yes, Archmage Feor. I ah, well, I’ll do my best to mingle. Actually, I’m a bit full, so I might go and talk with the other students.”
“Of course. I imagine it’s hardly entertaining to listen to politics. Please, enjoy yourself.”
Archmage Feor watched as Blackmage excused himself. He looked to one side and Teura rose silently. The other [Mages] watched Blackmage go. When he was making his way down the dining hall, they spoke amongst themselves.
“I wonder how aware he is of his position.”
“The Human’s young. Young, even for his age. Naïve, I think. Feor has him on a tight leash.”
“Let him. The Human’s of no interest to us. Whatever Feor learns we’ll learn in turn. The real trick will be if the search teams find anyone else. But filling the roster with our side will be next to impossible.”
“It’ll have to be a balanced team. Maybe even one [Mage] from each faction. Dead gods, imagine how we’ll have to explain it to the mages not in the know. The point is to get them here. And then…”
Blackmage wandered down the banquet hall, disconsolate. [batman] was right. Batman was always right, come to think of it. He was a pawn. There was danger in Wistram. There was danger everywhere, which is why Blackmage was still trying to find as many people from Earth as possible and bring them to the academy, but within these walls he had very little power. Feor’s faction had him and Blackmage’s only bargaining chips, his knowledge of Earth, were mostly exhausted. If he wanted influence, if he wanted freedom—
Secrets ran Wistram. Secrets were a currency here. If you had a big secret, you could trade it. Cash it in with secret brokers, or use it. Blackmage knew that some secrets were worth thousands of gold coins. His secret, the secret of why he was at the head table was probably worth that much. He knew the students and mages were burning with curiosity about him, so he fanned the flames as he walked down the banquet hall.
“Mage Rievan, I’ll be one of the students in your class next week. I’ll be studying with the first-years. I hear great things about your uh, teaching methods.”
Blackmage introduced himself to a group of Humans sitting at one of the tables. The [Mage] he’d addressed, a gaunt fellow who was always looking down his nose at people, looked startled.
“You are? That is to say, I look forwards to it. May I ask where you come from?”
“Oh, I uh—”
Blackmage hesitated just long enough for Teura to step in. The half-Elf quickly nudged Blackmage backwards and not-so-subtly nodded her head. Blackmage moved back, mouthing an apology and Teura turned. The smile she gave Rievan was entirely fake.
“Blackmage’s identity is a somewhat touchy issue, Mage Rievan. Please understand that he is to be treated as any other student.”
“Black—is that his name? Mage Teura, I’ve seen that young man sitting with Archmage Feor. I understand the need for privacy, but I think that if I am to teach him properly, I should—”
Rievan stood up somewhat pompously. He and the other Libertarians did not agree with Archmage Feor’s faction…or non-Humans if it came to that. But he paused as Teura stared at him.
“He is a student. His name is Blackmage. That is all you need to know, Mage Rievan. I would suggest that a mage of your caliber not ask any more questions. Or he might land himself in undue trouble.”
The Human man froze. Teura looked at him, and then at his companions, all of whom suddenly found themselves ravenously hungry. He turned and he sat. The other Libertarians stared at Teura’s back in frustration, but they dared not ask their leaders at the high table for help. They were out of the know. Teura turned, searching for Blackmage. By that time of course, it was already too late.
The instant Teura had been occupied with Rievan, Blackmage had turned and swiftly walked for another table near the back of the great hall. Unlike the tables with formal seating, there were groups of more casual spots for those students whose body types did not easily squeeze into chairs. A ring of couches and plush stools sat around one table he walked towards.
Some centaurs were sitting at a table to the left, but the one he was moving towards was occupied by a pair of students. A Human woman talking with a Dullahan. The Dullahan had dark metal armor and her head was sitting on the table, alternately talking and munching on food. Both [Mages] looked up as Blackmage approached, a smile on his face.
“Hi there. Mind if I sit?”
Beatrice looked up flatly and Montressa du Valeros, also known as Mons to her friends, looked up as the young man approached. Neither one was happy to see him. Interested males of any species were not whom Montressa wanted to share her table with. She saw the young man, younger than she was by a few years, hesitate.
“This table is occupied. By us. Get lost.”
Beatrice was a Dullahan. Her dark, polished metal arms turned her head so she could glare at the young [Mage]. She was not hospitable to begin with and especially not at dinner. Montressa saw the young man gulp.
“It’s just that I was actually hoping to do business.”
Oh dead gods. Montressa tried not to roll her eyes. He had to be a first-year, fresh off the boats. Only a first year would be so blatant about wanting to sell or buy secrets. She was about to advise him to get lost and try Beatrice at another time or get blacklisted when she took a second look at his face.
“Wait a second. Beatrice. That’s him.”
Beatrice paused. She looked like she’d been about to draw a Rune of Pain on her napkin and throw it at the young man’s face. But as she frowned at the young man she recognized him as well. The strange young man who’d appeared in Wistram. The one called—Montressa tried not to laugh—Blackmage.
The Dullahan glanced around. So did Montressa. Then they moved over.
“Alright, sit. And keep your head down.”
Blackmage sank into one of the padded benches next to Montressa. He seemed nervous as Beatrice put her head on her shoulders and secured it in place. He didn’t look like he was used to seeing Dullahans. Montressa filed that information away. She inspected him from head to toe. So this was the strange newcomer who was attracting so much attention. Rumor had it that he was taking lessons from Archmage Feor. Personally. She didn’t see what made him so attractive. Her sense of him as a [Mage] put him at Level 20. At best.
“So what do you want…Blackmage?”
Beatrice stared at the young man. He jumped.
“You know who I am?”
The Dullahan woman rolled her eyes impatiently.
“I’m a secret broker. Of course I know. Little rats know who you are. Speak.”
“Alright. I know you buy and sell secrets. And uh, get things for people. You also do services, is that right?”
“I make connections.”
Beatrice’s eyes narrowed. Montressa winced. Her friend’s patience was getting dangerously thin. Beatrice had never managed to acquire even a shred of Calvaron’s easygoing air, for all she had inherited his network of connections after he had…passed. That people still came to her was because she had a lot of influence, not because she was easy to work with.
Perhaps Blackmage realized he was stretching her patience, because he went on quickly. He kept looking around. Montressa rolled her eyes again as she cast several ward spells to hide their conversation.
“The thing is, I have a secret to sell. And I need something done. There’s this half-Elf who follows me around all the time.”
“Mage Teura. Part of the Centrist faction. Feor’s group. Say things outright or you can go.”
Montressa couldn’t take it any longer. She leaned forwards and saw the young man lean back. He stared at her. Montressa had grown since the first days she’d stepped onto Wistram’s shores. She was no longer an apprentice looking around with wide eyes but a full student of Wistram, on the verge of being recognized as a [Mage]. Beatrice had long since passed her final test and was now an official mage of Wistram, a [Runeshaper] and one of the secret brokers of the academy.
“What do you want, kid? You want her to stop following you? An accident? If that’s your goal you might as well give up. No secret broker will cross Archmage Feor’s faction whatever you’re offering.”
“What if I said I wanted her distracted for…twenty minutes?”
“Hmm. That would cost you.”
Beatrice’s eyes narrowed. She looked around. Now Montressa saw the half-Elf in question. She swore.
“We’ve got less than a minute before she spots which ward spell we’re behind. Make it fast, Beatrice.”
She began muttering more ward spells, although she didn’t have high hopes of hiding from a mage as experienced as Teura. Still, Montressa had been helping Beatrice out for years now and she knew her way around disguise and ward spells. Blackmage leaned forwards, whispering fast.
“Say that’s what I want. Can you do it? Tonight? Give me a window to slip away and prevent anyone else from following?”
The Dullahan traced a rune on the desk.
“I can do that. The question is how much you have to offer.”
“How about a secret?”
“It would have to be a truly massive secret. Doubt you have that. But give it to me and I’ll tell you what you’ve got.”
Montressa saw Blackmage hesitate. He reached into a pocket and pulled something out. A piece of paper? She nearly laughed. Any [Mage] could read what was on there! If they wanted to look. But she went still as she saw Beatrice unfold the paper. The Dullahan stared at what was written and then blinked. Twice.
“Huh. That would do it.”
“Are you serious, Beatrice?”
The Dullahan looked up. She immediately set fire to the paper and nodded at Montressa.
“He’s good for it.”
Montressa blinked at Blackmage who was looking slightly smug. What kind of secret had Beatrice read? The Dullahan glanced around.
“Teura’s on to us. Human, you want this done now?”
“As fast as you can. Is it possible?”
“Give me five minutes. When Montressa finds you, go.”
Beatrice stood up. Montressa got up casually, dispelling the magics around her. She could see Teura heading towards them. She left Blackmage behind, hoping he wouldn’t be obvious about what he’d been doing. Then again, it didn’t matter. They had a contract.
“He really gave you a secret worthy of that, Beatrice?”
“And then some. I’ll get a distraction ready. Can you help?”
“Point to whomever you want. What if he’s lying?”
“Then he’s blacklisted. But the secret—I don’t think so. How could he know?”
Both older Wistram students looked back at Blackmage. He was wandering around the banquet hall, doing his very best not to look their way. Montressa grimaced. Teura was following Blackmage closely, but she kept glancing suspiciously back at the two of them.
“She knows he talked to us. Bet she knows we’re secret brokers too. Let’s move fast.”
The two split up. Montressa and Beatrice walked around the great hall. The new students were gossiping at their tables, talking loudly while some of the older students went over to talk or introduce themselves. Montressa slid past a table of wide-eyed Selphids and found a group of older students, all in their seventh years. They looked up as she approached.
“Hey. Beatrice wants a favor.”
“Really? What’s she offering?”
“Anything you want. The mission is Teura. Distraction. Twenty minutes.”
One of the students, a Dullahan, whistled.
“That’s above our grade.”
“You’ll get help. She doesn’t leave the hall. Think you can do it?”
The students looked at each other. Then they nodded.
“We’re in. Signal?”
“You’ll see it.”
Montressa left them. She circulated the room, tapping other mages on the shoulders. In the hubbub of thousands of [Mages] and prospective mages eating, it was hard to keep track of her. By the time she strolled over to Blackmage, it was ready. She tapped him on the shoulder as Teura got slowed by a gaggle of loudly gossiping Lizardfolk.
“Go. Leave the hall through any entrance and then run for it.”
Blackmage nodded. He steeled himself, and then began to walk speedily for one of the exits. Teura followed like a hound on the scent. She passed by a group of two tables of students and saw one of them raise their wand.
A dozen students and [Mages] called out. Teura spun. She raised her wand and was hit by disabling spells from all sides. A shimmering barrier formed around her, blocking the attacks, but more wards and barriers were rising between her and Blackmage. He ran as she cursed and spun.
At the high table Feor looked up. He saw nearly twenty [Mages] casting spells, some dueling Teura as she tore down the barriers. He frowned and pointed.
“It looks like an altercation has broken out.”
His words were pointed. Three more half-Elves rose. They instantly made a beeline for the fighting. Mages attacking other mages wasn’t exactly a criminal offense. The offenders would probably be hexed with something nasty or fined so long as they hadn’t attacked to truly harm. But there were a lot of mages casting spells and even Feor’s experienced disciples struggled to overwhelm the quantity of magic coming at them. And meanwhile Blackmage had vanished.
Feor hesitated. He half-rose, saw the other [Mages] watching him, calculating, and slowly sat. He waited impatiently as Teura and the others tried to battle through the ambush and find Blackmage.
Politics. And the two instigators, Beatrice and Montressa, were nowhere near the action. Beatrice had relocated to a far end of the room and was casually watching the mage duels while counting down in her head. And Montressa had vanished from the dining hall entirely.
Blackmage ran. He wasn’t an athlete, but the excitement gave him wings. At last he was alone! Only, he wouldn’t be when Teura caught up. And she would be mad. So he ran faster, down a corridor and then down a long, winding passageway full of steps.
“I should’ve asked for…thirty minutes!”
He gasped as he tumbled down a flight of steps, dashed down a side corridor, ran through a room, slammed out the doorway, and found another staircase waiting. Wistram was a labyrinth even to [Mages] used to it. The further you went, the more convoluted it got. Even now there were places that kept getting discovered. So many secret places—but the spot he was headed to wasn’t secret.
If the upper levels of Wistram were blocked off, the lower ones were less frequently used simply because of expediency. The dining hall was far away from the basement areas and the proximity to areas like the crypts or dangerous zones where magical experiments might eat an unwary mage didn’t exactly make for good company. Blackmage wasn’t headed down that far, though. He was running to a section of tunnels without any rooms nearby. He’d memorized the route from the dining hall and had gone here twice as practice. When he finally reached the blank section of wall he was looking for, he was out of breath, but he was still on time.
“Fantstalidephoron! Dammit! Fantstalifepheron! Wait. Fanstali-delif-pheron.”
Blackmage recited the word from memory. On the third try it worked. The empty corridor glowed, and suddenly part of the wall rippled and vanished. Blackmage cried out in amazement and then rushed into the opening.
“Oh my god! It’s here!”
Blackmage stared around the room. His first impression was that of dust. And cobwebs. Spiders and dust mites had infested this room, created huge drooping webs. But even the spiders had died from lack of food. The layers of dust covered the chairs and tables and bookshelves. But even they couldn’t disguise the grandeur of the room. Or rather, rooms.
Expensive couches sat in the first one around tables that were free of mold or rot. Brushing at one, Blackmage saw the faint runes carved into the wood that had protected it. He sneezed, wished someone were here to clean all the dust up, and spotted the bookshelves. They sat at the end of the room, next to a fireplace that still burned with light. Magical fire danced there, providing warmth while the rows of spellbooks and tomes stood in shelf after shelf. Waiting.
“Holy crap. And over here is—”
Blackmage ran into the second room and gasped as he saw a mage’s laboratory. Summoning circles drawn in melted gemstones on the ground, mana crystals lined up on shelves, glowing potions—he saw a bottle had cracked in one spot. A very large and very mutated rat was lying in front of it. Dead. Blackmage backed away.
“Holy crap. Holy—it’s real! It’s real!”
He shouted and threw up his arms, racing back into the library room. Library, mage’s workshop—and there were more rooms yet! Then his eyes travelled to something above the fireplace.
The massive magical fireplace roared with life even after the room itself had been forgotten. But it was magic that had made this place and the magic remained. And above the fireplace someone had written…something. Glowing runes had been etched in the brickwork. They shone as Blackmage stared up at them.
It was nothing in any language. Not in the common tongue. It was the words of magic and Blackmage’s brief study wasn’t enough to help him read them. He frowned.
“It says…it says…”
“The Evermote Study. That’s what it says.”
Blackmage spun. Montressa stood in the entryway, staring. The young man looked at her in horror. Montressa looked at him, and then the rows of books, pale with shock.
“You found it. The Evermote Study. It’s legendary. It has to be one of the most sought-after places in Wistram and you found—how?”
She took a step forwards and Blackmage stepped back.
“Oh no. No, no, no! You can’t have followed me! This isn’t right! It’s all ruined!”
“Calm down? The secret’s out! You promised me—I thought no one would follow.”
“Beatrice was curious. Sorry kid, but that’s the way it works.”
Montressa shrugged. She’d used an [Invisibility] spell to slip out after Blackmage. He hadn’t even run that fast—not to someone who’d learned [Flash Step]. Her stomach clenched as she remembered who’d taught her the beginnings of both spells. She suppressed the feeling. She’d put it to rest for good soon enough.
“Look, I didn’t hear the passphrase for the room. I wish I had, believe me. It was a passphrase, right?”
Blackmage stared at Montressa, lips sealed. He glared at her. She sighed.
“Don’t be stupid. And don’t reach for that wand—I’ll hit you with a [Flame Arrow] straight between the legs if you so much as try it. I’ve studied magic for years here and I’ve won more duels than you can count. Be reasonable. You’ll never be able to use a tenth of what’s in here, so you might as well make a deal now.”
“Hardly. You think Beatrice and I could shift all this? We’d get so many questions—no. With a haul like this, you’d have to talk to a big player. Someone like Archmage Feor. But why do I think you don’t want to let him know about this place?”
Montressa cocked her head, smiling slightly. Blackmage hesitated.
“You want to make another deal?”
“I’d like a finder’s fee, yeah. Teura’s going to be here any second. She probably can locate you even with the anti-scrying spells we cast on you. You’ll need someone to make contact and I bet you she won’t let you out of her sight. So why don’t we walk out of here, close this place up—”
“It closes itself. I don’t need to say the password out loud.”
“I’ll bet it does. Thanks for telling me there is a password.”
Blackmage shut his mouth. Montressa laughed. She looked around wonderingly.
“Dead gods. One of the legends of Wistram. How did you know? No, first tell me who you want me to contact. Unless your entire plan was finding this place? No, not even a first year’s that stupid.”
The young man eyed her balefully. But he had no choice, so he nodded.
“I want to talk to someone. Actually, I was going to talk to Beatrice again. She’s a Revivalist, right?”
“That’s right. Wait—do you want to talk to Naili?”
“Huh. That is good luck. For you.”
Montressa narrowed her eyes. She nodded after a second.
“Works for me. I’m a Revivalist too, by the way. We’ve never been introduced. Montressa du Valeros.”
“Yes, I heard. Afraid of someone learning your true name? It’s not that dangerous. Come on, we’d better get moving if you want to speak to Naili tonight. Not even Feor’s people will follow you that deep into Revivalist territory.”
“Okay. I shouldn’t trust you but—”
“You’ve got no choice. Don’t worry. Secret brokers are as honest as they come. If we’re not we get into more trouble than it’s worth. Let’s run.”
Montressa left the room and saw the door close as soon as Blackmage stepped out. She whistled.
“Incredible. How did you know about this room anyways? It’s a legend in Wistram. You have to pay for the secret about the secret of the Evermote Study.”
Blackmage glanced at Montressa. For the first time since he’d met her, he smiled. This time in what she thought was genuine relief. He was sweaty, nervous. Just a kid. But not just another first-year.
“That’s a secret too. Wanna pay for it?”
The [Mage] glanced at the younger man’s smile and shook her head.
“I doubt I could afford it. Come on.”
She led the way at a run. Blackmage ran behind her. Montressa had to shake her head as she went. Secrets, new students appearing out of nowhere, and politics. It reminded her of her first years in Wistram. She bit her lip as she remembered. But that had been a long time ago. Everything was different now.
There was trouble retrieving Blackmage. He was gone for over an hour, which was far too long. Feor retired to his rooms before he received a [Message] indicating that Blackmage had been returned to his chambers. Feor wondered where the young man had gone.
It didn’t matter. He had made up his mind already. It was too dangerous to have Teura follow the young man around at all hours. A lock spell preventing him from speaking about confidential matters would do the job far more effectively. It would be complex, but Feor had set aside all of tomorrow to cast it with a circle of his trusted allies. They would do the same for the other Humans from Earth, before anyone realized what had been done.
That was Feor’s plan. He meditated in his rooms on the spell before he slept and rose early to do the same. At breakfast he patiently waited, dining on a light meal in preparation for the exertions to come.
Blackmage was not sitting with him. He had been escorted to the great hall, but allowed to sit wherever he pleased. He was sitting with a Dullahan and young Human woman. The same two he had visited last night. Secret brokers. Feor’s brow furrowed. If Blackmage was giving out secrets—he wouldn’t be that foolish. But then again, he was Human. And young.
It was past time to cast the spell. Feor rose and nodded. He had brought six of the experienced [Mages] from his faction, the Centrists, with him. They were all on Wistram’s council. They stepped away from the high table and walked across the floor. Feor kept his eyes on Blackmage. He saw the young man turn and then someone stepped in front of him.
“Oh my, Feor. I hope I’m not in your way.”
The half-Elf looked up. He saw a smiling half-snake, half-humanoid creature slither into his path. She looked like a Naga, but while they were more powerfully built she was slim. Her scales were light white and rose, and across her arms and back ran a pattern of glowing scales which shifted with bright blues and purples and yellows. The lamia’s face resembled that of the Lizardfolk from which she had evolved from. But the brilliant power in her gaze was her own.
“Archmage Nailihuaile. I thought you were secluded in your private chambers, meditating on the theory of using rhinestones to bypass the material components of jewel spellcrafting.”
The lamia beamed at Feor and he cursed her timing.
“I was! But you know how it is with me and spellcraft. I sometimes want to move about and then I thought that I hadn’t eaten in days! So here I am.”
“Fascinating. I would love to speak with you, but later. I have business to attend to.”
Stopping to chat with the most talkative of Archmages was not an option. Feor stepped politely around Naili, but she slithered in front of him. This time he stopped and sensed the trap. Naili bared sharp teeth at him in a grin.
“I know you’re busy, Archmage Feor. That’s why I’m here, actually. I was rather hoping to spoil your day. That little Human you want to take? He’s mine now.”
Feor paused. Behind him, Teura and the other half-Elves and Centrist mages froze. Some of them reached for their wands, others murmured warding spells. Archmage Naili didn’t move. Feor felt the magic in his blood hum as he frowned.
“That would be an unwise decision, Archmage Nailihuaile.”
“Would it? You know how I am with bad decisions. I keep making them.”
She had a staff in her hands. Her staff, the Serkonian Lance. A treasure of the Lizardfolk. Archmage Feor hadn’t prepared for a duel. He eyed her, reciting a list of spells in his head.
“It would be most unwise to engage in conflict now, Archmage Naili. We agreed that the otherworlders were a matter for Wistram as a whole.”
“Yes, we did. Only it seems your little faction has been monopolizing him. Hmm?”
She couldn’t know their plans. There couldn’t be a mole in his faction. Not among his trusted people. Surely this was coincidence. Feor’s brows snapped together. The white-haired half-Elf reached for his wand.
“Step aside, Archmage.”
She moved, her tail undulating as Feor stepped left. He glanced at the other Centrist mages. Teura gave him a nod.
“If it comes to it, we will use force.”
Again she grinned.
“Oh good. I was hoping you’d say that. Because we’d be only too happy to oblige.”
She turned her head and hissed. Across the room, over four hundred [Mages] stood up at once.
Feor froze. His eyes flicked past Naili to the mages who’d gotten to their feet. He hadn’t checked their faces when he’d come in for breakfast. If he had, he would have recognized them. Each mage, over two thirds of the mages here for breakfast, was part of the Revivalist faction.
Every member of the Revivalist faction present had stood up in the banquet hall. Old mages and young, Lizardfolk, Humans, Dullahans, even rarer species like Garuda and Selphids, walked forwards. Hundreds of [Mages]. They gathered behind the smiling Archmage Naili, forming a wall between Archmage Feor’s few followers and Blackmage.
The banquet hall of Wistram was still as they watched the standoff. Still, but not silent. Mages from other factions and independents whispered to each other, some speculating, some taking bets on what would happen next. Feor stared at Naili.
“This is a mistake, Archmage Naili. Committing to one Human is foolish. If you intend to monopolize him, the other factions will—”
“Come at ours? We welcome it.”
The lamia’s eyes narrowed. She grinned at Feor and he was reminded of the Lizardfolk’s ancestry, that of hunters in Baleros’ swamps. She flicked her tongue.
“You’re outnumbered, Feor. Turn around and go.”
He hesitated, but she was right. Four hundred [Mages] watched as Archmage Feor and his Centrists stepped back. They moved unhurriedly, as if the staring wall of [Mages] were nothing more than an inconvenience. But they did leave. And Wistram’s [Mages] saw it.
When Feor left the grand hall he stopped. The other [Mages] were afraid to look at him. He spoke without turning around.
“The Revivalists have never played their hand so strongly before. They mean to take the Human into their faction and throw their support behind him, not divide his knowledge as agreed upon. Why? What prompted their change?”
No one answered. Feor stared out a window at the clear skies surrounding Wistram. He turned to Teura. She flinched.
“Find out what they know. And call a meeting. This must be discussed at once.”
He strode off, not waiting for a response. Something had changed in Wistram. But what? Feor’s mind blazed as he connected Blackmage to the encounter with Beatrice and Montressa. That missing hour…but Blackmage had been watched every time he left his room. What had he found? What had he done? What did Naili know? Secrets ruled Wistram. Archmage Feor was not afraid of the Revivalists. He was afraid that they knew something he didn’t.
After Feor had left, Blackmage saw the Revivalists disperse. They went back to their tables, laughing, calling for drinks, in a jubilant mood. Their leader, one of the famed Archmages, was no less ecstatic. Archmage Naili lead the way down the hall as Blackmage walked with her. Alone. He tried not to stare at her body, until he remembered Montressa telling him that Lizardfolk liked to be admired. They were also very chatty.
“That was so much fun! I haven’t tweaked the Centrist’s noses like that in over a decade! The look on Feor’s face was magnificent. He and the other factions will be scrambling all night to figure out what we know, which is excellent because most of our lot don’t know what we know!”
For an Archmage, Naili had a down-to-earth side of her that none of the other Archmages had. Blackmage saw her glancing back at him and grinning, swishing her long tail back and forth. Unlike the Drakes who used their tails as support as they walked, Naili’s tail was her entire lower torso and it undulated as she slithered across the ground. She was actually shorter than he was, although the long staff she carried made her seem taller.
“So we get to talk at last, young Human! I mean, we talked yesterday, but that was all negotiations and me saying ‘what, you can’t be serious!’ a lot. It’s nice to meet you! I see you looking at my scales. Aren’t they pretty? I’m a Star Lamia in case you were wondering. See my scales? The glowing ones store magic. It’s very good for spellcasting, although it makes sneaking around very difficult unless I use illusion spells.”
“I uh, that’s very cool.”
She nodded happily.
“Isn’t it? I was so proud when I became a Lamia, and then when I became a Star Lamia! It’s such an honor. Most Lizardfolk don’t evolve at all which is sad! But the majority of the ones who do evolve become Nagas, Gorgons, or Lamia. From there they can change into other forms. It’s very complex and some people think we’re all different species but we’re not. It all depends on what we’re good at! Gorgons are huge fighters. Nagas are smaller, but very strong—it’s the kind of form Lizardfolk turn into most of the time if they don’t have a set path. Whereas Lamia are small, but we have larger brains! Does that make sense? Are you following me?”
“Uh—I think so. Can Lizardfolk become other species? Like…say, a Medusa?”
“Oh! You know about our kind! Or is that something from your world? Wait, was I supposed to keep that secret? Yes I was. No one was listening, were they? Good.”
Naili looked around rapidly. No one was there to listen. Blackmage wondered if all Lizardfolk were as chatty as she was. He’d met Cessic—and so far they were two for two in terms of hyper energy.
“Thanks for agreeing to help me. I don’t know what I would have done if you’d said no.”
“Of course I would have said yes! I can’t let old Feor get away with everything. Us Archmages have to counter each other. And I’m a good match for Feor, magically or otherwise. He hates when I chatter. Thinks it’s ‘unbecoming’. That’s half-Elves for you. Snobs.”
Talking to Naili was like watching a stream of thoughts go past. You had to grab for the one you wanted or get lost. Blackmage chose one at random.
“You’re a good match for Archmage Feor? How?”
“Archmage Feor is a generalist. Quite boring, don’t you think? He wants to be like a proper [Archmage] of old, but he doesn’t have the class. Not yet. And I say generalist, but he prefers to use big spells in battle and everywhere else. Big spells. They take too much time. I like spells to be quick! I learned that in Baleros. You can’t cast [Blackflame Fireball]—silly spell, by the way, why is that considered an upgrade of [Grand Fireball]?—when people are trying to hack your tail off with enchanted swords! Anyways, I specialize in enchantments. I can do artifacts, but I’m best at making scales harder than mithril or casting mass-[Invisibility] spells. Actually, I’m probably the best in the world at it. Aside from this guy in Pallass who’s crazy about physical enchantments…”
“Yes, wow. You Humans say the silliest things. I’m an Archmage! One of five in the world! Well, six if you count Amerys. I wonder if she’s lost her rank? Oh well, five or six. And all you say is ‘wow’. But I don’t want to judge! Except that I do.”
Blackmage blinked at her. Naili grinned at him, showing entirely too many pointed teeth for him to be comfortable.
“Don’t worry, we’re on the same side now. We have an agreement, and I can’t break my word so easily. Well, I could, but that would be a lot of trouble.”
So Blackmage understood. But he was still nervous.
“Do you—do you think you can really protect the others from Earth?”
“Absolutely. That’s the deal. We get access to the Evermote Study, and in return we’ll protect your friends. Archmage Feor and the Centrists can try, but the Revivalists have the numbers to resist any faction…especially with that many magic tomes to offer our people. I don’t suppose you’d care to sell me the secret of how you knew where to find it?”
“I uh, no. That’s a bigger secret.”
“A bigger secret than the Evermote Room? I suppose even I might not afford it. But just remember that every secret comes with a price. And we all pay that price sooner or later.”
She stopped and looked seriously at Blackmage. He paused and his stomach jumped. Then Naili laughed again.
“Hah! Your face is priceless. I’m funny. Okay, let’s see this study. And we’ll find you some new rooms, Aaron. Oh, don’t worry about the name. You’re with us now. You’ve got protectors. Allies.”
“That was the plan.”
Aaron closed his mouth. Naili stared at him and then grinned.
“This is why I love Wistram. Alright then. Let’s go.”
That evening, the second boat load of new students entered Wistram. They trudged up the steps, staring up at the magical citadel. Wistram was taller than any castle. It soared up in the bubble of calm, its windows shining with light. One tower was entirely aflame, another engulfed by plants. Yet one more was leaking bright blue smoke, the product of a failed experiment. But what lay on the inside only hinted at what was within. The students stumbled up the steps, still on their sea legs.
A small group of weary Humans perked up when they saw the academy. When they stepped into the entrance hall and saw the waiting [Mages], complete with pointy hats, they couldn’t help it. One of them, a young woman, grabbed her friends and shouted.
“It’s Hogwarts! I told you! We’re in Hogwarts!”
That was a big hint, all things told. Blackmage strode through the crowd, staring. He saw a dark face turn, saw eyes widen as they fixed on him. He didn’t know what his face showed, but he raised a hand and pointed.
“Earth? Are you guys—”
He got no further. One of the humans leapt at him and nearly knocked him to the ground. She hugged him, sobbing, as the other bewildered students turned and saw the Humans from Earth gathering around each other, shouting in surprise and hugging each other.
It was a pleasant sight. Or it would have been a day ago. Archmage Feor stood on a balcony high above the entrance hall. He was displeased. The Revivalists had come out full-force and they had made their goals clear. They were going to shelter the Humans from Earth, give them autonomy, support. They were willing to fight with every other faction in Wistram to do it. He had no idea what was giving them the confidence.
He would find out. Wistram always gave up its secrets in time. Feor turned, letting Aaron celebrate his victory for now. Someone had helped him. Not just Naili. That someone would turn up. Or Aaron would make a mistake. And in truth, he mattered less right now. He wasn’t the one otherworlder in Wistram now, he was one of many. And there were more out there, waiting to be found.
Feor flicked his hand and a scroll popped into his hands. He looked at the list of names, nodding perfunctorily as he travelled down the list. The groups were sorted by location, by the routes they would take and the difficulty of their task. He paused as he came down to an entry on the list and turned.
The half-Elf looked up. Feor pointed to the list of four names on the parchment.
“Have we any more information about Liscor and its environs? Our graduate is located there, is she not?”
“Falene Skystrall has indeed been confirmed in Liscor, but obtaining information has been problematic. She has made several requests for information on two of our expelled students. I believe you are familiar?”
“Ah yes. Ceria Springwalker and…the [Necromancer]. A pity. Springwalker might have been one of ours. Falene does not wish to aid the academy?”
“Not in giving confidential information away, Archmage. She claims it would be a conflict that goes against her team’s interests.”
“A pity. Our former graduates do not owe the academy as much as one might hope. It is ironic that we obtain more information from independents. Have you confirmed the Gold-rank [Mage] Typhenous’ report?”
“Yes, Archmage. We have assigned the team to the two additional objectives as you requested.”
Feor glanced back at the parchment. A name stood out to him on the parchment. Montressa du Valeros. He glanced at their objectives.
“Investigate the presence of [batman] and ‘L’. Investigate possible Earth connection to Erin Solstice. Retrieve magical door—‘The Wandering Inn’. Investigate expelled student Pisces location and whereabouts—The Horns of Hammerad. Very good.”
He rolled up the scroll. Feor made it vanish with another gesture and turned.
“Have the teams begin leaving as soon as the first years begin attending class. We are in a race, Teura. These otherworlders are a resource. And Wistram will collect them.”
He turned his head. First-year students were still celebrating. Cognita strode towards them, and behind her the double doors slowly closed. They slammed shut, keeping the mages, the students, and the secrets within the walls.