(The Last Tide graphic novel will be coming out in August! More details in the Author’s Note below and on the page here. Also, the author is on break until June 23rd for Patreons, the 27th for Public readers!)
Wistram Academy had endured since time immemorial. It had been occupied, knelt to foreign kingdoms, put under siege—but still, the academy remained. And it was now known as an independent power.
The isolated, but not unconnected home of [Mages] the world over. Some said the premier school of magic and while there were dissenters—Wistram was the name you thought of.
At the moment, it was also considered a shadow of its former glory—at least, to those who could remember what that glory had been. And there were few left.
Wistram was still the largest mage-school in the world. Which spoke, perhaps, to the decline of magic everywhere. After all, as Wistram waned, so too did [Mages]. Because Wistram’s graduates became the teachers, protectors, soldiers, and professionals across the world.
That was the fault of Archmage Zelkyr, who had created his ‘test’. The Golems he had left still served Wistram faithfully. And it had only been about two hundred years since the decline. Plenty of time to recoup.
In fact—that was happening. Wistram Academy had a secret. It had many secrets; the [Mages] traded in them like a second currency. But the largest one, the thing that was changing the academy at this moment was this:
There was a second world. Earth. A land of technology and no magic. An entire planet, filled with knowledge and ideas and nations. All Humans, apparently.
It was Wistram’s grand secret. They had collected the children of Earth, who had been sent to their world. They were trying to keep it secret; even now, [Mages] were receiving orders or polite ‘requests’ to return home. Half of Wistram’s Archmages didn’t even know the secret or if they did—it had not come from within the academy.
The Earthers, as they were known—were gathered in Wistram. Found, or uncovered and brought here to be safe. After all—they possessed important knowledge. And the academy thought of itself as an appropriate gatekeeper for said knowledge.
Even now, the greatest minds gathered, to learn Earth’s mysteries. Wise men and women of each species listened and discussed these seeds of new understanding, that they might create something the likes of which neither world had ever seen.
…Well. That is what they said. The truth looked a bit different to Aaron.
Space. The final frontier. The backdrop was made of black canvas dotted with stars. Also—an image of the Earth, drawn into a solar system with the ellipses illustrating the orbit of planets around the sun. A solar system.
It was currently lying on the floor. The carefully-painted canvas was dented where the young woman had tossed it. The [Mages] slowly got up; they’d dodged the diagram as she’d thrown it at them.
“The world is round. All of you can go to hell. It’s round and I can prove it!”
Elena snapped. She raised the pointing stick like the wrath of science and a few of the audience near the front backed up as she swished it.
“Miss Elena—please. We’re all for academic—er—knowledge, but let’s stick to the facts, please. Not conjecture.”
A [Mage] called out from the front. He had a huge, brown, bushy beard and liked to stroke it. But he wasn’t old or distinguished enough to make it work and it rather looked like he had an aggressively fat brown raccoon stuck under his chin that he was stroking.
Elena pointed the stick at him.
“Shut up. The world is round. That’s not a question for debate. It’s science. Fact! We’ve been to space!”
The [Mages] muttered amongst themselves. A few of them glanced at the diagram of space dismissively. And a young man slowly raised his head.
Aaron Vanwell, known to many as ‘Blackmage’, wasn’t learning anything new here. Or rather—he was learning Elena had a strong throwing arm and a temper almost as bad as Cara’s. But he’d agreed to sit in on the lectures as a—mediator.
“Excuse me! Silence in the audience until Miss Elena is finished her presentation. Miss Elena—please continue.”
An authoritative voice rang out. A half-Elf [Mage], a member of Wistram’s Council and a powerful [Mage] in her own right, Teura, a member of the Centrists under Archmage Feor, glared about until the [Mages] were quiet.
There were about sixty in the room. And they had all fought for the honor to be here, despite their disparaging sniffs and muttering. Not all [Mages] could attend these Earth-lectures; students were absolutely banned. But those trusted few—largely Centrists, but Revivalists and other factions as well—were listening as Elena pointed at another diagram.
“This is Earth.”
They squinted at the round planet, showing several sides; Elena had not just drawn one aspect, but the globe from multiple angles. And created a modern map, showing the world in full.
It was well done and Aaron could see she’d worked hard on it the entire week with the help of an [Artist]. But Elena was close to throwing it again and a [Mage] in the front muttered a shield spell.
“Why is it a circle? It makes no sense! That has to be wrong, Miss. Look! You’d fall off the bottom.”
One of the [Mages] looked affronted as she peered at the picture. She had oddly large eyes, and she was a Drake. She wore spectacles to keep her eyes nearsighted; she was a [Scrier], from the Scriptel faction. Bookworms, essentially. Elena sighed.
“It is what the Earth would look like from afar, Miss [Mage]. You see—as I’ve been explaining, the earth is round. And so is your planet.”
More dissent. Her eyebrow switched.
“No, no, shut up. Its round and I can prove it. This is the full scale of the planet. We can’t see it because for our intents and purposes, everything looks flat. It’s about perspective. Can’t you understand that? Even a bird can’t understand what a mountain looks like.”
“Excuse me, I resent that!”
A Garuda huffily folded his wing-arms. Elena stared at him and sighed.
“Sorry. Let me go from the beginning. There are multiple proofs for the world being round. Here is the first one. It’s the theory of light and shadows. These are illustrations of the moons from your world. Both of them. See how the light is moving across them?”
She produced another canvas and knocked the other one out of the way. The [Mages] stared at the phases of both of this world’s moons. Aaron nodded approvingly; he’d suggested that. Elena looked at him as if to say ‘it’s your fault I have to deal with these flat-earthers’, and went on.
“See how the shadows move across the moons? In a curve. That indicates the moons aren’t flat discs in the sky, but that the sun is moving across a rounded body, hence the curve. Now, I know you could say that the moons are high up in the sky and we can’t prove that. But if you’ll allow me?”
She produced an orange. Every eye fell on it as Elena raised a magical wand.
Her command of the magic was weak since she’d begun learning only recently, but the spell was elementary. The ball of light shone brightly, and the Drake with spectacles shaded her eyes. But everyone saw the shadow on the orange.
One of the [Mages] muttered reluctantly. Aaron turned and saw a Minotaur, rather slim and unfit by his race’ standards, which meant that he was still huge, writing down notes. A few others nodded.
“But that’s an orange. Miss, the moons aren’t so similar. We can’t assume they’re rounded. We just see them from afar.”
Mage Rievan of the Libertarians pointed out with a slight sneer. Elena glared at him.
“I have more proof. Look. The world is round, but so vast that we cannot see from our perspective how round it is. And yet—there are more examples of how it is round. Consider this—a shadow should be the same length everywhere, yes?”
The [Mages] looked at each other. Some shrugged; they had never given the idea much thought. Elena went on.
“If the world were flat, we could assume that shadows would remain constant. However, this is not the case. Here are two shadows, measured at the academy and another at a Mage’s Guild in Baleros. Both measure the same object; a two-meter tall stick. That’s…about six feet. But see how they differ? The [Mages] retook the measurements multiple times, and yet no shadow is the same length.”
She had two numbers on the board and more figures from other spots around the world. Elena turned to her audience. After a moment, the bearded man raised a hand.
“…So what? They’re just shadows. That doesn’t prove anything. This is all circumstantial, Miss Elena.”
The other [Mages] nodded. Aaron closed his eyes and Elena grabbed the canvas to throw it. They were unconvinced. A few [Mages] just blinked at the numbers and then left the room to see the presentation on cooking, or do something else. Elena’s brow furrowed deeper.
And yet, it was Teura who clapped her hands briskly.
“Archmage Feor was quite impressed with the results, Magus Telim. There is a factual understanding behind the shadow-theory.”
“And yet, not one we can see with our eyes. High Mage Teura, I respectfully submit that we cannot believe—a—an innocent tale like this! I’m sure the people of Earth believe that their world is round. But there is a fundamental flaw in Miss Elena’s presentation.”
The man clasped his hands over his belly. He pointed at the first diagram of the solar system.
“Miss Elena, you claim our world revolves around the sun, along with other celestial bodies. But—that cannot be. For, under your theory, the earth is constantly rotating—like some child’s spinning top.”
Here he chuckled, and a few of other [Mages] joined in. Elena turned red.
Telim waved this away. He was middle-aged, in his late fifties at least. His brown beard was a symbol of his good hair—it might have been dyed.
“Yes, yes, and tilting so that each axis is exposed to the sun and thus creating seasons. In your world, this theory makes sense. But why in our world does winter come to all continents at once? By rights, we should enjoy winter in Terandria while Baleros is hot. But that is not so. Cold is brought by the Winter Sprites, not some event of sunlight so forth.”
That stumped Elena for a moment. She hadn’t thought of that, and nor had Aaron. The young man watched Elena thinking for a moment. She slowly replied.
“I…don’t know that. That might be a—magical effect. But I can prove the earth is round. Listen—I have a third proof. It’s about height.”
The [Mages] saw Elena drag another canvas up onto the easel and point to it.
“If you stand on a cliff, you can see farther than you can on the ground into the distance.”
“Yes, because you’re standing on a cliff.”
A Selphid snorted. The others tittered and Elena glared. They fell silent as she tried to explain.
“No! If the world were flat, it wouldn’t work like that. You’d be able to see the same distance because without curvature…”
“Nonsense! That’s not how it works! Height is height. That’s why we see further. Your logic is all wrong!”
A Garuda called out, his feathers ruffled. Elena pointed at him.
“Shut up! Didn’t you hear me talk about gravity? You know that part is correct!”
“She’s right there. Gravity comes from all objects. Mass is gravity.”
A Centaur frowned thoughtfully. The Garuda glared at him.,
“Maybe about that. But how does this Human explain the end of the world?”
“By saying it’s not the end of the world!”
Elena shot back. The Garuda just shook his head and turned around.
“You have not looked upon the abyss that lies at the end of the sea, Miss Elena. Nor seen The Last Tide, rushing into oblivion. That is the end of all things. So long as that exists, I could never believe the earth is round.”
“Maybe it’s just a deep hole? Look, you can’t have a flat earth. Or else we’d all—how would gravity work? Surely we’d be able to tunnel into the other side and fall! None of those things exist. Listen—”
Elena wavered. But she had lost her audience. Most left the room set up for her lecture, shaking their heads. A few remained, asking pointed and interested questions.
A few believed. The Centaur who knew about gravity, a Lizardgirl who couldn’t have been more than fourteen but who was definitely an accredited [Mage], a frowning group of half-Elves who were part of the Centrists—all asked about more proofs of Elena’s world.
“We have satellites orbiting our world. They hang in space. Space is devoid of gravity—or rather, we are outside of the Earth’s pull and atmosphere so the effect is barely noticeable. It is possible to leave this world and we would see it as round. However, the ability to do that is…difficult.”
“Exceedingly so. Even a [Flight] spell sees the [Mages] fall out of the sky, suffocate, or simply find themselves unable to fly higher.”
“Ah! That’s because of atmosphere. You see, it thins?”
Elena brightened up as Aaron fidgeted. The remaining [Mages], less than a dozen, quizzed the young woman.
“But why is the [Flight] spell unable to go higher? It is magical, not limited by atmosphere.”
“I…don’t know. Maybe magic only works in the atmosphere? Or the flight spell needs air?”
The [Mages] muttered. Three more left, shaking their heads. Elena kept talking to the others. But her lecture only lasted twelve more minutes.
Aaron was helping himself to some beef wellington, or Wistram’s version of it, which was an appetizer if you could believe it or not. There were also chips and dip, any number of cheeses—
Wistram did not mess about when it came to food. Aaron felt certain he’d gained weight. But casting spells also helped him shed calories like no one’s business so it evened out. He saw Elena stalking towards him, her presentation done.
“Oh my god. I want to kill them all.”
She muttered at Aaron and grabbed an entire bowl of guacamole and fried chips. He glanced sideways at her as Elena ate savagely.
“I thought it was good—”
“Hah. I didn’t even get to the math! They don’t want to listen! If they can’t see it, they think it doesn’t exist! Like electricity—all the [Aeromancers] and other [Mages] were convinced you couldn’t make electricity or store it without magic. But then you invented a battery and they fell over themselves saying they knew it all along.”
“Oh. Yeah. Well, I didn’t know how to make one until George and Eun helped me make it.”
The young woman shook her head. Aaron couldn’t help but keep glancing sideways at her.
Elena was stunning. And in a world where anyone could use an illusion spell, that mattered. She was…a [Beautician].
A job from her world, but her class in this one. Elena had graduated from a university in Greece in a two-year program. She was older than Aaron by nearly half a decade. And she was a member of the Centrists faction.
Or rather, an asset. Teura cleared her throat as she approached Elena stuffing her mouth.
“Miss Elena, the presentation is over. Allow us to escort you back to your area.”
She glanced at Aaron, extremely displeased. He winced; Teura still held a grudge from when he’d been under her authority and gave her the slip. He was a member, or again, an asset of the Revivalists. And the Centrist and Revivalists often clashed.
“I’ll go after I see the other projects, Teura. Is that alright?”
Elena turned her head and gave the half-Elf a smile. Teura hesitated—but she was under orders.
She tried to smile and incline her head. Elena was one of seven young people from Earth in the Centrist faction’s grasp. And while they could limit their interaction with other factions—there was only so far the Earthers would be pushed. Elena was especially stubborn and the [Mages] were being cooperative rather than pushy.
Too—Elena was also a lot better at subtly influencing people than Aaron. She glanced at him as Teura stepped back, hovering about awkwardly.
“I spent one week working on this presentation. I doubt I’ll do it again if all I get is skepticism.”
She didn’t raise her voice, but out of the corner of his eye, Aaron saw Teura wince. She pursed her lips and he saw Elena wink at him. By now, they were accustomed to speaking while knowing they were being listened to.
“Let’s check on the other projects. I think Saif is doing his battle-games.”
She nodded and took another fistful of chips. As she did, Aaron saw her check her pocket.
“Damn. I’m low on gold. Spot me a tip?”
She gave him a look.
“The Golems. Obviously.”
Aaron hesitated. But then he dug in one pocket and produced a gold coin. Elena grabbed it.
“Thanks. I’ll pay you back.”
She had as much of the refreshments as she wanted. But money was in short supply. Elena had been—and would be—paid for putting on this lecture. Not much since most of the [Mages] hadn’t enjoyed it as much.
But she’d still have fistfuls of gold and an allowance of magical trinkets, low-level scrolls or lessons from her faction. Which she could turn into secrets.
Wistram Academy rewarded the Earthers for their efforts in that way. Aaron had no concept of gold—but he gathered they were being paid lavishly. Or scraps, depending on how you looked at it. Either way, secrets were worth more in Wistram and the Earthers had quickly learned they could amass small fortunes to pursue their activities.
They were captive. But they weren’t prisoners. That was a good way of describing them. Now, Aaron saw Elena trot over to a waiting shape.
A clay man. Or rather—porcelain. He had been fired and his form created to be a nondescript figure, his clothes and features given color by delicate brushes. But that had been centuries ago; his paint was flaking and faded in places.
“Here. A tip. Thank you for setting up and cleaning up. You can get rid of the paintings.”
Elena offered the servant-Golem the gold coin. It just looked at it. Slowly, it took the coin. And then bowed.
“Miss Elena, you do not need to tip the golems. They clean and perform tasks as necessary.”
Teura was distressed as well as aghast by Elena’s insistence on tipping. The young woman looked at her.
“I know I don’t have to.”
“Then—the Golems are not like us, Miss Elena. They do not have personalities. They do not level.”
The half-Elf [Mage] said it as if that decided everything. The Golem began moving chairs to one side, to sweep and clean the classroom. Not swiftly, but not slowly either, and it would continue at that pace until all the work was done. Blackmage, Aaron, edged out of its path.
Elena smiled at Teura.
“They don’t think like we do. And they don’t level. That’s true, Miss Teura. But they might one day. Or did you miss Aaron’s presentation on Artificial Intelligence?”
The half-Elf gulped. She fell silent and paled; the remaining [Mages] in the room eyed the golem and then Aaron. He looked at Elena as she spoke.
“I believe in being kind either way, Miss Teura. Besides. As I understand it, the Golems of Archmage Zelkyr rule Wistram. Not [Mages]. When that changes, I’ll stop tipping.”
She smiled at the gaping half-Elf. And then took her plate and walked out of the room. Aaron whistled softly.
Damn. Elena had no chill. But then—she was one of many people from Earth. And if Wistram thought they would all dance to their tune, they’d been sorely mistaken.
This was Wistram Academy. And if the academy held Earthers and learned from them—well, the young people were learning too.
The air was hot with smoke. He crouched in amid the fumes, trying not to cough. And the enemy—was everywhere.
Flashes of light lit up the battleground. People cried out in pain, shouting instructions.
They were coming for him. The young man checked his weapon. The gun was light in his hands. He took a breath, and then twisted the ring on his finger. He left his cover and ran.
“I see someone! Invisible! The smoke! There—”
Click, click, click. With each shot, he heard a snap, a sound—impacts. Cries of pain.
Spells flashed after him. Saif dove. He’d already known where his cover would be. The attack spells missed him, eating into the dirt. And he was already crawling.
“Let’s get him.”
“No, you—I’m out.”
“My shield’s on. Cast homing missiles!”
The spells hit the earth as the group of [Mages] debated hotly. But Saif wasn’t there. He was crawling. Ahead of him lay a huge structure with multiple areas for cover. He leapt up, grabbed the edge as he let the gun rest in the holster on his back. Pulled himself up, and then crouched.
He deactivated the invisibility ring. The [Mages] were looking around, trying to figure out if he was still in cover.
“Hey! If you’re hit you have to announce it!”
One of the younger [Mages] shouted. She aimed her wand at the place Saif had been and launched another volley of homing arrows. He rolled his eyes. He knew that. He was no cheater.
But this was his game, not theirs. One of the [Mages] announced.
“I see no magic aura. I think he ran.”
The others murmured. Saif grinned. They had no idea. They were trusting to him using the [Invisibility] spell. But why did you need a spell when you could just hide?
He crouched behind the small window, peeking out as the [Mages] advanced. They had forwards-facing shields of magic and were moving in a group, overlapping their shields. Idiots.
One of them was at least intelligent enough to be scouting around more. He raised his wand—he was a Dwarf of all things. A [Wizard], to judge by his reliance on his magical artifacts.
“Let me see if he’s ahead. [Heat Vision]—oh no—’
He turned his head and saw Saif too late. The young man leaned out of the window. His gun rumbled as his rifle, on full-auto, discharged a magazine.
“Ow! Ow! Gaah—”
The [Mages] screamed as the projectiles hit them. They did not fall to the ground, but one clutched at his back.
“Hit! Hit! How did he get behind us—!?”
They saw Saif leaping out the window. He was already repositioning. More [Mages] were coming to check on the shouting. They had magical shields, wands at the ready—and spells. One even leapt forwards using [Haste].
They were slaughtered. Saif shot, clinging to shadows, outmaneuvering them with the rings that allowed him to jump, turn temporarily invisible, or just sprint at superhuman speed. He had all of the ring’s powers memorized and had practiced with them extensively. And his gun—their wands were quick. But he had a gun. And each time it barked, they died.
…Of course, not actually died. It was just an airsoft gun.
“Damn. They’re getting slaughtered.”
Aaron whistled as he joined the spectators in the enchanted glass viewing area where they could watch the [Mages] fighting in the massive battleground Saif had set up for his ‘project’. Like a science fair’s project, only with nigh-unlimited budgets—
If you could demonstrate to your faction why they should fund you. In this case—Saif had an airsoft gun from his world. He was a good player—close to professional, a veteran of many war-games. The young man from France had claimed that with a smaller team he could wipe out any number of Wistram’s vaunted [Battlemages] or combat-[Mages].
And so far, he’d ‘killed’ over twenty. They emerged from the smokey area, which was set up with actual trees grown by [Green Mages], artificial buildings, even a sewer system and lakes—all in one of Wistram’s rooms.
“Those damn pellets hurt! One nearly put out my eye!”
A [Mage] was complaining loudly as he rubbed at his back. Aaron felt for him; he’d been in an airsoft game with the guns just once, and you could draw blood with them. And if you were hit in the eye?
Well, part of the problem was that Saif’s airsoft pellets weren’t cheap plastic but copies, made of metal, clay, resin or other substitutes. They still fired since Saif’s gun wasn’t a gun at all, but an air-powered version that propelled the ammunition with the power of compressed air. But even his gun was—
Crack, crack, crack! Elena pointed.
“That’s Saif! He’s on the run!”
Bright flashes of light illuminated the smoke. Saif’s team had deployed countless smoke spells to give them the benefit of cover. Now, Saif was visible for a second as arrows of light, beams of magic—even a giant orb which floated and detonated, spraying the entire area with light—chased him into the sewers.
“How was he not hit?”
“He’s anticipating the attacks! Spells are slower, ladies and gentlemen! And as you can see—even this fake ‘gun’ is enhanced with our magic!”
Crack. Saif’s gun sounded and someone began swearing and screaming as he nailed a [Battlemage] in the ass from behind. Saif was moving fast thanks to the rings he’d been given. And his rifle might not be using gunpowder—
“I think you cranked up the gas in those enchanted canisters too much, Aaron. Holy fuck, this is fun.”
Someone exclaimed from a seat with a bucket of popcorn. Aaron and Elena turned and saw George and Eun laughing and watching the carnage.
“Hey guys. How long has this been going on?”
“One hour. They keep replaying. The [Mages] are salty. Look—Saif’s about to ambush them—ooh!”
The rifle unloaded another magazine. [Mages] clutched at their back and Saif hit one of them six times on the legs. Aaron winced.
“They’re working? The enchanted canisters?”
Airsoft guns ran on compressed gas. Until recently, Aaron hadn’t cared to know how they were made. But they were made of green gas, a type of propane, which was used to propel the projectiles. It had been a pain to figure out a way to copy it, especially since Saif had only had two magazines left and been running low on gas when he’d been teleported out of his airsoft game and into another world.
But Nailihuaile herself had worked with an [Aeromancer] to compress air into the gun. And then she’d had to enchant the rifle to prevent it from actually exploding from the increased pressure. That, plus the tiny pellets they’d commissioned and figured out how to load meant.
“Dead gods! It’s in my skin! It hurts! Ow—ow—”
A moaning [Mage] was actually carried off the field. His leg was a mess of blood. Some of the Wistram [Mages] in the audience looked faint. But Saif kept hunting the other [Mages].
They got him in the end, but only after he’d taken down nearly three dozen. The trick was that Saif dodged and hid and ran away the instant he thought he might actually be in danger of being struck by a single spell; the [Mages] did not. They weren’t nearly as athletic, or as used to the idea of being shot despite their shields.
But they were just as competitive.
“Another round! If we could use full-body shield spells, we’d have him!”
A Drake [Mage] slammed his fist into his palm as he argued with a Dullahan. Beatrice, of the Revivalists, folded her arms.
“We cannot allow that, Mage Cekis. If we were able to make a spell that drops the shield after, say, three shots, we could allow it. Archmage Nailihuaile and our other [Enchanters] are working on—game artifacts—but until then…”
“Three shots? But his little gun-thing can spit dozens per second! That’s not fair!”
The Drake shouted, outraged. Beatrice was unmoved.
“A real ‘gun’ can do the same, sir. And a high-level from Terandria’s Hunter’s Guild can do the same. An [Archer] only needs one [Piercing Shot]. Or is that not true?”
The [Mage] hesitated. Some of the other [Mages] muttered.
“That damn speed. I was sure I hit him.”
“You don’t weave around enough, Battlemage Decul. Your spells work well—but you’re too stationary. I’ll just run away if I think I’m going to be hit. Never attack if you’re worried about being counterattacked.”
Saif laughed. He had a few scorch marks on the enchanted leather armor he wore; some of the [Mages] cast actual [Light Arrow] spells. But he was in great form. The French [Gun Scout] checked his rifle, examining all the parts with practiced ease. Aaron saw him touch-counting the ammunition on his belt.
“I’m nearly out of ammunition. I can do one more round. Any takers?”
The ones who’d been playing hesitated, but there was no shortage of younger [Mages] eager to take Saif on. Unlike Elena’s lecture, which had been classified as experienced [Mages] only, this was open to all students. They didn’t know what Saif’s weapon was, but they were all too keen to prove they were as good as any ‘adventurer’. Which is what they thought he was.
Saif took them to bits. Elena offered the guac around and Eun declined while George took some. The young Korean man shook his head.
“They are overconfident, yeah?”
He nudged George, his best friend and the classmate he’d been transferred to this world with, out of a Freshman introductory college course. George, the amiable South Carolinian, nodded.
“That’s right, Eun. Overconfident.”
The [Mages] hadn’t ever been in a life-and-death scenario. Most didn’t even try to dodge. They just put up shield spells and went on the attack, blasting away enthusiastically at the other teams. Meanwhile, Saif, while not a soldier or any kind of law enforcement from Earth—still knew how combat was supposed to work.
This time Saif ran out of ammunition and switched to the wand he’d been given. He and his team actually won, despite being half the size of the other teams.
“It’d be different if we could use [Fireball] spells! Mage Rievan, that’s not fair!”
A young man from Terandria, Charles de Trevalier, complained loudly. He was white-faced, having needed a healing potion. Saif had nailed him in the jaw eight times after the noble had refused to quit after his first shot. Aaron grinned, but furtively. He didn’t like Charles.
“I have to protest, Mage Beatrice. This little—diversion isn’t a fair representation of Wistram Academy’s abilities.”
Mage Rievan of the Libertarians scowled at Beatrice. The Dullahan was unmoved; he was her superior in age and influence in Wistram, but she was a secretbroker. And also, a member of the Revivalists.
“This is a simulation, Mage Rievan. It is meant to teach [Mages] the limitations of their ability in battle. We don’t simulate the smoke and flames [Fireball] spells could cause. And if Mage Charles had cast a [Fireball] in that corridor, the back blast would have killed him.”
“Then I’d cast [Lightning Bolt]! This damn game is pointless! Timbor, with me!”
Charles snapped. He and a group of Libertarians stomped out of the simulation, covered in welts. They were the mostly-Human faction led by Archmage Viltach who were mostly concerned with Terandrian affairs.
“Asses. I can’t believe they like you, Eun.”
Elena glared after them. She glanced at Eun. The South Korean [Student] shrugged, awkwardly.
“They are…polite. They like me. Because I am Human.”
“I guess that matters more than the fact that Eun’s from Korea. Nice to see.”
George quipped amiably. He wasn’t part of Eun’s faction. Both had been rescued from the [Pirate] ship where they’d been captured after a raid on the harbor where they’d been working as [Scribes]. The Wistram team had followed them and rescued both, but the factions in Wistram had fought and the Libertarians had claimed Eun—the Sedoli group, George.
“How’re you two being treated? Any issues?”
Eun shook his head, but George hesitated.
“I am very good, thank you, Elena.”
Aaron and Elena looked at him. They were both more influential—Aaron because he was the first Earther, Elena because she was from Cara’s group. She had travelled with the [Popstar] of Terandria. George shuffled his feet.
“I—the Sedolis are great, really. But they’re a bit…creepy?”
He lowered his voice. Most of the [Mages] were watching the clean up or asking Saif if his gun was really that deadly in actual combat—whether he wanted to join their faction, or just have a more private demonstration with some of their combat-mages, etc. The other Earthers crowded around George.
“They’re just so—you know? Obsessed with Golems? Half of the students—they ask whether I think their Golems look natural. They’re nude. And the other half move about or just—stand there. Watching me.”
George shuddered. He, like Aaron, was from America. Different states, but the two had a strong connection nevertheless. The Sedoli faction had him, though. And they were—
Golem-makers. The same group that Archmage Zelkyr had once been part of. They were in decline, but still a strong group. They maintained and made new Golems, often selling their work.
They were indeed creepy. The hallways of the academy where they’d staked their claim were often littered with unfinished parts of Golems. If you walked into some of their storage rooms where finished projects from masters or journeymen were kept—you’d see dozens of mannequin-like figures. Who of course, followed you and stared at you.
The worst ones asked questions at night. Aaron had nearly shat himself the first time he wandered into Sedoli territory and the wall had asked if he was lost.
“One of the new apprentices made a spider-Golem the other week. It was huge.”
The young man muttered, holding his knees and turning pale. Eun patted him on the back.
“Maybe we can switch? Alice wants to change factions.”
“That’s because she’s a loudmouthed idiot who can’t handle Selphids. Let her switch with you, George. If you ask your faction head, he’ll probably agree.”
Elena advised George. The [Magical Student] looked up.
“Old man Tiktal? But he’s been such a great guy to me. It’s not his fault…”
His throat worked. He could remember every person in the Sedoli faction. And any number of facts from his world, from dates to events and so on. George hadn’t been the best student, but the [Student] class had given him a near-perfect recall. Just like Saif was a nightmare with his airsoft gun.
“Ask. If you’re not okay with it, you should ask. Tell him—its trauma. He’ll believe that. You can join some of the therapy sessions and pretend, okay, George? Alice can trade with you.”
“Thanks, Elena. I might. I don’t want to give Alice to them.”
“They’ll just make nude Golems out of her. The Sedolis are weird.”
No one argued with that. Wistram had many factions, and many kinds of [Mages]. It said something that the Sedolis were only ‘weird’. But there were far creepier. George relaxed and helped himself to more chips. The four sat about, and Elena griped about her failed lecture. After a while, Saif came over. He was sweaty.
“Whew! That was fun. Aaron, thanks for fixing the gun. I think I’m popular, right?”
He had a delighted grin on his face. He’d been feeling useless for the last four weeks he’d been here, so Aaron had worked hard to get his airsoft gun working. Now, Saif was on fire.
“Glad it worked. Just don’t answer any questions about actual firearms.”
Elena cautioned Saif. He rolled his eyes.
“I’m not an idiot, Elena. I couldn’t make one if I tried. I think. George and Eun, they’re the ones who know how, right?”
He nudged the two. They’d recalled how batteries worked. Aaron had been experimenting, but he’d forgotten the basic steps. They’d filled his basic gaps in knowledge; he could take apart a smartphone and put it back together again and do programming, but he’d never had to make a…battery. He was a [Magictech Engineer], not an [Inventor]!
Eun looked startled and shook his head. George just looked pale.
He was one of the anti-gun Earthers. Which was good, because George was one of the few with a working knowledge of how guns worked. But he claimed to have seen enough gun-related deaths for one world.
“Lips sealed, Elena. Promise.”
She patted George’s arm. The African-American man shivered and she nodded. Elena was from Greece. Reassuringly, she whispered to him.
“Don’t worry. Archmage Nailihuaile is against guns too.”
“Only because she thinks it’ll put her out of a job.”
Aaron muttered back. Elena elbowed him. She patted George on the shoulder. Then she turned to Saif.
“Does Aaron get any of your funding?”
“Yeah. Sure! I have to pay him to upgrade my rifle, right? I’ll give you a third of what I get for my presentation, Blackmage.”
Saif nodded. He grinned as Aaron shifted uncomfortably. To many, in the academy, or even from Earth, his nickname was his user-handle. Blackmage.
“Just give me enough to fund my projects, Saif. Speaking of which…I’ve gotta work on Lamont’s project tonight.”
“Need any help with the batteries?”
George offered, as much to get out of his Golem-infested hallways as anything. Aaron grimaced.
“Can’t. Different factions. Join the Centrists with Elena, George, and then they’ll let you.”
The Earthers were allowed to mingle under supervision, but each faction guarded their ‘assets’ to greater or lesser degrees. As Elena described it—they were a single community split up, and they had to find ways to communicate and avoid being brainwashed. Some factions did work together—the Centrists would loan Elena to the Revivalists if they needed to collaborate on something that would enrich both groups. But other groups…
“Anyone seen Sidney?”
“Not since the last week.”
“We’ll see her in therapy. Her faction has to let her join. I’ll ask how she’s doing and if she’s not okay—I’ll petition Feor to do something.”
Elena nodded as if that settled that. The others nodded. Elena was a force. And that fit her in a way—
She had been friends with Cara, the [Popstar] of Terandria. The Earthers that Cara had found had sent Elena when Wistram had made contact. No one else, so far. Wistram was trying to persuade them through Aaron and Elena, but…Aaron suspected she’d sent some kind of covert message because the [Popstar] of Terandria was staying independent.
“I’m going to bathe. This was really fun, yeah. I think I can buy some magical items. I must have earned at least ten thousand gold from the first game alone! And they’ll pay me to show them more!”
Saif broke the silence, grinning. He was excited and he’d probably level up in his new class, [Gun Scout]. He could run faster, the projectiles from his gun behaved like actual bullets when he wanted them to, and his aim and eyesight were improved.
He looked at this world like a game. Mainly because his first interaction with this world had been wandering into the nearest Mage’s Guild and asking if they had a map. They’d taken him to Wistram at once.
George and Eun were more subdued. So was Elena. She just shook her head.
“Remember, Saif. It’s not as fun outside of Wistram.”
“I know that. I’ve seen the therapy stuff. Tell the others ‘hi’ for me. If they want to hang out—we’re partying with a bunch of 3rd years. Probably more. It’s a huge party, down past the fountains…?”
“I know it. I’ll let them know.”
Elena promised. Saif waved and trotted off, to keep talking and then secure his rifle away from grabby hands. A group of cleaning-Golems trooped into the battleground to pick up debris and clear it.
Of course, the battlegrounds was massive, but Wistram’s citadel was far larger than it appeared on the outside. The door to this massive room with a second floor looking down onto the practice arena was only a set of three doors sitting next to each other in the hallway. One led to the top floor, the other two, the ground floor.
Magic. Aaron was used to it, but Eun just shook his head. He was half-convinced this was just virtual reality or some trick. George believed—and so did Elena. They had seen things.
As for Blackmage?
To him, this world was amazing. Wonderful. Wistram? Less so. He knew he was a permanent guest and he resented that. But he had to admit—he had gotten lucky.
Some of the visitors from Earth had been less so. And for all Wistram may have snatched some people away and refused to give them back even if they wanted to leave…they had saved more than their fair share too.
It was wrong to call them cruel. Some were. Beatrice had told Aaron stories of Charles de Trevalier and some of the others. So had Montressa—before she’d left with the experimental shock-orb to hunt a traitorous [Necromancer] and search for more Earthers.
There were bad [Mages]. But most, Aaron was learning, were just…people. Archmage Nailihuaile, for instance, could be random and silly. Engaging, and far younger than her actual age. But she was also calculating and she could be cold. Feor was scarier, though.
But the thing was—they weren’t bad people. At least, that was what Aaron struggled with. He didn’t like Teura and a number of other [Mages].
But still. This room was soft. The sun shone down; it came through layers of Wistram’s walls. The magic let those sitting in the inn feel as though they stood in a glass box.
It was a beach. Soft, white sand. Even water, animals. Wistram Academy had been made of so many [Mages] over the years, each with their own goals or desires…
This was a relaxation room. Similar to the rooms with literal fields that [Green Mages] tended to and provided some of Wistram’s food, especially in times of siege. This room—about sixty feet wide by forty feet—was just a beach.
Hawaii. Or rather, Aaron imagined it was like that. It looked like something out of the commercials.
“Just no cockroaches.”
Malia whispered to him as she passed around lemonade. Well—lemonade flavored with other fruits. The yellow was blended with something blue. Aaron asked the Hawaiian girl what it was.
“Amentus fruits. Elena paid for some from the last [Merchant].”
Both turned to look at Elena. She was welcoming people into the room. This hadn’t been her idea; it was Malia’s. But Elena had dedicated herself to helping with the regular sessions.
“Hey, everyone. Take a seat. How are you? Basil, Duha, hi—uh—uh—marhabaan? Obi, thank you for coming—Sidney!”
She embraced a young woman from Canada as more people filed in. Wistram had found dozens and dozens of Earthers. Of that number, about…a tenth were here.
They sat on the beach, or took drinks, talked about their days…this wasn’t Aaron’s crowd. He was just looking in. To—see how they were.
They had come a few months after he’d been at Wistram. At first a handful. Then, more and more as Wistram realized how many people from Earth there were scattered across the world.
But unlike the others, who were either partying with the younger [Mages]—working on their own projects, learning about this world, studying magic—something unified all of these people.
Many were shivering. Some had come in pairs, or small groups. Two—brothers of fifteen compared to the older people from Earth—refused to let anyone touch them.
Sidney kept to the light. She refused to go anywhere without a [Light] spell. She was…fourteen. The youngest age bracket of people who had come from Earth. And Elena was especially kind to her.
“Have a drink. Sit, Sidney. Let’s sit on the beach. Look—there’s even the tide. You can swim, if you want. I’m glad you’re here. Are you okay?”
She put Sidney on a blanket, fussing over her. Handing her one of the drinks. No alcohol was served here. Malia went around with some food.
Not a grand spread like at the lectures. This was funded—with the approval of the Archmages, but still independently—by Malia, Elena, and a few of the Earthers. Most of the [Mage] factions didn’t see the point. Blackmage had put money into this as well.
This was…therapy. And after nine sessions—there was a flow. Aaron stood by the door, sipping from his drink.
Basil spoke for the first time. He was Bulgarian. And his proficiency in English was low. But enough.
“They were heroes.”
He looked around. The others listened. Elena held Sidney’s shoulder. Basil looked past them.
“What did they do, Basil? Can you tell us? It’s okay if you can’t.”
The young woman, Malia, spoke encouragingly. She had no degree in therapy. All she knew was watching pop cultural examples. Even so—her class was [Healer]. [Thought Healer]. Basil shuddered.
The word made one of the young women hide her face in her hands. The others shifted. Basil looked around.
“They—it—it was чудовище. They—”
They came up out of the caves. He had been working as a [Smelter], using his knowledge of metallurgy from his world to improve the crude forges in the village.
The Goblins had been there for a long time. But the village had walls, and two Level 20+ [Warriors].
It hadn’t been enough. The Goblins, an entire tribe of them over three hundred strong, had overrun the village in minutes. They put the warriors to death. Tried to capture women. When they realized the villagers and Basil had sealed themselves in the stone building that was the village’s meeting hall, they had laid siege to it.
For six days and nights, the Goblins assailed the walls, trying to crack the stone. Twice, they had tunneled in. The villagers and Basil fought, hearing screams from outside. In Chandrar, this arid area was lacking in food and water. Only the mineral deposits made it worthwhile.
The Goblins had begun eating the villagers. Living or dead. On the sixth day, they had been close to breaking through despite the best efforts of the Human and Stitchfolk community.
Then, the Silver-rank team had come. They had received the [Message] spell. The Contempt of Zeikhal had not known how many Goblins there were.
Three hundred. Not a vast horde, but far more than a team of eight should have handled. But the adventures had seen the siege. They had counted the Goblins.
They had charged.
The villagers and Basil had heard them dying as they tried to unblock the door. Three of the eight fell within the first ten minutes, overwhelmed. The last put their backs to the wall and fought.
Three hundred Goblins had assailed the village. Some had died in the attack. But still—when the villagers emerged, ready to fight and die rather than be overwhelmed in a corner, they had found only a handful left.
A [Blade Dancer]. A [Bard]. The brave [Archer] who called out to them, and the [Sand Mage], the last to fall. They had killed at least two hundred Goblins, drinking healing potions and fighting in between barriers, choking their numbers.
Until the last adventurer fell. The remaining Goblins had fled, led by their foul Hobgoblin Chieftain back into the caves. The second team of Gold-ranks had purged them. But the adventurers had died. The village had been putting statues up of them when Basil had been found.
“They saved us.”
At this point, Basil could go on no more. He wiped at the tears on his face. He had killed eight Goblins during the siege. But the nightmares of their laughter and the villagers being slowly eaten had stayed with him for the last three months.
“Thank you, Basil.”
That was all Malia said. She hugged him fiercely and the others murmured as well. Basil sat in the sand, staring at the beautiful, emerald waters as if they were coated in pollution and filth. After a moment, someone else asked to speak.
Aaron stood in the doorway, silent and pale. Basil had a chunk missing from one arm, where his skin had healed awkwardly. A Goblin’s bite. Some of the others had scars too.
This was the reality of the world. For every Earther who had been lucky, like Saif, or rescued like George and Eun, another had been in some mortal peril. Been forced to barter all they had away, starved, been lost—
And those were the ones Wistram found. Aaron looked at Basil. No wonder his faction—Scriptels again—complained that he hadn’t been able to transcribe many stories or knowledge from his world beyond the alphabet. He bowed his head—
The door opened.
“I say, is Miss Elena here? I had more questions about this space business. I promise I won’t laugh—I—oh.”
Aaron turned. The [Mage] with the bushy brown raccoon-beard paused as he saw the Earthers. They all stared at him.
“I’ve got this, Elena—”
Aaron grabbed the [Mage]. To his surprise, the man didn’t have any protective spells. He was rather heavy, but only protested verbally as Aaron pulled him outside.
“I say! What’s this about? I wanted to speak to Miss Elena—I’ll compensate her for the time, I know how this goes.”
“She’s busy. This is a—private time.”
Aaron barred the door. The [Mage]—was he a ‘High Mage’? Snorted.
“I’m well aware you—you Earth-people need your time. But this is a matter of magic. I was speaking to a [Gravitationist] and he was claiming there’s a lot of basis to make this round earth thing go. We were going to make a model based on that soul-system—”
“I’m sure Elena would love to help you, uh, High Mage Telim. But—”
“I’m a busy man, young, er, Blackmage. And I won’t be manhandled!”
The [Mage] squirmed as the two jostled for place in the hallway. A Golem, made of stone and pushing a cart full of books walked past them, and some students stared. Telim’s face turned red. Then he muttered a spell.
“You made me do it. [Paralys—]”
Aaron locked up. He felt the spell go through him and tried to block it. But he was still only around a 3rd or 4th year student’s prowess at best, despite his studying from more advanced [Mages].
And [High Mage] Telim was a powerful [Mage]. Or at least, good enough to cast a single spell. He adjusted his robes over his stomach and pushed the door open. He glanced at Aaron irritably as a voice floated towards them.
“What is so urgent, anyways?”
Aaron made his lips move despite the magic locking down every part of his body.
Inside, on the beach, Sidney was speaking for the first time. She held the ball of [Light] and shivered. Shivered uncontrollably. Telim paused in the open door leading to the stone hallway. He heard the girl’s voice.
“It was so dark. There were four of us. Mamy—told us to hide. It was dark, and I was crying. She put me in the hole while the others ran. And there were lots of them. She said not to move.”
And what came out of the cavern tunnels they had been transported to? What vile monsters?
Rats. Just…rats. Not even the largest ones. But so many. A flood. And they chased the children. Mamy, Sidney’s older sister, had no levels. No weapons, even. Her brothers ran and were overtaken.
Sidney had found a hole. She had hid there, the only person able to fit. But the rats were even smaller than she. So what had her sister done?
“She told me to stay there.”
“And what did she do? Sidney?”
Elena’s face was pale. They were all listening. Aaron saw the girl look up. A [Survivor].
“She sat down.”
She began to cry. That was all. Her sister sat down and didn’t move. And whilst the rats had scurried about, after the girl had fainted after screaming and crying—she had gained the ability to make light. And chased away the rats and ran and ran until the kindly [Farmers] found her.
Sidney was sobbing as Elena held her. But she was afraid—afraid to even bury her face in the young woman’s clothes. The light—she never went without it.
Aaron sat on the ground. At some point, the spell had ended. He saw a figure in the doorway as he looked up. And he rose. He didn’t have the experimental electrical weapons. But if that man interrupted, Aaron would jump—
High Mage Telim backed out of the doorway. He turned and Aaron saw his sick, horrified face for a second. Then the man ran. He got a dozen paces before he vomited in the hallway. Aaron stared at his back. The man had tears in his eyes.
“I had no notion. I heard there was—trouble in some of their recoveries. But are they all…all like that?”
A few minutes later, Telim stared into the beach room. People were comforting Sidney as best they could. High Mage Telim’s face was very pale.
Even the stories had horrified the man. Aaron hadn’t expected that. But Telim was not a [Battlemage]. Or even used to combat. He shuddered as Aaron nodded.
“This is why I don’t leave the academy. Ever. Dead gods. Rats?”
He wiped at his mouth. He had puke in his beard, but it dried up and fell out as he waved a hand over his front, doing the same to his clothes.
“That poor girl. That poor…and her sister. Her brothers?”
He passed a hand over his face. And tears—Aaron saw them trickling down the man’s pudgy face. Telim looked into the room.
“Therapy. I thought—my colleagues called your world soft. But that would be a nightmare for any soul. That poor girl. Is—is she well? She was taken by then Orenaius faction. [Light Mages]. No wonder.”
“She comes to therapy every time. It helps. It would be better if she could be around Elena, or Malia more, High Mage Telim.”
Aaron explained. The man looked at him.
“Of course! Dead gods, but the girl needs…what is she drinking?”
“Um. Lemonade? I can get you some.”
Aaron didn’t want the man to interrupt. Not that it seemed Telim would. He blinked, rubbed at his face.
“Dead gods, I need a drink. What’s ‘lemonade’…made of lemons?”
“And sugar. And some Amentus fruit?”
“Sweet. No alcohol? Nothing else?”
“No. Mage Telim, if you need a drink—”
“I don’t need one. That poor girl needs one. Every damn child in that room needs one. Come with me.”
The [High Mage] snapped his fingers. He swung the door closed and marched off. Aaron blinked and followed him.
Telim was a good spellcaster; he cast [Haste] to make up for his ambling pace. So even at a slow walk, Aaron had to jog to keep up.
“Where are we going?”
“My faction. I know an [Alchemist]—no, on second thought, there’s an [Apothecary] who owes me a favor.”
The difference was, apparently, that one did more medicinal brews. Telim navigated Wistram’s twisting, sometimes changing corridors with ease, cursing when he realized the route had changed and easily circumnavigating the area. He knew dozens of people who called out to him.
“Not now, Sa’la. It’s this terrible thing—I don’t have time to teach anyone spells! Begone! Shoo! No drinking! You—students! Out of the way!”
The fat man bulled past a group of 4th years. He was a Libertarian, Aaron remembered. Part of Viltach’s Human-centric faction. But the Selphid, Sa’la, fell into step with Telim.
“What’s the matter, Telim? I haven’t seen you moving like this since you heard about chocolate. Hello, Blackmage.”
“I’m looking for Vhedel, Sa’la. Any idea where he is…?”
Telim cursed at her. The Selphid grinned; she was wearing a dead woman’s face. But Selphids were always changing.
“Vhedel! Vhedel, get your hemp ass out here you waste of space! Or I’ll confiscate all your damn dreamleaf from the gardens, see if I don’t!”
Telim shouted. What he wanted from the grumpy Hemp Stitch-[Mage] was in fact, an entire armful of vials. Vhedel protested, and Telim nearly shoved his finger up the Stitch-Man’s nose.
“I’ll pay you back. It’s not even as if it’s that expensive.”
“It’s a shipment—”
“It’s for the Earthlings. Clear it with Viltach. Now, Sa’la, give me a hand with these.”
“Use your bag of holding. Oh, wait—you stuffed it to the brim with food, didn’t you? Fine. Mister Aaron?”
The Selphid woman sighed. She and Aaron followed Telim back the way they’d come. The man was sorting through the vials. As they reached the beach door, Aaron finally caught his breath—he’d been moving without any speed-spells so his sides hurt—and asked.
“What’s all this, Mage Telim?”
The man gave him an incredulous look. He bulled into the beach.
“Excuse me! This is private—”
Elena shot to her feet with Malia. Some of the other Earthers looked frightened. But Telim just approached Sidney.
“Hello, young woman. I—I couldn’t help but hear your story. On behalf of Wistram, I am terribly sorry for your loss. But you are safe here. Stick to your faction’s hallways and you shall never come to harm.”
She tried to hide behind Elena. The [Beautician] scowled at Telim.
“I’m sure she appreciates that. But she really doesn’t need—”
“On the contrary. I’d take it as a kindness if you added this to your drinks, Miss Elena.”
The [Mage] pulled Elena aside. He showed her one of the vials, and the blue glass’ label. Elena frowned at it. Then her eyes widened.
“A Calming Tonic?”
“Of course. Did none of you think to use one?”
Aaron slapped his forehead. Sa’la looked around, startled.
“No—there are calming potions?”
“There are potions for everyone. These are decent. Put a few drops in each glass. More if need be. Adventurers and former [Soldiers] use them all the time. You can even mix them—the [Apothecary] I got them from is careful to make his medicines complimentary—with sleeping draughts. For someone small, one drop puts them right out, in warm liquid. No milk. Never milk. I use three drops myself, but I’m a bigger sort and a [Mage]…”
He shoved the vials into Elena and Malia’s arms. Startled, Elena looked at Telim.
The [High Mage] looked at Sidney with misty eyes. Instantly, Malia opened one of the vials.
“Sidney? Try a drop of this. It’s just a potion. Magic.”
The others were wary as she went around. But they had seen Harry Potter. And Elena had told Sidney this was like Hogwarts. So—as the girl who had been weeping drank the lemonade, her sobbing calmed. Some of the others looked at their mugs. And relief passed across their faces. Basil, rings under his eyes, asked for something different. Malia put two drops of the sleeping draught in his drink.
The young man from Bulgaria downed his cup. He massaged at the circles under his eyes—then he lay back in the sand and fell asleep.
“That should do for now. Ask for Vhedel; he can supply the rest. Your faction leaders should provide once they understand the need.”
A few minutes later, Telim was speaking to Elena and Aaron outside the room. Sa’la was listening and swearing as someone else recounted their tale.
But—Elena just looked at him. A frown crossed her face.
“Are there any side effects, High Mage? I’m grateful, but—will the others grow addicted to the drinks?”
“Addicted? Only in the sense that it helps. They might need higher dosages if they keep imbibing; tolerances. But why would I give them something addictive?”
Telim looked deeply offended by the suggestion. Elena blinked.
“I—no, I was just asking. Thank you, again.”
“It was…purely necessary. I had no idea, Miss Elena. I will speak to you at another time?”
The [High Mage] shook his head and cast one glance into the beach room as Elena nodded. Then he turned to Aaron.
“My sympathies, young man. Our world is not always kind. I forget that.”
He patted Aaron on the shoulder, leaving a bit of dried puke, and walked off. Aaron stared after Telim’s back.
“I thought that was a plot.”
Elena muttered. She looked at Aaron. He just shook his head.
“He was crying. And he threw up.”
“No. From hearing Sidney’s story?”
“Yep. Over there.”
It was still on the floor. A Golem was sweeping it up. Elena shook her head.
“I’m an idiot for not thinking of potions. I guess you just think there’s only healing potions and mana potions—those were the only real ones I used when I was back with Cara…”
She broke off, looking at Aaron. He hesitated. Elena was tight-lipped about her time with the [Popstar] of Terandria even with the other Earthers. She didn’t…trust him entirely.
Which was fair. Aaron shoved his hands into his pockets. He didn’t like mage’s robes, no matter how cool they looked. He kept tripping.
“Cara’s refused to send more of the Earthers. The Archmages keep trying to get me to get her to send them. They’re talking about sending—help.”
Elena pursed her lips.
“She’s not going to like that. Don’t get me wrong, Aaron. Blackmage. Cara was grateful for all the help you gave her.”
He had noticed the Singer of Terandria when her songs first began spreading. They had talked, using the magical phone connection. But Cara, like batman, and the mysterious ‘L’ had always been cagey about revealing her location or identity. The others had been found, brought here.
“I’m trying to help.”
Elena’s face softened at Aaron’s hurt look.
“I know. But you’re not the one Cara’s worried about. It’s…”
She waved her arms around to mean everything. Wistram Academy. Aaron frowned.
“They haven’t let us go. But they’re not evil, Elena. They rescued Sidney and the others, didn’t they?”
She chuckled mirthlessly.
“They found us, you mean? Most of us weren’t ‘saved’. You heard Basil. Adventurers saved him. Wistram just found him after everything was done. Do you think—nah. You couldn’t know what people think of Wistram.”
That stung. Aaron glared at her. The [Magictech Engineer] thought of his shock-glove and the orb.
“I think they can make a lot of good items. Or don’t you think one of my shock-gloves would have helped against those rats? Or Goblins?”
“Your Iron Man glove? Sure, it’s useful. But who says you’re going to get to use it, Aaron? They’ll never let us leave here.”
She sneered at him. Aaron hesitated.
“But they’re not…”
She poked at his chest.
“Believe me. They might be nice to use while we’re useful, Aaron. But we are not in control. Cara warned me it might be like that and I volunteered. Get it? She didn’t send me because I was useless. I’m her friend. And I’ve seen what magic—what power does to people.”
The [Beautician] took a deep, shuddering breath. And something like the look in Basil’s—Sidney’s eyes surfaced in her own.
“Cara found me. She saved me. You think rats and Goblins are the worst thing in the world, Aaron? At least you could kill those. If Saif had a real gun, he could kill them. But there are things worse than them.”
The young woman’s hand rose to her neck and fell away. Elena shuddered.
“I marched with Cara on a village out of hell. Ruled by an immortal [Witch]. I saw evil, Aaron. This? This is what Cara was afraid of. Powerful people, ruling the world and deciding how other people live or die.”
She turned away, shaking her head.
“For all we know, High Mage Telim is just playing us.”
“I don’t think so. I think he’s—he’s not a bad man. Not a good man either. He’s just a man. The [Mages] are just people, Elena.”
That was what Aaron believed. Telim had proven that. He wasn’t evil. Elena had seen evil, though. She looked doubtful.
“There are factions in Wistram, Aaron. Some seem better than the others and there are good people. But are any of them actually…good? How would we know? This place is made of secrets. Of the three Archmages in Wistram, I don’t like any of them. Feor and Naili both have their good sides. And bad sides.”
“I know. But at least we get food, potions.”
Aaron nodded. He stood with Elena, as Sa’la left the room, shaking her head and looking troubled. Then Blackmage had a thought.
She looked at him. The young man took a breath.
“There are four Archmages in Wistram right now, actually. But the last one’s…nasty.”
Therapy ended late in the night. The Earthers were escorted back by their guardians—or some were allowed more autonomy.
Wistram’s factions were indeed each unique. Some were large, comprised of thousands of members in the academy and across the world, like the Revivalists, Centrists, and Libertarians. The big three, as Aaron understood them. They had the most voting power in the Council, the most active Archmages…and they were thus more akin to a political party.
Even after leaving Wistram, a [Mage] might have ties to their party. But the smaller ones were…interesting. And some had different goals which were at odds with the lofty goals of the rest of Wistram.
The Aquais faction was one of the few factions that needed no introduction. Water-[Mages]. [Hydromancers], sea-specialists. But also—wind-mages. And they didn’t limit themselves to just those disciplines. The group invited anyone with a certain bent to their magic. Heck, they’d even take a [Pyromancer]—if they created art.
In My Dreams. Someone was singing a Broadway hit as Aaron stumbled through their corridors by chance. Artwork hung on the walls, arranged by theme, there were expensive rugs and carpets on the ground, some hand-sewn, and if you wandered around long enough, someone would be singing, or talking about poetry. A book they’d read.
At the moment, though—they were listening. A young man from Earth was singing Anastasia’s lines. His voice was a beautiful tenor. And though the line belonged to a female singer—he fit the part.
A group of [Mages] were dabbing at their eyes. They were everything from [Magic Painters] to [Battlemages], but ones who appreciated art. And small they might be, but they’d fought to have their one Earther.
It was funny. As Aaron paused in the open amphitheatre that the Aquais faction liked to use, he listened to the young man sing. Erik had been a stage hand. On Earth. Not blessed with a singing voice; he claimed to have had asthma and the wrong pitch for the stage. But with a few classes and [Expanded Lungs], look at him now.
Elena had helped with his stage makeup. The [Mages] burst into a murmur as the song finished.
“Exquisite. This kind of performance is what we need. Just like the Players of Celum. I told you all! One of my associates in Invrisil broadcast their performance. Very surreptitiously—but it’s the same thing. And you say you know…how many plays?”
“Dozens. At least. But I don’t know all the lines…”
Erik replied. The [Mages] sighed.
“Dead gods. If only…but we must put on a performance! The world deserves to see this! Let’s put it on the television.”
The leader of the faction, a [Pyromancer] with a flair for the dramatic rose to his feet. He cast out an arm as if envisioning himself on stage. The others nodded.
“The Archmages have a ban on putting…things from the academy, though.”
Another [Mage] opined. The [Pyromancer] caught himself—scowled.
“Damn them. What’s the point of keeping a secret? This deserves to be seen!”
The rest of his tiny faction nodded. They insisted Erik keep singing more songs, proffering tonics and potion for his throat. Erik basked in the limelight he’d waited for all his life. Aaron felt bad about interrupting him, but he had to.
“Erik. Sorry to interrupt you, Magus Idevin, but we need to borrow Erik. He promised to meet with us? Tonight?”
“What? Nonsense! It’s not—oh.”
The [Pyromancer] realized it was late. He blushed. He swept a hand across his head. He was, incidentally, Human. Not that it needed to be said in any case, but with Wistram [Mages], they were any species except Gnolls.
“We must have been listening for hours! We have work to do! We’ll reconvene tomorrow! Erik, do you need an escort? There were those dratted slimes that got loose…”
“I’ll be fine, Magus Idevin.”
“If you’re sure…”
Wistram wasn’t entirely safe. Magical experiments, things from other floors or previously-forgotten rooms sometimes crept out. But it was considered practice for most [Mages] and the Golems did their bit in exterminating most runaway experiments. So long as you stuck to the main corridors, the odds of you dying were one in a million. Most of the time.
“Thank you. Um—is there any trouble?”
Erik was flushed with excitement. He too had taken to this world and he wasn’t a member of the therapy circles. He just loved it here. Aaron wished he could be as happy as Erik, or Saif. But Elena colored his opinion of Wistram.
“No. It’s just a meeting. Bring your tablet, will you?”
“Sure. Just let me get it…”
As Erik hurried off, Aaron fended off more of the Aquais faction who wanted him to sing for them, recite poetry from his world, or describe movies. Not that he didn’t like them. Blackmage thought they had the right idea. Why not bring entertainment to this world? Well, some things were dangerous. But…movies?
“Excuse me! Excuse me, Idevin! Can I get a quick word?”
A Lizardgirl hopped past the [Mages] and plucked at the [Pyromancer]’s sleeve. The faction-head of the Aquais [Mages] looked around amiably—and then recoiled.
“Taxiela! You pest! Get away!”
He swatted at the Lizardgirl, who looked very young. She scurried back, tears in her eyes.
“But Magus Idevin! I just wanted—”
“Shoo! Shoo! The Ullsinoi are not welcome here after your last prank! You stole dozens of our artworks! And sold them!”
“I never did! I’m just an apprentice—sir!”
The Human man was raising his stave to bash Taxiela over the head. He realized it was a bad scene; those not in the know saw him menacing the Lizardgirl. He hesitated, coughed, lowered the stave.
“Your faction owes us gold. Heartbreak, Taxiela! And stop using that—that illusion!”
He was somewhat hesitant about calling her out. Taxiela—or the Centaur, Galei, were thought to be the same person. But they might be two different entities. Either way—he glared suspiciously at Taxiela.
“Everyone! Ullsinoi has come to call. Cast [See Invisibility] spells and watch out for illusions!”
The other [Mages] groaned and scattered. The higher-level ones began casting anti-Illusion spells and pinching each other, asking questions only the other would know.
It was something, to have a reputation like that. Even Aaron checked his pockets; the Ullsinoi faction wasn’t familiar to him. They had no Earthers—in Wistram, at least. They’d caused a stir with the soccer game. And they were known to cause mischief, sometimes on grand scales. It was rumored the incident with Ailendamus’ fleet had been caused by them.
That of course, meant that they also got into trouble quite a lot. Taxiela was not welcome here and half a dozen [Mages] were watching her, aiming wands or other artifacts at her. She looked terrified.
For about a second. Then she sneezed—
And Galei, a huge Centaur leaned on Idevin’s shoulder. The [Pyromancer] recoiled. But the Centaur laughed, friendly as you like.
“Idevin! Let’s let bygones be bygones. I apologize about the thefts, but that wasn’t my group. You know students. We punished them, but you have to admit, it was a great prank.”
“They stole artwork! Get off me, Galei! I don’t have time for your nonsense. If even so much as a hairpin goes missing from our rooms tonight, I’ll have the Council exile your entire faction! Viltach already wants your head.”
Idevin thrust the Centaur’s hands away. Galei trotted after him, spreading his arms.
“Idevin! Friend. I was just going to ask about that. He’s all up in arms over a few ships sinking. But did you agree with the naval blockade? It was blocking freedom of expression.”
“And your smuggling. Let’s not pretend the Elusive Lot wanted anything than keeping their criminal friends happy.”
The [Mage] snapped back. Galei shrugged.
“The point is that there’s this business with Viltach trying to get the Council to lean on us. The Aqauis have friends…we don’t have anyone in the Council.”
Idevin snapped, but he was listening. He frowned, glancing at Galei and then Aaron, who was still waiting for Erik.
“We have a few seats. But we’re not going up against the Libertarians for no reason.”
“What if I could promise I’d have a majority opposing old Viltach? You just need to vote with the others.”
The other [Mage] thought for half a moment and then shook his fiery hair.
“Forget it. You lot have been causing too much trouble. The last thing your faction did was steal from us. We owe you nothing. If you’ll excuse me—”
He walked off, and three [Mages] blocked Galei. The Centaur put a hand out, calling after Idevin. Then—he took a breath. And Aaron saw his eyes twinkle.
“Turn, hellhound! Turn!”
The [Illusionist]’s voice roared across the hallway. Idevin whirled. The Centaur walked through the three [Mages]. And suddenly, a figure stood in the hallway.
A Human man. He was tall, dressed in Victorian-era clothes, colorful, a rapier at his side. Erik, hurrying out of his rooms with his tablet and Aaron both stared.
Macbeth, or rather, the [Mage] playing him, was wounded across the shoulder, bloody in two spots. But his eyes gleamed with madness. He drew his sword, and a second figure appeared across from him.
Galei, now adorned in battle-gear, held a sword and shield. He was playing Macduff. Yerzhen, another of the Elusive Lot, pointed his sword at Galei and intoned with weary resignation.
“Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get thee back. My soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.”
Galei scowled, and his voice was rough as he lifted his sword. He stared at Macbeth with all the hatred in the world.
“I have no words.
My voice is in my sword. Thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out!”
The two charged at each other, attacking, parrying, and the other [Mages] scattered in alarm.
“What’s going on? Galei, stop this at once!”
Idevin cried out in horror. But the two were locked in mortal combat. Still—it was an act. They were flourishing, the Centaur pressing the Human man back with vicious cuts. Idevin raised his glowing staff, frowning darkly.
“I said stop—”
He was about to blast both with fire, but Erik grabbed his arm.
“Magus Idevin! It’s a play! Macbeth!”
“What? But I thought you didn’t remember—”
The [Mages] stared. Then the Aquais faction turned. The two [Illusionists] locked in mortal combat froze.
The air darkened. And a third figure stepped out of the air. Taxiela again. Had this been one [Mage]? Or three? The Lizardgirl bowed, adorned in a mimicry of the same dress as the two men. She swept a cap from her head and bowed as Aaron stared.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Aquais faction! Prithee, how did we camest to this sad tale of two men locked in mortal combat? The answer lies at the start of our play, of dark prophecy and ambition!”
Her eyes twinkled. Taxiela straightened from her bow.
“The Ullsinoi factions presents: Macbeth. A play from Earth, transcribed in full by our own lovely people from Earth! A full play, one of over a dozen.”
More of the Ullsinoi Faction appeared out of the air. Not [Invisible]; they’d been hiding behind plinths, in rooms. Younger [Mages], bedecked in costume and the Elusive Lot. The Aquais faction jumped, caught off-guard by this ambush.
One of the [Mages] began before she was handed a neatly-bound script. She stared at the embossed title.
Of course, the entire play. The half-Elf slowly began paging through it, staring at the lines and stage directions. As set down by Erin Solstice for the Players of Celum and then given to Palt. But no one here knew that. Galei’s eyes twinkled as he trotted backwards. Taxiela appeared beside Idevin.
“I heard you were having trouble recreating some plays, Idevin. What sort of friends would we be if we didn’t help out? Consider this play on the house. We’ve been practicing, actually. Places!”
The Ullsinoi faction spread out for the play, and one of the [Illusionists] conjured a dark curtain. The Aquais-mages were magnetically drawn into their seats.
“You have an entire play? But Erik couldn’t remember…we were going to ask for help with recollection spells, but how did you—”
“Ah, well, he’s an aspiring [Actor], isn’t he? Whereas we have someone with a delightful memory Skill.”
Taxiela’s tail swished merrily. She waved her hand and a number of bound sheafs of paper danced out of her bag of holding.
“Feast your eyes on this, Idevin.”
Hamlet, Othello, My Fair Lady—all of the plays hung in the air around the stunned [Pyromancer]. He stared at them as the play began. And Taxiela winked at Aaron. She turned to the head of the Aquais faction.
“Now, we’ve been friends for ages, Idevin. And obviously…we owe you a debt about the theft thing. So why don’t we have a chat about that little vote? Oh, and if you like this—we actually have an in with the Players of Celum. We could have their costume designer make copies for you…? Have you read this play, by any chance?”
The Aquais faction never stood a chance. As Aaron hurried away with Erik, he heard one of the Aquais [Mages] ask plaintively—
“Is this from that Joseph boy?”
And that question weighed on Aaron Vanwell’s mind as well. Whatever the case—information was power. And the Ullsinoi faction was using their Earther for all he was worth.
“When I left—it was 2018. When Cara left, it was 2017. Eun swears it was the end of 2016, but he and I both arrived barely a week apart. Erik. Show everyone your tablet.”
In a private room, hidden from even the watchful eyes of [Mages], Elena sat at a small table with half a dozen other Earthers. Erik hesitantly showed his tablet around. The others stared at the screen and then swore or exclaimed.
“That can’t be right!”
Jacques shot to his feet. He grabbed at his hair.
“That’s a lie. You’re not serious.”
“I am. I was singing from Anastasia. The Broadway show. Haven’t any of you heard of it?”
One of them had. Haley, a girl from Connecticut, raised her hand. The [Squire], who had been found training in one of Terandria’s knight-orders looked around.
“Sure did. It came out in my state. But that was 2016. That proves nothing.”
Erik looked at her.
“Yes. But it came to Germany, Stuttgart, in 2018. That was where I watched it.”
The others fell silent. Aaron leaned on the table.
“It’s 2016. That was when I left.”
“We’re all coming from different times. The question is—why is time different? Late, late 2016 is Aaron. Everyone else comes from later in time. That means whatever began grabbing us started in 2016. Listen everyone, we don’t have long until our factions come looking for us. We have to accept that it’s now around 2019 in our world. Earth.”
Elena raised her voice over the other’s voices. Aaron heard panic, and felt it too. Time was passing.
“Prove it! At least—prove it, Erik! You can say you were in 2018, but do you have any proof?”
The young man from Germany nodded. He looked at Elena.
“I—I don’t know a lot of politics. Or world events. There were big things happening. But this is my best proof. You all listen to pop, yeah?”
Some of the others shook their heads. A few looked disgusted, but most had listened to popular songs. Erik nodded. He tapped on his tablet.
“This song came out in 2019. It was very popular. If you were around then—you would have heard it. Listen—”
The song began to play. Aaron heard a guitar strumming. A voice singing. He started.
Old Town Road. And he was certain, certain he hadn’t heard that song before. Why? Because he liked this music and he would have had it on his iPhone if it had existed. This was a new song.
Of course, that wasn’t proof. The others demanded to hear new songs. Erik’s playlist was incomplete; he only had songs he liked. But he played another one that someone recognized. Another new song. Then Taylor Swift’s new music came from Haley’s iPhone.
“I still don’t believe it. Do you have anything from Imagine Dragons? Really? Play it!”
Julian demanded. At some point it just became the other Earthers sharing their favorite songs. More than one began demanding a copy of the new songs.
“Anyone got a dongle?”
“A what? Hey, who has a computer?”
“I think George has one. I’ll borrow it and sync everything up.”
The others were talking when Aaron raised his wand. The tip flashed brightly and everyone looked at him.
“Let’s copy music later, everyone. The point is that time is fucked. But that’s not all. Elena?”
“Yeah. We’ve discovered a number of things about this world.”
The young woman inhaled. She was saving the worst for last. This meeting in privacy, in this blank, off-green room was secret from every faction. Aaron had…found it. Or rather, he’d known it was here and told no one. Not even Nailihuaile. Even the tracking spells would fail to follow them here.
It was where he’d hidden a number of artifacts. The floor pulled up. But even Elena didn’t know that. Aaron shifted, deliberately not looking at the place where the invisible latch it had taken him six hours to find was. It was the size of your pinkie and he’d never found it otherwise. Even magic couldn’t detect it.
But he’d been told it was there.
“Listen up. This world is strange. I’ve been working with Andrea and George and a few others. And the [Mages] might not believe—but their world defies normal physics. For one thing, we’ve measured as best we can and we think this world is three times as large as Earth.”
More murmurs. But this was a sharing of information. Elena waved a hand as she produced a map. The ends of the world were clearly marked and she scowled at it.
“Something is wrong with this world. Gravity should be crushing us if this world really is larger than Earth. Or just the people from Earth. But it doesn’t. That means…gravity is being affected by magic? This world isn’t larger than Earth?”
“It’s hollow. Think sci-fi.”
That came from Jacques. Another person raised his hand.
One of the others translated as the young man from China asked questions. He and Xiang had arrived with a group of Chinese students and he was their representative. Fortunately, a number of the people were bilingual or had taken language classes.
“One continent is the size of Eurasia. According to the maps. Shun, this big. This is China.”
Elena drew on the map to show Shun and he recoiled, shaking his head. She nodded.
“It’s a fact. There are hundreds of maps and unless we’re being lied to—all the measurements are in damn miles, though. This is in kilometers.”
She’d done the calculations by hand. A girl from Russia snapped.
“Why. Do. They. Measure. In. MILES!?”
She had been an [Archer]. The others muttered in vexation. America accounted for a good number of Earthers, but the rest of the world was…the rest of the world.
However, that actually made Elena cool down a bit. The [Beautician] raised her hand. And she looked around, meeting everyone’s eyes.
“That’s easy. Someone came here before us. Someone from a country using the imperial system. Chess existed before we came here. We’re not the first.”
“How sure are you, Elena?”
Haley leaned on the table. Elena shrugged.
“How else can you explain everything? People speak English. But they also know Latin—some of the [Mages] think its magical language. They use miles. Who’d come up with that exact measurement? They even have expressions from our world. At some point, there was crossover. I don’t know how or in what way—but I think that’s a safe explanation.”
The others looked at each other. There was so much they couldn’t confirm. Shun checked his watch. He spoke in broken English.
“We are here for—twenty minutes. Time to go?”
“My faction’s going to be looking for me. I have to go, Elena. Are you sure this place is safe?”
“Once we use the door, we’ll appear elsewhere. Right, Aaron?”
The young man nodded.
“This is secret. Tell no one. We have two things left. Elena will start with the first.”
Elena took a deep breath. She was visibly upset now, and the others fell silent, sensing it. Elena glanced at Erik and he clenched his hands.
“Yeah. You’re not going to like this. We shouldn’t tell the others, especially the kids. But—Erik? What was the news in 2019, when you left?”
The German [Actor] hesitated. He bit his lip.
“There were…it is in the news. All over. Many things have happened on Earth. But this? It started small. But people think it’s a conspiracy. There was nearly a war…”
Haley demanded. For answer, Erik looked at Elena. He didn’t want to say it. She took a deep breath.
“There are…missing people posters. All over. People noticed kids were going missing. It’s just rumors at this point. But there are cases of people going missing in airports.”
“There’s a video in Melbourne. Security footage. One second everyone’s there—the next—dozens are missing. And more. There are names…I saw lists. Many families looking for their children. People think it’s a government. Or aliens.”
“Or the Rapture.”
Elena snorted. But Erik was pale-faced. This was the truth. The others looked at each other in horror.
“Oh god. It’s been two years. My parents!”
A girl spoke up. Her face was white. She turned to Erik.
“My family is Walczak. From Warsaw? Did you see them? Are they—?”
The young man backed up as the room was filled with everyone asking questions about their family. He raised his hands.
“I’m sorry! I don’t know! I’m sorry! It’s just lists. It’s just a conspiracy—”
“Don’t they know we’re missing? What kind of idiots are in the government that they can’t see the pattern?”
“They probably think it’s another world power. Or damn aliens. Who suspects magic?”
“They should be able to detect it! Isn’t anyone looking? The FBI—”
“Two thousand people go missing every day.”
“On security footage? Bullshit! Shut up, I’ll kill you—”
Aaron shouted. Elena looked at him. The others calmed down. Aaron wished Telim had given him some more calming potions. He needed them.
“That’s all Erik knows. Don’t bother him. And don’t tell the others. There’s nothing we can do. Unless we get access to a way to communicate with Earth—we can do nothing.”
“But we have to tell them we’re here. Alive.”
Haley whispered. The others nodded. They looked at Aaron.
“Blackmage. Can you hack the phones? We’ve got computers. Other electronics.”
Aaron Vanwell felt the pressure of so many expectations. He shook his head, his shoulders slumping.
“I’ve tried. All I can do is create a fake network. There’s a resonance between phones. I hijacked that to talk to everyone the first time. I can do it again—Wistram is trying to boost the signal. But there’s nothing from home.”
Because they were in another world. You could expand the signal to go thousands of miles. But how could you make it cross dimensions? Or whatever separated them? Aaron had to believe—the answer lay at a higher level.
“We’re trying. For now, we’ll meet up again. Remember, keep it secret. Don’t tell anyone with loose lips. No [Mages] know about this. We’re in this together. We’re not in different factions. We’re from Earth.”
Elena went around the room, and the others nodded. Some were doubtful; perhaps the word would get out. But they had to try.
“Aaron, you said you had one last thing to bring up. What is that?”
Jacques looked at Aaron. The [Engineer] took a deep breath.
“I’m—there might be one ally in Wistram. At least, someone we can trust. He helped me find this room. I’ve been asking around, but I can’t find a trace of him. If any of you sees him—let me know.”
“Who is it? A [Mage]?”
“No. I think he’s a ghost. Of an Archmage.”
The others fell silent. Elena’s eyes narrowed slowly.
“You didn’t tell me that, Aaron. When did you meet him?”
“During the winter.”
A few of the others looked up slowly. Haley leaned forwards.
“I haven’t seen ghosts. And I’ve seen a lot of weird things. But no talking paintings or ghosts. Yet. [Necromancers] are banned in Wistram, or so I hear.”
“Yeah. That might be why he’s hiding. But if you meet him—you’ll know.”
A few raised eyebrows. Shun raised one hand.
“What’s his name?”
Blackmage glanced up. He spoke the name.
The others looked blank. They promised to look out for him. Or check the history books. But that was the funny thing. Aaron was aware that even Wistram’s history books didn’t go back beyond the tens of thousands of years at most. But he’d searched for all this time. And he’d never seen the man’s name before. But he’d known about the secret study and this place.
So what else could he be? Elena stared at Aaron’s face as the others began to leave the room. And she shivered.
Those were the things Earthers did. Plot in secret, have fun, work on their projects, and study magic or their passions. What else were they to do?
In a way, they were doing what all [Mages] did at Wistram. And if they weren’t allowed to leave—they were treated well. Elena wanted to leave.
But she was a minority. The others would love to leave, to see the wondrous sights or have an adventure—but only for a while. Wistram, as a place to live, was rather fine.
Telim explained it to Aaron the next day. He was having a rather large breakfast. Elena was speaking to a [Gravitationist], a [Mage] interested in testing her solar theories.
“Rather wonderful, these. What do you call them?”
“Nasi goreng. That’s the rice stuff. And the—uh—quesadilla stuff is aloo paratha.”
The man glanced down at what Aaron described as ‘quesadillas’. Which nearly made the Punjabi [Cook] throw down with him at that very second. It was actually a flatbread stuffed with a spicy potato interior, served with pickle, butter, yogurt—
“Mmf. It is tasty. Very…Chandrarian, one feels. They like these flatbreads.”
Telim was stuffing himself. He ate well; the buffets served to the [Mages] had no limits and Wistram Academy paid for the best foodstuffs. Aaron himself felt full.
“Uh, High Mage Telim, so as I was saying—you really haven’t left Wistram? Ever?”
The big [Mage] waved one hand lazily. He floated some more of the rice over and arranged it on his plate. A spoon rose and he let it feed him while talking.
“I visited First Landing and a few other cities over the years. But I’ve been a Wistram-[Mage] all my life. I was from Baleros, you know. My family sent me here and, well, once I graduated, I spent a year working at a Mage’s Guild on a port city in Terandria. Hated it. I came back here and never left again.”
“Why? Didn’t you want to explore?”
The man nearly sprayed rice over Aaron.
“Explore? My dear Blackmage, the world is a dangerous place! As if young Sidney didn’t know that…how is she, by the way?”
“Good. The sleeping tonic really helped. And the calming one. She actually didn’t take her light wand with her this morning.”
Although then she’d panicked and ran back to get it. But Telim’s smile was enough to justify the white lie.
“Good. That’s good. And as to answer your question, young man—I had dreams, of course! I wanted to be an adventurer. But—I was mugged while working at the Mage’s Guild. Jumped. I didn’t have a protection spell on and someone cracked me over the head and left me for dead. And my bed was never as comfortable as it was here. I also earned far less money since I had to spend on food, lodging, travel…”
He heaved a huge sigh.
“No, it wasn’t for me. Now, tourism I can get behind. But Wistram is much safer than the outside world. Food is practically free, and I can earn a comfortable living without needing to constantly work or send [Message] spells all day like some kind of cast-mule.”
He shuddered. Aaron looked at him curiously.
To his understanding, Telim was essentially the equivalent of a…college professor with tenure, to use an example from the American school system. He was an established [Mage] with a lot of connections and a place on Wistram’s Council. He was active politically, but Aaron didn’t see how he was allowed to stay here.
“Does Wistram allow any [Mage] to just…stay, High Mage Telim?”
“Goodness no! We’re rather strict about it, to be honest. I had to work hard to earn my place. But now I’ve done that…I can coast, if I’m honest. I’m a [High Mage]—that’s a generalist, to you—and I do some enchanting work. The academy is happy if I produce five Speak-Quills per month. See?”
He proffered the magical quill he made and gave to Wistram to earn his keep. Aaron glanced at it.
“What does it do?”
“Place it on the table—here. And see.”
Telim’s eyes twinkled. Aaron did that. He saw the quill balance, perfectly upright on the table. Sa’la moved her plates out of the way with a sigh.
“Um, High Mage Telim, I don’t see—”
Um, High Mage Telim, I don’t see—the quill instantly copied down Aaron’s words in a neat scrawl. He blinked.
“It’s just a bit of magic. The stupid thing needs to be reset each line, but they do sell well. Last about a year—or four months if you’re using it every day. My own design on the enchantment. You see? And like that, I earned my place here.”
Telim plucked the quill up as it copied Blackmage’s words. He put the quill away dismissively. And Aaron understood.
Telim was a [Mage]. He studied, and made artifacts. But what he really was was…a resident of Wistram. He didn’t want to leave.
He was the exact opposite of someone like Archmage Nailihuaile. She had grand ambitions for Earth’s technology. She wanted to amass more power, to make Wistram more powerful. She had connections abroad.
But the sedentary Telim was actually the largest faction in Wistram, spread across the other factions. The [Mages] who thought everything was pretty good and enjoyed their life as it was. And why not? Wistram Academy ran on secrets because it didn’t lack for food, or other resources.
Loafers. Idlers. People content to live and influence the world without rocking the boat. There was something almost addictive about the idea to Aaron.
Right up until Elena leaned over.
“So, you don’t feel that there’s any need to help, say, people in a family, high Mage?”
The man turned to look at her. He raised both brows.
“Miss Elena, Wistram sends its agents to do good the world over. I myself don’t participate, but I’ve voted to intercede in any number of issues. We oppose the King of Destruction, warmongers, and all their ilk.”
“But surely this good can be spread around.”
Elena gestured at the buffet. Telim gave her a blank look.
“And it will be. But do we need to starve while that happens?”
“That’s not what I—”
Sa’la waved a fork as she ate breakfast. The Selphid smiled at Elena and gestured around the vast dining hall.
“Miss Elena, we are an academy. Our job is to study and create magic that benefits the world. We are not a nation. We don’t take sides, except against those who would just destroy. Like Flos Reimarch. But Wistram is an international institution. We can’t be biased in favor of one nation. That’s how the Council works; we come from all walks of life and only by communal vote do we act. Take Ailendamus versus the Dawn Concordat for instance…”
She went on. Wistram was international. A place without ties to any one nation. Looked at another way, ‘international’ meant that you didn’t stand for anything except yourself.
That was sometimes how Aaron felt with some of the mages. But at that moment—Beatrice, the Dullahan [Runemistress] appeared at the table.
“High Mage Telim. Aaron’s presence is requested by Archmage Nailihuaile.”
“Oh? Well, I supposed you’d better go. Give Naili my best.”
Telim waved Aaron off. The young man got up.
“What does Naili want? I’m still working on the boat…”
“Not that. She wants you immediately. It’s private.”
Beatrice never smiled. She was an important member of the Revivalists, and a secret-broker, someone who bought and sold valuable secrets. She and Montressa du Valeross had run their business when Aaron had first come here.
However. Beatrice had lost a…lover. Calvaron. Aaron didn’t know the story; Montressa hadn’t ever told him the entire thing. But the long and short was that the Dullahan hated [Necromancers] with a passion. And she was even more foul-tempered of late. She had called Montressa a traitor.
“Uh—Beatrice, where are we going?”
“The Archmage’s Wing.”
She looked at him. Aaron gulped.
The Archmage’s Wing was a name for a section of Wistram taken over by the Archmages. It was meant for their projects, not their living spaces.
In the past, it would have been on the higher floors. But the higher levels were sealed. To go higher, one had to pass Cognita’s ‘test’.
And the Truestone Golem had killed every [Mage] ever to attempt to challenge her.
She was, in fact, waiting at the door. Beatrice and Aaron froze as the giant, stone woman looked at them.
Cognita’s mouth moved. Her eyes fixed on Aaron. She was made of stone, but even her dress moved as she walked. Truestone, a relic of Archmage Zelkyr’s power. No [Mage] was truly ever comfortable about her; as Elena had said, Golems could be said to rule Wistram while Cognita guarded the higher floors.
“Aaron Vanwell. Your presence is requested.”
“Cognita. I am bringing him to Archmage Nailihuaile—”
Beatrice actually backed up as Cognita stepped forwards. The golem towered over both Dullahan and Human; she was eight feet tall. And her face seldom changed.
“Another Archmage requests his presence.”
“Who? Archmage Viltach and Archmage Feor both—”
Beatrice knew who Cognita must be talking about and froze. Cognita looked at her.
“Archmage Amerys has not been formally stripped of her position by Wistram’s Council. In accordance with Wistram law, I will convey her requests. Even if she is currently being held in captivity.”
The Dullahan [Runemistress] gulped. So did Aaron. He didn’t like Amerys. But she had summoned him and Cognita had borne her request. Beatrice raised one finger.
“Amerys is a traitor to the academy—”
“She is an Archmage of Wistram until the gathered [Mages] strip her of that honor. Your opinion does not change the truth.”
Cognita’s voice did not rise. Nor did her face change. But she spoke in such a way that Beatrice’s words were run over, smashed flat, and ignored. The Dullahan backed up. Cognita looked at Aaron.
“I have conveyed her message. Be about your business, Aaron Vanwell.”
She nodded and walked off. Aaron saw Beatrice glaring at Cognita’s back. The Dullahan was holding onto the wand at her side under her robes. But Cognita hadn’t cared.
Beatrice muttered after a second. Aaron followed her.
The doors to the Archmage’s Wing were sealed unless you had a magical key. Even Cognita didn’t have one—but somehow, Blackmage thought that if she really wanted in, the doors wouldn’t stop her.
But Beatrice let Aaron into a silent part of Wistram. Only a few [Mages] were allowed in here. And most were gathered in a dark room.
Large pictures were hung on the walls. On canvases, hanging or hovering in the air for the audience to inspect.
They were in theory paintings, but they were more like pictures. Magic had copied the images, and a [Paint Mage] had replicated them with spells. Aaron took one look at them and recoiled.
They were of Antinium. Huge, massive insectile forms sat in their Hives, surrounded by drones and soldier-ants. Queens. Each shot showcased the innards of the Hive, or something interesting. An Azure Antinium, a giant winged one speaking up to a broken Queen—a little Worker trundling a huge cart of food to another Queen—
“Ah, Aaron! You’re here. Thank you, Beatrice.”
Archmage Nailihuaile turned and smiled brightly. Beatrice bowed stiffly, holding her head in her hands.
“Archmage Naili, Cognita was waiting outside the wing. Amerys has summoned Aaron Vanwell.”
The Star Lamia froze for a second. Her magical staff—an artifact of her people, tapped on the ground.
Other figures in the audience turned. Archmage Feor, his hair white, frowned. The half-Elf was among the oldest of Wistram’s members by far. Naili hesitated, her slitted, lizard-like eyelids flickering.
“Cognita said that? Darn. I guess Aaron will have to go. Later. It’s better than getting into an argument with Cognita. You know how she is. You’ll take him, Beatrice. I’ll send word.”
“Come here, Aaron. How are you doing? Thanks for helping with the presentations the other day, by the way. I loved Elena throwing the canvasses. And Saif made everyone so upset. I got all kinds of complaints, but if he won, he won, right? Did you have a good breakfast?”
Archmage Nailihuaile was a social being. Like many Lizardfolk, really. She chattered. Aaron answered her distractedly as he made his way to an inner circle of three.
“Yes, Archmage Naili. Uh—Saif says he’d like to keep running the simulations, but he needs more ammunition.”
“Well, we’re having it made and we can always enchant more of those canisters. Let’s do it. And it’s good practice for the idiots who think they can walk around on a battlefield!”
Naili grinned. She’d been one of the first people to test Saif’s skills and he hadn’t ever managed to hit her. The Archmage had seen actual combat.
“The question is whether these ‘battles’ would mimic reality in any meaningful way. [Mages] don’t need to dodge. Our [Barrier] spells would block bullets.”
Archmage Viltach snorted impatiently. Naili rolled her eyes as Feor made room for Blackmage. Aaron stood among three Archmages of Wistram. He was the first Earther. And as such—they often summoned him and him alone.
“Viltach, if any of the stories from Earth are true, that’s the smallest weapon they have. And most of our idiots don’t even make all-encompassing shields.”
“It wastes mana and weakens the field.”
“Well, don’t say ‘our shields can block bullets’ when Saif shoots your Libertarians in the ass.”
The Lamia smiled smugly at Viltach’s dark expression. Before he could respond, Feor cleared his throat.
“Simulations of higher-grade weapons are unavailable as well, Viltach, Nailihuaile. Let us just take this as a lesson that our [Battlemages] need more practice on the actual battlefield. These…simulations provide entertainment, if nothing else.”
“In that we are agreed. Lend Saif to my faction, Nailihuaile.”
“Bite me, Viltach. Give us Eun for two days and I’ll give you Saif for one game.”
“That is not equitable—”
“Saif’s got his games. What have your Earthers come up with?”
The two bickering Archmages fell silent as Feor’s eyes flashed. The half-Elf’s presence was stronger than both Viltach and Naili’s. Even Aaron could tell that. Although Naili had her staff, which equalized any matchup.
And the Archmages did fight. Not often, but it had happened. Aaron had heard that when the three confronted Amerys she had called down a storm of lightning bolts across Wistram’s exterior. And that had just been the opening salvo.
But the three were united, at least in this. Feor gestured at the paintings.
“Aaron Vanwell. Good morning. Do you know what these pictures are?”
Aaron stared up at the images of the Antinium.
“…The interiors of the Hives?”
The Human Archmage folded his arms in distaste. He shook his head, repulsed by the image of the gigantic Queens.
“Yes. All six of them. They are viewing the Wistram…television.”
He pronounced the words awkwardly. Naili smiled.
“WNN. Wistram News Network!”
“I thought we agreed to call it World Wide News.”
“The point is that our…access…runs two ways. We have limited our observation. Rumors are already spreading. But we have obtained these images of the interiors of the Antinium Hives. As well as other valuable information.”
The Archmages nodded at each other. Aaron shifted. But for this, he might have dismissed Elena’s fears out of hand. But this—essentially—was everything conspiracy theories were made of in his world.
Wistram watched through the scrying orbs. Blackmage hadn’t suggested this. He’d objected—hard, in fact. But the [Mages] had been delighted by the idea.
“It seems Niers Astoragon, the heads of the Four Great Companies, among others, have found out. And word is spreading from ruler to ruler. We are denying allegations of course, but this is costing us politically. I’ve been smoothing feathers in Terandria. Those damn [Illusionists] did not help.”
Viltach informed the others. The two nodded absently.
“I consider it worth the cost considering we got this. But let’s scale back the observation, shall we? The Seer of Steel has already lodged a formal complaint. We don’t need him making it public…”
“We will be more covert. However, this…Aaron Vanwell. Tell us more about the ability of your devices. The camera functions.”
The three Archmages turned to Aaron. And there it was. He gulped.
“Um—what about them? I’ve showed you the video and camera functions.”
“If…we were to teleport a device into a room. Like the Grand Queen’s Hive—how covert would it be?”
Viltach studied Aaron. And Blackmage was sure they were casting [Detect Lies]. He didn’t need to lie, though. The truth was the truth.
“I…don’t know how you’d see the screen.”
“We can’t send the information back here?”
“Maybe with a call? But you’d have to access the phone. And keep it charged on the other end.”
“Could we…set it to record, send it over, and see what it picks up?”
The young man shrugged.
“Maybe with audio? I guess that works.”
The three Archmages conferred.
“…Not much better than an eavesdropping spell.”
“But they won’t pick it up with magic. That Azure Antinium was onto us, I’m convinced. Xrn the Small Queen.”
Feor stared long at the image of Xrn. Where Naili was interested and antagonistic and Viltach just disgusted, Feor looked…interested.
“…Yes. An accomplished spellcaster. But the point remains. Can the Antinium pick up this…device, Aaron Vanwell?”
“I don’t know. If the screen is on it’d be obvious. Aside from that, it’ll be just…quiet. Unless someone calls it or there’s an alarm on it.”
Naili tapped her staff on the ground, thinking.
“Seems risky. I don’t like it. Let’s not tip our claws, boys.”
The other two looked at her.
“It is possible the Antinium could sense the electricity in the device. I cast my vote against as well, Viltach.”
“It’s worth the risk! If the other three Archmages were here—”
“Once we get them here. They’re missing all the fun with Earth.”
Naili’s eyes glittered. Viltach nodded curtly. He looked back at the images of the Antinium and cursed.
“Well—what do we do with these?”
“Give them to the Drakes. They are still the best images of what the Hives look like by far. And some of the information we have recorded…is intriguing.”
Feor stroked at his white beard. He stared at Garry, with the poofy hat on his head, frowning with obvious confusion. Viltach just shook his head.
“That damned Reinhart. She’s depreciated the value of this information considerably with her stunt.”
“We have estimates of the other Hives. But I agree; this isn’t the landmark thing we wanted. And the Drakes will ask if we’ve been watching them. Which we have. I vote not to send.”
“Me as well. Let’s observe until we have something worth more. If the information leaks, the Antinium will stop using the orbs, Feor. And the Drakes have loose lips.”
The half-Elf Archmage sighed, but he had been overruled in this new vote. The three turned away from the painting and their followers backed up.
“Very well. Onto more pressing matters, then. This issue of the Golden Triangle.”
The three Archmages paused. Naili sighed.
“The Elusive Lot have been up to their tricks. I hear word’s spreading from Pallass. Grand Strategist Chaldion is crying the alarm. We can’t pretend ignorance. It’s time to act.”
Viltach just looked blank. He sighed.
“A high-ranking Drake? It would have been easier to let the Golden Triangle bleed some of the more objectionable idiots dry.”
“It’s going to destabilize the economy, Viltach. I was hoping the King of Destruction would get onto it—but I think the Ullsinoi objected.”
“Those idiots. We need to put a leash on them.”
He looked around for support, but Feor waved an ambivalent hand. Naili shook her head.
“You do it with the Council’s vote. I’m not having them causing actual trouble. We need to jump on this, Viltach. Feor?”
“Agreed. It’s caused enough trouble.”
The two Archmages turned to Blackmage as Viltach gritted his teeth. Two non-Humans versus one Human. He had been talking about summoning the other Archmages—probably to win more of these votes, Aaron guessed.
But Feor was now fixing Aaron with a silvery gaze and the young man gulped. Feor had not been pleased by his defection. Still, his voice was level.
“Aaron Vanwell. Are you sure this is a fraud attempt by a fellow Earther? Our agents have investigated, and there is no evidence these adventurer teams exist. Ullsinoi is sure, but we must be absolutely sure when we speak as Wistram Academy.”
“I’m—I’m sure, Archmage Feor. Elena, all the others agree. It’s a pyramid scheme. It’s one of us doing it. Probably. I’d put money on it.”
“Better that than this scheme. You heard him, Feor. Today?”
The half-Elf passed a hand over his face. He sighed, wearily.
“Today. Let us contact…Sir Relz and Noass.”
The two Archmages looked at Nailihuaile. And like that, they were done with Aaron. Beatrice took him away as they turned to discussing Jecrass.
“King Raelt will fall. The question is: do we rescue him or let him fight to the last? Does Chandrar need martyrs?”
“Flos has killed hundreds of martyrs. I vote we try to help…”
The Archmages were like that. Schemers. Even if it was cheerfully like Naili—they made decisions that impacted the world. The very definition of the Illuminati, really. Aaron wanted to believe they weren’t evil people.
But that wasn’t the point, was it? What Elena hated was the idea of anyone having that kind of power.
This world was made of levels and classes, though. One person having more power was how this world worked. You had to remember that. And if you had no power?
The Fourth Archmage of Wistram sat in a cell. Her arms and legs were bound in a type of magical straightjacket. Chains had been attached to her legs and body, and the bars on her cell were almost unnecessary.
But they were still there, and the two [Mages] guarding Archmage Amerys at every moment were not happy to let Aaron talk with her.
Beatrice told them, and that was that. They had orders not to let anyone but an Archmage see Amerys. Her captivity was a secret in Wistram. Some of the highest-ranking [Mages] knew, but the public did not.
She sat there, eyes burning, gagged as well. That was new.
“Why’s she gagged?”
“She bit the fingers off one of the [Mages] serving her food. You want to speak to her? You have to remove the gag. She’s tied up even more now. But watch out.”
The half-Elf grimaced. Aaron stared at her.
Then, with great trepidation, he approached Amerys. She stared up at him. Her mouth was bound, but he thought she was smiling.
“Archmage? I’m going to remove your gag. Please don’t bite me.”
She made no move. Slowly, Blackmage untied the gag around her mouth. He saw the Archmage move—
Amerys’ teeth snapped together and the young man fell onto his back, scrambling away with a shout. The two [Mages] raised their staffs, but the lightning-mage just laughed. And then coughed.
She hadn’t really gone for his fingers. But as Blackmage had observed—Archmage Amerys was sort of a jerk.
“Talk to me, boy.”
That was all she said. The Archmage of Chandrar coughed as Aaron slowly approached. One of the [Mages] motioned.
“She can have water. But don’t let her drink out of anything but this.”
A wood straw in a wood cup. Aaron eyed Amerys. She grinned at him.
“Lightning runs in my body. I would have killed Viltach if this room wasn’t shockproof. I spat water at him.”
He shuddered. Amerys was dangerous. Unlike Viltach, or Feor, who were more academics, Amerys had gained her levels from war. Even Nailihuaile didn’t compare. He slowly offered her the cup.
“Please don’t spit.”
She drank from the straw, coughed again.
“Don’t worry, boy. I’m not interested in your life. I wouldn’t have anyone else to talk to, anyways. Cognita lets me summon you. Not the others.”
“I think the Archmages wouldn’t like that.”
Elena would love to talk to Amerys, but Feor would flip. Amerys nodded, grinning. Her skin was dark; she was native Chandrarian, and her eyes seemed to sparkle even in her magical cuffs.
“I know. But what does Cognita want, hm? That’s the only question that matters.”
The two [Mages] and Beatrice all shifted uncomfortably. Aaron looked at Amerys.
“Are you…doing well?”
She sighed. And some of the edge faded from her tone. She sat back, more comfortably, and spoke to Aaron as he served her some of the food. It wasn’t dried bread and nothing else; it was this morning’s rice. Wistram wasn’t monstrous. The bindings were mostly because Amerys kept attacking her captors.
“I haven’t gone crazy yet, bratling. And I could leave here at any time. If I renounce my lord, turn my back on Reim, and swear in blood to serve only the academy.”
Her tone made it clear she’d rather go crazy first. Aaron sat there.
“My name’s Aaron Vanwell.”
She stared at him. The young man felt annoyed. He’d told her every visit and she refused to even remember it.
“I don’t have to come here. Is politeness dead on Chandrar?”
The lightning mage laughed at him. Her eyes focused on him, and the pupils were unnervingly intense.
“You want me to remember your name, boy? Earn that right. You’re a child who hasn’t seen war. You don’t know what the world outside of Wistram is. Tell me—have your comrades told you what they endured to get here? Feor tells me there are more, every week now.”
Aaron hesitated. The memory of Basil, Sidney’s stories flashed across his face. And Amerys saw.
“That’s right. They know what death and glory look like. You’re just a child.”
“I don’t have to take this.”
Blackmage stood up hotly. Amerys laughed as he stormed towards the cell’s opening.
“I’m the only Archmage in Wistram who tells you the truth! Run away if you’re craven! But you’ll be back!”
She was right. They made him go back to put her gag back on. Aaron stomped into the cell and glared at her.
“You could make these chats more pleasant, you know.”
She shrugged awkwardly. Amerys’ voice became contemplative.
“I could try. But even before I was a captive, no one ever called me ‘kind’. My lord said that I oft reminded him of a cactus that spat needles. Have you ever seen one?”
“No. It sounds horrible.”
“I rather liked the compliment.”
Her voice was wistful. She shook her head slightly.
“Anyways, I often clashed with Orthenon. He is as stubborn as a goat. Or Gazi. Mars I got on fine with. Drevish I liked. Ah, but to be with the Seven. Or however many remain. I hear Drevish was killed.”
She spoke of the King’s Seven. Of Chandrar. And she often asked him for news. Aaron sat with Amerys as she rambled.
“I hear he rides against Jecrass, my [King] of war. He needs me, you know.”
“Oh yes. Parasol Stroll marches with them and he has stolen a [Grand Mage] of Belchan. All well and good, but I am his hammer of magecraft. Without me, his armies suffer. I am the most destructive of the Seven in combat. The most fragile as well. But we are all needed. Without Drevish, no grand cities shall be built, no walls to break his foes. Without Tottenval, how will Reim feed its armies? And Queravia…her genius would have felled Jecrass two weeks hence!”
She sighed. And stared at Aaron.
“Will you set me free?”
The woman mouthed that. Aaron stared at her. He half-shook his head.
She asked. Of course she asked. And he was certain that Feor, Naili, Beatrice and everyone else watched him like a hawk. Even if he had his shock-glove, he doubted he could have freed her anyways. The magical bindings were beyond powerful. You couldn’t sever them with power tools.
“I’m sorry, Archmage Amerys. I…thank you for helping me with the batteries.”
“It was my pleasure. I am bored to death, here. Do your lightning-machines run on it?”
“I’m actually trying. But I…uh…destroyed an iPhone.”
Even trying to convert the raw power of the magicore batteries Amerys had helped him make had overloaded the iPhone. Now Aaron had a lot of parts—and a very unhappy Earther. He’d been working on the sailboat by way of recompense.
“Lamont’s boat is coming along. It’ll be a magical sailboat.”
Amerys smiled. Blackmage and Naili had been working on the project for the [Sailor], who had crewed a ship before being found. He wanted a small sailboat to sail around Wistram’s safe harbors—but with a twist. Magical wind would blow into the sail forever. Normally you’d need an [Aeromancer] to do that, but Naili had created a spell to do it.
The only issue was powering the spell. You needed magic. So Blackmage had installed a magicore battery—the same one that powered the Shock Orb he’d given Montressa.
“A children’s toy.”
“You could go pretty far with it.”
But not cross an ocean. Aaron had seen the waves outside of Wistram Academy and they’d crush this boat if it came to a storm. Amerys nodded.
A ship enchanted with this would work. In fact, such ships existed. Many [Captains] used wind-magic like this. Blackmage wasn’t inventing the wheel…or sail as the case may be. He was just making the magical technology available for all with his battery.
A ship was out of the question. It was too hard to work on a secret project of that magnitude. Aaron had spirited away a few of the batteries, made a copy of the shock-glove that could emit a lot of electricity. Yet—he couldn’t envision a scenario where he defeated an Archmage.
“Let’s talk about news. Uh—there was this thing in therapy…”
He told her the story of High Mage Telim. That did make Amerys smile.
“That fat buffoon? He has a kind heart. He’s like you.”
Aaron didn’t appreciate the comparison.
“Is he…he’s a [High Mage], though, right?”
“A generalist. He’s not bad. But lazy. He is a genius when it comes to the minutiae of spells. Making the speech-quills was his great achievement. Some exist, but he reinvented them. Imagine how difficult that is. Each word you speak is transcribed. Each letter. That is his genius, in those small things. Not in casting lightning bolts.”
Blackmage nodded slowly. He saw Amerys trying to scratch at something on her chin. Then she gave up.
“Ah. Another crop of students comes for the summer. Months pass and I am slowly going insane. I may bite my tongue of frustration.”
She sat there, seething, but helpless. Aaron looked at her.
“You’ll never accept Naili’s offer? Or the others?”
The Archmage of Lightning laughed. Kindly, this time. She shook her head at him.
“Have you—no, boy. You’ve never met someone you really respect, have you? Someone worth dying for? That is my [King]. I will wait. And should it take him razing Wistram stone by stone to free me, he will do so. Or die. And if he dies—I will be Wistram’s pet. But those are the only options for me.”
She looked somberly at Aaron, ignoring the uncomfortable [Mages] listening in. He nodded.
“But it might take years.”
“It might. And I might crack in half before he arrives. But I do not think so. Live or die—Flos Reimarch, my King of Reim is coming. I am a poor damsel in distress, boy. But I can wait. And do you know why?”
Blackmage shook his head. Amerys leaned forwards and her eyes glittered.
“I take heart and cling to sanity in my cell because my king shares one trait with me. He is not a patient man.”
She laughed, softly. Then Amerys told Aaron how to convert electricity into a weaker form, to bind it. And bid him go until next time. He left, a bit worried that of all the Archmages…he might like her the most. She was always honest with him.
And she was also a bit of a jerk. Next time he’d borrow a laptop and show her a movie.
Later that day, Aaron Vanwell wrote a letter to Joseph. It took him six tries. Not because he was particularly bad or fussy over the letter. It was just that he wasn’t the one fussing.
“Do you think maybe that’s too formal? What about ‘Hey Joseph!’.”
The young man slowly crossed out the top line and wrote again.
“Wait, no, that was just a suggestion. I’m just tossing them out there. Don’t take all of mine at once!”
Nailihuaile saw Aaron look up with a pained expression. She hesitated.
“…Let me get you a magical quill.”
But even with dictation she fussed over his letter to Joseph. Aaron would’ve just said ‘hey Joseph, I’m from Wistram. You’re clearly from Earth. Come on over; there’s free food. Bring your soccer ball.’
That worked for him, but Nailihuaile wanted a crafted letter to convince Joseph to leave the Ullsinoi faction—whom she was convinced were sheltering him at Liscor—and come to the Revivalists.
“Okay, that’ll do. We need multiple letters! Everyone from our faction is sending one! I bet Viltach and Feor are doing the same! But Montressa can deliver these herself! Thanks, Aaron! Are you sure we have enough soccer-talk?”
“I like baseball more.”
Aaron grumbled as Naili slithered out of his room with the letters. He sighed. Politics. But the soccer game…
Why couldn’t life be fun? He pulled out his armor-project, which was him trying to make a suit of armor that would encase a magicore battery. In theory, a [Mage] could run around with all the power of plate armor but none of the limitations.
That was to say—it was damn hard to cast spells in armor. It messed with your magical field. However, if you had two discharge stations on, say, the gloves, you could focus lightning bolts while drawing on your internal mana and the battery.
It wouldn’t be perfect, and if the enemy was made of rubber you’d be in trouble. But it was an idea.
Still, Aaron wasn’t in the mood for it. After a few minutes of tinkering, he gave up. Here he was, trying to make something that would…would…
Protect people. Make them more deadly in combat. But who was he making it for? He wasn’t going to be able to take it outside of Wistram any time soon.
A while ago, Aaron had been helping find Earthers. He’d felt good about that, locating them, bringing them here. He’d even helped the others. Not ‘batman’, but Cara—he’d send her artifacts that had helped her rise to her status as Singer of Terandria. Heck, he’d convinced Nailihuaile to design the song-crystals! Where were his royalties on that?
…The truth was that Aaron wanted to do more. More, than just sit here. He liked inventing things. But his inventions had to be put to good use. After listening to the stories of the outside, he was almost okay with not putting his neck on the line.
High Mage Telim was sitting in front of the scrying orb with a number of other [Mages]. There were several viewing stations set up across the academy. They might produce the WNN—Wistram News Network, but it was still a fascination to them.
They were watching soccer. Aaron felt his spirits rise as he saw the game being played.
“Is this a rerun?”
“Not at all. This is a ‘match’ between…I think it’s Pallass and another local city? Not Liscor. See? They’ve already made these teams. I say! Look at that Drake go!”
A flying Drake dove out of the skies and gave the soccer ball a tremendous kick. A group of Drakes went running after it and a female Drake was commentating.
“Big shot from Xess! But I think—I think it’s out of bounds! Yes! Aerial tactics aren’t good if you can’t kick the ball!”
The crowd booed as a penalty shot was set up. Aaron watched as Drassi, the newly-minted sports reporter kept shouting into her speaking stone. She’d replaced Sir Relz and Noass and apparently been hired for this moment.
“Aim! I’m taking a break from my day-job to watch a good game, not some idiots kicking the ball sideways! I know a Gnoll kid who can kick the ball straight! Speaking of which, I hear Selisel is complaining about so many fliers on Pallass’ team.”
She pointed. Three Drakes and two Garuda were in the air compared to the one from the other, smaller Drake city. Drassi went on.
“We have a kick—oh, and the fliers are going after it! Honestly, I don’t think flying makes you better per se. If the ball is on the ground, a flier has to land. And they still have to aim! Now, if they juggle the ball in the air, that’s different. Maybe make a rule saying only two aerial passes? Anyways—oh! Great shot down the middle, but it’s blocked and coming back our way—duck!”
The soccer ball shot towards the stands. The crowd ducked, but the ball bounced off a magical shield. Drassi crawled back up.
“Penalty! Hey Pallass! Learn to control the ball! Yeah, you heard me! Want me to get Ekirra to show you how to kick? He’s 7!”
Blackmage grinned as Drassi waved and shouted at one of the fliers, who was taking objection to this commentary. He saw the other [Mages] laughing too, but they were focused on the game.
“Fifty gold and a small secret says Pallass takes it. Any takers?”
Sa’la looked around. Instantly, another Drake snorted.
“That Drake is right. Those fliers don’t have their wings. If it was an all-Garuda team, they’d have more control. But Drakes don’t learn flight from birth. Believe me. I’ll take your wager.”
“How about two middling secrets on Pallass?”
“I’ll take that bet.”
The [Mages] were putting down money, whatever they had in their pockets—Aaron saw one bet consisting of twelve gold pieces, a magic ring, and a slightly-stale quiche. He turned to Telim.
“Are you all betting on the game?”
“Only naturally. It’s fun to watch. How are you today, young Aaron? The Archmages not keeping you running about?”
The [High Mage] was taking his ease—as he had been the entire day. Aaron shrugged.
“A bit. Are you…not working?”
“The magic quills—”
“Oh, those. I can make five in five days. Don’t tell the academy.”
Telim waved that off. Blackmage stared at him. Then he abruptly sat down.
“You don’t think you could make more?”
The bearded man snorted.
“You sound like Miss Elena. I could, but I don’t sell the quills. And even if I did—I’d ruin [Scribes]. The quills are useful for the rich, but let’s not ruin an entire class, hm?”
Aaron thought about typewriters, and the proliferation of the written word. A [Scribe] could copy a book, but what about a printing press?
“Don’t you think it would be more convenient to…make something?”
Telim tapped the side of his nose.
“Ah, but what? A [Scribe] at high levels can write faster than my quills, young Aaron. Your world’s technology can make things more efficient, I grant you, but at higher levels we surpass your world. Your…little gadgets are something that make things convenient for all.”
That was true. Aaron nodded. Telim went on.
“However…the academy is not interested in making things convenient. If we can do it already, why waste time and money working on the same? I regret to say that’s why your submission for your project involving these…bicycles was turned down. We have magic carpets.”
“But if we had a car or other means of transport…”
Aaron raised his voice in protest. Part of the problem was that without funding, you couldn’t get anything done. With it? Nailihuaile or a high-level [Mage] would enchant whatever you needed. You’d get funding, supplies—Aaron had been drowning in magicore and different metals when he made the first battery and shock orb. But it dried up for projects like the boat. He’d had to beg Naili for even that wind spell.
Telim just patted Aaron on the back.
“Lack of interest, young man. We’re not interested in reinventing the wheel when we can fly. I admire the cause, but let me give you some advice: if you want to make something that will earn you funding, make something that appeals to us.”
He gestured at the other lazy [Mages]. And the [High Mage] lowered his voice conspiratorially.
“And then, take twice as long on the project and ask for double, triple what you need. That’s how you fund your little side-projects.”
He winked at Aaron. The young man felt like he was learning a terrible life lesson. But he took it to heart and looked at the soccer game. He had a sudden idea and his eyes lit up.
“You know, in Earth, there’s a betting system. Across the world! What if we made one—”
Telim snapped his fingers, jovially. Aaron looked at him.
“We have a system of betting. [Bookkeepers] around the world are using [Message] spells to place bets. I put eighty gold on Pallass to win at good odds. And they are letting me down!”
He roared at the screen. Aaron sighed.
“What about making a…a federation of soccer teams?”
“Isn’t that what we’re seeing?”
Telim gave Aaron a blank look. Blackmage frowned.
“…Football. I’ve got it! I’ll bring football to this world!”
“I thought that was this game.”
Sa’la leaned over. Aaron shot to his feet.
“No! American football! It’s this game with this—different ball. And you carry it—”
He was excited. Take the funding, make his other projects! Telim listened for five seconds, and then raised a hand.
“Ah. Young Basil is doing that. You mean, rugby. And someone is doing a ‘basket-ball’ game too. And hockey.”
The young [Engineer] faltered.
The problem with being from Earth in Wistram was that he wasn’t alone anymore. It turned out that after seeing the soccer game—every other Earther in Wistram had promptly recalled other sports. They were bringing in rugby, hockey, baseball (not knowing Liscor already had that game), ping pong from Shun’s group…curling had been suggested, but none of the factions had been interested in funding the project.
Aaron saw all his funding ideas dry up. He sat back down as Telim explained that Wistram would be disseminating the games, trial-running them in the academy and then seeding the ideas in other parts of the world.
“A noble effort, Aaron. But you have to be fast on the ball to secure funding in this academy.”
He smiled at Blackmage, not unkindly. Aaron sat there. It was just stealing from Earth, anyways. He wouldn’t have been proud of that.
“…Maybe I’ll just try copying Saif’s airsoft gun again. Then we could have matches.”
He muttered. Telim looked interested.
“That would be entertaining. You could probably get some funding for that—but you wouldn’t be able to fudge the numbers. Recreating an object is hard to lie about.”
“Have some of this lovely avocado. Avocado. I thought we called them Getal fruits, Sa’la?”
“That’s what we call them in Baleros, Telim.”
“Hm. Oh well.”
Telim chewed on the avocado, lightly seasoned and warm. Delicious when spread, really. He spoke to Aaron conversationally.
“You could always approach a single magus for funding, Aaron. I’m sure some of the seafarers would like your magical boat-thing. A Drownedfolk [Mage], perhaps. I could introduce you. But I myself wouldn’t fund it. And I could put money into a project. One accumulates wealth as they rise in Wistram’s ranks over time. But I’m not much for being shot in the groin by that gun-thing.”
That was fair. Aaron sighed.
“I just want a copy. It could be fun. Or—a wand-gun. But that’s just a wand strapped to a frame.”
“…Not exactly technologically advanced. What is the problem with a good old-fashioned wand? I grant you, it’s not as quick as that pistol-thing, but…”
Telim flicked his wand out and shot a spell. It hit a Dullahan in the back and knocked her head clean off her body. Her head landed on the floor and she shouted.
“Ow! Who did that?”
The [High Mage] hurriedly hid the wand. Aaron hid a smile as Telim pointed to a student who had just run off and the Dullahan raced off in a fury. Aaron looked at the raccoon-bearded man.
“I don’t want a gun to kill people. That’s why I refused to upgrade Saif’s gun. Not that I could. I don’t know how to make gunpowder.”
And George was refusing to let on that he knew. Aaron went on as Telim nodded with one ear, the rest focused on the losing Pallass team.
“But it’d be—fun, you know? To try to be a…a hero with a wand.”
Didn’t everyone dream of fighting undead with a wand, or blasting spells at their enemies? Shooting guns at aliens was the basis of a lot of the first videogames. Telim looked at Aaron and his eyes lit up.
“Young man, that is exactly how I felt decades ago. And then I got mugged. But I understand completely. I’d love to try my spells on some vast beast…”
He flicked the wand out and then looked for the Dullahan [Mage] and hurriedly put it away. Aaron smiled.
“I wish an adventure could be…safe. Oh—wait! There is something like that from Earth.”
He stood up. Telim blinked as Aaron hurried off. Then he went back to watching the game.
Pallass lost. Much to the dismay of the Walled City, which should not lose because it was a Walled City, y’know? Telim was grumbling about wasted gold when Blackmage came back with a laptop.
“High Mage, look at this.”
He had a videogame on it. Just a basic one. Halo CE. Aaron wasn’t the best gamer, but Telim, Sa’la, and a bunch of [Mages] crowded around as he ran through one of the levels.
“Good gracious! What colors!”
“Is that like Saif’s rifle? What horrible monsters!”
The [Mages] were greatly entertained. Some had seen video games, though, and Telim had even watched a few movies—the Earther’s tech wasn’t restricted. Attempts to copy the laptops had all failed, though.
“A fascinating game. Yes, I could just wish to teleport into that game and see those beasts dodge a [Fireball]!”
He waved his wand and everyone around him leaned back. But then Telim caught himself.
“—Yet my aim is shoddy and I know I’d die, Aaron, even with precautions. Real combat is never so polite. I know my limits. My goodness, even Archmage Feor once took a punch from this rather muscular Drake in an actual duel. And he stands at the top of magical talent. I think he broke a rib. Imagine what would happen if I’d taken the same?”
He looked a bit sad as he said that. He understood Aaron’s dream. But he was practical—in some ways, more realistic than Aaron.
Blackmage nodded. He closed the laptop, sighing. And then—well—had a thought.
The young man looked at Telim, wistfully flipping up the writing-quills he’d developed himself. And then, he spotted Galei, who was whistling as he walked off to tempt some other [Mages] with some tickets for The Players of Celum. He looked at his laptop and thought of Saif.
And he had it.
“Mage Galei! Excuse me! Mage Galei!”
Aaron went running after the Centaur. He nearly ran into the Centaur—and collided with a young Lizardgirl.
Taxiela fell to the ground with a squeak. Aaron stumbled, extended a hand. He wasn’t sure if it was Taxiela; he could have run into an illusion; good [Illusionists] could make a fake rock wall into almost the real thing.
“Hello, Aaron Vanwell! How are you doing?”
The Lizardgirl vanished. Galei trotted around Aaron and grinned at him. Even Aaron, used to [Mages], had to recollect himself.
“I uh—I was hoping to chat, Mage Galei—”
“Yes, about Joseph? Property of the Ullsinoi, I’m afraid. But if you’d like to talk, I can do that. But it’s give and take. Tell Naili that, if she sent you.”
The [Illusionist], Palt’s master, chuckled. Aaron shook his head.
“Actually, Mage Galei—I was hoping you’d be interested in funding one of my projects.”
The Centaur blinked. The Ullsinoi faction hadn’t funded any Earther projects so far. Nor had they been awarded any Earthers. They had power, but it wasn’t in the Council or politically. They were the dark sheep of Wistram, with the understanding that said sheep sometimes stole all the underwear of all the [Mages] in Wistram and tossed it into the sea. Because it was funny.
“Interesting. What makes you think the Ullsinoi faction would back your projects? All the other factions have money to burn. But we tend to want things we can use. No little ‘skirmishes’ with Saif. No prototypes. The real thing.”
The Centaur and Blackmage stood in a black room. Enclosed in all sides. A privacy box. Aaron looked around, blinking. Then he replied to the Centaur standing there, watching him with amused eyes.
“That’s true, Mage Galei. Most of what we do isn’t worth much. And I don’t want to mass-produce Saif’s guns. Or even the shock orbs.”
“No taste for warfare? I can respect that. But then—what?”
The Centaur trotted around Aaron, nodding. And the young man spread his arms.
“Fun, Mage Galei. Shouldn’t life have a bit of fun?”
He heard laughter. The Centaur threw back his head and laughed.
“Well said, young man! What is life if not to be enjoyed? But we have all kinds of entertainment. Soccer, plays…what could you add?”
“Combat. Adventure. Action.”
The Centaur vanished. A Lizardgirl sat on a tree branch. Aaron turned. The [Illusionist] winked at him.
“Gladiator arenas. Pit fights. You’re saying nothing new, young man.”
“Those still hurt people. And I can’t take part in them. I’m talking…about something else, Mage Galei. Your world might have it. But I don’t think you have my world’s vision.”
Blackmage took a breath. He was no hero. He was no one’s guy, the one they turned to. But he could change the world. Because…he did have passions.
“I’m talking about videogames. Virtual reality. Holograms. Mage Galei. Have you ever tried to create an illusion you could fight?”
The mage’s eyes glinted.
“Of course. [Mages] train like that all the time. I’ve used illusions as a distraction. What’s new about that?”
Aaron smiled. He spread his arms wide.
“Only a few things. I hear Mage Telim is an expert at programming minute details into spells. Have you ever imagined…a scenario? One where you get to fight and live out a dream without ever being in danger? Mage Taxiela, would you pay for that? And if you would—how many people would pay for it as well?”
The [Illusionist] paused on her perch on the tree. And then she laughed. Aaron felt a clawed hand on his shoulder. He turned—and a Garuda woman leaned forwards. Her feathers were black, save for white on her wingtips. Her eyes were a dusky yellow. She winked at him.
“Tell me more.”
The hallway was dark. Quiet. The stone floor covered with moss was slippery underfoot, and Blackmage steadied himself as he raised his glowing wand. He could not slip here.
Ahead of him, he heard chattering bones. Skeletal figures moved down the hallway, peeking at him with glowing eyes. He turned, hearing more movement. They were flanking him. Blackmage raised his wand—
Telim attacked the darkness.
“[Lightning Bolt]! Oho!”
He shot a blast of crackling lightning past Aaron’s shoulder. The young man dove.
The blast of lighting knocked a group of skeletons to pieces. The impact and searing ozone left a stench in the air as Aaron scrambled to his feet.
“To arms! The undead are attacking!”
Telim shot [Light Arrows] at the zombies and skeletons racing at them. Aaron turned, pointed his glove, and focused.
The entire battery discharged as his metal glove rose. The lightning arced forwards as he willed it and hit the undead horde.
The spell was real. The monsters illusory. There was a momentary flicker as the spell tried to keep up, and then the undead exploded.
“I say! That’s a great spell! Just, er, don’t hit me with it! From the left!”
Telim, puffing, aimed his wand left. More undead coming down the corridor. Leaping Ghouls. His [Fireball] blew them to bits. Aaron laughed with adrenaline. He turned, wand ready—
A skeletal thing dropped off the ceiling. It landed on Aaron and he got one chance to scream. Telim whirled, as the thing reached down and bit—
“Out! Aaron’s dead!”
The illusion froze for a moment. Aaron, flailing wildly, looked around and saw Saif, Galei in his Centaur form, and Mage Yerzhen and two more of the Elusive Lot waving at him. Shamefaced, he crawled away as Telim puffed.
“Do I—do I go after it resumes?”
“Yup! Starting in five, four, three…”
The illusion resumed. Telim blasted the bone-thing away and whirled. He did pretty well. As the audience watched from the viewing platforms, the [High Mage] proceeded to blast undead around. Of course, they were illusions, but programmed with a bit of weight behind them. Spells passed through, but they were programmed to simulate the hits.
Telim had done that. He really did have the minutiae down. The Elusive Lot had come up with the spells.
“We’ll have to work on permanent versions. Old Telim’s really letting them have it. I didn’t know he knew that many combat spells.”
Galei chortled as he ate popcorn and watched. Yerzhen nodded. He grinned.
“Uh oh! There comes the Bone Giant! And the Ghouls. He doesn’t see them. I think—out!”
The Ghouls got Telim as he tried to blast the Bone Giant in the boss room. The [Mage] was sweating liberally and panting, but he looked ecstatic.
“What a scenario! I say! Can we go again?”
As the illusions faded, Aaron eyed the skirmish room. Telim’s spells had blasted around the room.
“…I think we need to talk about protective gear to avoid friendly fire, High Mage. And reinforcing the walls?”
The man looked abashed. But he was as excited as Saif and Blackmage.
“Hey, can we make my gun work on the simulation?”
“Shouldn’t be too hard. The illusions are just registering hits. If we tweak the spell—it’s like hit points, Saif. Only they take into account the intensity. But we can probably make a ‘fake version’ and give people wands that simulate spells.”
“And the real adventurers can even fight monsters. Imagine it! Practice fighting Crelers! Or—or live out a dungeon experience! Dead gods, but the nobility will pay for these entertainments!”
Telim mopped at his brow. The Elusive Lot were nodding.
“I see money in this.”
Galei rubbed his hands together, grinning. Aaron looked around. The virtual reality games he’d proposed had their early backers. And he had no doubt that the other factions would get behind it.
“It’s not the biggest thing. But it’ll do.”
The young man muttered to himself. And they needed him. Even the Elusive Lot, who could do the illusions, and Telim didn’t have the idea of making reality into games. But Blackmage had played tabletop games, video games. Heck, his nickname came from a comic.
He looked around. It was a fantasy in a fantasy world. But that was alright. He looked at Telim.
“Can we talk funding then, [Mages]? I’ll try not to overcharge you, but the development might be expensive…for other factions.”
The [High Mage] laughed. Blackmage, Aaron Vanwell, made a friend. And that night…
That night, the usual broadcast from Wistram Academy changed. A [Message] spell on high-alert was sent to all of Izril and Terandria, where the issue was greatest. People tuned in to see Archmage Feor, Nailihuaile, and Viltach standing on-screen.
Feor spoke, his brows furrowed. He did not waste time. The Archmage lifted a hand and something appeared in it.
A golden triangle. The symbol floated in the air and the half-Elf made it hover. He looked at it with distaste. Naili continued.
“This is an emergency broadcast from Wistram Academy. I regret to inform you all that the academy has just uncovered a troubling event currently taking place in Izril and Terandria. Recently, in every city, people have been approached regarding investing money in an organization known as ‘The Golden Triangle’. However, under no circumstances should anyone invest money in this scheme. It is a trick. Fraud. This is the largest fraud ever to appear…ever. Archmage Viltach?”
Viltach gestured. And a carefully-designed graphic floated over and appeared behind the Archmages.
“The Golden Triangle appears at first to be the concept of investing in Gold-rank companies and [Mages]. However, these individuals and groups do not exist. The money is instead given to other members. Our [Mages] at Wistram have analyzed the way this fraudulent scheme works, and this is the method. First…”
They began to break down the Golden Triangle piece by piece, explaining to a stunned audience that their money wasn’t real. They were just taking money from the next group of investors, and so on and so forth. The scheme would—it had to collapse.
And it did, at this very moment. [Lords] found the gold they had invested gone. People sending thousands of [Messages] to the Golden Triangle’s organization found that—there had only been a skeleton crew. And the bewildered members of the Golden Triangle found themselves arrested, questioned. But no one knew where all the money had gone.
The trail vanished near the top. And the gold was gone. Leaving tens, hundreds of thousands out a little or a lot of coin. Hundreds of thousands of gold pieces. In another month, it might have been millions.
Chaos reigned. More than one person realized they’d lost everything. Watch Captain Zevara sat at her desk as panic set in across her city. She listened to the Archmages speak.
They had no idea what this was causing. Announcing it like this? Watch Captains all over the world were scrambling. Her Watch was in the streets, quelling a beginning riot.
But Wistram had unveiled the plot. They’d get credit for that. And if Zevara ever met the Archmages, she would stab them. In the meantime, Watch Captain Zevara just sat there and listened to the pyramid scheme come crashing down.
[Mages]. They never wondered who was on the ground from their lofty citadel. The pieces were landing on people.
Or perhaps they knew. Perhaps it was all some great plan. Wistram Academy stood alone. And in the meantime—Watch Captain Zevara closed her eyes. She stood up, and called out amid the shouting.
“Someone please summon Senior Guardsman Relc. At once. I need to speak with him.”
One last thing. A little note in between the different stories. Inconsequential? Hardly, but a small thing.
Palt found Joseph listening to the reports coming from Liscor. Erin had closed her magic door; The Wandering Inn was in lockdown and no one unfriendly was going to get through the trapped hallway. Pallass and Liscor were both heaving.
The young man started. He looked up as the Centaur, smoking something, bent down.
“What is it…Palt?”
“I have something for you. From my faction. This. And this. Don’t worry; I’ll get reimbursed. But they wanted this to you straight off.”
The Centaur bent down and offered Joseph three things. The first was a wand.
“It casts [Stun Spear]. Powerful. Tier 3. Kicks anyone on their back. Sixty charges. I’ll show you how to use it. And this…”
A bag of gold. Joseph stared wide-eyed at it. He looked up.
“But—but what? Who is this from?”
“Read the letter.”
Palt had written it, but he’d copied the letter his master had told him to write word-for-word. Joseph read.
The Singer of Terandria is not part of Wistram. I think there are more of us in Baleros. A girl called Caroline says she was with them. Don’t come to Wistram unless you don’t want to leave. Ignore the letters. I’ll send what I can. Sincerely—
–Blackmage, aka Aaron Vanwell.
Joseph read, and then looked up. Palt winked as he trotted towards the door. It was true that Aaron wasn’t a hero. He was an [Engineer], a programmer, a nerd, self-proclaimed. He wasn’t a hero.
But he could still do something.
Author’s Note: I am on break until June 23rd. Later for public readers. I know I’m taking a week off per month, but I need it. To work on other stuff too, like getting Volume 3 ready for e-books…resting…I think it helps the writing, or I wouldn’t do it. Sorry for the delay, but it won’t be too long.
Now, listen. The Audiobook for Volume 2 will be released July 14th. The Last Tide comes out in August.
Part 1, that is. It will be digitally available, and a physical version with the full story will come out. There is also a chapter, written by me which will be made available at some point, which this entire big thing is based on.
But look. Words become pictures. And these pictures? Gorgeous. You may read, speculate, and impatiently wait for the comic book—but not for much longer. And here are some pages from the comic-book. Look at it. LOOK AT IT. (Also, I’m releasing more art to Patreons, so check there for more art that won’t be made public.)
That’s all for now! See you in 2 updates! Thanks for reading!