8.12 T

The old man who sat in a chair in his illustrious quarters was called Eldavin.

Or Teriarch. But no one knew that other name. He looked like a half-Elf, although a paragon of one, almost suspiciously flawless from his height to his physique. One would suspect illusion spells, and they would be half-right.

Because he was a Dragon and his body was as perfect as he chose it to be. But that was just biological magic; any good [Mage] specializing in a number of schools could look like that.

He sat in his rooms, knowing it was time to teach. In the hallowed halls of Wistram Academy, a Dragon had come to educate.

But before he did, he had a lesson himself. For Eldavin, Teriarch, Dragon of innumerable years and knowledge, who had outlived even his own kind, learning still happened now and then.

It was rare, but it did occur. And when it did, he at least tried to keep an open mind. What people failed to realize, the Dragon in the half-Elf’s body thought as he hummed to himself, was that learning should always be enjoyable and engaging. But that was not the fault of the student unless they failed to bring at least a modicum of motivation and respect. It was the fault of the medium, the teacher.

Or institution. But only a fool stopped learning.

Right now, Eldavin was learning from the best kind of teacher for his studies. He clicked, absently, displaying a level of experience with the mouse and keyboard of the laptop that few people in this world possessed. More extraordinary still because he was not from Earth.

“Let us see. Let us see…how interesting. These ‘core files’ are the same. Hm. Delete that and this entire thing stops working. So they build them all the same way. It is the files outside of this place that differ.”

He was moving through the computer, inspecting files. Of course, the fact that he had a laptop was extraordinary in itself. Even in Wistram, the few electronics the Earthers had brought were fought-over by each faction.

But Eldavin was head of his own faction along with Archmage Valeterisa, and had thus secured one of the electronics for a day. Not long; the other factions were loath to give up even that much and they pointedly restricted what they regarded as the most valuable artifacts from the possession of the Terras faction.

So, the Dragon masquerading as a mage had cheerfully accepted the laptop for the six scant hours he’d been given it, duplicated it in secret, and handed it back after an hour.

Now, he spent his morning exploring the interesting laptop. He’d done the same to the other artifacts Ryoka had brought to him.

Learning of Earth. A shame none were connected to the ‘internet’, but there was a glorious wealth of knowledge.

Movies, for one. Yes, they were parables, entertainment. But the stories people told about themselves and about others mattered. For instance, how they viewed Dragons, other species…all very illuminating.

Eldavin was disappointed this one had less saved movies—as in, only two, copied from other devices at that—than the laptop owned by a ‘KevinScate’, the possessor of the one he’d had.

And those had been fine movies. Eldavin still recalled watching them on the hill with…

His hand stopped moving the mouse. The inn.

After a moment, the Dragon went back to work. But he’d stopped humming.

Many movies, in enjoyable company. Remember that. He thought of the story of fantasy with the inaccurate Elves, the very wrong Dwarves, and so on. He also resented their depiction of Dragons as a stereotype which, while not untrue, was rather clichéd.

Ah, but here had been more. The Ogre with the weird skin condition and ears. Amusing. But another bad-faith depiction of Dragons he wasn’t even going to dignify! He’d nearly blasted the laptop into ash, despite knowing it was comedy.

And the other one. The most illuminating of Humans’ tales about themselves had been called…what was it? That movie grounded in their world, yet told in fiction.

Eldavin tapped the side of his head, frowning. Magic reignited memory.

“Of course. That was what it was called. Contact.

What a good story about other species from a people who had never met them—aside from the plethora of animals and sentient creatures that Teriarch understood still populated Earth. He snorted to himself.

How did it go? Something, something, technological spinning wheel, explosion, something, aliens? It had elements of many stories, in that sense.

And yet…Teriarch sat back.

What he learned in this moment was that Earth was good at telling stories. Movies were something special, and they made so many!

But they could be better. And if they could marry the best of both worlds…he closed his eyes and murmured a spell.

When he opened his eyes, Eldavin sat no longer in the room in Wistram, but under another world’s sky. He looked around, and saw a scene from the movie around him.

‘Car’, check. ‘Telescope’, wonderful, if different starry sky? Check? Ah, well, he’d taken some liberties. But there was the young woman. And he’d added in ambient smells based on his own memories and abilities. More sound…he wiggled his toes.

“Sensation, I always forget that one.”

The grass squished under his bare feet. Eldavin nodded to himself.

Not everything Earth did was better. This was what magic could do. And if they could tell stories like this? He looked around, smiling a bit smugly to himself. Now, the challenge would be replicating the entire movie like this.

Actually—he could barely do this one still image, with the young woman pondering while gazing through the telescope. Even if he’d been back in his real body, the mental complexities of recreating this were a pain in his tail. The Dragon sighed. Well, that was why artists who spent the time doing such things were so prized.

He was just copying and altering. Even though the scene was the same, the sensation was that which he, personally, had felt. One could not create illusions of things they could not conceive. The breeze was one he had felt on his skin himself, the smells, likewise.

Only the young woman was a replica from the movie. She looked up and Teriarch…

…blinked…

And the face was not that of a Human he had never seen before. The spell twisted as memory flickered.

For a second, it was realer than a movie. A young woman stood there, looking up towards the stars in a field of wheat as the night’s sky filled the horizon. She had a telescope in front of her. No, not a telescope…

Magnolia Reinhart turned from the ancient, magical astrolabe in the field of yellats, her latest project to import crops.

“Do you think there are other worlds up there, Teriarch? Ones just as vast as ours? That can’t be so.”

The Dragon, wearing the half-Elf’s body, replied as he walked across the ground. He stared up, but even with magic, his eyes were too weak to really see the glowing stars of every color.

“I am just repeating what the Gnomes said. Not that I ever met more than…hrmph. Well. They said a lot of things. The stars are more than lights in the sky. Even I can see that.”

“And you never tried? You, the master of magic and fire?”

The young woman teased him. She flapped across the snowy field. The Dragon exhaled a plume of fire as he lay, melting the snow on one of the peaks. The same astrolabe lay in front of her, newly crafted.

“Insolence, brat. Who would keep my kin in line down here? I don’t have time to spend flying up there. Also, it’s extremely cold.”

“But you never tried?”

She perched on a rock next to him. The brass Dragon looked up and exhaled; steam rose into the sky, blotting out the distant stars for a moment. He was forced to admit it.

“…It may be impossible for us, without preparation, at least. Dragons have tried when we learned these truths. Long ago. One flew into space in our greatest age and suffered there. There was no air to breathe. So he breathed magic. There was no warmth. Yet his heart beat for him. There was no food, but he was a Dragon. He flew towards the nearest star.”

“Really? When?

“Before even I was born. My mother told me the story.”

And that was long, long ago. Teriarch pointed with one claw.

“There. You see that purple one? That was the one he chose because it was so bright. See? He flew up there. And he was a Dragonlord, like I.”

Magnolia Reinhart was eating some nali-sticks as she listened. Eldavin glanced at her to make sure she was listening. He wished she’d stop having so many. She was developing a sweet tooth. Her young [Maid]—[Assassin], still grim and hard-eyed from her training, watched him warily. He went on, feeling as though he’d said this before. How many times?

“And what happened? Did he ever make it, that Dragon?”

The young woman was getting jittery with the sugar. Eldavin, Teriarch—which body was it now?—shrugged.

“No. He came back five hundred years later and said it was too far. But the journey had changed him and thereafter his kind were known as Void Dragons—for he had been changed and so had his offspring.”

Void Dragons?

The perching Garuda nearly fell off the top of his head. Teriarch blew at her, irritably, and she flew around him, excitedly.

“I’ve never met one! Where are they? What do they look like? Are they like the Sea Dragons you’re meeting?”

For a moment, the weary brass Dragon looked at her. Then he shook his head.

“No…no, girl. You haven’t heard of them because they were always few in number. As for where or what—you will not meet them. They’re all gone. Dead. The last of them died in a war you would not remember.”

The eager smile faded. And he wished he hadn’t said that. Slowly, the Dragon turned, looking around the oasis, waiting. He tried to say something better. He reached out—

“Grand Magus Eldavin? I—oh.”

The half-Elf blinked. The illusion vanished as the door began to open. The wide-eyed [Mage] saw the perfect recreation of memory. For a second, a Garuda, flying down, turning towards…

Eldavin. The half-Elf stood there.

“How may I help you, Miss…?”

He looked at her, with no idea of who she was, for a moment. The [Mage] hesitated.

“Teura, Grand Magus?”

The [High Mage], second-most-important in the Centrist faction, really, helper to Eldavin, looked at Eldavin. He touched the side of his head, blinked.

“Ah, yes. Young lady?”

She was eighty three, but somehow, it was appropriate. Teura ducked her head slightly.

“You requested the morning’s timeslot for your classes. Your students are waiting. Should I tell them to remain there or….?”

Eldavin looked out the window in shock. It had been before dawn when he’d—he looked around and rose to his feet.

“Of course not. Apologies. I was working on an…illusion spell. Very elaborate. Something in the vein of what that Mage Telim was doing. Smell, sensation, those are the keys to good magic. Thank you for fetching me. Shall we?”

He nodded. Teura respectfully opened the door and Eldavin left his chambers. [Mages] turned to watch him. A gaggle appeared, but were held back by Teura’s look. For where Eldavin walked, Wistram followed. That great [Mage] had come to teach both young and old.

 

—-

 

One of the new students who had come to Wistram to learn was named Troy Atlas. He said it in front of the mirror.

“Troy Atlas. Troy Atlas. You’re Troy Atlas…”

Trey Atwood had to do it or he’d slip up. He sighed. His robes were already on his body, over tanned skin, roughened from sand and sun a continent away. He still felt weird, waking up in Wistram’s cool halls rather than feeling the beginning of the hot Chandrarian days.

He checked his robes. They hadn’t been washed in…sixteen days. But they still felt fresh. He’d bathed, of course! But his robes had anti-dirt enchantments. Still, it felt weird to be able to toss them on.

Then again, High Mage Telim had told Trey over dinner that he hadn’t changed clothes—or even changed out of his set of robes—for months on end. Trey had resolved not to sit directly next to him ever again. Magic made things easier, but some people took it way too far.

However, he had to admit, it was nice not having to worry about what to wear. You woke up, changed undergarments, but the robes remained. He picked up his staff, and then looked around.

“Minizi? I’ve got to get to class! Where are you? Where’s my bag—oh.

The little Lifesand Golem was next to the foot of his bed. He could sense her of course, but the little automaton was like a person. And she was trying to be helpful…

She was trying to drag his rucksack of books, notes, and supplies out from under the bed. Trey blinked, impressed.

It had been scattered about last night. A magical tome, his personal spellbook on the desk, ink pot unstoppered and he’d collapsed into his blankets, feeling a bit ill and tired from magical overwork.

But someone had closed the books, taken them off the desk as he slept, put them in the rucksack, grabbed his other supplies, and put them in the leather carrying bag, ready to toss into his bag of holding.

Why he didn’t put everything in the bag of holding was because it was a mess to find something unless you organized. Trey appreciated the little Golem’s efforts, but he had to smile.

The little crimson sand Golem, made in the form of Gazi, had done all this, but miscalculated at the last. Now, she was straining against the leather strap, trying to pull about ten or even twenty pounds of weight. Nothing was moving, but she wouldn’t give up.

“Good work, Minizi.”

He told her as he dragged the pack up and put it in his bag of holding. The Lifesand Golem hopped onto his palm, and he transferred her to the hood of his robes. He’d found she’d sit there, hidden, occasionally poking her head up, if he let her.

He was very surprised the Lifesand Golem had done all that. But then—the Quarass had told him the ability to make them would turn him into a far better [Mage] then he could have hoped to be otherwise.

The young man’s hand felt at the scar along his throat as he went for the door. As it always did.

He was ready for class. And it was familiar, being in school once more. Not all the Earthers were like this. Indeed, as Trey left his room, a young man was sleepily stumbling around.

“Troy. Whaz’s happening? Going to school?”

Flynn yawned hugely. They were neighbors, and he looked hung over and sleepy. Trey raised an eyebrow.

“Where were you?”

“Drinking. I couldn’t go to school. I wouldn’t even be up if not for Pokey.”

He gestured to the Needlehound Dog, who barked at Trey. He waved at Flynn’s companion and friend, who needed walks and to pee in the morning. They’d met on the way here.

“You don’t want to learn?”

“I mean…the basics, yeah. But I couldn’t take classes. I didn’t get an education like you did. I’m taking a class with the other Earthers later.”

Oh, right. Trey forgot that not everyone had received the grounding in magic he had. Flynn tried to flick his fingers and conjure some sparks. He managed…one. Pokey barked encouragingly.

“Well, I’m late.”

Trey had slept through breakfast, which was too bad because he was hungry. Flynn eyed him.

“You’re not looking well, my man. You didn’t stay long at dinner either, or come after. Not a drinker?”

The young man grimaced and put his hand to his stomach.

“I wouldn’t have minded. But I haven’t been feeling well all week.”

“Huh. Have you gone to the [Healer]’s?”

“No. I’ll go after class. I need to run, Flynn, sorry. I’m late to Eldavin’s morning class.”

Trey began to stride down the hallway, waving apologetically. Flynn gave him a thumbs-up. Even the new Earthers knew how important that was.

Grand Magus Eldavin and the Terras faction were shaking Wistram. Not just him of course. Two more Grand Mages and an Archmage and a Depth Mage from the seas and representatives from other [Mage] schools had arrived and more of Wistram’s graduates were coming by the day.

It was a renaissance in Wistram, according to the older [Mages]. And a free-for-all regarding the Earthers. Trey knew he and Flynn would soon be formally claimed by a faction. He hoped it was Eldavin’s, but in the meantime, the Grand Magus was teaching classes, showing off his magical knowledge.

And Trey was here to learn! And find the last Archmage who was here, but never spoken of. He gritted his teeth with determination. It was a charge laid on him by the King of Destruction.

He could disobey, of course. It had crossed Trey’s mind a dozen times already that he could go to one of the Archmages, or even Telim or one of the [Mages] he’d met and tell them all about the King of Destruction, throw himself on Wistram’s protection and join the Earthers.

But then, what would happen to Teres? And who would burn A’ctelios Salash to rubble? And did he trust Wistram more than Flos Reimarch?

“I’ll do it myself if I have to.”

Trey muttered to himself and Minizi as he strode down the hallways. He grimaced again as the Lifesand Golem rustled in his hood. He felt…Trey put a hand to his stomach and groaned.

 

—-

 

Flynn Patel, a young man from Australia, a [Beast Tamer] who had been a Bronze-rank adventurer before being found by Wistram, looked up as he saw Trey practically sprinting back the way he’d come.

“Troy? What’s up?”

Bathroom!

The young man shouted. He disappeared into his room. Flynn shook his head. Pokey copied him.

“Wonder what he ate.”

At least Wistram was so advanced it had a bathroom in the good bedrooms. Magical plumbing. Couldn’t be beat. He went back into his rooms to sleep.

Inside his bathroom, Trey Atwood suffered from what could be described as, ‘annihilation of the bowels’. He had known suffering. Wounds in battle. Gazi beating on him during teaching, the feeling of having his throat slashed open by the Quarass.

This…was not as bad as the last one, but really bad. Trey felt like his insides were coming out. He groaned.

“Minizi…out!”

He tossed her out of the bathroom when he realized she was patting him encouragingly on the head. Trey thought it was over and reached for the toilet paper, another blessing. Then…his face contorted.

“No way. This is—”

 

—-

 

Flynn checked on him after the first hour. He rapped on the door, realizing Troy hadn’t left after a nap. Actually, Pokey had woken him up, scratching at the door and led him to this one. She was sniffing and looking worried.

“Troy? You okay, dude?”

No! I’m dying!

“Are you…still on the toilet?”

“Yes!”

“What?”

It keeps coming out!

Flynn did not want to know the details. But he looked at Pokey, who was whining worriedly. She sensed something.

“I think I should get you a [Healer], Troy. Or tell one of the [Mages]. Need me to toss you a potion?”

“I…I need a [Healer]. Maybe.”

It was bad if his friend was admitting that. Flynn grew more worried.

“Uh—what’s happening, Troy? What should I say? Do you have potions?”

“Yes. But…hold on. Let me check. I don’t think I’m bleeding, but…”

Inside, Trey was sitting on the toilet. And he was about to make the radical move of inspecting what had kept him there for an hour. It felt like the worst diarrhea ever, but it kept going. He had not, out of sheer self-preservation, looked at what came out.

Who did that, anyways? But if he was actually losing what felt like his guts…

Flynn wrinkled his nose outside. He waited, not exactly excited, but worried. Pokey made another sound.

“Is it that bad, girl? Do you smell blood or something?”

She had a good nose and intuition. She’d warned him about monsters in the dirt and so on. Flynn crouched to scratch her ears and try to get a ‘sense’ from their connection what it was. He felt she was disturbed. It wasn’t blood, but…

A horrified shout came from Trey’s room. The young man bellowed something.

“Troy?”

Flynn shot to his feet. He reached for his side automatically. He heard a bellow from within.

[Flame Jet].

At this point, one of the other students across the hall who’d been drawn by the shouting looked out of his doorway in concern. He stepped out as a young woman opened her door.

“Who’s making that racket? I’m trying to study.”

Flynn ignored them all. He pounded on the door, hesitant to open it.

“Troy? What’s wrong?”

He heard a strangled exclamation.

“Flynn—get a [Healer]! It’s…it’s…worms!

The young man stared at the door. He saw his dog stare up at him. The other neighbors didn’t get why Flynn blanched for a moment.

“Oh, fuck.

He took off and went running. And he couldn’t help but feel…this might have been Pokey’s fault.

 

—-

 

“Parasites. Not your dog’s fault. More like an adventurer thing, really.”

Ten minutes later, Sa’la, the Selphid [Mage]-[Healer], was speaking to a small crowd outside Trey’s room. It was quite a crowd.

Archmage Nailihuaile, Telim, who Flynn had found first, Vhedel, the [Herb Mage], and a number of Earthers and students and [Mages] were all listening, looking appalled.

“But how’d he get them?”

Sa’la was a [Healer] as well as a [Mage]. Not a high-level one, but when it had been parasites, Telim had suggested they get the Selphid, as an expert on that kind of thing. Sa’la had not been offended and she was the one to ask. She shrugged.

“A sea parasite. He must have caught it while travelling here. Probably in the food you were eating on the ships. Did they cook everything properly?”

Flynn thought of the food they’d eaten on The Emerald Signet.

“We were sailing through storms. We had to eat rations and it was raining all day and night…”

“Ah. Maybe it came on the water, then. Wave deposits some on the food barrels and they aren’t fully warded, or a [Sailor] accidentally gets some on a plate?”

Everyone shuddered except the Selphid. She grinned.

“If he was a Selphid, he’d have killed them. You mammals are so susceptible. Poor kid, though.”

Trey had blasted his toilet with fire, which was the appropriate response to seeing the wriggling things that had come out of him. He’d nearly hit himself with fire.

“Please tell me I’m not infected.”

Flynn begged Sa’la. She looked incredibly amused, especially because Nailihuaile and most of the others were backing far away from Trey’s door.

“Look, it happens. Bugs are everywhere. Don’t make such a big deal. They just come out of you; well, he was probably hungry for days. And the cure’s simple. Vhedel?”

The Stitch-[Mage] had no fear of the parasites. He’d been working on something with a bunch of herbs and two pastes. Now, he lifted the dark brown liquid up and eyed it critically. It wasn’t as magical as a potion, but he seemed satisfied as he nodded.

“Hand this to the boy, will you? Have him drink it down in one.”

Sa’la took the tonic. She opened the door and vanished inside. Vhedel turned to Archmage Nailihuaile and the others.

“It’s a simple cure, actually. For safety’s sake, I recommend all students and faculty in his classes as well as all Earthers take a simple tonic.”

“Are we all going to poop worms, Vhedel? Because I’d rather stick a Wand of [Fireballs] down my throat first.”

Telim spoke bluntly. The huge [High Mage] looked ghastly pale at the thought. Everyone else shuddered. Vhedel just rolled his eyes.

“Don’t be dramatic. The tonic will kill them dead. It will kill them in any stage and you won’t have trouble—but no taking any potions for twenty four hours! The little bastards benefit too.”

The door opened. Sa’la came out, still looking incredibly amused. She wagged a finger at the others.

“That’s right. Only Troy suffers; you won’t even notice. They’ll probably be dissolved by your stomach. The most you’ll see is a body or two if they were fully grown in—”

Thank you, Sa’la. We don’t need a picture.”

Telim roared. The Selphid grinned at him, loving every minute of this. Vhedel coughed.

“Also, no sex in that region. That’s the only way they’d spread. Since our toilets are magical, we’ll just incinerate waste like usual. I could tell Cognita to make the Golems make sure, but…”

“Sex in that region?”

Flynn repeated, trying not to smile. Sa’la helpfully elaborated.

“No butt sex. All the other kinds are fine. Unless you get really inventive, which, frankly, I think anyone but a Selphid would have trouble with…”

Everyone began to walk away. Archmage Nailihuaile shook her head as she slithered rapidly back to her rooms for cleansing spells and a bath. She turned to one of her underlings, the horrified Beatrice, who, like many Dullahans, was not at home to any of this discussion.

“Spread the word! Everyone gets a tonic from Magus Vhedel who even blinked near that boy. Have Magus Vhedel compensated and…I’m going to take a bath. With soap potions.”

Beatrice nodded hurriedly. The [Mages] dispersed. The cure distributed.

It was just an event. Parasites. It happened to people! Trey made a full recovery in less than two hours after the potion was taken, and could get off the toilet after only thirty minutes after he’d called for help from Flynn. No one else came down with the gut-parasites.

All was well. Or…it would have been, but Archmage Nailihuaile had shouted the news in her haste to keep anyone else from having worm-poo. Thus, Troy Atlas was forever ‘worm guy’ in the halls of Wistram.

 

—-

 

“That’s definitely him. The kid who shit worms for two hours.”

“The Parasite Mage. He conjures magic from his bowels!”

“I hear they were magic worms, giving him his power.”

“Remind me never to ask him for a conjuration spell.”

The other Earthers laughed at that last one. Trey’s head was buried in his arms at the dinner table. ‘Worm guy’ would have been a treat compared to the inventiveness of the other [Mages].

And they loved to tell jokes like this. Trey was the target of the week; no one was going to forget this in a hurry.

“S-sorry, Troy. Stop laughing, Aaron! It’s not funny!”

“I can’t…I’m sorry, but I can’t. Did you hear what they said? Forget the Antinium. He can summon the brown tide!

Aaron Vanwell collapsed into his seat. Trey heard Elena jab him in the shoulder.

“Stop that.”

“It’s fine. Thanks, Elena.”

Trey was going to leave Wistram. He was going to hide under a rock—unless there were more worms there. He wanted to die.

He had never felt more embarrassed in his life. Everyone knew his name. Even more than an Earther, he was infamous.

Elena was trying to be kind and considerate, but the others sitting at the table, everyone from George to Aaron to Flynn, was laughing. The nice ones were trying to hide it.

Well, most of the guys were sniggering. Some of the other Earthers weren’t. And sadly, that was because for some, it was too…

“It’s not funny. It’s horrible.”

Sidney looked pale and sick and was sitting far from Trey. She was trying to be helpful, but the image of a bunch of parasites had been adjacent to her own trauma. Some of the others nodded too.

“They’ll stop talking about it. Eventually.”

Basil told Trey. The young man from Bulgaria gingerly put a hand on his shoulder.

They would never. But Trey thanked him anyways. He looked around at the tables of Earthers. They were trying to be nice. And at least he was among his people.

Children of Earth. He shook his head.

“Thanks, everyone. But I’ll live. I have to get to class.”

It was the next day. Breakfast—Trey didn’t have much of an appetite, except that he did after the scouring. He’d spent all of yesterday hiding in his rooms and periodically blasting the toilet with fire spells. It had to be replaced. He glumly stood up.

“Are you sure? You don’t have to go to class.”

Elena looked concerned. Trey just shook his head.

“I’ve got to study or I’ll fall behind. I’m trying to be a [Mage] and…it beats sitting around. Or staying in my room.”

He’d been told by Sa’la that the odds of more parasites remaining on his possessions was remote. Even so, he’d cleaned everything in the room. Three times.

The other Earthers looked up at him. A few waved. Aaron leaned over.

“You’re one of the best [Mages] here, Troy. Which is awesome, but you should join our events too if you have the time. Tomorrow? We’re having another gathering.”

An Earth-only gathering. Trey would have been at yesterday’s…but worms. He smiled weakly.

“Sure.”

He walked away, head bowed, hearing more jokes. The worst ones were funny. Trey tried to accept it. He was amazed anyone wanted to stand next to him after hearing what had happened—and few people did. His story wasn’t even worth a small secret; everyone in the academy of [Mages] knew what had happened.

It’s all part of my cover story. Who’ll suspect me of being an agent of the King of Destruction now? In fact, I have to free Archmage Amerys now and rejoin Flos.

Because I’ll always be the worm-guy over here.

At least he had classes. Learn magic. That was one of the reasons Flos had agreed to Gazi’s cunning plan to have Trey infiltrate. Find out what Wistram was doing, improve himself as a [Mage], and free Amerys.

Trey needed to learn magic anyways. He could learn on-the-go from Parasol Stroll, but Gazi had pointed out that unlike Teres, magic wasn’t something you could improve just by fighting and training. He needed an education and…

Well, he was getting one. Troy hoped classes would be some relief, if only because they’d be learning spells and the other students wouldn’t have as much time to laugh at him.

 

—-

 

The first class of Trey’s day was Eldavin’s seminar. The Grand Magus let anyone attend, but if you were unlucky, you just stood and watched him interact with a few members of the class. Everyone went who could anyways; he was just that good at magic and you learned something even if it wasn’t your discipline.

Trey had hopes because Eldavin remembered his name and Trey felt like the half-Elf liked him a bit for being properly deferential. But if he’d hoped Eldavin would be a relief from the torment of infamy, he was wrong.

“[Detect Parasites].”

The first thing Eldavin did when he saw Trey come in was point at him and cast the spell. Everyone turned and began laughing.

Eldavin just eyed Trey up and down. The young man was crimson.

“There are a number of spells that I suggest any [Mage] learn and cast with regularity. Now, that spell would fail to the most aggressive and insidious kinds of parasites; general spells always do. But a quick scan reveals nothing amiss. Everyone may relax. Except for you. Get out and wash your hands.”

He pointed to a Drake in the front row. Trey saw the Drake turn white and stared at his claws.

“Snails. Out.”

Everyone cleared a path for the Drake as he ran for the hallway, claws outstretched, forgetting his bags. They laughed—but then looked to the front of the room. And they fell respectfully silent, even the ones eying Trey with amusement.

That was a demonstration of Eldavin’s superior magical knowledge again. The half-Elf looked around.

“I could choose to lecture you on invasive magic-draining parasites, of which there are quite a number! But this is the practical class and I have no desire to drag down the historical lessons either. Suffice it to say that being a [Mage] does not preclude you from threats of every kind. Indeed, we are sometimes sought after because of our magic. But I digress. Today, as yesterday, we shall develop your strength.

Trey shifted as he began to relax. Eldavin’s first class of the day took on the same tone as the last week of study.

 

—-

 

The study of magic was, as Trey understood it, devoted to four main categories. He was taking the 1st-year classes in Wistram as well as Eldavin’s extra seminars, but interestingly, didn’t really ‘fit’ into the archetype of the first-year.

He knew too much. So Trey was ahead of even 2nd or 3rd-year students in some areas, while being, like most of Wistram, totally unqualified and underdeveloped in Eldavin’s.

And the old [Grand Mage] did use the same concepts, albeit with his own spins on them.

“A [Mage] studies in four ways! Which are?

He pointed and a student responded.

Foundation, Acquisition, Materialization, and Theorization, Grand Magus?”

“Correct! And as far as I am concerned, with the exception of the most experienced [Magi] in the room, none of you should be on Acquisition, let alone conflating Materialization with your Foundational studies!”

Eldavin swept around the classroom, inspecting students by their auras or demanding they show him basic concepts.

Foundation was the basic magical theory and understanding of magic that every [Mage] needed. [Sorcerers] skipped this part in some ways, but even they had to build up a base of mana to cast.

Like blood, or oxygen, a [Mage] had their own supply of mana. That was how Trey thought of it. You used it up as you cast spells, but like lungs, some were more efficient than others.

Superior [Mages] like Eldavin could throw spells around non-stop not just because they had a lot of magic, but because they were incredibly efficient. And Eldavin pointed that out now.

“A supply of magic is excellent. Knowledge of how to cast spells with minute waste is likewise superior. A Level 30 [Mage] with both qualities is superior, arguably, to a Level 40 [Mage] who can cast a few grand spells alone. I, myself, lack the superlative mana wells of the Archmages. That is my flaw.”

He tapped his chest, admitting his weakness. His students murmured. Eldavin went on.

“Skills can improve these qualities, but a good [Mage] does not gamble upon their success! That is Foundational work. Ensuring no magic is lost in your spells. And because the most basic of spells compound your higher-tier spells, I will see you perfect the most basic spells like [Light]! All of you in this group—you waste nearly half again the mana required for this spell. Yes, it is a Tier 0 spell. But that is no excuse!”

That was how he was sorting students. He made them cast [Light] and if they couldn’t do it without reducing the wastage of mana, he made them leave and go practice or retake the basic classes.

Two students in the first year had to leave that Trey knew. They had come with him and though he didn’t socialize with them as much as he wanted, he knew some of the standouts.

Every year had them and in Wistram, any special qualities were scrutinized. Trey had been lucky his Lifesand Golems weren’t public knowledge or if they were, they were probably secrets being sold around about him.

He didn’t like the air of secrets, but he had a ‘wallet’ of about twenty if he had to buy something. Some of those secrets were about his fellow students. Small secrets, mainly. And one huge one no one but himself knew.

There were four students like Trey who could be considered standouts. He himself actually qualified even before the…worms…incident.

Because Trey had a powerful magical staff, good robes, and an education, he was considered a promising first-year. In the same vein, he now saw two of the four promising students being cut.

One was Carn Thustone, also from Hellios. A tall young man with strong arms and perfect posture who flushed as Eldavin advised him to refine his magic. He was burly compared to most of his fellow students.

And he carried a sword. He had darker skin than Trey’s, even tanned, and his hair was brown-black. He was handsome, and older than most 1st-years, having been paid for by his family. Perhaps too old?

Well, his magical knowledge was on the same level as all the first years, which was to say, almost nonexistent. He bowed to Eldavin and marched sharply from the room.

Trey thought he was too stiff, too unyielding. He certainly scowled like his father, but he’d taken some of Venith Crusand’s worst qualities. ‘Carn’ glanced at ‘Troy’ for a moment, but his eyes passed right over.

Calac Crusand was his real name. Like Trey, he had adopted Hellios as his home country. He was the second infiltrator sent to Wistram. Was he good at it?

Well…no. But he wasn’t exactly pretending. He really was here to learn magic.

It was his [Lord] and [Swordsman] classes that made him a standout as a potential [Magic Swordsman] or similar class. However, he clearly wished he was part of Flos’ war and was thus ill-tempered, if somewhat admired for his martial abilities.

No wonder he couldn’t learn, though. But the other student surprised Trey.

“Is my spell not adequate, Master-Magus Eldavin?”

A huge eye blinked slowly. Eldavin looked at the Gazer boy, who was barely fifteen and had one huge eye and two…on his hands. Trey couldn’t help but stare at the Gazer from Baleros, one of the few he’d ever met.

Gazi had once told him that no Gazer had eyes in the same configuration. Like her, he had orange-brown skin, pointed teeth, odd digits and huge, magical eyes.

But he was more squat, almost closer to a toad of a person than Gazi, who was half-Gazer and had inherited the best of both races. The male Gazer looked shocked as well that he was being cut.

Gazers were born magic. Their eyes had great power even without being [Mages]. However, refining their talents made them more dangerous. Trey had heard Gazers taught each other and seldom left the jungles of Baleros, though. This young man, Goelv, was an exception.

He had few friends. He was alien, even compared to Selphids and Dullahans. Eldavin was not unkind or awkward as some teachers like Master Rievan were. But he was firm. He gestured to the perfect, glowing orb of eight different colors glowing in the Gazer’s palm. He had an eye there, which blinked up at Eldavin. A round eye, not like an oval, and his main eye in his head was huge. Unnerving to some.

It reminded Trey of Gazi.

“Your spell is perfectly contained, young man. However. You are leaking mana from here.”

His finger hovered over the Gazer’s hand-eye. Goelv looked astonished as Eldavin spoke.

“It is seeping into the spell. Control your eyes. Gazers are often deficient in that. Such great power—but if it is not concentrated, you are no better than any novice.”

“Yes, Master-Magus. Thank you. I apologize.”

Goelv bowed several times and stood up. He was very ginger with his supplies; he only used the tips of his long fingers. What was the practicality of hand-eyes, Trey wondered? But no Gazers were alike so maybe it was bad luck.

Two students passed the examination, as Trey did himself. Eldavin swept past him with a grunt.

“Eight percent. Work harder.”

Trey blinked at his orb of light. Gazi had made him cast the spell until he wanted to shove the ball of light up her nose. Which she did not have, so, nostrils? And it still wasn’t good enough?

“Let’s see. Nine percent. Barely good enough, but I’ll accept it.”

Eldavin nearly reduced the girl standing in the ranks of first years to tears. Again. And she was another person who’d come on Trey’s ship.

Little [Lady] Emirea du Merrimorn had blonde hair, fair skin, and was of Terandria. The same girl who’d burst into tears when first entering Wistram. She was one of the youngest first-years, a girl of barely eleven who seemed very young even for her age.

She reminded Trey…exactly not of the Quarass. Who was as far as she could be in the other direction. However, she was another ‘notable’ because of her talent at her age. She had class and magical ability at eleven. A girl to watch.

“T-thank you G-Grand Magus. I will do better.”

She was nearly in tears again. Eldavin hesitated.

“If this class is overly complex, Lady Merrimorn, I suggest you simply observe.”

“I would like to learn, Grand Magus.”

She gulped. He nodded, a touch less brusquely.

“Next? Pass! At least one person has reached two percent! Which I would expect nothing less of, given how the Drowned Folk understand that mana leakage is like blood in the water for some predators.”

He nodded approvingly. Trey shot a glance sideways at the fourth notable in his year.

The Drowned Man, Tov, whose smile only extended across half his face. The other half?

Slimy, not exactly gelatinous, but…slug.

Sea slug Drowned Man. He bowed slightly; he’d come with the Drowned Folk contingent and the [Depth Mages] who’d held their own at the battle at the banquet with Eldavin. As a student from the Underseas Crews, apparently. He had been born far, far below the surface of the sea where his people lived.

“Thank you, sir.”

His voice was like a whisper. He was soft-spoken, apparently a custom where his people were. Loud noises made him flinch.

“Very well. Control of mana is essential. Now, to the development of your mana supplies or the exercise of your magic, respectively. One group will develop their capacity. The second, their formation of spells and their control. The last? Output. Follow me.”

 

—-

 

Capacity, control, and output were more parts of Foundation. It was simple. Capacity was how much mana. Control was the fine control of manipulating a ‘thread’ of magic or ‘weaving’ it together, to use one kind of metaphor. Output? How much you could throw out at once, like how loudly you shouted.

Master all three, Eldavin claimed, and you were a fine [Mage] already. He lectured them as he took them at a brisk pace up the stairs.

“Foundation begets Acquisition! Before you move to the next step of acquiring spells, you must cast them perfectly! Or else you are implanting bad habits which will never go away! I’m lucky I caught you all—none of you are ready for acquisition. And Wistram teaches that hand-in-hand with Foundation! When I was last here…”

Acquisition was learning spells. Simple. It was a stage all [Mages] would keep coming back to, but Eldavin was insistent that most of Wistram’s [Mages] had done it too soon. You took each step one-by-one, according to him, whereas Wistram preached that the first three steps of magic could go together.

Foundation, Acquisition, and Materialization. Eldavin had laughed in their faces when a student repeated that.

“Does a Garuda learn to fly with a Ring of Flight on their fingers? Does a Centaur foal use a [Reduce Weight] spell when they first learn to walk? Your artifacts are crutches! Remove your wands! Put your staves away! Rings off!”

Materialization was the act of putting magic into actual things. It was collecting a big spell tome, getting a staff which helped you cast more magic, or some artifact.

Eldavin called it impairing and Trey saw his point. If you relied on Materialization during your Foundation stage, you didn’t learn. But Wistram’s [Mages] had been shocked by his insistence. They let anyone carry a powerful wand around, even first-years if they owned them.

Teriarch was back to basics. He jogged up the stairs.

“All three parts of your learning will inform your final step, students. Theorization. When you create new magic, explore your limits and push past them, every fault, every lacking quality will impede you from pulling magic higher with you! That is why you must be flawless. For magic will tear you to pieces when it is invoked strongly. What will be minor backlash now, a failed spell, losing control of a flame and having it singe your fingers, will turn into the kind of spells that erased Aldo Vat!

“Where’s that, Grand Magus?”

Exactly! Very well, output first! That’s the best of you who don’t need to work on the other two elements. We’ll have them start working first, so the rest of you take notes! Here we are!”

He wasn’t even breathing hard. Everyone else was; they’d run up staircase after staircase. Trey suspected Eldavin had used spells to make it easier; he clutched at his side.

“Are you okay?”

A Centaur third-year kindly asked Emirea, who had ridden on her back. The girl nodded.

“Thank you, Miss.”

She curtsied. The other students gasped for air as Eldavin strode onto a balcony. He stood at one of the higher points any [Mage] could get to.

High up in other words. And this particular balcony extended far out into the air. It was the most Hogwarts thing about Wistram, actually. Because you could get the walkway to move how you wanted, forming a loop back to another part of the academy for a shortcut, up to the higher floors, a ramp that took you almost to ground floor…

Most people knew it as the ‘Shortcut Balcony’ because it was so handy. The only problem was that many people wanted to use it so you could get a traffic jam, or be taken where you didn’t want to go.

Eldavin now used it in a way no one had seen before. He made the balcony go straight, extending for nearly three hundred feet straight into the air. He ushered them along.

“Hurry up! We’re wasting time! All the way to the end! You, the output group, stand here!”

They stood at the end of the balcony as it ended. Thin air lay beyond. And below?

Four hundred feet of space and then the waters below. They were clear of even the rocks around Wistram’s isle. Some of the students with agoraphobia turned dead white. Tov looked almost longingly down at the water below.

“Grand Magus? What are we doing?”

The ‘output’ group, who were the higher-year students who had mastered both control and capacity, looked at Eldavin. Trey already knew before the half-Elf smiled.

“You are all going to jump. And all of you are going to project wind magic. I don’t care how. Feet, hands, whatever. But use it to slow your fall so that you do not hit the water as hard as…well. This.”

He plucked at a young man standing next to him, and then flicked a finger. Trey saw a Human of about sixteen plucked off the walkway. He had time to scream before Eldavin telekinetically threw him off the balcony.

He went down, screaming, flailing, turning in the air. Everyone stared over the railing. Eldavin watched. There was an impact as the young man hit the water.

It should have been a splash, in Trey’s mind. Like a cannonball. It was not so…fun-sounding. It sounded like a crack as well as the splash of water.

“He just broke both his legs. And his arm.”

Eldavin observed calmly. The student had landed bad, in a belly-flop of four hundred feet. The other students looked at him.

Emirea burst into tears.

Grand Magus! Someone call a [Healer]!”

The other students backed away, horrified. Eldavin gestured and a wall of light blocked them from running.

“Calm down. Look again.”

He pointed. Everyone turned. Where the screaming young man had been lying face-down in the surf was…nothing?

“Illusion. That was what will happen if you do not arrest your fall. Actually, you may die. I advise you to cast impact-shields if you must, and do not land on your head. Vertically. But none of you will cast [Slow Fall], [Featherfall], or any other gravity spell! You will project air. And not a spell! Just air. The exercise is to, without relying on a spell, conjure enough magical force to prevent yourself from being hurt. Perhaps the impact shields for the first time, but the second, try to do without. Pain and fear of death is an excellent teacher.”

It was older students, so Eldavin wasn’t being…unreasonable. Well, he was, but Trey wasn’t one of the students. The youngest of them was still third-year.

“Grand Magus? Aren’t there other ways?”

One of the Dullahans looked panicked at the idea of the jump. Eldavin addressed him, curtly.

“Did you hear my lesson on how [Aeromancers] used to train, young mage?”

“Yes, Grand Magus. This was one of the ways. But…I am not an [Aeromancer].”

“Output of magic is output of magic. This terrifies you, yes? Can you swim?”

“N-no, sir. My armor is iron.”

The Dullahan was standing well clear of the ledge. Eldavin nodded.

“Cast a flotation spell. But jump. Because what strains you will teach you faster. Do I have a volunteer to go first?”

He looked around. One of the sixth-year students slowly raised a hand. Which was a wing. She grinned.

“I don’t know if this will frighten me as much, Grand Magus. But I will do it without flapping my wings!”

The Garuda [Mage] looked at him, her brilliant yellow plumage gleaming by daylight. Eldavin looked at her. He tapped a finger against his chin.

“Indeed. Well, I have a remedy for that.”

 

—-

 

A minute later, the Garuda and everyone else stared at the conjured weights that Eldavin had produced. They were twenty pounds. Each. And both were secured around her ankles.

At this point, Trey felt like he was watching a movie execution. The Garuda looked down at the surf.

“If I were you, I would not cast a flotation spell until I were in the water. Sever the ropes when you hit the surf or they will drag you down. I am told Wistram’s waters are clear of predator-fish. More’s the pity.”

Eldavin watched. The Garuda looked pale.

“You have called my bluff, Grand Magus. But…”

She hesitated. Half the students were shaking their heads. Trey couldn’t imagine how much air the Garuda [Mage] would have to conjure to stop her from hitting the water like…forty pounds of lead! Well, over forty pounds of air force? Without using a spell?

He’d tried along with the others and he could conjure a moderately stiff breeze. True, he wasn’t a sixth-year student, but…

“Grand Magus, should I prepare a barrier? What if I get hurt?”

“I make no promises. Nor will I watch, incidentally. I trust the students here can watch out for each other. Jump, run back up, or fly, or use whatever methods you wish, and repeat until you are out of mana. This is to train yourselves. I will not be responsible for injuries. Or deaths.”

Eldavin met their gazes. The Dullahan looked horrified. The other students in the output group looked at each other.

“Must we, Grand Magus? Is there no easier way?”

The Garuda was backing away from the edge, bravado lost. Eldavin looked at her. For a long moment, the half-Elf stood there.

“Easier? Yes. Of course. Your teachers can show you how to practice output. You can stand here, blowing air around and practice with no fear of death. Just push yourselves and you will learn. But, young woman. Do you have the time for that? When other [Mages] rise, do you want to take the easy, slow way, or the fastest I know?”

He turned to face the female Garuda. Eldavin smiled at her.

“It is not wrong to want to live as a [Mage] among equals. If that is your desire, stay up here and practice safely. But know that is what you become. So, young woman. My question is this: what would you do to learn true magic?”

The Garuda [Mage] stared at Eldavin for a long moment. The others were silent, thinking, looking at each other. Then, the young woman smiled. She bowed, spread her wings, and stepped backwards.

She jumped.

 

—-

 

Not all of them did. But over two thirds did. True to his words, Eldavin didn’t even watch the others. But he had made sure the Garuda came up; and she had managed to arrest her fall with the desperate blasts of wind. He had nodded to her in approval as she swam for shore.

“With theory alone, with control of magic, one can create any spell. That’s right. Create a line of magic in the air. Don’t use it! Just magic. If you can’t see this, incidentally, learn.

He was in control of the second group in another room designed for this very task. Again, repurposed or rather, the use rediscovered.

It was a room where magic did not ambiently gather. It was absorbed into the tiles in the blank room.

A magical void. Useful for [Mages] when something went wrong. A jail cell in some cases.

Or, as Trey now learned, to train your control. Eldavin had the second group training to hold a single ‘line’ of magic in the air.

It was hard, because the tiles wanted to suck it away. It wasn’t about your output; the [Grand Mage] didn’t care how much magic was spent, although he encouraged them to use a good amount depending on what they had.

But they had to keep the magic from being dragged away. The students were struggling, sweating, but it wasn’t dangerous.

It was highly amusing, though.

“You. One leg. You—hold this in your mouth. Don’t drop it. I saw this at an inn, once. Very entertaining.”

One of the Dullahans balanced on one leg as he tried to cast. The Grand Magus inserted a spoon with an egg in it in the mouth of a half-Elf. He glared desperately at the older half-Elf, speaking around clenched teeth holding the spoon.

“Grand Magus, why?”

“Because it’s distracting. [Mages] should control their magic in any circumstance! When swimming! When bleeding! When excreting worms! Or so I’ve heard.”

Trey turned crimson. The others laughed, but the control group was busy focusing.

“Keep it steady, and without weaknesses. You! There’s a thinning here.

Eldavin pointed. Trey could see what he meant. It was Tov, the Drowned Man, who struggled with this. He was ahead of the other first-years and thus put in this group. Eldavin nodded as he firmed it up.

“Good. Now, hold it. And…eat this dried pepper.”

He offered the Drowned Man a spicy, purple dried thing. Tov’s eyes watered at the smell alone and Trey winced for the young man.

But he ate the pepper. Eldavin nodded as tears began to leak from his Human eye.

“Suffering. But learning. That’s good. Time how long you can do it for. If you can pass this simple test, you can maintain your focus! That’s not the same as elegance of weaves, but I would actually say that short of a [Grand Mage], this is an acceptable level of control in this regard.”

The other students brightened up at that. Eldavin didn’t exaggerate. Tov spoke around his streaming eye and running half of his nose.

“How long—should I hold it to pass—Grand Magus?”

Eldavin gave him an encouraging smile.

“One hour. Do your best and keep at it in your own time. Don’t forget the peppers or similar distractions each time. Very well, capacity, with me!”

 

—-

 

“Capacity, control, output. Fundamentals of all spells. You all simply need the first of the three. By all means, practice the other two, but you lack the sheer…”

Mana. Trey was surprised he himself lacked it. He ventured as much as Eldavin stationed the last of the students in their training area.

“I thought I had enough mana, Grand Magus. If I’m wrong, I apologize.”

Eldavin stopped. It was true that Emirea lacked much, being a child, and mana capacities varied from student to student.

Some had [Mana Wells], which were a Skill which boosted your supply immensely. But there was innate mana reserve which differed from person to person. That was often what made people decide to become [Mages].

Trey apparently had a good one, according to Ulyse and Mirin of Parasol Stroll. It was one of the few things they hadn’t trained him in rigorously with Gazi.

Eldavin looked at him. His eyes flickered.

“It is true, young…Troy Atlas…that capacity is not really ‘trained’. This exercise is meant to expand it in all of you, and while [Mages] may do so, there is no real finesse, just need for a baseline. I shall explain as we begin. Are you prepared?”

Trey nodded. What were they doing to train their capacity?

Well, they were standing in the exact opposite of the rooms where the control group was. In fact, directly underneath those rooms.

The mana of this place was mana-dense. Rooms devoted to one element, like the underwater room whose water never left the open door. A room burning with heat—

This was an elemental-less room. Good for practicing new spells or where [Mages] went if they overextended. Now, Eldavin was having all the students push magic out. Like the control group, but he didn’t insist on any fine control.

Even as he did, Trey felt the ambient mana ‘filling’ him up. Eldavin nodded.

“Now—don’t break your connection, but—absorb the mana. And prepare for nosebleeds.”

It was like…again, to use the analogy of lungs, taking a breath, a huge breath. Exhaling it, taking the same amount of air and then inhaling the first breath.

That could probably burst a lung. What the students were doing was straining their internal reservoirs. Sure enough, half the class began bleeding from their noses.

“This is a very careful expansion of your magic. You! Too much intake. Slowly. Slowly—we are trying to strain your reservoirs. Do not try this without a [Grand Magus] monitoring you. In the past, students of magic drank mana potions to excess…this is more efficient. But all methods are dangerous. I repeat, do not do this alone! Not even experienced [Mages] should do this lightly.”

Emirea was bleeding from her nose. She pinched it, looking distressed, fishing for a handkerchief.

“Mana potionbth, Grand Maguth?”

Eldavin waved a hand and the bleeding stopped.

“One method is by alchemical ingredients, young woman. This is another, a very old one, but costless so long as rooms like this are acquired. You yourself have a weak capacity; I shall offer a week’s worth of lessons. It should be enough.”

Really? But how?”

The half-Elf smiled superiorly at her.

“Normal methods are dangerous the more one pushes. I know how to ‘relax’ the body to adjust to this process. Hence, the draughts you all imbibed and the exercises we will go over later.”

You couldn’t pay for this. Trey suffered a nosebleed on his third try. He looked at Eldavin.

“Why am I here, Grand Magus? I know it helps everyone, but why me?”

Eldavin looked at him.

“Think on it, young man. Why indeed? Why you?

He let Trey think on it for twenty minutes. When he circled back their way out of the sixty students, Trey offered a question.

“Is it my magic?”

“A fascinatingly obvious answer. Did it take you twenty minutes? Indeed. Golems drain magic and a [Summoner] or [Mage] of your class requires vast supplies.”

The other [Mages] in earshot looked at Trey. He stared at Eldavin. The [Mage] gave him a knowing look, aimed at Trey’s hood.

“[Necromancers] also benefit from this kind of exercise. Keep it up.”

 

—-

 

The results of eight nosebleeds and him actually having to run outside and throw up once manifested after two such lessons. It was why all the students did so, even young Emirea. The control group, the output group—and the students desperately trying to meet Eldavin’s basic standards so they could learn.

They leveled. Fast!

 

[Sand Mage Level 20!]

[Skill – Mana Well (Earthen) obtained!]

 

He waited for more. But there was no second Skill. Or a free spell. Even so, it was a big Skill.

Yeah. So great. So cool.

No, it was. But at breakfast later, Trey Atwood found himself socializing with some of the other first-years rather than the Earthers. They were friends, thanks to Eldavin’s class more than their shared first-year classes.

“…And then I woke up. And I got my first eye-Skill.

Goelv was speaking excitedly to the others. He smiled around and Trey saw Emirea flinch slightly. The Gazer noticed, but the little girl was trying. Trey smiled encouragingly.

“What’s an eye-Skill, Goelv?”

The Gazer boy gave him a smile. Trey had sat with him the day after the first lessons, having noticed Goelv was alone. Flynn had joined, and as a result, some of the other ‘notables’ including Emirea, Tov, and the surly ‘Carn’ had become a regular breakfast group.

On the second class, Goelv had managed to pass Eldavin’s exam, having apparently not slept until he had mastered his faulty eyes. The Grand Magus had been approving and put him directly into output, much to the Gazer’s horror.

Carn had yet to master his [Light] spell, but he sat in on every class.

“Eye-Skills are Gazers’. Excuse me. They are Skills of my people for our eyes. We have abilities, but these make them stronger. Paralysis, fear, you see? The strongest of us grow so strong that when they die, the cores of their eyes still hold power. Eye-Gems. Artifacts. Mine is weak, but look!”

He lifted his eye-hand, and shot a beam at a cup. It promptly set the wooden exterior ablaze. Everyone fanned at it until Carn poured his cup of water over it.

“Sorry!”

He could shoot laser beams from his eyes. Flynn pointed as Goelv stood up and began bowing to everyone who’d been alarmed by the flash of light. Trey nodded, mouthing back.

“And what about the rest of you?”

“I gained [Control Mana]. Basic.”

Carn grunted as he refilled his cup. He was sour about his slower progress. Emirea timidly raised a hand.

“I—I got [Mana Pool]. Which I am very happy about! I wrote back to my mother and she says it is very accomplished for my level! Below Level 10! And Troy has [Mana Well]!”

The young man ducked his head.

“I just wish it was as cool as eye-beams. Or Tov’s Spell.

You could gain free spells on leveling. The Drowned Man had been showing everyone his [Shadow Raven] spell, a kind of swooping darkness that could actually extinguish a [Fireball] spell if it wasn’t exploding.

“This is all great stuff. I wish I could take that Grand Mage’s classes. And you’ll keep leveling! So…”

Flynn looked excited, but he was behind even Carn. His voice trailed off as he looked from face to face. The first-years looked at each other. Oh yes. Levels. However…

 

—-

 

More practice.

Eldavin smiled the smile of a teacher who loved to see suffering on the face of his students. Malicious, in short.

It was great to level. But his classes?

First he had made the capacity-group stand in the mana-dense rooms. Since Trey had gained his [Mana Well], he was now in control. But instead of the rooms where you made a ‘line’ of magic and held it…

Trey stared at the [Light] spell in his hands shifting from every color of the rainbow in order. He had to do this while navigating the hallways of Wistram. He could not slow down or stop, and if he ran into anyone or blocked their way, he had to start over.

Wrong! Eyes forwards!

A magical hand reached out and slapped the back of his head. The spell flickered out and Eldavin pointed, forcing Trey back the way he’d come.

Oh, and he couldn’t actively look at the [Light] spell. Trey glumly trotted back the way he’d come. Other students or [Mages] gave him envious or encouraging looks. But the thing was…

You couldn’t get used to the lessons. Eldavin would just vary them. And it was good stuff! The other first-year classes weren’t nearly this good.

They essentially taught the same things as Eldavin. He just did it better, much to the rage of the other teachers. They taught basic spells though, and magical lessons, where he only had his morning magic class and later evening history, philosophy, and morality lectures where he’d talk about [Archmages] of old and so on.

However, his lessons weren’t fun. They made you level. They also made you want to sit on the toilet and crap worms for two hours instead. Literally, Trey grew so frustrated one time he actually yanked a tuft of hair out of his head.

They protested of course, after six days of grueling exercises that left them burned and spent for the rest of their classes. But Eldavin was unmoved.

“You may be full ‘[Mages]’ of Wistram, seventh years, and so on. What of it? None of you have passed Foundational training in my opinion. And it is my opinion that matters, or else you would not be in my classes! If you wish to join the [Mages] who do remain, work harder.

Some [Mages] like Teura, the best of the best students, and so on, would be part of the last hour of teaching where Eldavin actually talked spells. But he devoted the first two hours to the lesser students, who were not allowed to join the actual magic lessons.

Trey had accepted this at first and he knew the old axioms. Rome was not built in a day, walk before you run, and so on. But it still rankled.

“Stare at your hand before you stare through the trees.”

That was Goelv’s whispered remark in the same vein. Eldavin nodded.

Master your foundations! All spells are made of capacity, control, and output! It’s been six days! Complain to me after six months! Did you think you’d become real [Mages] overnight?”

He looked around and then focused on Trey.

“You.”

Trey had raised his hand. The others scooted back. It was a risky move, Trey knew. If Eldavin didn’t like your question because it was stupid, you left the classroom for the day.

“Grand Magus. May I ask—if Foundations are so important, why do we bother with Acquisitions? If you could cast any spell in theory if you knew all the elements and how magic worked, why bother with learning spells?”

He’d been wondering about that for a day or two. Eldavin’s eyes, which had been narrowed with impatience, focused on Trey’s face.

“You mean, no spells whatsoever, young man? But Spells, like Skills are part of how we level.”

Trey nodded slowly.

“Yes, Grand Magus. But it seems to me they help. But magic is still magic. Could someone cast magic without using Skills or Spells at all?”

Someone laughed; Carn. There were other titters in the classroom. It sounded stupid to the people who lived their entire lives based around classes and Skills and such. Only Emirea didn’t laugh; she looked curiously at the Grand Magus.

And Eldavin? He gave Trey a long, long look. And then he nodded.

“Well said. What a world that would be, wouldn’t it?”

The laughter cut off. Eldavin looked at Trey again, and the [Sand Mage] thought he’d hit a mark. Because Eldavin had the look he sometimes got when a student asked a particularly good question. He slowly walked around the room.

“In its purest form? Hypothetically…if there were a being without Skills or Spells, could they cast magic as well as any [Mage]? Oh, yes.”

He smiled, almost to himself.

“Because Skills are like artifacts, just more convenient. Magic is magic. It is entirely possible for that to come about. Perhaps the greatest magic-users would be like that. Pure. What a world that would be. Unimaginable, of course.”

For a second, he looked out a window, smiling to himself. Then his good mood faded. He turned, sighing.

“…But there is a good reason that Spells exist. Why they are, in fact, important. A fair question, Troy Atlas. Think like that the rest of your life. But you are still wrong. Spells are not better, more potent, or more adaptive than wild magic, or the magic of monsters or indeed, ‘spells’ that are created free-form. But they have one quality which makes them far superior. And it is…?”

He looked around. A few hands were raised and snatched down. Eldavin didn’t wait. He looked at Trey.

“The answer is: spells are less mana-intensive. I could create a fireball identical to a [Fireball] spell. But since one is a spell, one consumes far less mana. Thus, more powerful in every conceivable way for [Mages].”

“But why, Grand Magus? Is there some minute difference?”

The half-Elf met Trey’s eyes. He hesitated, then spoke.

“…Because they are.”

It was the first, and only time he had ever given an answer like that. Because they were. Spells were better. Trey left that lesson curious.

 

—-

 

He was not the only one. Why was any of this happening? What was this strange new world?

Questions that had plagued Earthers from the first days they’d found themselves here now tormented the greatest minds in Wistram. No one knew the answer.

But they had a lot of clues. Clues were people, devices, knowledge from both worlds.

Invariably, the Earthers who were fought over like possessions resisted being traded about. There was no union, no way to oppose [Mages] and their factions directly. But it had not come to that. And because they were not prisoners entirely, the Earthers had used what was available to them.

Troy! You made it! Washed your hands? Aw, I’m just kidding! Get in here!”

Justin grabbed Trey as the young man opened the door to one of the Earth-rooms.

Some things were instinctual. As in…other places…the people of Earth had created secret rooms for them to be, well, people of Earth. Trey had been invited to the therapy sessions run by Malia, but he’d only listened, not really shared.

This, however, was no beachfront with relaxing, calming visages and a place to be safe. This was…

The stereo quality wasn’t great on most of the devices. But Aaron had put aside all of his projects to try and upgrade the one set of portable speakers that someone had taken in a suitcase. With magic and effort, the bass went through Trey’s bones.

Whoa!

Flynn looked past Justin into the karaoke room. Well, karaoke, or just songs on the combined playlist of all the Earthers.

And it was a long list because the overlap for the most popular songs was mitigated by the multiple nationalities that had come to Wistram.

Not just languages, but timelines. The most popular songs were the ones from the later years. As late as 2019! Trey, having missed the best songs of two years, listened appreciatively.

Or tried to. Justin screamed in his ears about the best songs over the intense bass until Trey had to shout back.

“This is great, but I’m going deaf!

Try the other room then! We’ll be here!

Flynn was at home with this room, and Trey saw a girl gesturing at the person with the laptop to turn it up. This was the room for people who were trying to recreate the same effect of a front-row concert. And if you thought speakers could get loud, you’d never heard a speaker with [Loud] and [Echo] spells attached.

Trey actually heard ringing in his ears as he escaped the first room and made his way down the private hallway in this suite apart. You had to know the passphrase for the door and somehow, even the Archmages didn’t. Aaron had provided this set of rooms after having obtained the super-secret location and code.

The [Mages] knew the Earthers had secret rooms, and smiled to themselves at their antics. They made the incorrect assumption that while, they, personally, didn’t know how to get in, someone in their faction surely did. It wasn’t as if Aaron or the other Earthers could uncover secrets of Wistram that they, the owners of this place, had not discovered, right?

The second room Trey opened was a much more reasonable song. And it was actually karaoke. Elena, the [Beautician], was singing with someone else. Not perfectly, but they laughed in delight as they finished the song.

“Troy! Are you a [Singer]?”

“Not me.”

Trey instantly refused, blushing a bit, as they tossed the ‘microphone’ over, which was actually enchanted rather than electronic. But someone had actually taken the time to try to detail and paint it like an actual microphone.

This was a place for people who missed home. Elena detached herself as someone else waved for their turn. Her cheeks were flushed with actual excitement. It was a rare contrast to the scowl she normally wore.

“I’m glad you could make it. You’ve been studying all this time. Not that it isn’t great, but we were getting a bit worried about you.”

“Sorry. I uh—”

“Are they still teasing you about the worms?”

Elena glanced sidelong. Trey shook his head, turning redder. She smiled sympathetically.

“You can always come here. The rooms are open all the time. Just keep it secret. Have you seen the other rooms?”

“I’m still sort of deaf from the first one.”

Trey rubbed at one ear. Elena rolled her eyes, exasperated.

“The concert rooms? They’re all going deaf, I swear to god. But here—come on and take a look. It’s not just music. We’ve got several rooms set up. Nothing fancy, but it’s for home, not figuring everything out mostly. Like so…”

The third room was for video games. You wanted to play one of the games on any number of devices? You put your name on the list and requested an hour. It was a full list, Trey saw. Elena grimaced.

“I’m managing that. You wouldn’t believe how many fights there are. You play games?”

“I’m not a gamer, but I like them. What’s on here?”

Trey inspected the list. Elena smiled.

“Well, we actually have a Switch—a Nintendo thing.”

“A what?”

Trey turned to her. Elena snapped her fingers, her eyes lighting up.

“You don’t know? It’s one of the newest consoles. Someone brought it and we can’t hook it up to a television or do more than two-player games, but…here. Hey! I’m showing Troy around! Who’s got the Switch?

She pushed the door open and Trey saw a room filled with couches, chairs, cushions, all furniture stolen from the rest of Wistram by Earthers with bags of holding. Someone looked up.

Elena! I have it for this hour!”

George complained. Elena shook her head.

“Just show it for five seconds. Don’t be a baby, George. Everyone turns to children when it comes to wanting to use them. Here—”

She showed Trey the device. He exclaimed and George, despite his objections, was happy to talk about the long-awaited console, which hadn’t been out for another year when he’d vanished. He’d been agog to get to play it.

“But that means two years have passed. And it’s not been one here.”

Trey looked at Elena. George’s face fell. She hesitated, gave the Switch back and turned to him.

“Let’s talk about it…”

She led him outside as everyone went back to playing with each other or by themselves on the electronics. Elena turned.

“I didn’t want to disturb them. This is where they blow off steam. Not all of us want to talk about…time. And home.”

“Sorry.”

She flashed him a smile and Trey felt awkward again. Elena was one of the older Earthers, a good number of years on him and very pretty. She shook her head.

“No, it’s a good thing. Not everyone wants to talk about reality back home. If you want to—let’s skip the cooking room. This is where I think you’ll want to see things.”

They passed by the room where Earthers could enjoy meals from home. It was not the haute cuisine you might expect, but homey foods. To the outrage of many, a lot of effort had been put into recreating an authentic version of the store-bought, boxed mac and cheese—a nostalgic dish for some. Trash for others.

“Here. This is the News Room.”

Elena took Trey into a large room where he stopped and stared. It was a long wall, upon which someone had tacked bits of paper onto a cork board—well, many boards. It was…

A timeline of world events. Starting from around 2016, stretching into late 2019, which was the latest Earther they had.

World events from Earth. Not just one country or major news; the ‘central’ line was about the biggest world events, natural disasters, wars, and so on. But there were smaller additions higher or lower where people contributed tidbits about individual countries they remembered.

“It’s a work in progress. You’re free to add anything, but we do try to make sure it’s verified. Justin—you know that guy?—tried to convince everyone Russia went to war with half a dozen countries. Asshole. This matters and we have people from everywhere.”

“What?”

Trey was distracted. He was reading down the timeline of events. He stared at a spot.

Spirited Generation? What’s this?”

He pointed to something in late 2017 and just around early 2018, covering the months of December to early February. Elena somberly looked at it.

“Well, read.”

Trey read. He turned.

Photos? Video footage of us vanishing?

“It was just happening when some of the newest arrivals got snatched. Yeah. I don’t know what came after that. But they know.

Trey stood back. They knew. Earth…knew he was missing?

Something ignited in his chest. A longing. He looked at Elena. She met his eyes, and smiled slightly. Sadly.

“I didn’t know if this would bother you. Some people can’t stand to be here. You’re fine though, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Then—this is darker, but take a look.”

She led him to the last room on the hall. Past rooms where you could ‘hide’ from the [Mages]. Past a room with a punching bag, three rooms which were for people who wanted to pray.

A chapel, a…Trey didn’t know one of the religions written on one of the doors, but he recognized a lot of dominant religions.

The rooms of Earth. At the end of the hall, next to some rooms yet to be used for a purpose, Elena put her hand on the door. The nameplate was simple. It read:

Names Room.

Someone was inside. He looked up as Trey and Elena entered.

“Oh. Hey, guys.”

Aaron took his eyes away from the names written on the wall. His expression, normally amiable or excited when talking about his projects, was somber. Trey looked around.

This was familiar, too. Elena didn’t need to explain.

It was a list of dead Earthers.

Wistram had provided some of the names. Those who had survived where friends or family had not had provided others.

Not all the scraps of paper were written in the same handwriting. Some were shaky, written in another language, or transcribed.

A few were just the names, nothing more. Some were names, dates, descriptions in brief.

“This is the Names Room. If you have anyone…”

Elena trailed off. Aaron nodded at Trey. The young man slowly nodded back. He hesitated, looking at Elena.

“I…no. I haven’t met anyone else.”

A camera flashed in his mind. Trey clenched his fists. But that was A’ctelios Salash. And Troy Atlas had not been there. He looked at the tally. And it was far too many. Over a hundred names already.

A hundred people? He felt his breath coming faster. His head turned around the room.

“Steady.”

Aaron put a hand on his shoulder. Trey saw him and Elena watching, a bit anxiously.

“Like I said. Even less people come here. But we keep it for a reason. Actually…there’s one more thing. Do you want to step—”

I’m fine.

Trey said it more harshly than he intended. Elena nodded. She pointed and he tore his eyes away from the lists of names. He recognized Sidney’s siblings. And one name that had once been spoken by Gazi. It had struck him.

 

Erin Solstice, Liscor.

 

The most recent addition. Elena offered him something. A book. Inside, he saw, on the first page—

 

Aaron Vanwell. Came to Wistram Academy, became a [Magictech Engineer]. I tried to help.

Elena Othonos. Arrived in Terandria, became a [Beautician]. In the company of the Singer of Terandria, Cara O’Sullivan. Came to Wistram. Tell my parents I love them. Check on my dog for me.

 

If Trey had felt struck in the gut before, now, he felt his stomach drop out of the floor. He knew what this was, too.

“Just in case we don’t make it. You don’t have to write anything.”

He looked up. Elena hovered with Aaron, looking somber. Old. He looked back at the wall of names. The book.

“I—”

Something welled up in him. Trey’s voice was shaky, now.

“I—could I have a moment? I’d like to write…”

“Here. A quill. Take your time.”

Elena nodded and Aaron passed him one. They gave him space. Trey looked around the room. Slowly, he stared at the book.

He added his name. Troy Atlas. A little message for his family. But that…

That wasn’t him. Nor could he add Teresa. Rather, Trey wrote quickly. Then—he went to the wall. He found one of the pieces of paper and began to write.

The children of A’ctelios Salash joined the names on the wall. Trey pinned them there, hiding them under some other bits of paper. He stared at the writing, so tense that his quill had pierced the paper in two places. He ended the brief description with a message.

Pakeil. May still be alive. They will be avenged.

He left the room after that. Why had he come to Wistram? What motivated him more than the King of Destruction’s grand dream?

It was that.

 

—-

 

Afterwards, Elena and Aaron treated Trey to a light drink. It was the thing to do, after all that.

“Sorry for laying it on you. But you held it really well.”

“How many people are…trying to figure it out?”

“Just a handful. Most don’t want to think about it. Or block it out, it seems like. You have to really think about home all the time. I can’t blame them—but someone has to. Listen, it’s not all bad. We know more are out there. That Canada [Reporter], the [Popstar]—and there’s a rumor in the Revivalists that someone found a [Doctor] in Baleros. Wistram’s checking it out.”

Trey took a sip from the glass, tasting a fruit beverage with a hint of something stronger in it.

“You knew her, right, Elena? That’s what Flynn told me.”

Elena half-smiled.

“Cara? Oh yes. And believe me—if we weren’t stuck in Wistram, I’d say we should all join her. She’s…great. Sort of difficult to be around, but we have a safe place and the Archmages aren’t going to hear about it from me.”

“Really?”

Aaron and Trey leaned in. Elena clamped her lips shut.

“Sorry. I told you, Aaron, but no one will ever know. And I don’t know where it is. Cara set it up. And she sent me here—she’s not trusting Wistram. But like I said, she found a way to protect people. She’s tough.”

“What’s she like?”

Elena was happy to tell stories about Cara. Not all who had come from Earth had been dragged around, or suffered until they were saved.

“She’s the highest-level Earther in this world, I’ll bet anything. Yeah, she’s singing songs from Earth, but she essentially created her business and image. She’s seen combat—that was before I met her. And I saw some stuff. But there are others who went through fire. A real odyssey, even. Have you met Sang? Sorry, that’s his nickname. Sang-min? Korea.”

“No. Wait…is he the one with the scar…”

Trey had seen a young man with a scar running down his shoulder across his chest. Aaron and Elena nodded.

“You should ask him what he did. He doesn’t mind retelling it. Apparently, he landed in Terandria. First thing he did was become a [Mercenary]. Earned enough gold to buy passage to Wistram when he heard we were here. Apparently, he’d just passed his army training so he was ready. You know, they have mandatory military service there?”

Really? Wow.”

“And you made it out of Hellios with full [Mage]’s gear and an education. While the King of Destruction was rampaging across Chandrar. You’re no slouch yourself.”

Aaron commented. Trey lifted a cup to his lips automatically.

“It wasn’t much. I was lucky, that was all.”

“Do you mind talking about it? You haven’t said much in the therapy sessions.”

Trey hesitated.

“I don’t have much to talk about.”

He lied. Elena gave him a knowing look while Aaron nodded, oblivious.

“But you have seen battle?”

Trey mulled over the question a bit too long. Even so, he nodded.

“A few times. [Bandits] and monsters.”

It was an honest answer. He’d been warned about truth spells of course. Aaron looked…interested. Elena’s face was troubled, but Aaron leaned forwards.

“Really? Did you fight, fight, or were you casting spells from the back or something?”

“Aaron.”

Elena scowled, but Trey shrugged.

“I saw fighting. I’ve…killed people.”

The two looked at him. Aaron closed his mouth slowly. Elena gave Trey another look. He slowly took another drink from his cup.

Ah, yes. That was what was so interesting about this place. Trey looked around. Most of the Earthers, with the exception of this Sang, a few others, had survived or not met with monsters. Some, like Aaron, still thought of it like fantasy, even if he was aware of the reality.

“Well, you’ll be safe here. You don’t have to learn magic to defend yourself if you’re worried about…you know.”

Elena told Trey. He looked at her.

“We have to fight someday. There are monsters out there. Crelers and worse.”

“You want to fight Crelers, dude?”

Aaron was astonished, half grinning at the bravado. Trey was silent. He’d seen Crelers. Orthenon had shown him and Teres a nest.

“I heard someone had a gun. Are we okay with giving Wistram…that?”

He changed the subject. Elena grimaced.

“It’s an airsoft one. You know, those pellets? And yes, Saif. We’re trying not to give them that. Or Aaron’s inventions.”

She glowered. Aaron raised his hands.

“Look, it’s self-defense! Against Crelers and stuff!”

“Your Shock Orb isn’t self-defense. You gave one to Montressa and she went after someone!”

“Archmage Naili did that. But we’ve got two. Just in case…”

“Shock Orb? What’s this about?”

Trey glanced up. Elena and Aaron looked at him. Elena sighed.

“Toys.”

Aaron grinned at Trey, looking younger for all he was older.

Magictech.

 

—-

 

Aaron Vanwell was a [Magictech Engineer]. And he might never have seen what happened when you struck someone with a sword—or smelled burning flesh. Seen a Pakeil. But good on him for not seeing any of those things. No one should.

He was good at what he did, and what he did was marry electronics and magic together. Trey stared at the floating orb of brass, or possibly copper, saw the diagrams of the internal magical battery.

“I made that. I’m still learning the activation runes and whatever Naili did. But if you cast a shock spell—bam!

“Cast a shock spell and I will break that thing. It’s dangerous.

Elena warned Aaron, keeping well clear from the invention, a powerful artifact for any [Aeromancer] or [Mage] in general.

Indeed, Aaron was not careless. He’d given all three anti-shock rings. Especially because his second creation was just as thematically electric.

“It’s the glove.

He showed Trey a familiar looking glove, with a glowing space in the palm. If you hooked it into a magical battery, or used your mana, you could send bolts of lightning flying.

…However, it had about as much accuracy as a bolt of lightning in the wild. Aaron was working on focusing it. Also—you couldn’t fly with it like the movie it was based off of.

“I’m going to make the entire suit of armor.”

“For what? [Mages]? Yourself? Are you trying to become an adventurer?”

Trey was curious. He eyed both weapons and Aaron shrugged.

“Just in case. But wouldn’t it be amazing if you could fly around in it? I know there are [Flight] enchantments. Put one on the boots and…dude. Iron Man!

Elena rolled her eyes, exasperated. Trey, on the other hand, looked at the Shock Orb.

“How much power does that orb have?”

“I don’t know. Montressa—she was Naili’s helper, with Beatrice—took one for field testing but they never came back. And it’s an augment to spells. She could cast [Chain Lightning] through it.”

“Really? That’s Tier 4, I think. Tier 5? Can you use it?”

“Sure can. Not as strong, but…want to see it?”

Absolutely not. They’re secret and no one knows we have them. And you’re not setting the punching bag on fire again.”

Elena warned Aaron. He looked crestfallen; the room was a small ‘armory’ of little trinkets, wands, that the Earthers had stockpiled for a ‘just-in-case’ scenario. Trey glanced around and stepped back.

“Well, if it’s just a small spell—why not hit me? I’ll use [Sand Wall] or [Light Barrier]. Go on.”

“What? No—”

Aaron looked astonished. He recoiled as Trey stepped back. So did Elena.

“Troy, that’s way too far. Aaron’s inventions aren’t perfect. I’ve seen them explode.”

“I can block a [Lightning Bolt] once. Try it. You have to test it to know if you can use it, right? Do you have any armor? Have you used it on a monster?”

Trey looked from Aaron to Elena. The two older Earthers stared at him. And again, Trey felt it. He lowered the staff he’d raised and looked around.

 

—-

 

Trey Atwood thought of himself as…meek. Compared to Teres, who’d taken up a sword and fought in battles. He wasn’t brave or reckless, certainly not a born warrior like the King of Destruction’s court.

And yet, he realized, his time in Chandrar had changed him a bit. He had become more warlike than the other Earthers. Even other [Mages].

The realization hit him when he offered to let Aaron test the Shock Orb on him. He didn’t mean full power right off, but why not? If he got shocked, he had the ring on and he would have cast spells to protect himself.

He wouldn’t die. He had seen battle, so the point that Trey realized was…

It was childish. Not just Aaron, but the other young [Mages], the people who got excited about the idea of fighting. Even Flos understood the reality of death and battle, for all he embraced it. Because he was insane in that regard.

But someone who’d never seen someone die? Never stabbed someone or hit someone and seen what [Light Arrows] could actually do to flesh if you shot a hundred of them into someone?

When the duels began, Trey hated it.

Dueling was a practice among students, and even [Mages]. Not as much Eldavin’s free-for-all as agreed-upon matches, sometimes for grudges, other times for bets or just pride or status.

They were quick, and could take place at a moment’s notice. There were known duelists in each year, and apparently Nailihuaile had once been a good one. The other Archmages? Not so much.

“What about Archmage Amerys? Wasn’t she one?”

Trey got a chance to slip her name in as he stood with some second-years and his group of [Mage] friends. Tov looked sideways as the Drowned Man watched two [Mages] dodge around each other, using quick, low-level spells to hammer each other’s barriers until one collapsed—or one gave up.

You could get hurt, but killing another [Mage] was rare, and of course, frowned upon. Anything short of that was usually healable with potions.

But how stupid. You could lose an eye with a single [Fire Bolt] spell. Trey glowered at the two ‘duelists’, who didn’t actually have the [Duelist] class.

“Archmage Amerys? Before my time. But I heard she didn’t duel. Only Naili did. Weird though. She’s the ‘Calm Flower of the Battlefield’, one of the King’s Seven.”

A student remarked. Trey nodded, and then supplied his own answer. Amerys probably didn’t duel because she killed people instead of played at it. If she was anything like Mars, Gazi, Orthenon—any of the Seven, this wasn’t what she’d enjoy.

“Yield! Yield! Damn it, you win!”

The [Pyromancer] second-year gave up as the [Hex Mage] finally beat her. Grinning, the [Hex Mage] accepted accolades, trotting about as the Drake picked herself up. He was a Centaur.

“That’s a win streak of six! Can anyone stop me? Anyone first to fourth-year!”

The Centaur was named Reham, and he strutted about, rather cocksure and proud of himself. Trey saw him look around challengingly and focus.

Not on Trey, but Carn. The young man, who was both a [Lord], [Warrior], and junior [Mage] had dueled twice. Both times, he’d not even cast a spell but beaten his opponents with his sword.

“What about you—Carn, isn’t it? Think your sword’s fast enough to beat my spells? Let’s see a disarming spell versus that sword!”

Reham teased. Carn just shook his head.

“I’m not about to cut you.”

Those were fighting words to Reham. He tossed his head as his friends oohed. And began to place bets. Trey saw the challenge and affront in Reham’s eyes.

But what he took to be Carn boasting was just fact. It was obvious that Carn—Calac—would never get Reham to surrender unless he had a blade at the Centaur’s throat. And the Centaur would just keep back.

If Calac actually draws his sword, he’ll cut your leg off. That’s why he won’t fight you.

Trey watched as Reham tried to provoke Carn. And there made his first mistake so far on his undercover mission.

Trey’s ability, his talent, was not magic. It was not a cleverness of the tongue or swiftness of the mind. He was…decent at magic. But that was all.

If Trey had one strength, it was the ability to not annoy people. To, put simply, ingratiate or keep from offending people he met. To smile at people he hated, or when they said something he didn’t like.

He’d learned a bit of it with Flos; more with Fetohep and simply being around people like that. It was why he’d honed in on Eldavin’s true nature. Not just the mighty; Trey’s enduring quality had been his ability to keep his true emotions hidden.

It was a talent. Everyone thought they had a perfect mask when they were hiding how much they really hated someone else’s guts, or were bored, or…anything.

They were wrong. Almost everyone had a tell, and Trey had learned to be better than most—thanks to Gazi and his experiences.

However, he had breaking points. And, he was learning, when he really didn’t like something?

It was as obvious as the scowl on his face. Which Reham saw now, because he swung around to the [Sand Mage].

“You don’t look very impressed. Ah! It’s the worm guy! Summoner of intestinal troubles! Now there’s a hex! What about you? Do you want to try me? I’ll use only one hand!”

He laughed and everyone began to notice Trey again. Just when the attention had been dying down. Trey shook his head.

“I don’t duel.”

“Come now. You certainly looked like you thought you had a chance. What about Carn and you together? Sword and worms!”

Sword and sand. Trey felt his jaw clench. He saw the young man look sidelong at him.

“Carn can’t fight you. He’d kill you. He doesn’t know how to pretend to fight.”

He informed the Centaur. Reham recoiled. Tov glanced at Trey and the young man realized his second mistake.

They might not be warriors who knew what it was like to kill people, but no one Reham’s age and temperament would have let that go. The Centaur flicked a wand out of the air.

“You and me, Atlas. A duel! One hand—until you admit I’m your better. Or apologize now and I’ll let it go.”

“Reham! He’s a first-year!”

“Then I won’t even move my hooves.”

The Centaur retorted. Troy saw some of his friends, Goelv, Emirea, Tov, looking worried.

“Enough of this. I’ll fight you. My sword touches you, you forfeit.”

Carn interrupted. Reham looked delighted. But Trey’s ire was up.

“I’ll do it.”

He lifted his staff as the older students looked delighted or appalled. Trey stalked to a place opposite Reham. The Centaur [Hex Mage] snorted confidently.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take it easy on you! No spells until the count.”

Trey just glared at him. He readied the [Geomancer]’s staff, taken from his corpse. He thought of war. A’ctelios.

“…two…one…”

The [Sand Mage] raised his staff. He cast without speaking, with Gazi’s training in him. He didn’t need to speak the spell aloud.

[Light B—]

Something hit his face and knee and he went sprawling. They weren’t hard impacts. Not impacts at all, but the bolts of magic turned his muscles to jelly for a second. His legs collapsed and his mouth went numb. He sprawled to raucous laughter.

Trey lay on his back for a moment as Reham snorted. He lay there…

Embarrassed, as people laughed at ‘worm guy’. Who was also a first-year unwise enough to challenge a third-year duelist. And who had forgotten—

He was no great [Soldier]. They might have been petty mage duels, but you still had to be fast. The best of them had become adventurers. They still told stories about the [Necromancer] who had been exiled.

“Well? Getting up? I’ll let you have the first spell!”

Reham called. Trey lay there, and felt something wiggle in his hood. Minizi. She was trying to get free. The little Lifesand Golem was ready to fight!

Slowly, Trey got up. His cheeks were red, and people were chuckling or wincing with sympathy. He looked at Reham as the Centaur waited.

“Want to continue?”

“One spell?”

Trey called out, a bit shakily. The Centaur laughed.

“Bravo! Yes, go ahead! Next one who falls down loses! I like his spirit.”

He turned to the others. He wasn’t actually a bad person. Although perhaps a bully. Either way, he gave Trey the first spell and probably didn’t deserve what happened next. Trey planted the staff as his friends watched. He took a breath, pointed at Reham, who had the sense to throw up a barrier.

Trey spoke.

[Karas Duststorm].

 

—-

 

It turned out that when discipline needed to be administered, Wistram Academy had its methods. Not only was Trey Atwood forced to write a written apology and recompense the injured, he had to perform menial magical chores like replacing [Light] spells and so on for two weeks.

Not fix the hallways or clean up; that was a job for Golems. But he was in trouble.

He hung his head as he sat in his rooms that night. What was wrong with him? The answer? Trey had indulged his temper for the second time since coming to this world. And he really should have realized the first time, when he stabbed Baosar with the [Light Spear], that his temper was a dangerous thing.

“I’m frankly impressed. It’s not every day we meet a first-year student who can cast a spell of that magnitude. But it’s frankly unacceptable. Even more since there were bystanders! Twenty three needing potions and poor Reham is suffering the [Healer]’s attention even now.”

“It was a duel, Magus Telim.”

The huge [High Mage] had been the one to rule Trey’s sentence with six other [Mages] on the disciplinary committee for the week. He had actually been the one who offered the most punishment.

Which was fair. [Karas Duststorm] was not a single-target spell. And when Trey had felt the magic leave him and seen the roaring blast of dust, sand, and stone shoot down the hallway at the laughing people, Reham and his friends, he’d known he’d made a mistake.

No one was laughing at ‘worm guy’ now. The [Sand Mage] had injured an entire hallway of students, some quite badly. Karas Duststorm was a spell for battle. It wasn’t as deadly as other Tier 3 spells—but it was dangerous, the kind of thing that made a charging rank of [Soldiers] blind and tore skin off if you were too close.

No one laughed at Trey anymore. Indeed, it seemed to be that many now regretted joking at his expense, considering, rightly, that it had led to this moment. But a second consequence of the duel gone wrong was that everyone now knew Trey’s level, roughly at least.

[Mages] had [Appraisal] spells. Trey had an anti-appraisal ring. Perhaps some had noticed this, but he was one among many. Now, they reconsidered. And the evidence was plain.

A first-year capable of casting Tier 3 magic? Unheard of! Okay, not unheard of, but rare for someone his age! Sometimes you got self-taught [Mages] of that caliber, but rarely as young. Of course, the [Mages] higher-up knew the real reason for Trey’s level.

Earther. But it meant even Aaron and the others were looking at Trey respectfully. Flynn included.

Trey just wanted to hide under his bed with the embarrassment, regret of it all. He wanted to apologize to Reham, but the Centaur was still unconscious. What had he done? All his lofty thoughts about what a ‘real battle’ was, and Trey had injured innocent people and overreacted. What a prat he was.

“Go away, Minizi. You can have the bed.”

The Lifesand Golem stared at Trey under his bed. She obediently climbed onto the top of his bed and sat there.

Trey crawled out of his bed after a while and got back to his punishment.

 

—-

 

The [Light] spells of Wistram Academy were important to keep lit. Since most of the academy was indoors, only a few windows had actual spells to reveal the outside world.

And whilst there were ancient enchantments of light that had never faded or gone dark in thousands of years…most were not that.

Even artifacts needed their mana supply topped up, or adjusted, or a semi-permanent [Light Sconce] spell needed to be recast every few days.

The [Mages] had taught Trey the new spells as a punishment. Now, he had to go around and replenish them floor by floor.

It was boring work. As boring as Eldavin’s exercises, without the benefit of actually leveling. The problem with higher-tier or more complex spells was that casting some could take minutes.

It took six minutes to cast a [Light Sconce] spell at Trey’s level of expertise. Not because it was a Tier 3 spell—it was Tier 2—but because you had to anchor it, configure the bindings…

It was boring. And if you made a mistake, the entire spell matrix collapsed or blinded you. Once, it began flashing on and off every two seconds, which was entertaining…but Trey had a quota before his punishment ended.

Three days of punishment later, he was a pariah.

Worm guy was sand guy was Troy Atlas, whose name was mud. He was both clown and violent monster.

Oh, the Earthers stuck by him, and his friends, but Troy himself felt like everyone knew his stupidity. If he hoped that class would take his mind off it—

Eldavin.

 

—-

 

“Magic is not a metaphor for one thing. It is not a single tool, a hammer, just as it is not a sword. A sword has a set number of uses. Magic has no such limits. So I shall not speak to any trite metaphors when explaining it to you. What I shall say is that [Mages] have a responsibility to use magic well. Not that it is without reason to use in self-interest. Why not? But when [Mages] lose control, when selfishness replaces any hint of altruism or sense of community, cataclysm occurs. Wistram has learned and forgotten and learned that lesson many times. Let me recount a few moments to you.”

The day after the [Karas Duststorm] incident, Eldavin’s evening lecture class had been pointed. Trey hadn’t been certain—until the half-Elf looked at him.

“However, stories are a secondary teacher to experience. And a [Mage] who endangers others is no true student of Wistram. You. Out.”

He pointed at Trey. It was the first time Trey had been kicked out of Eldavin’s classroom and it compounded the shame. He slowly rose. Eldavin spoke, crisply.

“Return once you have finished your punishment, Troy Atlas. Now—if you think a loss of temper is exclusive only to students, allow me to recall you an [Archmage]’s petulance. And why we remember such inferior beings as lessons of abject mockery rather than great spellcasters. Magic without morality is worthless.

Eldavin was at least consistent. He did not play favorites. Trey passed by Valeterisa, taking notes with one hand in the front row. He walked out of the classroom and found someone else who had removed themself.

Carn. He hovered by the door and Trey realized he’d left on the pretense of the bathroom when Trey had. He caught Trey outside the corridor and spoke.

“Have you found her?”

“No.”

The young man, Calac Crusand’s face was frustration. He was at least smart enough to deploy a [Silence] spell. Possibly with an artifact since Trey doubted he’d learned the spell yet. He spoke in a whisper.

“We are running out of time. Nerrhavia is at war with Reim! Every nation in the region is fighting and my parents are standing on the battlefield!”

“I know. I haven’t figured out where she is. Don’t be so obvious next time! I have to go. I’m being punished.”

Trey walked past him. He sensed Calac’s eyes burning on his back. He was frustrated. To Trey, the location of Amerys was one problem out of many. If they found her, when they did…freeing her was a tall task. Perhaps an impossible one. But Gazi had a plan. Trey wished it were not so tenuous.

 

—-

 

It was on the fourth night of replacing [Light] spells—and Trey estimated he had four more to go when he made another mistake.

Another damn mistake. And this one he had no excuse for.

Yes, it was close to midnight, maybe an hour or two before. Eleven PM? Trey had been checking his smartphone, regretting not buying some headphones so he could listen to it while working. But it was hard to listen to a song and cast the stupid [Light Sconce] spell.

To entertain himself, he’d let his constant companion, Minizi, out of her hiding place. Frustrated, bored, and still guilty, even if Reham had accepted his apology, Trey was squatting on the ground of the corridor under the glowing light spell.

Playing a familiar game.

“Go, Minizi! Use—Tackle!”

The Lifesand Golem gave him a look. Then she obediently rushed forwards and tackled the opposing Sand Golem, in the shape of a toad with a plant on its back. She grappled, until it threw her back.

Sand bullets! They spat from the thing’s mouth and poofed into minute showers of dust off Minizi. She looked at Trey again.

“Slash attack!”

She raised her claymore and cleaved her opponent in two. Trey hesitated.

“…That’s too realistic. I told you to take it easy!”

He began to suspect that video games based on this particular idea lacked the uh, realism that Minizi kept interjecting when she squashed her Sand Golem opponents’ heads in, or tore off limbs.

Well, they were his golems. Trey did this from time to time. Not Pokémon recreations so much as all kinds of little games.

Defend the castle. War games. He’d tried chess with Minizi as one of the pieces, but she kept stomping enemy pieces when they put her in danger. The Golem was getting a personality and he couldn’t tell if it was his subconscious impression of Gazi giving her the appearance of free will…or the Lifesand.

It wasn’t wrong to do this. Maybe a bit like a kid playing with toys, but it was a lot of fun to watch Minizi run about and create ‘monsters’ to fight her with. Lifesand was stronger than any other sand Trey could create.

“A shame you can’t do more.”

Minizi looked hurt. She waved her sword and Trey interpreted her words, partly making them up.

“Yes, you did kill that rat. Gross. But I meant, more…combat. But I can’t afford to give you that much blood per day to make you my size. And you can’t hide anyways. I wish I could give you a stronger sword, though. Then you’d be able to uh…kill more rats?”

He wasn’t sure what the endgame was there. But Minizi’s imitation of Gazi was half-hearted. She was tough for Lifesand, but her ‘claymore’ was as sharp as a butter knife.

Nor could Trey upgrade her in other ways. He’d tried. But since it was…sand…a ‘sand cannon’ shot pitiful balls of sand. Minizi with a bow and arrow couldn’t fire it. She could throw bits of herself, but it was about as painful as uh, you might expect.

No elasticity, tension in the bowstring or any other mechanical advantages that the other substances provided. Minizi’s enduring talent was that she was, like sand, easy to create, hard to fully destroy, and she was malleable if she wanted to be.

Anyways, the mistake. It wasn’t the little game, but rather, the setting. Trey normally did this in his rooms, but he’d thought the deserted corridors and this remote level on the ground floor of Wistram Academy meant no one was around.

He forgot that this was Wistram. Someone was always around.

“I say. That’s a Lifesand Golem. Dead gods, extraordinary. You—young man, you’re a [Mage] of hidden depths, aren’t you?”

Trey closed his eyes as Minizi went away from killing her opponent. He turned his head and saw the worst of all people had spotted him and Minizi.

Literally, the worst. Not hyperbole this time. If Trey had to create a list of the worst people to spot him doing this?

Archmage Viltach of the Libertarian Faction was top of the list. There were people Trey Atwood didn’t like, like Rievan, Charles, older and younger mages.

But no one was like Viltach, the Human-centric leader of his faction. Trey straightened and then bowed.

No showing his true feelings this time.

“Archmage. I was…”

He wanted to lie, but there was no helping it. Viltach was locked onto Minizi and he’d seen what she was in a moment.

“You’re…Troy Atlas. I’ve heard your name twice this week.”

The Archmage slowly stepped forwards. Trey closed his eyes. His reputation had even reached the Archmages. He nodded to the man and studied Viltach.

In the light of his newly-replenished spell, Viltach was…interesting. Trey had met all the Archmages currently at Wistram, with Amerys being the notable exception.

Verdan Blackwood. Old, mimicking a Dullahan. Smart.

Feor, the half-Elf who was ancient, wise, and but for Eldavin, the quintessential wise elf-mage of stories.

Nailihuaile, youngest, laughing, playful and sometimes, Trey suspected, dangerously serpentine.

Valeterisa, remarkably ordinary until you saw how much she had given to magic and what she would do to learn more.

Viltach was interesting because of contrast. Some of the Archmages were effortlessly impressive. Feor, for one, and Nailihuaile, as the Star Lamia, were brilliant representations of what people thought Archmages should be.

Verdan and Valeterisa were the opposite. They did not try to look a certain way. They just were and Archmage was a title they wore, not embodied.

Viltach was the one man who aspired to look the part of the three Humans. Thus, his goatee was splendidly trimmed, his hair luxurious, the product of powerful tonics. He was handsome, his robes would have made a [Court Mage] look like a [Pauper], and he wore several choice artifacts to enhance the magical look of him.

The Archmage looked like he could be in his early thirties, probably the product of illusion spells because Trey knew he was at least a decade and a half older.

Trey knew the Earthers hated his guts, by and large. At least, Elena and Aaron did. They regarded Viltach as racist, which in this world was speciesist, and resented being claimed by the Libertarians as proof of Human supremacy.

The [Sand Mage]’s knowledge of Viltach mostly came from talks with others, and the ill-fated battle with Eldavin. He’d quite enjoyed seeing Viltach be knocked flying by Eldavin, but Trey had avoided the Archmage like the plague.

Now, he saw Minizi turn and the Archmage bent.

“This is Lifesand. I wasn’t sure at first. You’ve mastered Lifesand, young Troy Atlas?”

“It’s a Skill I got by accident, Archmage. I’m sorry—I’m at work, and—”

“Ah, punishment?”

Viltach was squatting, staring at Minizi, who had taken a combat pose when she saw him. He recognized her too.

“This is…is this Gazi the Omniscient? It is! Stylized, but wonderful detail.”

He glanced up and Trey’s heart sank further.

“I—”

What was the move here? Trey thought and desperately spoke.

“I—yes, Archmage. I saw her, once.”

“Really.”

Viltach’s brows snapped together. He was more mobile. Not as much as Nailihuaile, but able to squat and stand without having that ponderous care of age that Feor and Verdan had. He regarded Trey.

“Ah, yes. You’re from Hellios, aren’t you? You probably saw the King of Destruction marching through. And the Lifesand?”

Trey had a ring that protected him from appraisal and truth spells. Even so, you had to be careful not to be caught out in a lie. He improvised. Truth, Gazi had told him, was the best lie.

“I—was injured while the King of Destruction was at war, Archmage. It’s a secret; please don’t tell anyone. But I met Gazi the Omniscient and at around that time…”

He slowly lifted his chin. The Archmage of Terandria, self-styled, saw the line across Trey’s throat.

Ah.

Viltach breathed out. Trey saw the man stare at the place where the Quarass had slashed him, at the little imitation of the Gazer.

Trey didn’t know what would happen next. Viltach grabbing him and proclaiming that he would be one of the Libertarians because Trey was too valuable? Demanding to know more about the King of Destruction, maybe even sensing the real truth? Taking Minizi like Valeterisa kept trying to do, offering him money for her?

He did not know Viltach. The Archmage looked at him. Then, slowly, he exhaled. He reached out, and gripped Trey’s shoulder gently.

“Ah, young man. It all begins to make sense. You’ve had a terrible time of it, haven’t you?”

He looked at Trey with genuine sympathy. The young man from England started. Viltach bent down to admire Gazi again and glanced up at Trey.

“Such wonderful attention to detail. You must have gotten a good look at her. Troy Atlas, if you have a moment, why don’t you come with me. Let’s leave these spells for now. I should rather like to investigate your Golem—with your permission?”

The Archmage looked up. Trey didn’t know what to say; it was probably bad to refuse. Humor him, like Flos or anyone else.

“Of course, Archmage. But I do have more spells to cast—”

“Ah, of course. What’s your route?”

“This entire hallway and the next.”

It would take at least another hour. Trey hoped Viltach would let it be, but the Archmage just stood up.

“Well, I understand your punishment must continue. But if you will permit me—”

He snapped his fingers. Down the hallway, [Light Sconce] spells flared to life. Trey’s jaw dropped. The Archmage smiled at him and winked.

“We can let you off a single night, I feel. Which hallway? My chambers are higher up either way.”

 

—-

 

Viltach had rooms higher up, as most Archmages did. And like them, his rooms were entire apartments to themselves. Mansions of space.

What was fascinating to Trey was that he was sitting in one now. Viltach preferred Terandrian furniture and decorations of course and Trey had a lovely padded seat with little quilt work. Like the royal family might possess, he thought.

Minizi sat on a table, staring around much like he did. The Lifesand Golem warily edged back as Viltach put down a cup in front of Trey.

“I find ordinary goat’s milk and honey is perfect for a cold night. Ashfire Bee honey though; that’s the luxury.”

Trey had accepted the man’s choice. Viltach himself had a warm glass of the stuff. Nothing magical besides the honey from the notoriously big bees. And he’d even prepared it himself, rather than magically send everything moving about like Telim could do from his seat.

He settled back.

“So you can make sand golems, cast [Karas Duststorm], and you survived meeting one of the King of Destruction’s most fearsome servants. You, Troy Atlas, are a young man of depth and talent, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“You’re very kind, Archmage.”

It was the kind of thing Trey was used to. The approval of Fetohep. The King of Destruction’s laughter. But again, he misread Viltach slightly. The man slapped a hand down on the table. Trey jumped, but it was not anger or impatience like Eldavin. What he saw in Viltach’s eyes was—

Excitement.

“Nonsense. Lifesand is such a unique substance! You can’t sculpt regular Sand Golems to any degree of detail, but clearly, Lifesand holds it! And look—you have the individual scales in her armor! Perfect symmetry of the body—most [Golem Artificers] don’t actually do it that well, you know, especially the female form—the head’s off.”

“It’s a bobble head. Something from my world, Archmage.”

“Ah, art. It gives her an endearing quality. What’s her name?”

He presumed Minizi had a name. Viltach looked up and Trey answered.

“Minizi.”

Minizi! Hah! I love it. Don’t let the real thing ever see that, though. But—amazing, amazing. If only you could sell Lifesand Golems.”

Trey looked alarmed and Viltach clarified.

“Not your prized creation! But other ones. I suspect though, they require blood. Lifesand is tricky if I recall my studies. But if not, I’d pay for one myself. Maybe a Treant, or something fantastical. Although I wonder if they could support branching structures…”

The [Sand Mage] hesitated, but the answer came out of him before he could really think about it.

“I think Minizi—a Lifesand Golem could actually be a tree, Archmage. They’re very strong. She can lift my spellbook and one time it fell off the desk and onto her. She barely got squished and came right back.”

Extraordinary. I’m so jealous. I never went into sand—glass, yes, but sand? But then, I had no idea how to acquire Lifesand. I suppose from the way you describe the event, that was as your life’s blood seeped into the sand…?”

Trey nodded and Viltach shuddered.

“No wonder it’s so rare. Not for me. Not for me. Would you care for some cookies? Other snacks? I have all the Earth-ones right here.”

He remembered himself and offered some of the treats. Trey hesitated. Normally one might refuse. But his insight with Fetohep made Trey catch himself.

“I’d love a cookie, actually.”

“Wonderful!”

Some people loved being the host. Fetohep embodied that.

“I have some of those oatmeal ones as my favorites. Do you like any in particular? Ah, here. We had Rhir’s hell of a time figuring it out, but—try this. Chocolate.

He handed Trey a dark cookie. The young man sniffed it and detected the familiar scent and bit greedily.

“It’s good!”

“Excellent. We tried a hundred different plants from Baleros before we figured out how those cocoa things worked. Not beans but fruit!”

Viltach snorted. This was the kind of thing Wistram was willing to fund thousands of gold pieces for, incidentally. Well, [Mages] like Telim would do anything in the name of better treats.

Trey sat, drinking, well, milk and eating cookies with the Archmage. He was not what Trey expected. He looked admiringly at Minizi.

“I can see why you kept her secret. It’s not good to show too many talents. Rest assured I’ll keep it secret. I apologize if I’m keeping you from something, but I had to ask how you learned to make something so unique.”

“You like Golems, Archmage Viltach?”

“Viltach will do.”

He raised a hand gently. The Archmage sat forwards, arms resting on his knees. Personably.

“Myself? I don’t actually specialize in Golems. Wistram does not…delve as deeply into Golems these days. One look at Cognita tells you why. But I’m in the same field, so to speak.”

Trey nodded. No one wanted to create golems when perfection and a warning in both forms, Cognita, walked the halls. Viltach frowned at the name of the Truestone Golem, but he nodded to Minizi.

“She looks quite well done. That’s what struck me. Instantly identifiable, and that’s not just because Gazi the Omniscient is famous. I admire that kind of detail. And that other, squat thing? Well done! Is it imagination or a copied design?”

“Thank you. I—it’s from my world.”

Trey blushed. Viltach nodded.

“Recreated well either way. You strike me as a young man very much like myself.”

“Archmage? How so?”

“Why, your school of magic. You do know what my field of expertise is, don’t you?”

Viltach looked startled. Trey supposed it was a small secret or even common knowledge. He…thought…the Archmages were just political animals, Valeterisa being the exception.

Viltach’s face fell when he realized Trey had no idea.

“Each Archmage is still a [Mage]. We’re not all generalists like Feor, you know. Do you know the other Archmage’s talents?”

“I…know Archmage Nailihuaile is an [Enchanter]. Everyone speaks of that, Archmage Viltach. But not yours or anyone else’s, I’m sorry. I know of Archmage Amerys being a lightning mage.”

This was Trey’s moment and he seized it. He saw Viltach look more and more crestfallen.

“Amerys and Naili…? Well, I suppose it’s memorable. Not your fault. Well—instead of telling, it’s easier to show. Here.”

He sprang to his feet briskly. Trey saw him motion.

“My workshops are right next to this room. You can see one of my projects—just a bit of work, one of my small income streams—and if we’re lucky…aha!”

Trey followed Viltach into the adjoining room. And there he saw what Archmage Viltach’s specialty was.

The room was filled with projects. Trey’s mouth opened and Minizi copied him with a cookie crumb in her hands as they saw the [Artisan Mage]’s workshop.

Because that was what Viltach was.

“Artisan, not enchanter. There’s a difference. Nailihuaile enchants, but she doesn’t make what she uses. I am her counterpart, as disagreeable as that is to say.”

Viltach gestured around the room. In each part, cordoned off by rune spells, he had a different project going. Trey saw a tree sprouting in one corner, glowing Sage’s Grass in a few pots, growing very tall compared to all the samples he’d ever seen, a carpenter’s bench with ordinary tools like clamps, carving knives, even pots of glue, neatly labeled—

And where Viltach was standing, a fascinating sight.

It was a flaming pit of crimson, molten glass. Trey recoiled instinctively, but there was no smoke. And yet, he saw burning fire mixed in with a strange, transparent liquid. And little shapes, barely visible in the clear liquid.

“Archmage. What is that?”

“This, Troy Atlas, is one of my projects. I suppose it’s best to make a quiz of it. Do you know what this substance is?”

Fearless of the heat, Viltach drew a little ladle in a bowl out and scooped up some of the thick liquid. He let it dribble back down—it was very dense. And it looked…familiar…

Trey hesitated. Viltach saw he didn’t know and answered.

“Magicore.”

Magicore? But that’s…”

Trey had seen magicore, the grey-white, opaque molten magical rock that you could mine up and was worth a lot. Viltach smiled.

“A common misunderstanding. That’s raw magicore. Unrefined. This is purified. Ninety nine percent pure…not very, in other words.”

He grimaced to himself. Trey thought that was pretty pure. Viltach went on.

“And it’s elementalized. The spirit of fire. See? Everburning candles, flame spells—it’s the very image of fire.”

Trey saw now two candles were providing the flames, as well as the spells Viltach had going. He was turning the magicore to the fire element, like adding food dye to the substance.

“I see that, Archmage. What is it for?”

“This. We have three. I could wait for them to grow, but this will do. This is why [Mages] love magicore. Here…careful, it will probably burst into flame the moment I—”

He retrieved the little object from the transparent liquid and sure enough, as the magicore drained from the ladle’s sieve-like bottom, the little gemstone burst into fire.

Viltach covered it with one hand. He murmured a spell and then held the smoldering gemstone out for Trey to see, not touch.

“Behold. A magic gem. Artificially grown rather than naturally over centuries. Like this, I can create any elemental gemstone I want.”

It was about the length of Trey’s thumb and thin. The young man stared appreciatively at the beautiful colors; deep red, with a striation of orange throughout the center radiating to the edges.

“It’s beautiful, sir.”

“It is. But it’s hardly the largest I could create. Yet this will do. Now, what do you think an Archmage who crafts objects might use this for?”

This time Trey had more of a clue. He looked around and his eyes rested on the carpenter’s bench. Viltach smiled approvingly.

“Exactly.”

He strode over to the length of wood and lifted it. What he held was a stick…or to someone from Trey’s world, to anyone, really, it looked like what it was.

A wand. Viltach had already prepared it for his task. He spoke to Trey as he bent over it.

“The key is to prepare a perfect sample of wood. You can use mahogany, oak—any wood, really, so long as the grain is aligned. Any other way and it interferes with the natural flow of magic. You need a good [Woodcutter] who knows how to cut and find the right tree. More magical woods have a greater effect, but the common spruce will do for this quality of wand. Now, you see, I fit the gem inside…”

He inserted the gem, and Trey saw the interior of the hollowed core of the wand for a second. There were micro etchings of little spell runes drawn there. Next, Viltach stepped back to the magicore pool.

“The interior runes you saw were actually nothing more than flame resistance. This isn’t a spell-wand, but a general one. And that’s so I can add another touch. Like so.”

He carefully poured a tiny bit of the fiery magicore into the hollow. When it was full to capacity, he turned it. The gemstone floated in the magicore.

“To prevent any hollow space, you see. Now, to seal it. How would you expect me to do that?”

“Glue, Archmage?”

Viltach shook his head, tsking. He was in the passion of his work and explained.

“Glue doesn’t fit, Troy. It’s a distinctly foreign substance in this wand, which is only two components. No, the answer is—[Regrow Wood]!”

He pressed the missing gap of wood back into the wand, and ran a finger around the cut. It sealed. Viltach studied the wand from every angle, the handle, the tip, the seal, and then offered it to Trey.

“For this one task, I needed spells from pyromancy, mana enhancement in the room, nature spells, and runecraft knowledge. Of course, that was so I could do it alone. What do you think?”

Trey held the wand and felt the element of fire in it. Hot, strong—it was tempting him to cast a fiery spell.

“I think I could manage [Fireball] with this wand, with practice, Archmage.”

Viltach nodded proudly.

“It would suit you. It’s a Level 20 wand, fire-element. Nothing extraordinary, but a good wand for a Silver-rank. It could sell for a few hundred gold. Viltach-produced. See?”

There was a little insignia burned on the bottom. A stylized crane-and-wand. It was very well done. Trey wanted to hand it back, but Viltach encouragingly pressed it back.

“Take it. A souvenir, from one artisan to another.”

He smiled. Trey was astonished.

“But Archmage—it’s such an expensive gift.”

“Nonsense. I can make more quite easily, as you can see. I know you have that rather nice staff, but one can always use a catalyst in another element. Now, sit. And let’s talk more if you have the time.”

 

—-

 

That was the thing. Viltach was, right up until now, a racist buffoon who’d gotten clocked by Eldavin to Trey.

But everyone had a good side. Of course, everyone had a bad side. The trick was appreciating the good side. If you wanted to make friends with them.

Trey remembered all that was said about Viltach, but it wasn’t hard to talk with the man in a friendly way. Viltach was not without charm. He had a passion for creating things, and Trey shared that.

Moreover, the Archmage had a deep sympathy for Trey’s experience with battle. He had heard of the dust storm incident. But he also appreciated that Trey had seen battle.

“Mages have to duel, Troy. It’s a young man’s passion and belief he’s immortal. I think of the duels as a good thing in that sense. Better they learn they’re not the best [Spellslinger] ever to walk the earth before a [Thug] with a knife shows them how wide the world is. I…had cause to learn that again.”

He gave Trey an abashed look. And Trey recalled that Viltach’s one-punch incident with Eldavin had also been the subject of mockery, if more quietly.

Apparently, Fissival had been spreading around a recording of the entire fight in ‘secret’. It wasn’t shown on Wistram News Network for obvious reasons, but it would be there forever.

“You seemed, um, ready to fight, Archmage.”

Viltach reddened a bit.

“I underestimated my opponent. I thought it was a [Grand Mage] trying to throw his weight around, not…that kind of extraordinary ability. If I had any inkling, I’d have stayed back. I don’t risk my life in battle. Nor do I think it’s something to aspire to. You’re a part of Eldavin’s lectures?”

At Trey’s nod, Viltach sighed.

“I sat in on two. He believes a [Mage] should risk life and limb. You know six students have broken bones? Badly? Jumping off balconies…one might die, or be paralyzed despite potions and Skills. But that’s how Eldavin teaches. I think a [Mage] shouldn’t risk their life if not necessary. We get so many chances over our lifespans—why cut it all short for a gamble?”

He looked at Trey. The young man shifted uncomfortably, loath to directly object. But he felt like Viltach wouldn’t snap back necessarily.

“But Archmage, sometimes it’s important to fight, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is. But it’s wise to also know that we are not immortal. A young man’s belief. Perhaps it’s what I, myself went through at your age.”

Viltach looked at Trey, regarding a map of Terandria on the walls. He gestured at it.

“I was a [Mage] here. Graduated by nineteen. And because I had no more money, I went to Terandria and became a [Mercenary]. There was a war going on, and I convinced some other [Mages] my age to join a squad. We thought we would end the war by ourselves.”

“What happened?”

It was a story Trey knew. Viltach told it anyways.

“…During our first battle, I cast a barrier spell. A good one. [Lightfold Barrier]. Do you know it? It’s an upgrade on [Light Barrier]…and [Lightfold Armor]. I was never a good duelist, but because an artisan needs to protect themselves, I was rather good at that spell. My friends had barrier spells too, and they teased me. We were throwing spells at the enemy line when we ran afoul of an [Archer] battalion.”

He trailed off. Trey had seen it before. Parasol Stroll used their enchanted parasols for that reason; to defend against all the things that came at a [Mage] on the battlefield.

The Archmage’s face was distant. Sad. Trey had seen it on all of Flos’ vassals before. Fetohep too.

“Silly of us. We had barrier spells. We could cast [Fireball], [Lightning Bolt]. We thought we were invincible. And we were. The first arrows didn’t even touch our skin. The second? The first dozen? But what about two hundred? What about Skills?”

He looked at Trey.

“I had the best barriers. I watched as my friends, two decades of study and magic in the greatest academy in the world—died to conscripted [Militia Archers] in the thousands. That’s when I realized I wasn’t invincible.”

“I…I’m sorry, Archmage. I’ve seen that too.”

Viltach nodded. He slapped his knees, briskly, after a moment.

“By all accounts, you did better than I. Blasted an entire corridor of [Mages].”

“I lost my temper.”

“Well, no one died. That’s good enough. But that’s why I don’t follow Eldavin’s beliefs. He’s risen to where he was by risking his life, I understand that. But my party, the Libertarians, don’t look to the higher floors for our future. Unity, alliances—[Mages] must do these things.”

“You don’t want to go to the higher floors? Pass the…test, Archmage?”

Viltach hesitated. He looked at Trey, and perhaps he wouldn’t have shared his feelings, but they were sitting together, and a connection had already been drawn. Plus, Trey was of Earth. And in Viltach’s eyes, a [Mage]. Perhaps the first the Archmage had acknowledged among the Earthers.

“The test, Troy Atlas? It is my belief the ‘test’ is Zelkyr’s curse upon us. I have seen it. I have seen great [Mages], better [Mages] than I, try it and be slaughtered. I don’t think that test was meant to be passed. I do not put my hopes in Cognita’s mercy.”

He met Trey’s eyes.

“Golems I can respect. But who shapes the Golem matters. Zelkyr was not a kind Drake. History teaches us that, too.”

He seemed surprised at how honest he’d been. He stared at Trey as the young man sat there, absorbing Viltach’s thesis on Wistram, magic. The Archmage looked at Minizi, and then Trey, and then smiled.

“But these are concerns for older [Mages], Troy Atlas. As thanks for humoring me, why don’t we look into your magic? I know you must be taking all the first-year classes, but you’re clearly not being tested yet. And while I can’t take on another apprentice—let’s call it a lesson you’d only get to in your fourth year. Golem upgrades.

 

—-

 

Viltach might not be a young man, but like Trey, there was a certain passion for things that never went away. Actually, it might deepen with age, like cheese, or madness.

That was how the two found themselves squatting or sitting around a spell circle built to contain accidents, with a range of Viltach’s many magical supplies around him. Viltach was talking animatedly.

“I tend to build wands—it’s an income. Jewelry? I’ve done it before. Scroll paper? Odious to produce. But Golems are quite fun. I actually own six Shield Golems in my Terandrian mansion. Just—no one keeps Golems in Wistram.”

“What are we doing, Archmage Viltach? I don’t know many spells about Golems. Just [Create Lesser Sand Golem].”

“Dead gods, I forgot that one. What a mouthful. Don’t worry. I can show you a few. Let’s see. [Create Mud Golem]!

Viltach showed Trey another of the ‘temporary’ class of Golems, having produced some very rich soil and mixing it with Sage’s Grass water. Trey could sense the power in the other Mud Golem, though it was barely Gazi’s size.

It looked like another Pokémon, honestly; Mud Golems had even less ability to hold a shape than Sand Golems unless you baked them.

“Material matters. See how strong it is? Even your Minizi has trouble—although it’s amazing she can hold her own given the disparity of levels.”

Minizi slashed at the Mud Golem before wrestling with it. It was strong, but she and it were nearly matched. Trey watched her being pushed back.

“Lifesand, though—that’s a shortcut to one of the rarest materials of all. I am so jealous. But look—my Golem is going to win.”

Indeed, the mud-monster had engulfed Minizi. She flailed, but she couldn’t ‘hurt’ it. By the same token, it couldn’t break her apart.

“Wonderful durability.”

Viltach breathed, amazed. He was careful to ask Trey to test his creation’s ability to be destroyed, not callous.

“But it’s not that strong, Archmage. If Minizi were uh, my sized, she’d still be weak, right?”

“Weak…but what a servant. Able to block an enemy at least, probably strong enough to do some real damage. Give her a sword and a shield and that’s a fine familiar for a Level 20 [Sand Mage]!”

True. Trey saw Viltach turn back to Minizi.

“Ah, but that’s not her strength. Sand Golems aren’t strong. A Brick Golem or something like that could fight a Lifesand Golem equally. Easy to repair, easy to break. That’s sand. So why don’t we…even the odds? This is how a [Crafter Mage] wins, Troy. I am going to ask you to conjure a Sand Golem. And I shall enable it to defeat Minizi.”

Bemused, Trey obliged Viltach. He created a lumpy ‘Sandzi’, who had neither Minizi’s cohesion of form nor detail; just lumps for a head, arms, and legs.

“What a sorry creature. One second, and I’ll have…hmm…”

It took Viltach five minutes. Minizi was punching the air like a boxer in her corner when Sandzi turned. Trey couldn’t see anything different with her, but he felt it.

“Go kill it, Minizi!”

He ordered. The Lifesand Golem charged, claymore raised. She brought it down—

And Sandzi blocked. Minizi stared at her claymore as it bounced off. She raised a fist. She hit Sandzi as hard as possible. Sandzi let the fist vanish into the sand of her face. Then she swung a fist and—

Viltach and Trey watched as Minizi hit the far wall and landed on the floor. Even Viltach looked impressed.

“I didn’t think it would be that efficacious. Is your Golem alright?”

Minizi charged back at the Sandzi replica, enraged. Trey watched Sandzi stand, absorbing the furious fists. He turned to Viltach excitedly.

“What did you do, Archmage?”

For answer, Viltach pointed. And Trey saw Sandzi’s sand flow back and several items appear.

A glowing magic gemstone in her forehead. Dark grey sand in the arm she’d used to block. And, to complete it, a tiny, tiny little scroll in her punching hand.

“Upgrades.”

 

—-

 

You could upgrade Golems. Of course you could. But a [Golem Artificer] would put that in a Golem they made. But a temporary Golem?

“It makes sense for Lifesand since it’s semi-permanent. Like a sword and shield—see the black sand? Iron filings. Needs to be pure and it can’t be too much, but you can have them absorb some and ‘hold’ it even if they can’t control it. The little scroll is a one-off spell. I’ve done that before. Put a [Fireball] in the fist of a Sand Golem and no one will laugh at it. And the mana stone makes the Sand Golem stronger in all regards. Why don’t you take this one?”

He offered Trey a high-quality magical gemstone infused with earth-magic. Again, Trey wanted to protest, but this was now a project. And strangely, Viltach was the most teacher-like of the Archmages, even more than Eldavin, who was the grumpy college professor.

The first thing Minizi did when given the gemstone was ‘absorb’ it into her chest. Then she did a flying jump-kick and killed Sandzi.

“…That’s a bloodthirsty Golem. Reminds me why I don’t mess with them.”

Trey watched Minizi stomping Sandzi to dust. He neglected to tell Viltach, who was eying him, that he hadn’t told Minizi to do that.

“Well, let’s see what else we can do.”

“What else, Archmage?”

Trey was astonished. But like a figurine collector, like a craftsman, Viltach’s eyes were glittering with excitement. And the thing about an Archmage was that he had a lot of tricks.

 

—-

 

We can build her better! Stronger! Faster! Probably not smarter!

Six hours later by the light of dawn, Minizi stood, upgraded. Trey and Viltach watched as she squared off against the Rock Golem, the latest sacrifice to the blood sport Golem Battles they’d been putting on.

They hadn’t slept. And their project had gone way outside of any reasonable expectations.

Minizi now had a mana gem core, which, if broken, could be replaced, adding to her agility, speed, and basic power. She no longer carried her Lifesand claymore because what was the point?

She had been given an actual tiny steel sword, sharpened to a razor’s edge by Viltach, a claymore. For reinforcement, the Archmage and Trey had first experimented with iron dust to ‘bulk up’ her arms and legs. Then they’d gone weird.

She had little bars of mithril in her arms and legs, light, but strong. Minizi circled the Rock Golem, hacking at it and then lifting it and throwing it over the edge of the table. She raised her arms in victory.

At this point, Viltach and Trey gave each other red, bleary-eyed looks and started laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

“Thank you, Archmage. It was…”

“Quite fun.”

Viltach saw Trey off. The [Sand Mage] ducked his head, embarrassed, cradling Minizi. Viltach nodded to him, before going off to sleep. Trey did the same, but Minizi woke him up.

She presented him with a rat’s head.

Trey had a rat nest in his room.

 

—-

 

At the end of his first month in Wistram, Trey Atwood was reassigned rooms. Not because they were needed, but because he was ‘given’ to a faction.

He’d known it was coming. Trey reported to his new faction’s headquarters with mixed feelings as Flynn complained.

“We’re bloody trophies being tossed around, Troy. Can’t we stay?”

“To have and to hold, Flynn.”

“Fuck.”

The young Australian man was disconsolate; he and Trey were good neighbors. And he didn’t like where he’d been assigned.

“Bloody Libertarians. I’ve heard what they said about that place. And I’m with Justin.”

“Don’t you like him?”

“Can’t stand him. He’s only got decent taste in music.”

Trey looked at Flynn as Pokey wagged her tail.

“Well, I think it won’t be the worst, Flynn. Viltach is the Archmage there. He’s not that bad. I think he likes dogs. You should talk to him.”

“You think so?”

Flynn glanced at Trey. The young man nodded. He glanced up.

“Hey, roommate. Ready to move off to our new handlers?”

Elena stood in the doorway. She had been stolen away, like Trey, in the trading-wrangling for Earthers. He nodded.

“I can’t believe you’re part of the Terras faction.”

“I can. Eldavin and Valeterisa both wanted you. And they had enough clout to get me too. Only two, but that was something.”

Elena informed Flynn. He sighed.

“Must be nice to be liked. I’m with Justin and the others. You know, he says some shit when he’s drunk? Real…I think he fits with the Libertarians. Sure you don’t want to trade, Troy?”

The young man hadn’t a choice, and even so…Eldavin’s faction was the place to be. Elena shook her head.

“He nearly was, Flynn. I heard a rumor that Archmage Viltach fought pretty hard to get Troy.”

“Really?”

That didn’t actually surprise Trey. Thoughtfully, he moved with Elena into his new quarters. Eldavin had yet to really talk to them about Earth, but Valeterisa took the next four hours to demand hair, blood, skin samples, and have them recount any new facts to her.

 

—-

 

That night, Trey Atwood thought about the future. The King of Destruction was far from here. It was easy to be sucked into his grand dream when you were there, to believe in him.

But Trey was reconsidering. He was not unhappy to be in Eldavin’s faction, for all he had a connection with another Archmage.

In the end, you could see someone’s good sides. But you had to acknowledge their bad sides.

Fetohep, Flos—Trey had seen their good and bad. Their flaws and strengths. On the whole of it, he stuck with Flos because of Teres. Because Flos would do what Fetohep would not.

…Until recently. Trey had heard the news from Jecrass just yesterday. He felt envious, really. What had caused Fetohep to move like that? Jecaina, the Arbiter Queen?

Well. Flos had sent Trey for a purpose, entrusting him with an audacious plan.

And Trey had been going along with it. Even agreeing.

Right up until he met Eldavin. In the half-Elf, he saw…something. A potential. Wistram had seemed to Trey to be as bad as he expected. It still was, in some ways.

But if Eldavin was the rising star who could show Trey a better future, find a way to save Teres from herself—the King of Destruction could fight his glorious wars and he, Trey, would stay in Wistram. Go to Khelt.

Something. Keep an open mind. He was not beholden to Flos. Just the best future.

Trey sighed. He kicked at the ground. It was so easy to say that.

If only…he looked down. Minizi was slashing at the air with her new sword, looking almost excited.

If only Gazi hadn’t been the one to look at him and trust him. It was easy to throw over Flos. Less easy to…

“Hello?”

Viltach opened the door as Trey knocked. He was astonished at his late-night visitor, curious, but also a bit wary.

“I thought you were in the Terras faction. Is Grand Magus Eldavin interested in a meeting? Out of magicore again, Troy?”

Trey accepted the glass of milk. He sat, wondering why Eldavin needed magicore.

“No, Archmage. I—was just wondering if I could ask you a question. I know I’m part of the Terras faction, but that’s just where I was assigned.”

Viltach raised his brows, as if not realizing that’s how the Earthers felt. He hid a smile in his cup.

“Well, I’m delighted to see Minizi is still holding our insane upgrades. Any cohesion difficulties? Mana interference? And what can I help you with that Eldavin can’t?”

Trey smiled. And here it was. He looked the Archmage in the eye. The thing about being genial was knowing also how people rubbed each other the wrong way. Orthenon and Mars. Flos and Fetohep.

“No problems, Archmage Viltach. And I would have asked Grand Magus Eldavin, but I doubt he…knows. He’s very good at magic, but he’s not from Wistram.”

Another smile that the Archmage didn’t conceal.

“No, no he’s not.”

Trey nodded slowly. He stared past Viltach.

“Plus…he’s not Human. It’s just a question, Archmage, but some of the Earthers were talking about it and after our discussion of Chandrar and…”

He nodded at Minizi. Viltach glanced at Trey as the [Sand Mage] looked at him.

“I was wondering. Do you know where Archmage Amerys is?”

Slowly, Archmage Viltach’s eyebrows rose.

“How interesting. Would you give me a second to consider the question?”

He went, on the pretext of finding some cookies. Trey sat there. He saw Minizi look at him. He winked at her.

The huge, central eye of Minizi’s head winked back.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: Happy birthday to me! It wasn’t today. Or even yesterday, but it was around this month. So I get to say it.

This is a shorter…short…

I wanted a short chapter, but this is what we got. Poll chapter! Even so, I cut some stuff. But that’s okay. Let’s not kill me yet. And I am tired after those two big chapters!

Speaking of which, the editing on 8.11 E continues. So this chapter will not be made Public, nor 8.11 E until the revision is done. Then I’ll release them all at once.

Public readers will suffer for a tiny bit. Not long. As for Patrons, it’s back to usual! I’ll announce the editing and revision stuff. Hope you enjoyed this chapter and your votes went to the right chapter! I’m…so sad.

I have no cookies. Or milk. Life is hard. Thanks for reading and see you next time!

 

Real life creations of Injani, Skinner, Gazi, and more by MrMomo!

 

Lehra, Nama, Rasea, Az-Fan, and more by Brack!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/shurkin/gallery/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/brack

 

Horns and the Cognita Show by Zelanters!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Zelanters

Tumblr: https://zelanters.tumblr.com/

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ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/zelanter

 


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48 thoughts on “8.12 T

    • The second room Trey opened was a much more reasonable song.
      –>
      In the second room Trey opened was a much more reasonable song.
      The second room Trey opened had a much more reasonable song.

  1. Trey has done good for himself as sometimes it is not who agree with… But who is the most useful. While Viltach has his own flaws… He is still an Archmage and still has some knowledge and skill that is of use.

    Loved how it explained some of Eldavin’s method for training on why it is useful… And the counter argument against it.

    Aaron is so far the ONLY PERSON to seemingly broke even with his [Parasite God] deal. Since his ‘partner in crime’ actually gives him something of use instead of acting like a morally justice hobo shaking you for half a sandwich.

    Which leaves Trey learning the fine art of “Golem Battles” while finding someone else who also agrees that having your throat slit to gain Life Sand golems… To be a pretty horrifying ordeal! Even if the secret on how to do it seems straight toward after getting the big hint.

    The only question of course… Is how Trey is going to leave and how much damage his escape/banishment is going to cause?

    Also loved the 99% magicore line. As obviously 99.99% is the way to go.

    • Remember that a significant amount of the things Laken did, such as making Prost a [Steward] and his girlfriend a [Paladin], were done on Tamaroth’s advice. The dead gods do hold up their end of the bargain, but they are just incredibly desperate for power right now and it influences their priorities.

      • Agreed. Laken got his monies worth, he was just tricked into the agreement in the first place. Aaron may just seem like he has benefited the most because he just hasn’t considered or doesn’t care about the down sides. He seems especially childish since he really has Thad to confront any of the really bad stuff in inn world.

      • This reminds me of Jecaina taking advice from Fetohep. She was said to not level as fast when taking advice from him. Laken still leveled by taking Tamaroth’s advice. I guess parasite gods are different…

    • On the other hand, Teriarch was so overwhelmingly powerful compared to the horns that he left the altercation without doing them any lasting harm. Just as he also has not said a word against the “duels”.

      His issue with Treys outburst appeared to be Treys careless and uncontrolled deployment of lethal force in a mock duel, thoughtlessly harming bystanders in his fit of rage.

      • He knows his flaws and he has seen what happens to powerful magic users who act without morality far too many times. Harsh as it maybe this may be his attempt to stop another disaster in the future.

        After all… Skilled [Mage] who wants to learn magic, but is mocked despite their large skill and talent when compared to others?

        Almost sounds like a few certain [Necromancers] that had caused a lot of damage before they left… And Trey maybe nice… But he is going to break free the missing archmage and that… That is going to cause a bit of damage.

        The only question is how much?

        Also did anyone else get the “magic, but without Skill or Spell” line? As it almost sounded like how the Fae do things or how “divine magic” operates… Aka Priests or those who use the [parasite gods] to cast their spells.

        Old T might have claimed it was impossible, but I think he lied for their own good.

        • it sounds more like how Teriarch himself casts he has no skills, and he has repeatedly complained about the clumsiness of “put the magic in the box” casting.

          • I think he was referring to himself and other Dragons too, but with sad melancholy. Because it seems like spells and wild magic are mostly alike, but difference speaks to the advantage of races with less mana capacity than Dragons, and thus spells are more efficient for fighting them. It just seemed like he was remembering history of his kind.

        • Priest use [Skills]. It was a very disappointing reveal but everything Pawn has use was a [Skill]. I mean, it makes sense as [Priest] is just another [System]-gifted [Class] but still makes faith and faith powers just another subset of the [System], not something “divine” and superior to it. Fine, the [System] is a creation of the dead gods itself but that just means everything [System]-provided is “divine” in origin, which really cheapens the value in my view…

  2. Good stuff. Always fun reading your work.
    When they finally break Amerys free, shit is gonna hit the fan.
    Back to the meeting of the tribes next? Whatever characters it is gives a bit of funny in it if you could.

    • The Sedolis faction focuses on golem crafting but they are an extremely small group compared to the other factions. Basically they aren’t a group any modern Wistram faction would hold in high esteem especially the Archmage of the Libertarians.

  3. Unrelated to this chapter, but if you’re still taking names for the knife Ryoka got, I would suggest Photon Knife (or Photon Blade).

  4. I’m sure to get grief for this from certain readers but I didn’t care for how easily Trey is seemingly willing to betray Flos.

    Obviously Flos is utilizing Trey as an asset but Trey should feel beholden to Flos for the situation he has found himself in. At least a smidgen of a sense of duty.

    Also while he might know how to approach Viltach, Viltach isn’t stupid. He knows that Trey has met Gazi and that he somehow managed to receive formal training and quality gear. He might very well figure out what’s going on. Unless of course Trey is planning on being found out of course in which case he can just continue to be unsubtle into he’s found out.

    And no I’m not suggesting he be blindly obedient to Flos.

    • It’s possible Flos’ aura has something to do with it. That must make it difficult to want something if it’s counter to Flos’ desires or chosen path. And being dependent specifically on a ruler to keep you alive, fed, etc probably means it’s psychologically easier to see their view of things, especially since Trey recognizes his ability to be “agreeable” to everyone.

      • I was talking about the opposite. I think Flos is owed at least a tiny shred of loyalty.

        You can like or dislike Flos but I think folks have to admit that Trey, overall, ended up in a nice spot compared to other Earthers. Flos has treated him well, within the context of the world he is a member of.

        It looks to me like Trey is actively looking for an excuse to jump ship. That is of course his choice but it isn’t something I respect.

        • Just saying that if I was there in his shoes Id do the same. Would you really want to serve a man who would kill anyone in his way for his, lets be honest here, own gain. Sure he claims to do war for his people but does he really?

          He is a charming man and leader but still, Flos is the villain in this world.
          Atleast that is what Ive interpreted from his actions.

          • I’m going to use a much lower stakes real world example.

            You got a job you don’t like. Pay is shitty, boss is a bastard, hours suck. But they gave you a job when you needed one.

            You get a job somewhere else. Do you give your two weeks notice and go to work or do you blow off your old job for your shiny new job and screw over everyone you work with?

            I’m the guy that goes to work at the job I don’t like for two weeks, because I have an obligation.

            To me Trey is looking to get out of his agreed to obligation. You might not like Flos, he might not like Flos but I think there is little question that Trey ended up in a much better position from having met Flos.

            And don’t try and tell me he’s being forced to do this. Does anyone think Flos would have harmed a hair on Teres’ head if Trey had just stayed with Fehotep?

            • This isn’t just a “job”. Flos wants Trey to bust a mass murdering psychopath out of prison so she can help him in his mad quest for world domination.

              Trey owes Flos very little, and that bit of obligation certainly doesn’t extend to marking himself as a terrorist and alienating the greatest source of knowledge on his craft left in the world.

              No, if your boss gives you a shitty job when you desperately need one, that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to burn down one of his competitor’s stores.

              Fuck Flos, and everyone else with a royal class (except you, Raelt, you’re cool).

              • Raelt, yea, he’s cool. He was an indifferent king that leveled up in a moment of coolness and decided to plunge his country into a war where his “allies” used his people as a damage sponge.

                Raelt is a suck ass king even compared to Flos.

                And yea, Trey owes Flos.

                High end training, magic gear, important connections? His sister being taken care of?

                Trey has accepted a lot of favors.

                • Raelt is a man with believable and sympathetic motivations. He kept his country safe and relatively prosperous, and made a decision to do what was right rather than what was easy; to the vast approval of his own nation, as is clearly demonstrated. He stood up, perhaps futilely, against an invading force whose STATED GOAL was to slaughter civilians by the dozens, if not hundreds in pursuit of pure, bloody minded vengeance.

                  Flos is a greedy, grasping slaver and warmonger. Everything he did for Trey and Teres was for his own benefit; more soldiers for the pile and potentially a replacement for the dead members of his Seven.

                  The hero worship for Flos by the readers of this story is frankly disturbing. Apparently all it takes for you people to decide someone is a good person is to have a few chapters from their perspective, where they can give their side and you take it at face value.

                  • Hero worship? You people?

                    Can you please show me how I’m guilty of hero worship?

                    My position is pretty much all the leadership over there is shit.

                    I said that your boy was a suck-ass king, because he is. Yea, he didn’t screw up his kingdom while Flos was asleep, but he sure didn’t go out of his way to improve things either now did he?

                    I think you are projecting and a couple chapters in Raelt’s viewpoint have converted you into a fanboy (or girl) for someone who is only really good at fencing. His daughter is already a much better ruler.

                    I find it amusing that you mention Raelt’s approval rating when Flos is adored by his subjects.

                    • It’s a common thing in these comments to metaphorically kiss the ground Flos walks on, the same as his subjects do. If that’s not where you’re coming from, I apologize.

                      As for the matter of “improving things”…yeah, Raelt didn’t really go out of his way to usher in a new age of prosperity for Jecrass. Because he was not a Great man, like Flos. But he is a Good man, which is always better in my books. At the very least, he did not make things worse for his people or the people around him, and Jecrass wasn’t exactly fallen on hard times. It was a small, reasonably prosperous country where everybody lived pretty good lives. That’s enough.

                      Mind, I do agree Jecaina is pretty great as a successor, though we have yet to see how she fares at handling the more mundane, day to day running of a country during peacetime.

                      I mention his approval rating only because it’s important to the discussion. This isn’t the case of a king forcing his people into an unwinnable war against their will, it was something that was so unanimously approved that to NOT do so might have caused a schism in his country. Flos’ people do indeed adore him as well. The only thing is I cannot for the life of me understand WHY. He let them languish in poverty for decades through his own selfishness, and then immediately thrust them into brutal conflicts as the aggressor in a war of expansion; the latter is at least understandable for people who wish to seek glory and prosperity elsewhere, but the only thing that’s really gelled with me on why people stuck with him while he was “asleep” is the theory that one of his Skills produces a brainwashing aura. Which also helps explain why the relatively timid, “follower archetype” character of Trey is better able to resist as compared to the many other strong-willed people Flos surrounds himself with, including his more free-spirited sister, Teres. Trey has simply spent a whole lot less time around Flos than Teres has.

                      I like Raelt because he is the only unequivocally Good aristocrat in the series we’ve seen so far. Flos is a monster, Laken is a war criminal, Magnolia is an overbearing incompetent (save when it comes to making bank), Tyrion is an unbending vengeance-machine who barely knows how to interact with normal people, and so on.

                    • Right, he’s the unequivocally Good aristocrat that allied himself with known bad people and tortured one of the few reamining half giants to death out of convenience.

                      The Empress of Beasts seems a better sort.

    • Trey is clearly a idealistic romantic kind of character. Even going so far as to supress his instincts and refusing dozens of attractive and eager Kheltian women out of nothing but his own ideas of how such things _should_ be. A young teenage man with a somewhat unformed but still definied immage of how _he_ wants things to be, seeking a leader he can wholeheartedly support and trust to fulfill this.

      This is important because while he is grateful towards Flos for his priviliged possition, and Fetohep for his gifts and generosity. Trey has HUGE objections to parts of Flos agenda, mostly Slavery but also his expansionism.
      Trey has also hardly been inactive under Flos and his work in Khelt and elsewhere has been ranged from instrumental to trivial, and his participation was always to some degree coerced. Whereas his sister had her crush and relationship? with Orthenon as a motivator. Which probably wears somewhat on his gratitude towards Flos.

      As he said here he also found Fetoheps authoritarian isolationist “utopia” objectionable and was unimpressed by the [Archmages] of Wistrams manipulative scheeming, hoarding of magical and earther knowledge, and cowering in front of Cognita.

      However in Eldawin he saw someone who he really wanted to follow, whos vision, as he understood it, he really wanted to work for.

      These, in my mind, are the driving force behind Trey contemplating abandoning Gazis plan. Just they are also what keeps him pushing it forward. His friend and mentor Gazi is not someone he would abandon. Because he does see himself as a true friend of hers, where again his idealistic worldview comes in and tells him that is unacceptable.

      I really like Trey. He has a wholeness and internal consistency that speaks to me. If it sometimes is overplayed, it is stil very human. Not that he is alone in this in TWI…

      • wow that is long, sorry but I can’t really delve into what I see as his personality and motivations in fewer words…

    • Trey is a favoured slave. Sure, it beats being eaten by Crelers or turned into Pakheil. It would even be “natural” to feel some gratitude to his “kind” master due to Stockholm syndrome (and [King’s Aura] mind-control) but there is absolutely zero objective reason why he should be grateful.

      He was ensalved under threat of death, towards himself and his sister.
      He was being trained to do the bidding of his master, including killing innocents for the greater glory of his [King].
      He was completely ignored the one time he took a stand against Flos on the slavery issue. Sure, he’s definitely lucky he wasn’t whipped for it (or had his tongue torn off) but that’s not something to be grateful for to the man who could have inflicted it upon him! Flos has no right, no legitimate claim to the twins. If anything, he is the one that owes them so much more just for awakening him! Throwing some trinkets to his slaves and not being even more abusive to them than he already is, does not counterbalance stealing their freedom and innocence.

      I would definitely accept it as justified that the lingering mind-control and/or Stockholm syndrome may make him feel obligated to Flos but in no case would that be something that is owed.

      Flos is no better than Emir Yazdil. I’d argue he’s even worse because the actual [Slave Lord] has no self-delusions of grandeur, of righteousness, of being noble in spirit.

  5. Back in 8.06 I was remarking how I would thoroughly enjoy just listening to Eldaven explain magical theory all day long. Then this chapter came along and bliss was achieved. I spent my evening sitting on a couch, surrounded by dogs, a glass of cheap tasty wine at hand, the sound of rain outside my window, while reading about the magical theory as dictated by a dragon. Couldn’t ask for a better night.

    Troy/Trey is a character who has been growing on me. If anything I would say that I was surprised he has stayed as loyal to Flos as he has up until this point, especially once he got away from the thick of things. But the series of events, the people he has met, and the conditions around why he is helping Flos have all presented a beautiful tapestry of internal conflicts that is leaving me guessing what he will do when the time comes for him to make a choice. I can honestly say I am not 100% sure where his character is going but I am interested.

    As a side note: I cannot escape the visual in my head of Minizi looking like a Baby Groot but angrier and made of sand and I love it and want a plushie.

    Also, Happy Aba-day, belated! May this next year be better than any before it and offer more joy, success, and unexpected shenanigans than any so far!

  6. Got my own ideas for a magic system. But i can see using Innworld’s breakdown in a game.

    I’m wondering about Teriarch’s duplication of electronics. Can anyone with the spell do it? Or does it take a dragon’s power and deep structural understanding to do it properly and not end up with dead silicon?

    Once again, Pirateaba graces us with a fully formed character. And a truly engrossing chapter.

    • We heard before that the Archmages tried to replicate the electronics before and the Spell failed although we weren’t given a reason. We have also been told that [Repair] has an absurd cost on electronics compared to normal objects.

      My guess is that the Archmages lack understanding of the Duplication Spell and bad magical Foundation causes the Spell’s mana cost to skyrocket past the limit the Spell can handle.

  7. So the Erin “back in our world” simulation from Kasigna had access to our world?

    Because in that simulation, she had access to news about the “Spirited Generation”…
    And here as we can see from the earthers, the newest members confirm that “Spirited Generation” is the real “our world” label for the disappearances.

    I really don’t know what to make of that. :)

    • Just like she got information from Erin, she could have gotten information from every other earther soul.
      I’m pretty sure that some of the people from blighted king recent ritual died already and Kasigna absorbed theri soul and therefore the information from them

  8. Happy birthdaymonththingiemajig Pirate.
    Fun chapter. Dont know what else to say. Eldavin was his lovable grumpy self as usual and Trey/Troy is finally starting to think for himself now that hes away from Flos. That man is a bad influence on others I say. Keep up the quality work.

  9. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Amerys is going to kill Viltach when she escapes, and this recent characterization will just serve to increase the impact.

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