[I am on break until the 20th of September! Also, Blood of Liscor, Book 8 of The Wandering Inn is now available for pre-order on Audible!]
Archmage Valeterisa Imarris of Izril had met with the children of Earth briefly to understand their world and witness one of the great phenomena occurring in the present day.
Another world’s people, crossing over with this one. She had made numerous observations, mostly simple, including their ages, the patterns of location that occurred with some ‘groups’, and, of course, their lack of levels hither-to arriving.
She listened while other [Mages] asked questions of what they thought was interesting or dangerous. Guns and airplanes and internet, oh my.
Unlike some, Valeterisa took every statement at face-value. Space travel? The movements of stars? Relative speed-to-time? She believed it all—or a part of her did. Then she compartmentalized that full credulity and cross-checked it against factual evidence and her own understanding of physics and sciences.
—Yet, Valeterisa would well admit she had not spent nearly as much time with them as even the other Archmages. Not for lack of interest! It was just…
They had less to offer her. Their scientific understandings could be read once collated; culturally, a Human-only world was interesting, but Valeterisa had asked one Human—ironically, the same one now climbing the beach towards the City of Magic—a question.
Saif, the young man who carried an airsoft gun, now enchanted to be even more of a threat than it was before, had answered the Archmage of Izril’s most pressing question: what did he know of magic?
Stories, myths, pseudo-magic—Valeterisa had wanted to know. Saif had obliged her with a tale of a certain wizarding school, then found George for a legend of Elves, Dwarves, and a middle earth which assumed there were two other earths—whereupon they’d begun arguing about the deep lore of Tolkien.
The end result was incredibly disappointing for Valeterisa, and she had ended her direct contact shortly after that. Not because there were no depictions of magic on Earth or that they did not long for it. Rather, their magic sounded mundane.
Mundane, in the sense of fireballs and teleportation. There was a certain board game which made sense to most [Battlemages] as a representation in numbers of how much damage a spell could do. Magic in popular culture was still fantastical.
But it wasn’t magic. There was something behind the ability to conjure a storm of wind or levitate a cup. Something more profound, more useful, and simpler altogether.
Valeterisa had written her thesis on the subject. She’d almost failed to graduate. So she’d gone back to listening to Elena talk about celestial bodies. Magic had a place amidst the Earther’s knowledge of science, and that made more sense to the Archmage of Izril.
She might never have realized that, growing up, and become another [Mage] of Fissival. But despite the Scholarium having changed so little—as she stood, ignored, amongst her former peers, Valeterisa glanced around. If nothing else, she had once had an excellent teacher.
Ignored. Montressa du Valeross saw Valeterisa staring at her feet as they stood in the Draconae Scholarium, in the great plaza overlooking the rest of the city. The font of magic and authority was gathered here, professors and magical nobility and more.
All deliberately ignoring Valeterisa. Pretending she didn’t exist. Montressa was as red-faced as her hair, and she realized some of them gave her amused looks out of the corners of their eyes. She couldn’t help it.
This wasn’t right. It struck a chord with how she had been exiled. It—reminded her of Pisces, but this was worse than both in its way.
Because the Drakes here didn’t shun Valeterisa because she was a [Necromancer] or for anything she had done. They ignored her because she was the Archmage of Izril. The greatest [Mage] who had come from their ranks. And they refused to look at her. Refused to grant her a meeting—and Valeterisa seemed like she was a girl again, just studying the ground, too shy to speak.
For eighteen minutes, they stood there. Like a silent plea to be heard, as classes ended and Drakes moved around. The [Professors] and [Mages] milled about, talking, loitering, and sending their message.
In that time, Montressa waited for Valeterisa to do anything, but the Archmage held her ground, so Montressa did likewise. And the [Aegiscaster] realized there was a small benefit to that.
Because not all the Drakes were so studiously united.
In fact, the younger [Students] and [Mages] began to realize they had an interesting guest when they noticed the two Humans standing there.
It was not that they stood there; more than one citizen or tourist would do something similar, peer around the Scholarium and poke their tail everywhere, disrupt classes, and so on. Prospective candidates, etc.
Yet a pair of Drake [Students] trying to hold their [Aerial Shield] spells steady under Wardmistress Geyasa’s watchful gaze stopped teasing each other and trying to break the other’s focus. One of them cast around.
“Hey, you feel that? There’s some kind of…aura or something around here. It’s pretty strong. Cassa. Cassa, do you feel…?”
“Nope. I failed my detection class, remember?”
The other Drake grumbled, but she too picked up…something. Both the male and female [Student] glanced about, then they focused on the Human woman standing next to the shorter one with red hair and red face.
“Hey. Hey, Cassa. That Human’s got skin almost as red as your scales. That’s hilarious. Is that, uh, that sunburn thing that Humans get?”
“Don’t be mean, Toris. She’s probably a new student looking around.”
“Nah, she seems too old. And she’s got some magical power. Feel that?”
They were students, but still capable of detecting relative magical auras. Especially in Geyasa’s class; they might go on to be magical bodyguards or to ward houses, even venture into dungeons and remove traps. Even the negligent Cassa hesitated.
“Yeah, but not from the young one. Who’s that?”
They gazed at Archmage Valeterisa, and both of their ward spells flickered at the same time. The two Drakes flinched as someone spoke.
“Failure! Focus! Even if you turn your heads and chatter, I expect you to keep a spell up!”
That was accompanied by a thack, and a newspaper, rolled up, hit both on the top of the head. Both students groaned as the [Wardmistress] glared at them.
“If that hurts, consider how an arrow feels! Cassa, Toris, you have the luxury of remedial practice. See the assistant instructor for a date to make up your work. Everyone else? Class dismissed, well done.”
The two Drakes groaned as their fellow students grinned at them and relaxed in relief. Geyasa had been probing their basic air-shields, trying to disrupt the magical flow and even tossing flames or other hazards they had to weather.
“We didn’t fail because our shields failed! We just lost focus!”
Cassa glared at the sniggering classmates. One rolled their eyes.
“Same thing. What were you staring at? Hey—who’s that?”
And once again, the conversation repeated itself. Toris rubbed at his head and frowned.
“Some Human who wants to send her kid to school? But they’re both pretty good. Actually, even the red-haired Human might be on par with a full [Mage].”
“Did you fail your lessons like Cassa, Toris? She could be a teacher. And that’s the younger one. The older one…she must be from Wistram. Or she’s a new [Professor]. Check out her aura.”
The other students were noticing Valeterisa as their classes finished. Only the distracted students had noticed at first, but now…
“Who is that?”
They didn’t know. But they could tell Valeterisa was something. The students of the Scholarium pointed, but none of the teachers had approached the Humans, and so maybe they were waiting for someone?
The students were mostly Drakes, as befit Fissival, but they had a minority of Humans, even Dullahans and other species from further abroad. Stitch-folk from Chandrar were rare given the mage-schools on the continent, and likewise for Terandria. Lizardfolk were not common, so Humans were the second most common students. Dullahans, Selphids, and Centaurs along with Drowned Folk combined made up similar numbers to the Human minority.
Even so, it took ages for one of them to identify Valeterisa. Not simply because her name was almost unknown here, but because the Archmage of Izril had been gone for eight long years. Only when someone remembered a brief image they’d seen from Wistram did they suspect who it was. Then the whispers began.
“The Archmage of Izril? Really? I didn’t know we had an Archmage! Why’s she here?”
“I heard she was dead!”
“Maybe she’s come to exchange knowledge with Fissival? Or trade with our [Mages]?”
“Didn’t she fight in the Meeting of Tribes? Why’d anyone let her in?”
“Because she used to be a student here. Duh.”
A cluster of students broke up, and the younger Drakes parted. The other students backed up as a far older [Student] of the Scholarium broke in. He was thirty-four years old and, like High Magus Telim, an essential fixture of the Scholarium.
Unlike Wistram, which was notorious for being an expensive school to attend, much less get to, even with scholarships, the Draconae Scholarium offered generous scholarships that included room and board. Some students were so fond of the arrangement they became permanent students rather than graduate.
This Drake was, in fact, Cassa and Toris’ assistant instructor. As well as taking classes and studying in his own time, he often helped the busy [Teachers]. Even so—he’d been a student longer than some of the new students had been alive.
“No way, Kadril. That’s another lie, like kissing the statue of Obridein. I’m not falling for your lies again.”
“You kissed the statue? Gross.”
By that, they meant the statue most of the students were gathered around, which was named Obridein, a Drake kneeling on the ground in a surprisingly humble pose. But that was, perhaps, because the entire Walled City of Magic, in miniature, rested upon his back. It might have been a commentary on the role of [Mages] serving the city. Or maybe it was just ego. Either way, one of the favorite pranks on new students was to tell them it was good luck to kiss Obridein.
That was both highly unhygienic and unwise, because the older students would chill the statue so your lips stuck to the stone.
Anyways, Kadril ignored the younger students as he watched Valeterisa.
“Yeah, that’s her. Valeterisa, the Archmage of Izril. I saw her in the yearbook. Top of her class. Four year graduate. Pioneered her own magical spell, quit for Wistram, and then became Archmage of Izril.”
Cassa was still stuck on the first part. She raised a claw as she gaped at Valeterisa in amazement.
“…We had an Archmage? Graduate from here? Why didn’t anyone ever mention that?”
To that, Kadril just flicked his tail in a rude gesture and turned away with a snort. The younger students regarded each other, then they began to hurry off to spread word. The Archmage of Izril!
They neither knew her reputation nor her history. It was just her title that impressed them. But some of the Drakes, like Wardmistress Geyasa, paused a moment. She glanced around at her peers and didn’t break the veil of silence. So the [Wardmistress] stormed to her next lecture, seeming more annoyed than usual.
And still, Valeterisa waited. She traced her eyes over the worn flagstones of the Scholarium, and Montressa looked around.
Here was a level of magic few places in the world could boast of. She wished she didn’t hate it so.
Here was Fissival’s famed teleportation network. Somewhere in the Scholarium, goods from cities in the region would teleport in and be traded out as needed. Once, this network had criss-crossed Izril. These days, it had errors that sometimes lost entire shipments of goods, and no one dared use it for personal teleportation.
It had been co-opted by Fissival to steal the Gnolls’ magic. But once, it had been great. Just like the legends—once, Fissival flew. It still did, technically.
“Archmage. We don’t have to stand here.”
They’ll never speak to you. Montressa interrupted Valeterisa’s silence after another two minutes had passed. The Archmage’s head snapped up. She glanced around before turning to Montressa.
“I know. I hoped…”
A hand went up to touch her brow, but it hesitated, and she didn’t cast a spell. Valeterisa just glanced around and sighed.
“The classes are changing. Wait another few minutes. I want to see if someone is still here.”
A [Mage Lord]? Or lady? More than even Salazsar, Montressa had noticed the aristocracy of Fissival was present here. A blend of noble classes and magic. She could only guess that being well-connected in this Scholarium would be akin to being favored in Pheislant’s royal courts.
However, Valeterisa just shook her head.
“My teacher. Oh…I think he’s here. See if you can spot him.”
A rare smile crossed her face as her head rotated across the new classes coming into the courtyard. Montressa stood on her tip-toes, but she just saw a sea of Drake heads and robes. Valeterisa, though—she was smiling.
“It must be the start of a new semester.”
Who was she looking at? Montressa saw new classes beginning, and indeed, the most raw [Students] were taking their first steps to becoming [Mages] here.
[Students], not [Mages]. That fascinated Montressa. There were few of that class in Wistram, but Valeterisa spoke absently.
“Oh, yes. We have [Teachers] and [Professors] and [Students] here. Classes devoted to learning. It’s not always considered optimal, but I had a [Student] class which I consolidated into [Scholar]. Then it all became [Mage]. I have always missed that. Wistram has a different kind of magic—but its teachers are often quite poor at…teaching.”
Montressa was about to object to that with pride in her former academy—then she remembered Illphres’ entire class had been freezing a classroom and daring her students to unfreeze it for an entire semester. She had to admit—it was a fair point. Eldavin had been a rare [Mage] who was as good at teaching magic as casting it.
So, the [Teachers] in Fissival let the Scholarium take students who didn’t even know how to cast spells yet. A group of young Drakes and two Humans were holding their wands, some of them barely ten years old, and a kindly [Teacher] was showing them how to channel magic into their wands.
“No, don’t cast anything—just focus. Good. Pass! And you—”
“How do I focus, Teacher?”
A Drake girl seemed distressed as she tried to push magic into her wand. She was probably not a native of Fissival if she didn’t know how to even put magic into her wand. Montressa saw the Drake draw his own wand with a flourish.
“Like this. [Learn by Example] and [Illustrated Point]. See? The magic comes down the arm, into the wand, and it gathers here.”
Montressa blinked. She could read magic flow, but that was an advanced trick. Now, with only her mundane eyes, she saw magic running down the [Teacher]’s arm into his wand. The class oohed, and the young Drake stared at her wand excitedly.
“I get it! You pull it from here—I get it!”
Teaching Skills. Montressa had to admit—that wasn’t bad. Other [Teachers] and [Professors] clearly had Skills that had little magical utility but a lot of power in these classroom settings. One spotted a snoozing Drake and snapped her fingers.
The Drake blinked, snapped up to guilty attention, and she gave him a reproving look. But a lot of Skills also extended to identifying struggling students or clarifying points.
Yet Montressa’s interest in each teacher was also in finding Valeterisa’s own mentor. Who was it? The teacher showing wands? Another illustrating how to draw runes? That teacher, over there, making his students run across the ground?
“Testicles! If the Sinew Magus has proven anything, it’s that a [Mage] can be fit and cast spells! I studied under Grimalkin himself. You want to take on a Wyvern bare-handed? Well then—”
“…Definitely not that one.”
It seemed like old graduates of Fissival could influence the Scholarium even after they’d left. For proof of that—Montressa saw a familiar face in another open plaza area in the vast courtyard.
Not that she knew Archmage Zelkyr that well, but only he would be standing amongst a corner of one of the buildings, in a small plot of grass, with the familiar Truestone Golems—one of them—flanking him.
Interestingly, it was not Cognita, but the Gnoll Golem. Montressa really would love to know what Cognita thought of that. An entire class was sitting in the shadow of the statues.
They were eight feet tall. There, along the low stone edge you could sit on, a Drake was lecturing his class. It didn’t seem like a magical lesson. His prop was a simple object too. Montressa sharpened her gaze and amped up her vision, but…
Nope. It was just a rock.
The [Professor] sat with the rock laying just within arm’s reach, his entire class of students, some of whom seemed like they were close to graduation, listening to him.
“I have a profound conundrum to start our course, students. You see here, I have a rock. It is unenchanted, ordinary, and it is right here. I should very much like to lift it up to, say, around head-height. How might I effect a solution to my problem?”
The students glanced at each other, and some laughed, but the Drake had a completely serious face. One bold student sitting close to him stood up.
“I can help, Professor. What about…?”
She picked up the rock and held it up. The [Professor] gaped at her—and then he exploded into fury.
“What have you done?”
The unlucky student nearly dropped the rock in fright. Montressa raised her brows as the Drake shot to his feet. She glanced over and saw Valeterisa was watching him. She had a slight smile on her face, and so Montressa’s interest reached a zenith. She listened, and both Human [Mages] walked over a bit as the [Professor] began to rant.
“Do you know what you’ve done?”
“N-no, Professor Pexalix, sir? What did I do?”
Pexalix glared at the Drake and gestured to the rock.
“You picked up the rock!”
She hesitated. Now, the class really was laughing, and some of the older Drakes and students who were familiar with Pexalix were rolling their eyes. The student hesitated and peered at him.
“You’ve wasted your life. Look at her, class! Look what she did! She had to stand up, walk over here, and pick up the rock. She’s wasted five seconds, six, perhaps, of her life! Her life. She’ll never get that back. Six seconds. Are you fine with this, Miss…?”
Now, the young Drake was certain she’d stepped into a trap and was trying to make the best of it.
“Naithorne, Professor. It’s only a few seconds. What’s the problem?”
The [Professor]’s eyes glinted. He glanced up and saw Valeterisa, but he went on as if she weren’t there.
“Oh, to be so young. Miss Naithorne. How many rocks or objects do you think you’ll pick up in your life?”
“Um. I don’t know. Thousands? Tens of thousands?”
“Thousands. And if each time you wasted six seconds, how many minutes does that become? Hours? Let’s assume you picked up only a hundred thousand objects in your entire life. Multiply that by six seconds. How much time have you wasted? Anyone? I know most of you graduated from your basic mathematics course.”
Six hundred thousand seconds divided up…one Drake raised his claw, amused.
“About seven days, sir.”
“Seven days of her life. Gone. Just like that. And that’s assuming only six seconds.”
“Even seven days doesn’t sound that bad, if I live to be a hundred, Professor.”
Now, Naithorne was trying to be difficult. But Pexalix’s eyes were still glinting.
“Oh, how charitable. But that rock is there not to just be your personal lifting device, Miss Naithorne, but a metaphorical rock for us all. Let’s assume you are content with wasting seven days of your life. Tell me. How many citizens live in Fissival?”
No one knew that off the top of their head.
“Millions, correct. Every single person now loses seven days of their life. How many years would…three million Drakes lose to lifting that rock?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, although Valeterisa was working on it. Pexalix spun, and Montressa began to understand what he was saying as he strode back to his seat.
“Lifting that rock can be easy. If you have an arm and you feel like standing up, you can lift it. But let’s say I want to save myself the time. How else might I lift the rock? And since I’ve taught this class, no ‘smart’ answers like your tail, your other hand, your foot, or your mouth. Assume we are limbless, bodiless people.”
The students were warming to his lesson now. A hand shot up, and a Dullahan boy spoke, cautiously, as he held his head up.
“A classic answer for a [Mage]. Yes, magic. Levitation, teleportation, a pillar of earth, even wind—”
Now, the [Professor] gestured, and the rock gently floated up. It fell, then a pillar of earth lifted it before a wind spell blew it around and nearly brained a passing [Professor]. Pexalix raised an apologetic claw as his class laughed.
“I apologize for that. I’d teleport it, but as we know, only our vaunted teleportation network works in a Walled City. Ahem. Magic, indeed. Now…what about ways other than magic?”
His class was stumped for a second. Then, someone else raised her claw.
“What about…one of the lifts in Pallass? Or something like that? A contraption to pick it up?”
The Drake was smiling now. He nodded.
“Perfect. You’ve gotten farther than some classes. A contraption. A sling, a lever—good, good. What else?”
They stalled for a second. The [Professor] waited, then supplied them with the answer.
“Let’s say you were not my students and I, this bodiless, magic-less voice, had the issue. You, Miss Naithorne. Would you waste your time once more and pick up the rock for…six copper coins?”
The [Professor] nodded about.
“She doesn’t even haggle. And like that, I have exchanged six copper coins for six seconds of her life. Is that a fair deal?”
“Does that count, Professor?”
A student looked interested, and the [Professor] raised both his brows.
“Count? Of course it does. I’ve paid someone else to do work for me. It’s entirely valid. Or do you think a [Carpenter] builds you a chair out of the goodness of his heart? You could, perhaps, do that work yourself, but how long would it take you to make a chair? Why not buy one pre-made? Could you make one with magic? Of course. But it seems to me many questions we have are about how to efficiently lift a rock—or balance the cost. The rock, if you hadn’t guessed, is a metaphor and the topic of this course.”
His students peered at him, some blank-faced, but Montressa got it. Pexalix sighed as he flicked his claws, and an illusion of marching Drakes wearing armor appeared. He glanced up again at Valeterisa.
“[Soldiers] fight battles to protect citizens like us. Adventurers kill monsters. [Miners] mine ore in Salazsar, and everyone has their profession. Some people will spend every second of their professions in the service of others. And this is a necessary thing to keep Fissival running. Consider our sewers. Who would enjoy a job, say, cleaning them every day? Unclogging toilets?”
He cast about. No one raised their hands, and the Drake nodded.
“And yet—it is necessary. We do make people do it. Is that fair to them? I will point out, by the way, that those who clean the sewers are by and large either Second-Class Citizens or Foreigners under working visas. Let alone their species.”
“We pay them. It’s a job, Professor.”
One of the students retorted, seeming a bit annoyed by what Pexalix was putting down. The [Professor] shot back calmly.
“So will you do it? How much are they being paid? If they had a choice, do you think any of them would say that sewer-cleaning is their ideal occupation? It is a huge, disgusting rock, and someone must lift it. The question is…why are we lifting it that way? Could we lift the rock of sewer-cleaning another way? Say with…”
He waggled his claws and produced some colorful sparks, which faded as they showered into the air and onto the ground. Then, Naithorne spoke up.
“You mean magic, Professor?”
“Exactly. Magic or a Pallassian gadget or something more inventive still. Why don’t we do that? We have [Cleanse] spells. Why not send a [Mage] down and, though it may be disgusting, just [Cleanse] the damn sewers rather than do it manually?”
His students eyed each other. Some of them murmured, and Montressa herself was curious. Now that he mentioned it—why not indeed? It sounded easy. She’d heard of Pisces’ sewer-cleaning Bone Horror, but why not just scour the damn place? Maybe Liscor lacked for the right [Mages], but she was sure Fissival could do it.
Pexalix knew the answer, which was why he’d brought it up. He ticked the points off on his clawed hand.
“A few reasons, class. Firstly? Magic is money, and many [Mages] consider the work beneath them. It is far cheaper to hire some Second-Class Citizens than to hire a Level 30 [Mage]. Second? Size. Fissival’s sewers are vast and—consider the [Cleanse] spell. It scales up the mana cost with the amount it needs to clean. Perhaps there is a [Mass Cleanse] spell, but who could cast that? But lastly—we have found that if you obsessively [Cleanse] an area of filth, the resulting overly-clean area can have dire consequences and backlash of its own.”
The class was fascinated. Pexalix grimaced.
“I will be assigning you books on magical disasters, and the Sewer Purge disaster will be your reading material tonight. It happened in our very sewers. We shall discuss magical mishaps—but suffice it to say that [Cleanse] was not a cure-all.”
Montressa eyed Valeterisa, and the Archmage of Izril refused to meet her eyes. She muttered out of the corner of her mouth.
“It only applies to huge quantities of filth.”
“So you were still courting disaster, Archmage?”
The reply popped out of Montressa’s mouth before she could help it. Valeterisa blinked and then narrowed her eyes as Montressa turned red. Then she smiled and glowered at the same time.
Yet Pexalix was going on.
“And yet, my class. And yet. It would be all too convenient to say, ‘oh, magic cannot solve everything. We must hire [Cleaners] and that is that’. If [Cleanse] cannot do the job, we are stuck. Is that fair?”
By this point, some of his students, like Naithorne, were wise enough to wait. But Pexalix had baited a few nods from his students, and his next explosion was the most gregarious still.
“Are you insane?”
He was on his feet again and striding past students recoiling, leaning back, but his eyes were ablaze with passion for his subject. The [Professor] slapped his chest with one claw and the ground with his tail.
“You are all students of the Draconae Scholarium, the greatest magic-school of Izril! If you give up on a problem because one spell does not work, you do not deserve to be [Mages]. Magic can solve the sewer problem. It is my belief it can solve any problem. Perhaps not efficiently, but it can be done. Magic is more than a [Fireball]. How else could you clean the sewers? Anyone?”
He swung around and almost fell to his knees.
“Anyone. One spell! One original thought in the Scholarium, for the love of Dragons!”
“Well, what about enchanting a mop? Or summoning a familiar? Or just casting [Tidal Wave]?”
Pexalix glanced up. Montressa du Valeross saw his students glance at her, but she hadn’t been able to resist. The [Professor] smiled.
“Ah, now there’s an idea. And Fissival has employed all those things. And Golems. Then we used our Golems in war, and the sewers became the job of citizens once more. Yet magic remains. Magic can do anything, even make magic simpler. Isn’t that right, Archmage Valeterisa?”
Every head turned, and the students stared as Valeterisa bowed slightly. She peered at the old [Professor], who had broken the code of the Scholarium, and smiled.
“Yes, Professor Pexalix. In these days, magic is a single spell. But what is a ritual of old, or a grand spell, but a thousand little spells built upon each other? That rock you hold is a mundane rock, but upon millions of its kind we made the Walled Cities. Can a spell create food? Or if not food, can a Golem plow a field? Can a spell cast a spell? I believe it can. We have simply forgotten how.”
Montressa’s head turned, and her eyes opened wide in disbelief. Can a spell cast a spell? Valeterisa sounded like one of the [High Mages] of Wistram, like Telim, higher still on Sa’la’s more recreational herbs.
Yet Valeterisa and Pexalix held each other’s gaze in perfect seriousness, and the [Professor] chuckled slowly.
“She just gave away the last part of my course. Ah, and here is a former student of mine and Fissival’s. Archmage Valeterisa. We may have to cut the class short, students.”
“Not for me. Studying, magic, are their own rewards.”
She stood there, and the old [Professor] looked her up and down. Montressa wondered who had aged more in the time they had not seen each other. From the deep fondness, sadness, and regret in his eyes—she felt like it was not him. Yet Valeterisa still smiled, and she met her old teacher’s eyes as he exhaled, proud.
“Yes. So great [Mages] have always said. Later, then. Where was I? Sewers? Well, since we have been spoiled on the premise of magic—yes, we’re going to review spells. Why do we cast a [Fireball] with the woven-method? And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then we had better get the idea into your heads that spells don’t have to be cast the same way. It’s just that most [Mages] don’t vary a spell. Why, there’s a fine example with the famous Archmage of Memory in his duel with Archmage Feor that illustrates my point. But to start from the beginning…”
Montressa stepped back with Valeterisa as Pexalix found his spot again. Soon, he was teaching a course that Montressa wished she’d taken in Wistram. She studied Valeterisa.
“So, he’s your great teacher?”
“The finest teacher I could have asked for. He teaches ideas, not spells. Methods, not outcomes. I wondered if he was still here.”
Now, Montressa understood the forces that had shaped Valeterisa. The rules of Fissival and how they treated citizens. The [Crafters] and their mastery of magic. And Pexalix, the [Professor] whose ideas had echoed in Valeterisa until now.
Yet, and yet. As Valeterisa gazed fondly at her former teacher, someone cleared her throat, and both Montressa and the Archmage turned. A Drake stood there, wearing the bright blue robes embroidered with the Scholarium’s crest. She spoke sharply.
“Valeterisa. I cannot believe you have the audacity to show your face here. I cannot believe you were not arrested for your treachery at the Meeting of Tribes. Have you come to beg the forgiveness of the Scholarium or just see everything you abandoned?”
Valeterisa blinked at the other Drake. She had a very shockingly bright set of yellow scales, and combined with the blue, it contrived to make her stand out vividly. She seemed…well, furious, but also somewhat lost. Like someone who had been following the north star only to fall off a cliff. Nervous?
“Magus Lady Sooralese to you, Valeterisa! We are not students anymore. Nor are you any close confidant of mine. I hold you responsible for Wall Lord Dragial’s death. But for you—we would have won a great victory at the Meeting of Tribes!”
Oh. Her hostility suddenly made sense to Montressa. Valeterisa took a long breath.
“Were you a close supporter of his? He was exiled from Fissival, if I recall. You were always fond of him, although he barely noticed us, being three years ahead.”
The other Drake’s cheeks blushed with fury.
“Don’t speak of him that way! He was exiled purely on political reasons; the Scholarium never revoked his status. He was a [Mage Lord] of Fissival.”
“A graduate. So was I. I never liked him. He bullied me quite often. I was surprised he died at the Meeting of Tribes. I would have thought he knew better than to join a war. He was always bad at direct combat magic. Summoning was his forte.”
Valeterisa sounded oddly dispassionate as she stared at a distant memory. Sooral gasped for outrage. Her voice trembled as she aimed a finger at the Archmage.
“You never fit in the academy. You and your…‘self-proven theories’. Just because you won a few duels and patented a spell, you think that gives you the right to look down on Dragial?”
Her tail was lashing the ground in irritation. Valeterisa shifted, and Montressa, glancing at the other watching Drakes now, thought the Archmage was almost trying to hold a smile.
“Not for that. But he was three years ahead of me. And I graduated before him.”
Sooral gasped in fury. She had a wand at her side in one of the holsters there, and her claw twitched for that.
“I should have you expelled on the spot! Not just from the Scholarium, but from the entire city!”
“I am a citizen of Fissival. And a [Mage] of the Scholarium.”
“I am a Mage Lady of Fissival—”
Valeterisa cut her off suddenly.
“—And I have done nothing wrong. You cannot play tricks on me anymore. I just realized that. You can probably still make my life more difficult, but if you would like to directly punish me, you would need to duel me. Formally. If you would like to issue a challenge, go ahead.”
Slowly, Valeterisa drew her wand, and the Mage Lady hesitated. Montressa, in her shoes, would have hesitated. She had seen Valeterisa’s poor duel against Fyres—but she’d also seen how it ended, and somehow, she didn’t think Valeterisa would be as inept against Sooral.
A crowd had gathered, now, mostly of students, and the [Mage Lady] looked around as she unconsciously took a step back.
“I…don’t have the mana to waste on you, Valeterisa. Nor the patience!”
She turned, and Valeterisa called at her back.
“Drakes don’t run. Coward. Isn’t that what you said to me, Sooral?”
The yellow-scaled Drake froze mid-step and nearly turned, but she kept walking. Valeterisa focused on Sooral’s back and then turned. Montressa was beaming, but Valeterisa was not as she began walking away.
“Archmage, that was incredible. Who was that?”
“A Drake. Who was in my year. I did not like her. I wish that made me feel better.”
Valeterisa wasn’t smiling as Montressa glanced up in astonishment.
“You embarrassed her publicly! She didn’t dare challenge you!”
She pointed out, hoping it made Valeterisa smile, but the Archmage just shrugged.
“No. I was the one who bullied her. It doesn’t change what a younger Valeterisa went through decades ago. Dragial is dead. He would have caused trouble, laws or not. She might, but he…”
She slowed and glanced around blankly.
“Not even the Drakes who hated me most are alive anymore. I’m not their enemy. Almost all of them just forgot about me.”
She shook her head. Montressa’s feeling of vicarious pride and satisfaction faded away. Valeterisa turned, and a few more Drakes were watching her. She nodded to them.
“Professor Worpell. Magus Lord Cureq. General Hexa. And…”
“Magic General Vors. On leave. To correct you, Archmage, it would be Supreme Magi-General Hexa.”
Four Drakes stood facing Valeterisa. One was a professor, almost as grey-scaled as Pexalix, but female, with a monocle floating in front of one eye. The Mage-Lord was a hostile, scowling Drake of around Sooral’s age and, Montressa guessed, much of the same mindset as Sooral.
The two [Generals] of Fissival were an odd contrast, though. General Hexa wore enchanted cloth-plate armor; cloth shaped much like plate armor but far lighter. General Vors, on the other hand, was wearing an oddly exotic-looking scale plate set and stood slightly apart from the rest. He had some kind of a staff with…glass shards on top?
“I don’t know you, Magic General. The rest? I greet you.”
Valeterisa peered at Vors with some interest and inspected Hexa’s armor. The [Professor] spoke curtly.
“Magus Valeterisa. You have caused something of a stir in the Scholarium. I trust you will not disrupt the students’ academic studies or the peace of the Scholarium unduly?”
“I simply asked Sooral if she was challenging me to a duel.”
Valeterisa pointed behind her, much like a student excusing herself to a teacher. Which…perhaps she had been. She certainly seemed to know all the other Drakes and at least the [Professor] and [Mage Lord] intimately.
“That is your right, Valeterisa. As is your right to take your…apprentice?…on a tour of the Scholarium. Within reason. I regret that we did not have the opportunity to offer you an earlier date for your audience. But it is pleasing to see you looking so well. I thought you had passed away years ago.”
Worpell’s voice was calm, even polite-sounding, but Montressa was familiar enough with Wistram’s politics to detect something akin to Nailihuaile’s tones in her voice. And her comments clearly stuck in Valeterisa’s skin. She lifted her chin and spoke unhappily.
“I am the Archmage of Izril. I have met with Archmage Eldavin, and you all have seen his great magic from Wistram. Yet I was denied a single audience. Do you have no interest in magic?”
General Vors’ eyes shot sideways as his brows rose, but Mage Lord Cureq replied without looking directly at Valeterisa. He focused on a point over Montressa’s head as he spoke.
“Your presence, Magus Valeterisa, is unwelcome. You are both a theoretical agent of the north as well as a representative of Wistram, whom we have recently clashed with. Not only that; you took up arms against Fissival. As Supreme General Hexa points out, the army is within its rights to expel you as a direct threat to the city. That we have not is a sign of good faith. But to return to the Scholarium after decades of silence and expect an open-armed welcome is extreme, even for you.”
Valeterisa stared at him and exhaled slowly.
“Not everyone can pay to be remembered fondly, Magus Lord. Nor do I regard my studies here as positive. Some of my classes and classmates were unpleasant.”
She peered long at Worpell, but the [Professor] just met the gaze unflinchingly. Cureq shifted.
“Our student years are more than half our lifetimes ago, Valeterisa. It seems pedantic to bring up grudges from then.”
“I am a citizen of a Walled City. I suppose I have Drake-like qualities.”
Valeterisa snapped back. Montressa’s mouth opened. She was getting angry! The Archmage was so agitated that the Supreme General tensed slightly, but it was Vors who spoke up.
“—I believe, at least, we should hear Archmage Valeterisa out. I was unaware she had petitioned for a meeting. I, myself, came directly to meet with her out of pure curiosity when I heard she had arrived in Fissival.”
“Vors! She is an enemy of our city! She fought against our people at the Meeting of Tribes!”
Hexa hissed at him as he broke ranks. The Drake grimaced.
“You mean, that she fought for Salazsar? The record clearly shows Wall Lord Ilvriss hired her. I would regard that more as working for Oteslia and Salazsar in conjunction with the Gnolls’ side.”
“Still traitorous. I would be ashamed of any Drake who conducted such an act that I had personally approved as a student.”
Professor Worpell observed calmly. Valeterisa’s eyes narrowed.
“So, did you approve stripping the Gnolls of their magic? Part of my request to meet with Fissival’s Three or the Scholarium was to ascertain who was aware of that act. Wistram is curious.”
Then there was silence. All the Drakes paused, and Montressa saw Cureq’s eyes dart left and right, taking Worpell and Hexa’s opinions. The Supreme General of Fissival spoke carefully.
“Is this a formal inquiry on behalf of Wistram?”
“Archmage Eldavin expressed curiosity in whatever I might find. We are part of a faction. Terras. The theft of Gnolls’ magical power is a worldwide concern which the Terras faction stands against.”
Valeterisa’s words made the three Drakes consider themselves for the first time since they’d begun the conversation. They weren’t afraid of her, but Wistram? Eldavin?
Were they blind? Montressa wondered. Maybe the old Worpell, but…what did they see? Perhaps even Hexa, who was clearly younger than the older Mage Lord, Professor, and Valeterisa…perhaps they just saw her as she had been.
However, Magic General Vors was different from the rest, and he spoke slowly as every head snapped towards him.
“It is a disgusting act. A shame upon Fissival which has jeopardized our position on the continent and worldwide. As I have said to Fissival’s Three—and I will repeat myself, General Hexa, with apologies—even Rhir has not looked kindly upon Fissival’s detachment. Our Gnollish allies fighting the Demons…let’s just say that it is a rare instance when any [General] is given a vacation from Hell. But my remaining would have been as disruptive as my departure.”
So General Hexa was now one of Fissival’s Three? Montressa was amazed—either that meant she was a temporary appointee or the Drakes here had enough sway to make her a peer, not the outright leader. All three Drakes glared at Vors, but he’d stated his case, and Valeterisa gave him a slow nod.
“Ah. You went to Rhir.”
“I did indeed. I have been serving in a combined-unit with an excellent mercenary force from Baleros—hence my armor—and Avel’s archers. We’ve seen battle against the Demons twice, but no Death of Magic. Thankfully.”
Montressa spoke at the same time as Valeterisa brightened up.
“Ah, I forgot about the Death of Magic. You wouldn’t happen to have run into any of her spells, would you?”
Montressa bowed, blushing as Vors studied Valeterisa and then her. She introduced herself, and he nodded.
“Avel, indeed. Amazing archers. They have better aim than even our [Sharpshooter Spellslingers]; with those bows, they can hit almost any target. As for the Death of Magic…I regret to say we have fought with her damned summoned Demons. Two thousand fake Demons wearing plate armor who kill like the real things while swarms of insects assailed us overhead. And she can conjure fake armies every week.”
He grimaced. Even the other Drakes of the Scholarium seemed uneasy at that level of sheer magical power, but Valeterisa was fascinated.
“Expendable armies. Eldavin is capable of the same thing, but I cannot imagine he has the scope yet. Highly efficient. Professor Pexalix, did you hear…?”
“Ah, that would be the flip side of the positive world of magic I hope my students will build. I see we’ve finally decided to talk to the Archmage of Izril, have we? Good evening, Miss. I never got your name.”
Pexalix had finished his class in the time since they’d begun talking. Now, he stepped into the circle, and Worpell glared at him.
“This conversation of Rhir is a separate issue to Fissival’s concerns.”
“Yet the Demons concern everyone, with the greatest respect, Professor. I was dismayed at their power. One Deathless is countering countless nations sending forces to combat her. Frankly, I believe her to be a greater threat than the King of Destruction by far. I returned to present my opinion to the Scholarium to find us at war with Salazsar!”
“Over their treachery!”
Hexa glared at Vors, in clear disbelief at this break within Fissival’s military ranks. However, she was no Chaldion, and Vors shot back, his tones rising in anger.
“Because they sided with the Gnolls? We did not have to march on the Meeting of Tribes! And I have yet to get a clear answer—who convinced Fissival’s Three to send our armies there?”
“Wall Lord Dragial.”
Cureq spoke, and the silence that followed was complete. Vors exhaled.
“Then it seems as though his ambitions have cost us dearly. And ended with him.”
“No. Not ended.”
Vors’ head snapped up, and he focused on Valeterisa. She gazed at Cureq and cast around. The angry Mage Lady Sooral…even Worpell, Hexa? Valeterisa’s head moved around, and then Montressa felt an itch between her shoulder blades. She turned and saw a Drake watching her.
He didn’t look much distinguished from the other Drakes. Turquoise, which Montressa supposed was handsome or unique? He wore robes, and he was probably either a full mage or close; his aura was fairly good, but he was young. What made him stand out, perhaps, was the intensity of that glare.
It was venomous. And he stood next to Sooral and a lot of younger [Mages]. Valeterisa spoke slowly, glancing around. She was replying to Vors, but putting something together with a resigned air.
“Ah, I see it now. Dragial never really lost power, did he? I didn’t know he was so famous, but he was always well-loved here. Teachers liked him. And the students went on to become leaders. Dragial’s dead. But it seems…he had a son.”
Montressa felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. Worpell’s mouth closed tightly, and Vors glanced around and then clenched his jaw as something went click in his head. As for Valeterisa? She nodded.
“It makes sense. He was famously promiscuous as a student.”
Pexalix snorted, but Valeterisa was already turning. She gazed at Worpell and sighed.
“Will the Scholarium at least hear me?”
“Not formally for two months. We are unfortunately busy. If you would like to speak to other members, that is, of course, your right.”
The [Professor] replied with that same fake polite tone. Valeterisa exhaled.
“I will not be staying two months. Will anyone speak to me or listen before then?”
She cast around again, and the students watched her avidly, whispering, and now hearing rumors spread from her enemies mixed with old tales of her glory. Vors began to nod, but Hexa just turned away.
“You and I will have a cup of tea, Valeterisa.”
Pexalix spoke, patting Valeterisa’s arm, but no one else moved. Montressa saw, for a final time, Valeterisa’s head dip and how she focused on her feet. Worpell did smile at that. Right until a Drake floated up over the side of the plaza.
Magus Lord Ascoden could fly. And he knew how to cut an entrance. It was only, unfortunately, undercut by Eun, the young man from South Korea, clinging to one leg. The moment they landed, Eun fell to his knees and curled up. Montressa stared at the familiar face from Wistram.
Hadn’t Nailihuaile introduced her to…? And while she was cut off from Wistram, Bezale had said there was a break…out…
“Those tail-wanking, shit-stealing [Sneak Thieves].”
Hexa recoiled as Montressa breathed, realizing what they’d done. So this was where the Earthers were! She was furiously composing a message to the academy before she realized she was still expelled.
As for Valeterisa? She blinked as Mage Lord Ascoden strode forwards.
“Mage Lord Ascoden. You’ve returned.”
Worpell sounded uncertain as the Drakes turned to face him. They clearly knew him, but like Vors, he wasn’t with the majority of the group. And Ascoden was locked onto Valeterisa.
“I’m delighted to have arrived just in time. Archmage Valeterisa, it is an honor to meet you!”
He had his claw held out, but Mage Lord Cureq intercepted Ascoden. The scarred Drake—he had some kind of fresh wound, Montressa noticed—had to halt or run over Cureq as the other Drake spoke loudly.
“The Archmage was just leaving the Scholarium. She has been unable to meet with any members, save her closest friends…friend.”
He gave Ascoden an intent look, which was as un-subtle as you got. In reply, Ascoden calmly elbowed Cureq aside.
“Then she will meet with one. I would be delighted to hear anything she wishes to say.”
The Drake reached out, and Valeterisa gave his claw a blank, surprised look. Then, hesitantly, she took his hand and seemed just as astonished when he shook it. Ascoden gazed around, and if the Scholarium had been a solid wall against Valeterisa—
There was now a crack in it. Worpell almost hissed, but she turned it into a smile, conscious of the students.
“—And what would Magus Valeterisa wish to discuss with the Scholarium? If we are entertaining her requests.”
She glanced at Valeterisa, and the Archmage of Izril looked Ascoden in the eyes. Then she turned. She adjusted her spectacles and peered around at the Scholarium.
“…I was wondering if my old rooms were still here. I would like to see them. Oh, and if the Scholarium was interested in making me a Mage Lady of Fissival.”
Sooral gasped in outrage, and the crowd made similar noises. But Valeterisa just raised her voice calmly.
“If so—I would live here, take up my role as Archmage of Izril here, and teach and study magic. I am…”
“I am still a daughter of the walls. I came back to see if there was a place for me here.”
She peered at the blank, surprised expressions of the other Drakes. At Montressa and Ascoden’s raised brows. But…even if she were an Archmage, she was no [Archmage]. Not yet. And that was why, despite Montressa desperately casting [Detect Truth] over and over—she couldn’t find a lie in Valeterisa’s statement.
Predictably—the fights began almost minutes later.
If you didn’t know about Archmage Valeterisa before today—well, you did now. The City of Fissival was abuzz with her name and her offer.
However, the real drama was about whether or not the City of Magic intended to take the Archmage of Izril up on her offer.
Her highly egotistical, nay, outrageous, provocatively dangerous offer. At least, to hear Valeterisa’s detractors describe it.
You see, two narratives were dueling. Or maybe two perspectives, between Valeterisa’s allies and her enemies, and they had everything from tales of her as a student to recent events like her participation in the war at the Meeting of Tribes.
It was charitable to say that Valeterisa was starting from a position of weakness in getting anyone on her side, but then again—Wall Lord Dragial and his followers were essentially the same bloc who hated Valeterisa and didn’t want her near any official position of power in Fissival.
They did not speak for all of Fissival. In fact, Dragial’s own actions, such as battling Lehra Ruinstrider and sullying Fissival’s name until he was expelled, spoke to the existing rift in the City of Magic. He had enough power to call upon an army, but the revelation that Fissival had stolen Gnolls’ magic had entrenched the differences such that while Valeterisa was being slandered by some powerful members of the Scholarium, that same divide was giving her allies who hated Dragial.
That was the broad overlay. Now—what were the stakes? Simply put, if Valeterisa got her way, Fissival got themselves the Archmage of Izril in residency. They would grant her all the rights of a Mage Lady of Fissival—and that was a powerful position theoretically on par with Ilvriss’ own authority.
In practice, it would probably be limited, but it was a lot of funding, free space, and authority that even Valeterisa would like. It would give Fissival a powerful, if erratic and sometimes-absent, ally and Valeterisa her base to continue magic studies and a lot of the Scholarium’s in-built resources.
A win for both sides, in theory. Montressa didn’t like it. She didn’t think Valeterisa needed to be part of Fissival or that the marriage would be good for either.
Surprisingly, Valeterisa’s closest allies seemed to agree. Wall Lord Ascoden, General Vors, and the [Crafters] were all shocked by Valeterisa’s announcement and tried to talk her out of it. This all took place as the Scholarium argued, students began to take sides and even duel over the issue, and the Earthers were introduced to Fissival.
Montressa knew Saif, the kid with the airsoft gun. Eun, from South Korea, Andrea, and Jacques were the only other ones she could identify by name. However, there were nearly two dozen more Humans, who found the City of Fissival as dismaying as it was interesting.
“Here comes the new jail cell, same as the old one. Speaking of which, I saw that Valeterisa person at the banquet. And Miss Montressa. Did we come to another continent just to see the same faces? How are they here when we were on that boat for weeks?”
Saif was complaining loudly. Magus Lord Ascoden was poking around the house that they’d allotted the Earthers. Montressa was still staring around.
An entire street would belong to the Earthers, entrenched in one of the districts alongside the Scholarium. Either the city had a bunch of houses they’d left unused or someone had been evicted, but that was a Walled City’s power.
They wanted to show the Earthers some hospitality, so Fissival food, including the weird Sap String, was being carted to the hungry Humans, who had come off a ship just hours ago.
And already, the other Walled Cities were getting mad. Ascoden came out of one of the rooms, tucking a bit of scorched paper into one pocket.
“Eyes of Pallass. The Cyclops must be mad; that seemed too obvious. Which means there’s something I’ve missed. Call for Geyasa.”
“Are we hostages now?”
Eun was sitting in a chair, and the Mage Lord nodded to him.
“Guests is the term. But mandatory guests, so yes. The other Walled Cities will argue, and some of you may go to the other ones.”
“We’re not parcels to be—parceled up!”
Jacques snapped, furious. He was from Ireland, and Ascoden leaned on a counter, seeming serious.
“No, and if High Command is smart, they won’t make Wistram’s mistakes. I’ll advocate for you all as hard as I can, but you have to understand, we do need information. So you’re not parcels. You’re citizens of what you all readily admit is a world power—or world powers—who may or may not be hostile. And who make movies about killing alien species. Think of yourselves like that.”
He was more up-to-date on Earth terminology and ideas than most people that Montressa had met. Nor did he lie, which some of the Earthers grudgingly appreciated.
“At least this place is bigger than Wistram. Do we have minders or something?”
“If you want to walk around, we’ll have a guide. Unobtrusive if you like. You’ll never see them. So this explains what I saw on Rhir.”
General Vors glanced at the Earthers, and Mage Lord Ascoden’s head rose sharply.
“They must have been. The ‘heroes’ of Rhir. You’ll need my full report. Later.”
Both of them were glancing at Montressa, who well knew that Rhir had some Earthers, but her ears were sharp. And besides—
It was Valeterisa’s presence that was the most uncertain. The Scholarium would have to vote, and by proxy, Fissival. That was the claim, at least.
In truth, Montressa doubted that the [Crafters] who had come racing to find Valeterisa had much of a ‘voice’, along with any Second-Class Citizens, but it was theoretically possible for public pressure to influence any votes. However, Vors, Ascoden, and other members of the Scholarium had the real authority.
…Which begged the question. How did either one know Valeterisa? Vors was easy; he didn’t know her personally, but he had been to Rhir and had been given the eye-opening experience of working in combined-arms units. He was opposed to the traditional Fissival views, especially the ones that led them into conflict with any force except for Demons.
But Ascoden knew Valeterisa. How?
The Mage Lord had a residence in Fissival that was quite large and quite magical. He invited Valeterisa and Montressa into it with Vors and a few guests to come. It was mostly empty, because of his long absence, and as Drakes loved to say, they had no [Servants].
Just employees who did the same job. And who were sometimes entire families who had a history of working the same non-servile job.
“That was what they called him, for a while. Not his nickname?”
“Professor Pexalix is what we called him.”
Valeterisa seemed uncertain if she found the nickname offensive or not. Ascoden drained a cup of purified water. He motioned, and a flying familiar offered a decanter to Montressa and Valeterisa.
His home was exceptionally…magic-techy. Every room’s walls looked oddly plain until Montressa realized that was because they were smooth and only had the semblance of wallpaper or rich wood. The interiors were richly decorated, but at any given time, the walls could turn transparent or vanish, such that a suite of many rooms became one, giant and interconnected.
It was fascinating…and sounded like a completely uncomfortable place to live in. Ascoden clearly agreed, because he only turned the walls off for guests.
“Some [Architect] decided a mansion full of magic walls was the thing to do. The last Mage Lady died in here. No one found her body because it was closed off. Guess who found it when he was touring the real estate?”
He held up a claw. Montressa shuddered, and Ascoden smiled.
“The bright side was, I got this entire place dirt-cheap. But I’m not often at home. As one of Fissival’s actual combat-ready Mage Lords, they have me on interesting assignments everywhere. Like breaking a bunch of Earthers out of Wistram. I thought it was a suicide mission, and after eating a punch from Cognita Truestone—or rather, a Golem she was controlling, I know it was a suicide mission. If it wasn’t for Archmage Amerys and Gazi Pathseeker causing havoc, we’d have never made it out. Even with Depth Magus Doroumata.”
“You fought Cognita?”
Montressa was awed. Ascoden motioned the familiar away as Valeterisa sipped from her cup.
“‘Fought’ is generous. She was somehow—taking over Golems remotely. Which no, I didn’t know she could do and wasn’t in any of our records about her. She still tore through every [Mage] she came across, proxies or no. I watched her shred through half my barriers and ran, screaming. I think she let me go out of pity.”
“You’re exaggerating. You have more magical competence than most [Mages] in Wistram on the Council.”
Valeterisa was more direct, and Ascoden smiled tightly.
“That’s gratifying to hear. Fissival hasn’t fallen that far behind. But I’m behind you in as many levels as years, I suspect, Archmage.”
That was surprising to Montressa. She knew Valeterisa was Level 52, but Ascoden was Level 48.
“Level 48, after surviving the breakout. Hugely gratifying. They’re already planning my 50th, whenever that is. But Level 48 and Level 50 are worlds apart. It’s easier to get from Level 40 to Level 46 than it is to gain one level for a capstone.”
This was all true, but it was still only three levels. Yet Ascoden was purely admiring.
“Even without the level difference—[Mages] are among the slowest-levelling classes past Level 50. That’s true of everyone since it’s exponentially harder, but Archmage Valeterisa is still far more capable than I am in magic without having the levels to show for it.”
“And why is that?”
Montressa saw Valeterisa shift, seeming embarrassed by the compliment. She replied in a low voice, cheeks slightly flushed.
“Consider deeds. Like Professor Pexalix would say—the size of the rock matters. Or if you lift one at all.”
Montressa raised her brows, and General Vors sighed.
“I knew I should have taken his class. Now, can someone explain what the hell that means?”
“[Warriors] level by fighting. The dicier the situation, the more levels. You can reliably level in many classes from [Strategist] to most fighting ones by surviving, say, an Adult Creler. But a [Mage]? We gain some experience from fighting, but that’s not magic. To level as a [Mage]…”
“…Perform great magic.”
Montressa sighed. It all made sense. Valeterisa chimed in.
“It is also harder to work such great magics. It would be akin to a warrior scaling a mountain. Most spells cannot, in one cast, tax a Level 50 [Mage].”
“That’s just a lack of our spellcasting knowledge. Which is why I admire and am a proponent of anyone who can discover or create new spells. Like Archmage Valeterisa. Professor Pex referenced you, and I looked up your history. You have a few fans among the students.”
Valeterisa looked blank, and Ascoden chuckled.
“For graduating in four years? For winning countless duels and even knocking Dragial down? For being the Human who did all this, not a Drake? Becoming the Archmage of Izril didn’t hurt either. You created [Valeterisa’s Complex Seeker Projectiles]. It was the hardest Tier 4 spell I have ever learnt—harder than most Tier 5 spells, and even some Tier 6 spells. I leveled twice the night I learnt it, and I admired the ideas that went into the magic.”
Valeterisa was lost for words. General Vors rubbed at his chin.
“Valeterisa’s…of course. Practically impossible and impractical to use in a battlefield, but it has real application in tight confines against [Rogues] or at range.”
He gave Valeterisa another look, and Ascoden nodded. As he leaned over, another familiar rushed by with a dustrag. His weren’t shadowy, but bright, luminescent.
“Arcane Familiars. I had no idea anyone else had mastered [Familiar]-summoning.”
“I was Professor Pex’s finest student. In my year.”
Montressa blinked at Valeterisa.
“Professor Pexalix knows familiar-summoning?”
“Did you think I taught myself the subject? It is why he teaches his philosophy and other courses. And why he can talk to me without being removed.”
Ascoden nodded. He drained another cup of water and handed it to a familiar to carry off. Unfortunately, the crystal glass was either heavy or slippery, and the familiar dropped it with a crash. Sighing, Ascoden pointed a claw.
“[Repair]. They’re useful, but inept.”
“That is why I have Shadow Familiars. They can stick to their objects.”
“Really? I should have done that. Mine just glow and do interesting tricks with mana. Now, Archmage Valeterisa—what possessed you to apply for a Mage Lady position? I advise you, frankly, to withdraw your application, leave Fissival, and never come back.”
General Vors blinked. Montressa glanced up as Valeterisa frowned.
“Is that a threat?”
“No. A genuinely concerned statement. Fissival doesn’t deserve you. It may need [Mages] like you, but it will never be grateful. Wistram was in the midst of an upheaval when I left; that Eldavin and your return shook up the old corruption. I envied them, frankly, because Fissival is not better. Dragial is dead, and his son is already being put in his father’s place. He’s even studying summoning magic, and he’s better at spellcraft than his father was.”
“Hm. But he is not all of Fissival.”
Both Vors and Ascoden chorused at once. The General uncrossed his arms.
“I have to object, Mage Lord Ascoden. With respect—we need Archmage Valeterisa if she’s willing to stay in Fissival. The City of Magic can offer her a lot, and we are falling behind Wistram with Archmage Eldavin returning to power.”
“And whose fault is that? Incidentally, Archmage, Miss Montressa, I will swear on any truth spell you want that I had no idea about Fissival’s conspiracy with the Plain’s Eye tribe. I don’t think General Vors did, either.”
The Drake instantly shook his head.
“Not I. I’m now trying to think if I ever heard references to it…but [Generals] are still below the highest level of Fissival’s authority. The Three—and a handful of [Mage Lords], [Generals], and yes, even Professor Worpell might conceivably have known.”
Montressa blinked, recalling the teacher.
She was that important? Ascoden just shook his head. He produced a handkerchief and spat into it, then seemed so aghast he gave it to another familiar to be cleaned.
“…And that’s why Archmage Valeterisa will have daggers at her back if she stays, Vors.”
“But we need her.”
The [General] insisted. He turned to Valeterisa as Ascoden raised his brows. Vors gestured passionately at the view of the Scholarium in the distance.
“Yonder lies the Scholarium, our teleportation grid used to hurt the Gnolls—have you seen it, Valeterisa, Ascoden? It lies below the Draconae Scholarium proper.”
Vors studied the academy.
“We have great teachers. Better than Wistram, I would dare say. They don’t often make great legends—but so what? The foundation is fine. After the revelations about Doombearers and the Plain’s Eye conspiracy? Our next generation, arriving in the coming months and years, should be Gnolls. Gnolls, a continent’s worth of them! They should be students of Fissival and go on to make Izril stronger. But they won’t come because we were part of their betrayal. We will never mend those rifts. Not unless we can prove Fissival is changing. And no Gnoll will trust our voice. But they might trust a Mage Lady of Fissival.”
He turned to Valeterisa, and Ascoden sighed.
“I hate it when people make sense. I see that point—although if you think more than a handful of Gnolls would trust that, I’ll sell you this mansion, Vors.”
“A handful is better than none. An Archmage is better than no one. If it is Valeterisa’s will, I will support her and drag as many Drakes who’ve been to Rhir into voting with me as I can.”
Vors turned to Valeterisa, and the Archmage sat there. So quietly, thinking. She stared at the Scholarium and murmured.
“If they will have me…General Sserys asked if I would fight for Izril. His ghost.”
Both Drakes went quiet, and Montressa felt another chill run down her spine. Valeterisa went on quietly.
“What do I have to do to win Fissival’s favor? Even if it isn’t the Scholarium.”
Ascoden had been about to break open an expensive bottle of Amentus wine, but he sighed and left it corked.
“No time for drinks. If you want to win—do it publicly. Prove your magic is better than theirs. Looks like I’m not done with duels. But are you sure we’re worth it, Archmage?”
He focused on her, serious, and Valeterisa exhaled slowly. She looked at Fissival and nodded.
“I came back home to show them my magic. Whatever they decide—let them see it.”
The Scholarium said the exact same thing that evening. If Archmage Valeterisa wanted to become the first non-Drake [Mage Lady] in an age, if she wanted to claim her magic was so advanced the City of Magic needed it—
Let her prove it.
It was like some task of old. Some ancient fable, a Herculean myth where Valeterisa had to perform incredible tasks of magic.
The only problem was—the game was rigged. It always was. This was a contest of popularity, and as citizens of Fissival and students followed Valeterisa’s war with the Scholarium’s Drakes, Montressa realized the greatest problem.
Valeterisa had no stage presence.
She had, in fact, the opposite. The Archmage of Izril was so un-flashy, so quiet, that even though she had the magical power of an Archmage of Wistram, people still took her for an ordinary Human woman. She was no Elia Arcsinger or Saliss of Lights, who attracted the eye, like it or not, just by breathing.
Nor was she even an Erin Solstice, who could turn on a kind of magnetism when she needed to. Yet Valeterisa tried.
Mage Lady Sooral and a cabal of the Scholarium’s [Mages], many of whom had been close associates of Wall Lord Dragial, were the vocal face of Valeterisa’s opposition. This number included Mage Lord Cureq and the younger Drake who had been pointed out as Dragial’s son.
Professor Worpell, General Hexa, and the rest were more circumspect, carefully appearing neutral.
They were having their showdown on the central channel of Fissival Today, the premiere broadcasting news network that…no one outside of Fissival knew about. Pallass was supreme, and other Walled Cities, even, had declined to pick up the broadcasts.
Still, you could get a pretty good image even deep in the Scholarium’s bowels. More precisely, even the Teleportarium’s work teams got to watch the magical contest while waiting, transporting, and loading up goods for long-range transit to their vassal cities.
It was supposed to be lighter work since they were at war with Salazsar and thus a lot of cities were abstaining from the network’s trade, but in reality, now the Teleportarium had to pull in military supplies, send ‘secret’ documents that everyone knew contained something High Command wanted their allies to get that couldn’t be contained in a letter or was too dangerous to put in a [Message] spell.
It was obvious. You got a ‘top-priority’ delivery, and no one was allowed to sneeze on the boxes as they were loaded in. Then one of the members of the work teams you never saw regularly, or some Drake with the right clothing but who got in the way of everything, would linger around the boxes. You never saw them slip anything inside, but maybe they were just checking for tampering? Then away it went, and you’d never see them until the next delivery—or unless a pallet got lost.
The Teleportarium was a vast underground space filled with cargo docks and magical sending spaces; it was built into the very bones of the Scholarium, and if you glanced up, you could see magical power high above, laid into the very foundations of the ceiling.
[Transporter Chief] Istrix also got to rub shoulders with the technical mages who made sure the actual network was running. They repaired breaks in the magical circuits, dealt with magicore spills, and sometimes warned him to turn everything off like when the Magical Hurricane was present.
Istrix suspected the Drakes who maintained Fissival’s ancient teleportation spells only half-knew what was going on. He had a better sense for when something was off. Eighteen years at the job had given him an instinct. Plus, the Scholarium-trained mages looked down on the loader crews who performed the manual labor.
However, both groups were watching the scrying orb while ‘working’. A [Mage] who looked like he hadn’t seen the light of day for a long time peered at the contest.
“Is that her?”
He was doubtful. Archmage Valeterisa was…not impressive. Oh, she had faintly green hair, which was unusual on Humans, but she wasn’t as striking as, say, Mars the Illusionist. In fact, her hair was a frizzy mess, which was at least somewhat interesting, and she was blinking into a cup of tea as she cast around for her spectacles.
Which were on her head. Some of the [Mages] clearly against having her here, flunkies for the Mage Lords and their leaders, snorted.
“And this is the Human we should bend over backwards for and give a noble title to? Our Archmage of Izril?”
Istrix kept his voice carefully neutral. One of the younger [Mages], a [Ritualist] in charge of sitting and watching the Teleportarium’s mana flow all day, scratched at his tail.
“I’ve seen worse. You know, she graduated in four years?”
“Probably an exaggeration. Aren’t you supposed to be on monitor-duty?”
The [Supervisor] snapped irritably. The younger [Ritualist] twitched his tail.
“In twenty minutes. I’m on my lunch break.”
“Well—don’t be late. I’ll be checking!”
The other [Loaders] rolled their eyes in sympathy. Everyone knew that the magical supervisors were cushy, boring jobs most of the time. The [Ritualist] ducked his head—then carefully cast a [Subtle Stench] spell on his boss and anchored it with a little rune.
Istrix grinned. Then everyone turned back to the scrying orb.
“Oh, look! The contest’s starting!”
On the screen, Magus Lady Sooral was speaking.
“—the Archmage is so assured, let us see some feats of great magic! She is one [Mage]. Fissival’s Draconae Scholarium has trained every class of [Mage] known to the world! From our own [Archmages] in times past to [Druids] of today! Observe!”
A Drake wearing a headpiece of bone stepped forwards and tossed a few seeds into the grass in one of Fissival’s parks. He struck the ground, and everyone strained to see—then a tree began to blossom in the dirt. First a tiny bit of green, almost impossible to see, then a rising stick blooming with leaves and branches. It grew wider and taller at an impossibly fast rate, and the citizens of Fissival gasped.
“Dead gods, it’s like Magician’s First Eve. That’s a powerful [Overgrowth] spell, though.”
One of the [Loaders] commentated, and Istrix nodded. He had never gone to the Scholarium, but there were still smaller classes you could take, and you didn’t get to his position without casting at least Tier 4 spells.
Magician’s First Eve was an upcoming celebration in the fall where magic was on full display. This was a contest of magic, so it reminded him of Mage Lords and Ladies competing for a vote by impressing the public.
However…down here, the Teleportarium crews were fairly jaded. Actually, a lot of citizens might be making the same comments as the [Ritualist], who snorted.
“[Mages] of every class, did she say? I haven’t seen any [Blood Mages] graduate, have you? I tried to sign up for a seminar on it.”
“They had a seminar?”
“They had a seminar about the existence of blood magic. We read sixteen books, and I submitted an essay on nations who still had blood magic. We don’t do [Necromancers], [Chronomancers], uh…who else?”
There was some nervous laughter. The [Supervisor] glared around.
Archmage Valeterisa cocked her head, studying the tree as the [Druid] gave a bow with a flourish and stepped back. Were they…testing her? Challenging her to match the green magic? She was an Archmage, so Istrix was curious to see her rebuttal. He knew Mage Lord Ascoden, General Vors, and the young [Mage] were on her team. But how would Valeterisa impress Fissival’s citizens?
She stepped up to the tree and inspected it. Then Valeterisa began walking around it and started speaking as she fiddled with her spectacles. She completely forgot that the scrying spell was there, so the camera-Drake had to hurry around to get a shot of her; she’d stopped with the tree in the way.
Valeterisa even spoke like one of the Scholarium’s [Professors]. That was to say, boring. Dragial’s fiery speeches back in the day had been ear-catching, even if what he said about Gnolls was sometimes insane.
But then Istrix began to listen as Valeterisa spoke, despite her poor speaking skills. She had a flat voice, which grew excited and sped up, but she lacked projection. Yet—and yet—
When she spoke about magic, he believed her.
“If we are competing, I would like to make a few points. The [Overgrowth] spell is…traditionally quite effective. In emergency settings. My own research into the spell suggests that it is often employed by Silver and Gold-rank adventurers. I cite, um, [Green Mage] Moore of the Halfseekers as a member currently using the spell. However, I would like to add that this spell is not traditionally employed by any [Druids] in any Circle on Izril or elsewhere.”
The citizens watched Valeterisa blankly, and she took this as a sign to go on. Mage Lady Sooral was smirking as Valeterisa fumbled with her bag of holding.
“I used to have a study…no. My notes are at home. The [Overgrowth] spell can create a tree like this in seconds. However, in 99% of all cases, the tree will wither and die within a week or less. The spell destroys the seedling’s potential for growth.”
The [Druid] had stopped smiling and glowered at Valeterisa as the citizens murmured. Istrix wondered if this was true. He’d seen this trick before…but come to think of it, he didn’t see random trees just littered around the parks.
Interesting. Valeterisa searched around and found an acorn on the ground. She levitated it up, and then some dirt and grass scooped itself out of the ground.
“Here is my spell. [Create Mana: Death].”
Something flashed in her hands. Valeterisa raised something, and her audience recoiled in alarm.
“Did she say—?”
Istrix saw the Archmage of Izril lift something up. Valeterisa held…a tiny bit of quartz. A plain little gem with mundane stone still clinging to it. Yet the clear bit had a dark luster that was unnatural and remained even in the light. Slowly, Valeterisa inserted it into the handful of dirt—and then produced another stone.
“[Create Mana: Earth].”
She repeated the process with four more pieces of quartz, inserted them into the dirt, and looked around vaguely.
“I need a pot.”
Her apprentice began to hurry around desperately, but Valeterisa pointed, and a granite bowl resembling a common planting pot rose out of the ground as the soil shifted. She dumped the dirt, acorn, and magical stones into the pot and stared at it blankly.
A jet of water hit the pot, and Valeterisa gazed at the muddy mess. She pointed, and it rose. She turned to her audience and spoke once more.
“—The fastest way I have discovered to grow a plant without Skills that will last and bear fruit is to embed mana stones into the ground. Not just life magic, but death magic. Noelictus’ fields are famously productive because plants consume and flourish on death mana. Fissival could buy quartz from Salazsar and enhance fields with mana.”
She put the pot down on the ground, then straightened. She peered around vaguely, met Sooral’s eyes, and coughed gently into one hand.
The Mage Lady blinked at her opponent. Then she chuckled behind one claw.
“So that is the Archmage’s rebuttal? Observe!”
She pointed at the muddy pot and the tree, full-grown. The audience laughed along with her, but Istrix did not. He rested his chin on his claw, mildly fascinated.
He had never known plants ate death magic, and to judge by the younger [Mages] of the Scholarium chattering, neither did they. Yet, clearly, Valeterisa was not showing off.
She might need to. The next [Mage] to step forwards had more muscles than most of the [Loaders]. He announced himself as a disciple of the Sinew Magus, Grimalkin. His demonstration was to have someone conjure a huge block of stone.
It looked like solid granite, six feet across and tall. The Drake inhaled and exhaled as he lowered his stance. Then—his clawed hand began to glow as it clenched into a fist. The Drake [Battlemage] leapt—and the impact shook the scrying spell.
He cracked the entire block of stone, and the fissures split the cube in half as pieces fell off. It wasn’t a complete shattering, but Istrix imagined being hit by that.
Valeterisa waved dust out of her face. She waited, patiently, as another block of stone was conjured. Everyone waited for her rebuttal. The Archmage of Izril floated over to the stone block and poked it.
It vanished with a gentle pop. Istrix fell out of his chair laughing. The expression on the affronted [Geomancer]’s face was priceless! However, Sooral objected at once.
“This is a show of magical ability, Archmage.”
“Does that not count? It is magical stone. If you want me to cast another spell, I can.”
Archmage Valeterisa sighed and waited as another cube was created out of the ground. She stared up at the sky for a moment—then poked the block.
This time, Istrix didn’t even hear her speak a spell. However, from the way the stone cube cracked and split in half before crumbling into pieces—
“That had to be some kind of shattering spell! [Fissure]? She split it! I bet the [Miners] would love her in Salazsar.”
“Well, they can take her.”
Again, the crowd was split. The [Battlemage] was shaking his head, denying Valeterisa’s spell. But she had broken the stone cube. The Archmage of Izril looked around, clearly wondering why people were booing her. Sooral’s smile grew wider as General Vors rubbed at his face.
Because that was the battle here, for Fissival. Show over substance. The Teleportarium’s crews watched, split just like the populace above.
—But one was the better [Mage]. Even if she didn’t show it directly, Valeterisa was higher-level and, more importantly, more adept at magic than almost anyone in the modern age. Anyone non-immortal, almost definitely.
He felt bad for her, though. This was not his arena. Nor had he known she was going to do this.
Archmage Eldavin watched Valeterisa, but hadn’t forwarded Fissival’s isolated broadcast to Wistram News Network for pickup. He wasn’t sure if that would be doing her any favors.
He was certainly not on Fissival’s side. They spoke to him of the same complacency and idiocy he’d seen in Wistram. Only magnified by bigotry.
So this was where she had learned the magic she spoke of. Efficient, even radical by today’s standards.
Function over form. Valeterisa was levitating blocks of increasingly-heavy materials, seeming exasperated by the contest. She could, upon request, cast [Fireball].
“But why would I? Magic is more than combat magic.”
“Then show us, Archmage. Can you create a Golem?”
The unpleasant Drake, Sooral, sneered at Valeterisa. The Human woman replied without hesitation.
“Yes, of course.”
Eldavin chortled at the supercilious expression on the Drake’s face. But she was quick on her feet verbally.
“Then—kindly make one for us now.”
“I have no materials. And the process takes weeks even for skilled [Golem Artificers].”
“Weeks? Then how, pray tell, will Archmage Valeterisa contribute to Fissival? Will you personally sow the fields with magic bits of stone? How would you help us? Provide a Golem every two months? Will you commit to that?”
Eldavin rolled his eyes as he sat in a tub of mana-infused water. He glared at the scrying orb bobbing in the waters.
“Can you make a Golem? What do you provide? Say that, Valeterisa. [Urgent Message]. Valeterisa…”
He angrily jabbed a spell through the air, but Valeterisa’s image was probably five minutes delayed. She replied absently as she lifted a hand. Eldavin watched, groaning.
He should be there. Should he try to make it in time? He doubted he could risk it, even if he wanted to try a teleportation spell. And—he received a reply to his [Message].
From Archmage Valeterisa to Eldavin:
I have this in hand. Thank you for your concern. This is my city.
She even added subject lines. Eldavin sighed—then he sat up in his tub as the Valeterisa on the time-delay began to reply to Sooral.
“Oh no. Don’t do it! Not here—”
The Archmage of Izril raised her hand. She spoke slowly, glancing around.
“Help farmers. I would not use Golems for that. If I were to change Fissival’s farms, I would infuse the soil with mana. And to till the ground in place of citizens, I would do this. [Summon Skeletons].”
In front of Eldavin’s horrified eyes, a glowing pile of bones rose. It wasn’t the same as [Animate Dead] because she had no body to use as a vector. And yet—it didn’t matter. The horrified Drakes cried out as Valeterisa pointed at the skeletons.
“In Khelt, skeletons till the fields. It was proven by the Archmage of Death, Perril Chandler, that skeletons can provide for a nation’s food supplies. When he lived—”
“—even Calanfer and the Dawn Concordat, nations like Pheislant, Desonis, and even Avel were experimenting with undead laborers. The stigma against necromancy does not diminish its ability to create a workforce superior to Familiars, Golems, or summoned beings. If we did teach [Necromancers] as Mage Lady Sooral suggests—”
Valeterisa got no further before a lick of fire magic blew the skeletons to bits and the crowd’s booing and shouts drowned her out. She glanced up, and a stone bounced off a magical barrier protecting her—and then her apprentice raised a shield.
Sooral stood, triumphantly shouting at the death magic on display. Like a demagogue leading the most passionate members of the crowd. Yet Valeterisa didn’t flinch. She stared dreamily upwards at the rain of stones, around at the booing figures—then straight into the scrying orb.
She knew it was there. She knew she was being watched. It was not that Valeterisa didn’t care. It was that she was competing in her way.
Madness. Yet—she was also correct. [Overgrowth] was a poor spell to raise plants. Skeletons could till fields.
She spoke to Eldavin like a [Mage] of old times, but the half-Elf barely remembered the names and times—only that she had that echo in her voice.
Yet there were still people who remembered, fully, what [Mages] had been like in days before Zelkyr had become the Archmage of Izril and everyone had followed after. Someone remembered that yes, other nations had asked for his students to provide them with cheap, inexhaustible labor. And he had modeled his skeletons upon Khelt as well.
Az’kerash, Perril Chandler, the [Archmage of Death], was watching her too. He had not concerned himself with Valeterisa any more than Amerys; they were living ‘Archmages’ on the level of Feor.
But she invoked his name. So of course, he watched her. A [Mage] who belonged in a different era.
Not even his. Not the flash and drama of the turbulent Naga Incursions, nor the rise of Az’kerash, but an older guard. She should have been a scholar of magic wandering ever upwards in Wistram’s ancient halls, pushing the boundaries of magic.
Not here. He stared at the crowd hurling so many objects that the contest had to be postponed, and Valeterisa just…flew off as her supporters and apprentice took over for her. She was not ashamed.
“Look at what the City of Magic has become. Zelkyr, you always hated it, and they made statues of you. This was one of their greatest students?”
His eyes picked out people in the crowd who didn’t jeer or shout. Humans, staring up at one of their own. Drakes, listening, watching her magic.
Could they see it? He thought they could. Look at her. Listen to her words and radical ideas, and she was a radical in any time, a distracted [Scholar] compared to the pragmatist-[Mages] you needed. But if Fissival had eyes—and they were a citizenry of [Mages]—surely they saw what he did.
Her magic was better. Her opponents used magic like someone fired a crossbow. They loaded up a spell with magic and fired it out. Valeterisa was akin to an [Archer]. She drew an arrow, pulled only as much magic as she needed, and loosed each spell perfectly. Her control lifting a block of stone wasn’t of someone heaving it up with pure mana, but instead holding it, balancing it with half the magic her opponent needed.
Yet. Perril Chandler’s fingernails dug into dead skin as he watched her. And he saw a future written ahead of her in his own image. A man, kneeling before a throne where no one would speak up for him.
“They will always betray you, Archmage of Izril.”
Az’kerash whispered in his quiet castle devoid of life. Save for a single slime—a world of death. Then he went back to his own studies and his children, his Chosen. For he was reminded of a vision. A Walled City in ruins, where death walked.
But he kept the scrying orb with him. Waiting, perhaps, to see another ending to the story he knew so well.
It became bloody after that. Although blood didn’t spill right away.
But it was the passion. The revulsion of Valeterisa’s enemies, their palpable, simmering dislike of her and everything she espoused.
As for Montressa? Likewise! She stood with Fyres’ staff in hand, glaring daggers at the Scholarium’s [Mages].
“Contest! A Magistorm Battle! Mage Lord Ascoden and Magus Montressa challenge the Scholarium’s [Battle Mages]! How many?”
Ascoden stood there, next to Montressa, and she looked up in surprise. The duels were inevitable. What was surprising was that Ascoden bellowed the challenge.
“What about Archmage Valeterisa?”
He winked at her as Vors glanced his way. It was bad form for a [General] to enter the fight, but Ascoden watched as Mage Lord Cureq and a cluster of overly-eager Drakes lined up.
“In truth, I would love to see Archmage Valeterisa fight. But I think I can swing some tails her way. She…is not the most flamboyant spellcaster. Her duel would be a thing of beauty, but sometimes we need a hammer to smack sense into brick-heads.”
He nodded to the crowd. They’d gone back to the Scholarium, and the ‘Magistorm Battle’, Fissival’s fanciful term for a duel, was best done in a place with enchanted walls.
Montressa was nervous; she didn’t know if she would win. She said as much to Ascoden.
“I’m a defensive caster, Mage Lord. I’ve fought with other [Mages], but I’m not a Gold-rank adventurer. Nowhere near.”
He nodded amiably.
“I know. That’s why I demanded a battle, not a duel. I need someone to cover me. We’ll be fighting across the Scholarium at range, if I know this lot. We’ll face six. Any six you want!”
The Mage Lord cupped his claws to his mouth, and Montressa saw Cureq stiffen in outrage. The Earthers were watching with interest, and so was the crowd. Ascoden knew a bit more of how to put on a show.
“Come on! Any six of the Scholarium against two [Mages] who support Archmage Valeterisa! Her apprentice and someone who’s studied her magic! Or would you like me to make it eight? Ten?”
His opponents grew increasingly furious. They had to know Ascoden’s level, but six [Mages] versus two…Montressa gulped as Cureq motioned another Mage Lord over. But Ascoden just winked.
“Don’t worry. So long as the military doesn’t join in, we’ll be battling [Battle Mages] at most. General Hexa has seen a battle, but this lot don’t like close-quarters combat. What’s your best barrier spell?”
“[F-Fivefold Arcane Barrier]?”
Ascoden’s eyes brightened, and he grinned toothily.
“That will do. Just buy me…ten minutes. They’ll open up slow.”
Ten minutes? Montressa grew more nervous, and she searched around for Valeterisa, but her mentor had just floated off after the booing. Where was she?
“Why would Archmage Valeterisa be a better duel? Or—more boring?”
Ascoden sighed as he watched his opponents arguing over who got to face them. He nodded at Professor Worpell and the silent, older members of the Scholarium watching with the students and citizens.
“Even Worpell…no, any [Mage] in Fissival. I would love to see Valeterisa duel them. It might not impress the citizens, but I would love to see her duel. Because unlike us—hers would be a thing of beauty.”
“How do you mean?”
Ascoden chuckled slightly.
“I mean, she wouldn’t win because of her levels. She would win because she knew better magic. She was an acclaimed duelist in the four years she spent at Fissival, and even Wistram. Not because she was some multi-class fighting expert. Rather, because she thought about how to break her opponent’s spells. I have always regretted not seeing that and that no recordings of the duels existed.”
Montressa thought back to Valeterisa’s duel with Fyres. She nodded. Then, at last, a team of six stepped forwards.
“The duel will take place in the Scholarium’s halls—endangering the public or students is unacceptable! This is not a duel to the death!”
Professor Worpell announced loudly. Ascoden muttered to Montressa.
“That means they’ll still be throwing [Lightning Bolts], but they can’t look like they deliberately want to kill you. Keep a personal barrier up and surrender if you need to.”
“What’s the plan?”
“Mm. Just cover me and yourself for ten minutes. I’ll finish the battle, but I need to cast a spell.”
It must be a high-Tier one. Montressa licked her lips. The ‘Magistorm Battles’ were a lot more organized than Wistram’s random duels. The other six [Mages] even had time to find a spot and fortify. But instead, they hurried into the Scholarium, disappearing through the open doors, and Montressa pointed in outrage.
“They’re hiding in the classrooms?”
The other students were still going to class or out and about. Ascoden grinned.
“Of course they are. Or I’d [Fireball] Cureq with impunity. In a sense, it’s more realistic. But they’ll be sniping at us. Ready?”
Montressa gulped. She planted her staff, and she was conscious of the scrying spells on her. Worpell counted down, her voice magnified and echoing throughout the Scholarium’s plaza.
“—four! Three! Two, one—”
“[Fivefold Arcane Barrier]!”
Montressa shouted and thrust the staff down before Worpell even finished. The Drake stared at her and stepped back.
A layered barrier of shifting, violet magic anchored itself around Ascoden and Montressa in a dome. It encased them from above and all sides—and just in time.
The first arcing [Lightning Bolt] crashed down five seconds later. Montressa flinched, but her [Arcane Barrier] took the impact without even the first layer going down, and it began to strengthen as she fed it mana.
She knew [Barrier] spells. Whether her opponents guessed it or not, she was a bad matchup for them at range. More spells began flashing out of the air, and Montressa gulped.
This wasn’t a rain of Tier 2 or even Tier 3 spells from low-level [Mages]. At least two of the Drakes on the other side were Mage Lords, and even if they weren’t almost Level 50 like Ascoden—
A hundred arrows of light crashed down on her shields followed by a boulder like a catapult’s shot striking her. More lightning crackled as her first ward went down. Montressa brought it back up at once, pushing more mana and restoring the broken ward.
“Not bad. You could find a place in my forces. Alright, nine more minutes.”
Ascoden stood there, one eye open to check on Montressa’s spells. Now, he closed both his eyes and stood, his wand glowing as he flicked it in subtle gestures. Montressa glanced sideways at him. She couldn’t even see his spellcasting—was he keeping it hidden?
She didn’t know if she’d be able to do it! All six [Mages] had spread out, and it seemed like they had found spots to snipe spells at her from all angles. They were cautious at first, waiting for her to reply, but when it became clear Ascoden wasn’t casting any spells, they started unleashing everything they had. No [Siege Fireballs]—ironically, their splitting up due to caution had prevented them from casting link spells.
She could stop at least one [Siege Fireball], but Montressa didn’t have unlimited mana. Ascoden just gritted his teeth.
“Sorry, I’m working as fast as I can. Don’t talk to me unless you’re going to lose the barriers. This is a stupidly tricky…”
He lapsed into silence, and Montressa raised her arms, her staff glowing as she just—held the barrier.
It reminded her of the Adult Creler smashing itself into the barrier, spitting that horrific deadly projectile as Crelers swarmed around her. She had failed, then, as well.
You could not defend forever. Maybe, if she had unlimited mana—but Montressa saw two wards vanish and then a third before she restored the first one. Five layers…the last one was toughest, but two minutes had passed and three were down and the fourth was melting under the onslaught.
And still, Valeterisa was nowhere to be seen. The bystanders were watching avidly. The sight of Montressa holding her spell up in front of six of the Scholarium’s spellcasters, even at range? She was doing Wistram proud.
Yet—yet—Montressa heard someone cheering her. Was it Milaw? She almost thought it was. She saw, out of the corner of her eyes, Saif and Eun cheering her. But the thought crept in as Montressa saw Ascoden’s lips move.
She was no battlemage or adventurer herself. That was true. Not everyone was cut out for the split-second decisions in battle, yet Montressa had at least survived close encounters with death.
And yet—even if she were no great warrior, Valeterisa could be a terror on the battlefield. Montressa studied her best spell, her barrier. And she knew it was worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer.
Yet how inelegant it seemed. Surely…
Was this all there was to my magic?
The Earthers were watching the magic duel, and some, like Eun and Saif, were cheering on Montressa. But others, like Jacques or Damla, were just…resigned.
“We left Wistram for the City of Magic. We’re still useless captives. What’s the point?”
He sat there, glaring at nothing in particular. He was wearing native Fissival clothing, which didn’t make him stand out that much. He could have been any Human from anywhere, and he certainly had no great class or levels, and he hadn’t picked up magic like some of the others.
The only interesting bit of apparel he had was, in fact, a glove on one hand. But only one hand. It was odd, and to many, practically useless.
Because unlike regular gloves, his was skin-tight, made from some kind of advanced material beyond cotton, and it exposed his fingers. The tips of his fore and middle finger, and both his pinkie and ring finger completely.
Why? It fascinated some of the [Crafters], especially the [Tailor], Ierythe, who had never seen the fabric before.
That single bit of clothing was Jacques’ only real possession from home, along with an object that was completely useless. Telim had been trying to help him, but the moody young man held what appeared to be a polished stick of wood with a chalk tip across his lap.
That, too, was the only thing he’d been holding when he arrived in this world. Damla patted him on the shoulder.
“Maybe you can build your game here.”
General Vors glanced over, and Jacques raised his head.
“Just a recreational game. No one had the time or ability to make it back in Wistram. It’s not as interesting as Saif and his gun.”
He scowled down. The [General] glanced around for an explanation, and Damla whispered to him. She had an accent, and she was another non-native speaker to English, an odd concept to the Drake.
“He’s actually a professional player at his game. It’s called pool or billiards.”
An expert in a game that didn’t exist. General Vors nodded in sympathy, then he watched Montressa faltering.
“She’s not going to last until Ascoden finishes his spell. Not like that. She’s running out of mana, and her barrier’s going down faster than she can replenish it.”
That was the opinion of the Scholarium, which meant that Ascoden would be in trouble. In fact, several [Teachers] were giving impromptu lessons to their students on the way some of the [Mages] were curving spells or sending rains of arrows high before aiming them down. They all needed line of sight, but they were doing that with scrying spells or sharing the coordinates.
It was hard to hit a target hidden in the Scholarium’s corridors, and even if Montressa had been intent on firing back, she couldn’t see her opponents.
And her barriers were failing. Vors heard a loud voice as one of the [Professors] decided the firestorm was too loud for her liking.
“You can see, class, that the [Aegiscaster] here has deployed her barrier well. It’s anchored, and she is replenishing multiple layers simultaneously. Even so, it’s wasting mana because it’s covering a wide dispersal. Nor can she block the spells; each strike eats away at her reserves.”
Vors raised his eyebrows as one of the world’s finest barrier-experts, Wardmistress Geyasa, began critiquing Montressa’s work less than three dozen paces away from the Human.
Montressa didn’t hear Geyasa at first, but when the [Wardmistress] began insulting her spell, she turned red with outrage. The Drake pointed at her barrier as her class scribbled notes.
“This is the kind of casting I’d use in a battle to protect magical artillery at range. But it’s flawed here. Our [Aegiscaster] is trying to bet her mana pool against six enemy [Mages]. She has…hmm. [Arcane Toughness] on her barriers and perhaps [Reinforced Wards], but they’re only buying her minutes at most. Shoddy.”
“Shoddy? You try blocking this many spells!”
Montressa nearly screamed back at Geyasa, but it only came out as a whisper. She was so frantically trying to hold the barriers up, it didn’t occur to her what the Drake was doing until Geyasa produced a little shield of her own.
“Some spells still defer to physics, and given the angle they’re coming down, I would have changed the shape of the barrier. But perhaps she never studied shaping her spells at Wistram?”
Her class laughed, and Montressa’s cheeks flamed with anger—then she blinked. She glared at Geyasa, with her back deliberately facing Montressa. The [Wardmistress] also ignored Worpell’s meaningful looks. She waited—then smiled as, behind her, the [Aegiscaster] suddenly dropped her shields.
Ascoden dodged a flaming arrow, and his eyes snapped open. But the next flare of a [Valmira’s Comet] spell flashed as it detonated in the air. He searched for Montressa—and saw her spell had shifted.
The dome was gone. Instead, Ascoden blinked at a hovering…shield? It seemed like a shield cut out of perfectly straight lines and angled such that it was surrounding a far smaller barrier around her.
“What? Ah, interesting.”
Montressa’s wards had changed. Now, a single layer ward was protecting the two of them. But while that seemed like a risky move…four hovering shields of arcane light were deflecting spells raining down on them. Montressa’s hands were moving as she directed them left, right, and Ascoden saw [Arrow of Light] spells bouncing off the magic.
“Deflection, not blocking, is ideal for an [Aegiscaster]. No mana wasted. If she’s wise, class, Mage Montressa will also reduce her mana in the two exterior shields to a bare minimum. That way, if that [Siege Fireball] Mage Lord Cureq is building comes her way, she can sacrifice a shield at minimum cost—like so.”
A roaring fireball blasted down at Montressa from a tower, and she threw one of the four shields forwards. The explosion made everyone duck—but the remaining three shields and her forcefield were completely unscathed. And even as they watched—Geyasa nodded as the fourth shield popped back into place.
“Technique triumphs over power. And the Archmage’s apprentice has some technique, it seems.”
Montressa laughed in gratitude. She was learning in a duel? But she might never have conceived of the floating shields without seeing how Tailor Ierythe could hold so many needles up. She gazed at Ascoden, and the Mage Lord grinned.
“Well done. Now, let’s show them some magic of the Archmage of Izril, eh? Sorry I took so long.”
He raised his claws, and Montressa’s eyes widened. She finally realized the spell he had been working on.
Clockmaker Milaw blinked as Mage Lord Ascoden shouted for the benefit of everyone watching.
“[Valeterisa’s—Extremely—Complex Seeker Projectiles]!”
He aimed a wand straight ahead as the onslaught of spells slowed and his opponents ducked. But they were out of sight, hidden in the Scholarium. How was he going to…?
Then Ascoden’s wand lit up, and Milaw blinked again. Because the Mage Lord fired ten—no, a hundred different spells in a moment. Montressa peered up, and she blinked as well.
A thin ray of light burst out of Ascoden’s wand. It was bright blue, close to a piercing white, and it shot into the nearest open doorway. But instead of just…stopping there like a laser pointer from Earth, it did something Jacques recognized.
It bounced. Like a pool ball ricocheting off the side of a billiards table—which he knew by heart—the ray of light bounced off the wall and then struck the opposite wall. Then it bounced again and again, criss-crossing the hallway. And it was one of hundreds.
Light spells. Just a thin ray of light, bouncing around the Scholarium. It probably seemed like a dazzling display as the spells struck students, bounced from classroom to classroom, and crisscrossed the Scholarium at, well, the speed of light.
The little rays did nothing, incidentally. A few [Students] flinched, but the light wasn’t even blinding, just intense. So what was the point? It was only when Milaw muttered that Jacques began to figure out what the Drake was doing.
“My [Measure Distance] spell—”
Then the Mage Lord grinned. His eyes were flickering, and it had taken him ten minutes to cast a Tier 4 spell. Most took seconds, if that. But the complexity had meant…he muttered.
“Four, five…six. Got you. Phase two. [Seeker Arrows of Lightning]. [Enhance Spell: Paralysis].”
Then he raised his wand and began firing dozens of crackling arrows into the sky. Jacques saw the arrows spin up—then curve crazily. They flew in six directions, into one of the towers, through a dome, and a dozen shot into the hallway that the first light ray had gone. Then—they began bouncing, copying the vector of one of the light spells precisely.
Eun slapped his forehead. Saif was gaping in amazement and delight.
“He just scanned them! Eun! No one at Wistram could do that! Did you see that? He just detected them and—”
—And now he had their locations. In fact, the light rays were still bouncing, so that even if the other [Mages] were moving—
Jacques saw a screaming Drake dive out an open window. He got up, began to cast a barrier spell, and a little beam of light shining on his back guided a dozen crackling arrows right into him. The Drake jerked as they struck him with flashes of electricity, and then he keeled over.
His friends shouted in horror as the paralyzed Drake did his best impression of a dead racoon. The students were pointing in delight and amazement. Only General Vors grunted.
“Too complex for anyone to cast except if they have time. The math required to fire those spells…it’s easier just to cast [Magma Wave]. But it is elegant.”
Light. Light and numbers and you could find anyone, no matter where they hid. Ascoden fired a second volley as he detected his targets decreasing in number. Some blocked his spells or evaded them, but the Mage Lord just stood behind Montressa’s barriers, cheerfully unloading on them until the last [Mage] surrendered and emerged, scorched and twitching with static. Ascoden raised his claw in a fist and shouted.
“To the Archmage of Izril! Has any [Mage] in Fissival created a spell like this in recent memory?”
The Scholarium rang with cheers, more booing, and arguments. Mage Lady Sooral scowled around as Montressa sagged in relief, and the [Mage Lady] hurried over to confer with Worpell. But where…where was Archmage Valeterisa?
The audience watching Fissival Today had witnessed Ascoden’s demonstration of Valeterisa’s spell. It was indeed complex. But did it change your mind about her? Already, a Drake was demanding Valeterisa show herself.
“I am Mage Dorigal, son of the great Mage Lord, Dragial. If the Archmage is so confident in her abilities—let her face me.”
“Oh, Ancestors. Look at that. He can summon monsters! It looks like he’s summoning some kind of Battle Golem.”
His audience watched as the Drake planted himself in the ground and, ignoring the Drakes trying to dissuade him, began summoning a monster from the ground.
[Transporter Chief] Istrix knew summoned monsters were both mana intensive and hard to create. It was easier to have a pre-made Golem or animate something. But some [Summoners] had powerful beings they could control.
By the looks of it, Dragial’s kid had inherited his father’s minions. A lot were not fans of this kid or his father, so they were somewhat eager to see the Archmage take him on.
“No question he gets knocked out. Did you know that the Archmage once dueled Dragial? Apparently she spanked him when they were students. She’ll swat his son like a bug.”
The Drake [Supervisor] had stormed off as the delighted [Ritualist] and other [Mages] and [Loaders] gossiped. They watched as the first head of the Battle Golem slowly rose out of the summoning circle.
“How do you summon a Golem, anyways?”
That was a puzzler for Istrix and most of the [Mages]. Someone replied after a beat, coming back from studying the teleportation circles.
“You would need to essentially ‘capture’ the essence of the monster, person, or creation you want to summon. He probably has the Golem’s Heart. So while it costs a ridiculous amount of mana, the Golem may be summoned again and again. People are even more complex, but heirlooms, even body parts, can be used to summon them.”
“Wild. But it’s still a Golem. You saw the Archmage fly. She could probably blast that Drake to pieces, even if he’s got a dozen summons.”
Everyone else agreed. However, the same voice sounded…dispirited.
“Of course I could kill him. But what is the point? We are more than killers. Is combat the only way to prove anything?”
Istrix opened his mouth, then he caught onto an odd word in that statement.
He turned his head and peered at the Human woman hovering behind him. Valeterisa stared at the [Transporter Chief] and then at the scrying orb. The Drakes turned and nearly leapt out of their scales.
“You? How did you—?”
“I was just curious. I’ve taken all the transcribing I need. I didn’t touch anything, but they never let me work here when I was in the Scholarium. I suppose I need to answer that? Good day to you all.”
Valeterisa cast around and then sighed as she watched the scrying orb. She flew off as one of the Drakes ran to tell the [Supervisor]. Istrix’s jaw dropped. He swung around—then his eyes flashed back to the scrying orb. She had been there. Now—
He turned to look at the boring room where goods appeared and disappeared. So few [Mages] ever came down here after the first time. There was nothing to see. The Teleportarium was old magic. Old and broken.
So why did his scales prick with a sudden chill? Suddenly, Istrix had a burning certainty that something was wrong with the Teleportarium. He called an immediate halt to the day’s teleportations and told everyone to go on break while someone inspected it. He practically ran up to the Scholarium to see the rest.
“Hello there. What are you doing?”
Dorigal jumped. He was a tall Drake and had inherited his father’s features. Dragial had been handsome, though a lot of what that meant was about the way your neck spines looked in conjunction with your tail, along with your face. His scales were turquoise, like a bright river flowing into a brighter yellow down his tail.
Striking. And he had a lot of magical potential. No wonder he was so popular. If he could summon at his age…
He was very much like Dragial. His glare was almost the same, but there was more uncertainty to it.
He was afraid of her. Valeterisa hovered in the air as everyone gazed up. Sooral stood next to Dorigal like she was trying to protect him, but he just pushed past her.
“Face me, Archmage. I challenge you to a duel. We may be levels apart, but I challenge you to a duel of summons!”
Valeterisa regarded him blankly. That would favor him, if he was a specialist. However…she just shook her head.
“What would be the point? If I win, what does that prove? I have beaten Dragial, your father, and I have bested other [Mages] of Fissival. Ascoden has defeated six [Mages].”
“Ascoden is not you, Valeterisa. Do you have the magic to impress the Scholarium?”
Sooral blustered. The Archmage of Izril floated downwards, studying the Mage Lady.
“Is the power to kill someone magic? Should I impress the Scholarium by winning a duel? I came home to show Fissival what I had learned. I have been gone for two decades. In that time, I have gone to every continent, studied thousands of spells. Is this…all you respect?”
She watched the rising Battle Golem, so disappointed that it made Sooral’s scales flush in anger.
“Spoken like an elitist Wistram Mage. Magic should be practical. We are at war with another Walled City. The Death of Magic is back, and the King of Destruction is awake! If magic cannot defend us, what good is it? I would lay down my life to defend Fissival. You want to be a Mage Lady and you cannot even stoop to a duel, Valeterisa?”
Valeterisa stood there, stooped, looking at Sooral. She glanced around, at the watchers, at the camera recording her, and spoke slowly.
“Then should I duel and kill you, Sooral? If you want me to prove myself that way—I will.”
The Mage Lady froze. Valeterisa drew her wand slowly. But Dorigal barred her path. He lifted a staff and glared at her.
“A true [Mage] should be a leader, a visionary, and inspire as well as defend. You are a self-interested Human, Archmage Valeterisa. That is why I intend to oppose you. You claim Fissival needs you so much we should make you a Mage Lady. Why should your magic supercede all of the Draconae Scholarium?”
That was the crux of the argument. Students and teachers nodded as they watched her. Valeterisa eyed the rising Golem and replied, again, without waiting, without hesitation.
“Because I am a better mage than you. In levels, in knowledge.”
Dorigal clenched his teeth, and Sooral hissed in fury. But Valeterisa just straightened, and now, a firmer tone entered her voice.
“A [Mage]. A [Mage] should be a leader? They should inspire? Why is that? A [Mage] should care about only one thing: magic. Magic is not good nor evil. It is more than a tool; it is the greatest mystery. It can solve any problem, perform any task. But we dip our toes in it and call ourselves [Mages]. This entire contest is not magic. It is a show of lights.”
Dorigal was outraged. He planted himself behind his summoned warrior.
“Then prove yourself better! Archmage! Face me!”
The Archmage of Izril turned and eyed the Battle Golem. She looked at Dorigal. Then she shook her head.
“I do not need to. But if you wish me to—fine.”
She walked away tiredly, and Dorigal sneered as he waited for her to summon a creature. He waited…but Valeterisa just stood there, tired.
“Will you face my creations with spells alone, Valeterisa? Can you summon nothing?”
She stared up at the sky, disinterested in him. Dorigal glowered, and the summoning sped up as Sooral stalked away. He hated to admit it, but he couldn’t fight her directly. But this?
“—ge Dorigal. Mage Dorigal, a word?”
Someone was calling out to him. Dorigal glanced over, irritated that he was being interrupted. However, he’d finished the summoning spell, so he was just pouring mana to complete the Battle Golem’s body. He saw someone gesturing to him from the crowd.
He’d thought it was Worpell, but it was just some Drake. He wore, of all things, a butcher’s apron, slightly stained, and he was one of the observers.
“What is it, sir?”
His father had always said it paid to be polite and mingle. So Dorigal bit back what he wanted to say and walked over. The [Butcher] was one of Fissival’s citizens, First-Class, obviously, but he was no [Mage]. Just one of the endless workers in the districts. Yet he was staring up at the Battle Golem.
“Young man. I hate to say this but—something’s wrong with your summon.”
Dorigal instantly lowered his voice and turned around. He had sensed nothing wrong, but the [Magical Butcher] gave him a serious look.
“I can’t tell what it is—but it’s off. Like bad pork loin.”
“My Golem is like a pork loin? Are you mad?”
Dorigal glared at the [Butcher] then stormed away. Or tried to, because a Drake sitting in a chair floated up half a step. The [Summoner] blinked as a Drake who was practically all-gray raised his voice.
“It’s the second line, inner circle, young man. I’m fairly sure that’s where it is. I used to mess it up all the time. It’s the inverted ‘L’. You connected it backwards is my guess. Not hopeless! What you do is you splice in a secondary instruction circuit. Not sure where.”
“We could take a look at it. I’ve done it before. I used to work in the Teleportarium. Had to do that with magicore running around your ankles.”
Another Drake broke in, and Dorigal saw…what, a [Housewife]? But a number of other observers were calling out.
“What about freezing the spell circle? Do a quick-adjust—”
“Do you want to kill the boy? If that goes wrong, all the mana explodes! He can resummon the Battle Golem!”
A group of friendly…civilians were all calling out tips. Not a single one was a member of the Scholarium. Dorigal’s cheeks flamed red, and he spun on his heel.
“I will not be lectured by amateurs!”
The crowd fell silent, and the helpful chatter petered out in moments. Dorigal stalked back, trying not to stare at his rising Battle Golem. But the [Butcher] called out urgently.
“Something’s wrong with how it was made! Recast the spell! Recast the—”
The angry [Summoner] ignored him. Dorigal stood as the Battle Golem finally finished creating itself. It flashed as it moved, a beast of a war machine. Twenty feet tall, superior even to modern Golems, ancient armor now recreated out of mana, glowing with power. It had a face like a Drake, and it could exhale magical ‘breath’. One sweep of its tail could knock [Soldiers] flying in battle, and it was armed with a shield and sword.
…Normally. Dorigal couldn’t pay the mana cost of the sword and shield, so this one was bare-handed. It also couldn’t breathe any mana, but it would still do for whatever Valeterisa summoned. She still hadn’t done anything. Dorigal opened his mouth to call out to her, and then he saw the Golem turn around. He blinked up at it.
The Golem swung a fist down at him, and Dorigal stared at it until his summoned monster punched him half a dozen feet.
Valeterisa watched Dragial’s son’s jaw and ribs break and him go slamming backwards into the ground. She wished it gave her any pleasure.
“Treachery! Save Dorigal!”
Sooral shouted as the Battle Golem took a swing at the nearest Drakes. The crowd ran screaming, and Valeterisa raised her voice.
“I didn’t do anything.”
He had summoned it wrong. The Battle Golem whirled, fists raised, and Professor Worpell hit it with a flash of blue lightning that burned a hole straight through one side of its head and out the other. Unfortunately—that didn’t end the summoned being. It charged, and Worpell vanished.
Valeterisa studied the glowing material making up the summoned being’s ‘flesh’. At the heart of it, a copy of the Golem’s Heart that Dorigal had in his possession. Great magic. Elegant work.
It was still…there. Still functional probably thousands of years after it had been made. That was beauty and craft and, yes, magic. Now, a scion of Fissival couldn’t even control it and lay on the ground as Sooral poured a healing potion over him.
“This isn’t magic. Magic should inspire. Magic should be wonderful. Even when it is as simple as threading a needle.”
Valeterisa whispered. Did anyone hear her? Her apprentice, shielding a group of students from one fist? Ascoden, blocking the Earthers? The scrying orb, capturing the Golem’s rampage?
Slowly, she raised a finger. The Battle Golem turned towards her as Valeterisa aimed at its chest where the copy of the Golem Heart resided. It began to charge—and she shot a thin beam of light straight through the Golem’s chest.
“[Piercing Shatterbolt]. [Alter Spell].”
The first spell punched a hole straight into the summoned being’s chest. The second—the Golem stopped. It froze, mid-step, and Valeterisa saw it relax. As the citizens and Scholarium stopped panicking, they saw the Golem come to rest. It walked back to where Dorigal had summoned it and then bowed its melted head. Slowly, it began to fade away.
Archmage Valeterisa stood there, tired, though she had barely cast any magic today. She gazed around, opened her mouth, and Sooral, Sooral, beat her to words, as always.
“That—proves nothing. Dorigal made an error in summoning the Golem. He’s young. You have shown the Scholarium nothing.”
For a second, Valeterisa debated killing her. It would be so easy. Her thoughts were a milling rush, disorganized. She felt her old teacher’s eyes of disapproval and scorn on her. She felt…angry.
Hot, like someone pouring a bucket of melted slime parts over her head as she sat in the courtyard. Cold like seeing a room full of silent stares when she walked in.
Old, because this had all happened long ago. As young as the day she’d left. Nothing had changed.
Perhaps nothing would ever change. Valeterisa bowed her head and gazed at Sooral. She looked at Montressa, who was red-faced and angry. For her. She glanced sideways at Milaw, at Ascoden, lining up to kick Sooral with her apprentice.
That did make her feel a bit better. But Valeterisa just peered at Sooral’s furious face, around at the citizens, and saw interest or fear. Friendliness, support, opposition—
She didn’t see magic here. She eyed the Scholarium, home to the ancient teleportation grid, and focused on her shoes. She saw the magic running through the City of Fissival. But it seemed like a lie.
“Perhaps you’re right.”
Valeterisa replied to Sooral at last, and the Mage Lady blinked. Slowly, Valeterisa turned. Her feet left the ground, and she muttered.
She began to float off, away from the plaza. Sooral’s eyes flickered as she tried to figure out Valeterisa’s trick. She decided for a parting shot instead.
“You cannot even fly, Valeterisa! If we had to take an Archmage, at least Eldavin could cast [Flight]!”
Valeterisa turned her head once, and Sooral ducked at the expression on the Archmage of Izril’s face. But Valeterisa just snapped back.
“[Flight] is a faster spell and far more maneuverable, it is true. But [Levitation] costs less than a quarter of the mana, because once you are levitating, you do not incur more mana drain. If you could cast either, you would know the distinction.”
Then she turned and flew off. She left her apprentice behind, her supporters, the people she had grown up with. The Scholarium, and even the City of Fissival.
Valeterisa flew into the air, away from it all. That was easy—but even if she flew high and far, this was her city. She peered down and saw the entrances to the Grand Library where Heorth resided. She gazed down and saw a few Drake children pointing up at her.
They were wearing robes and wands. She cast around and wondered if she could see a little Human girl, waving a wand and laughing at magic.
It should be wondrous. It should make sense. It should be logic and grace and art and deeper than all those things combined.
It would be easy to leave now. To say she had heard Fissival and depart. But. Valeterisa had shown Fissival no magic yet.
If you stood outside the City of Fissival, just past the walls by one of the guard-towers or the edge of the basin where it rested, you could see the greatest claim of the City of Magic.
The city flew.
Look at it. It was a tiny bit off the ground. Half an inch. See?
Plenty of people tripped or even broke toes on that little lip. Wagons broke wheels—the guards at the ‘gates’ had seen it all. And what a few had realized was that the ‘height’ of the flying city actually changed subtly.
It was like…breathing. Or floating in water. The city actually varied in that half an inch of clearance from the ground. A bit up, a bit down. At its ‘highest’, it might be two entire inches off the ground, and you could see a tiny bit of compressed dirt, then it would sink until it was actually level or lower than the ground.
So it floated in the air. Good for the city. Did it matter?
Well…the Human woman lying on her stomach and studying the slowly rising and falling city clearly thought so. One of the [Guards] was about to tell her to get moving—not that she was doing anything wrong—until they realized it was the Archmage of Izril.
“Er…Archmage Valeterisa, what are you doing?”
She didn’t answer at first. Her lips were moving, and she was…counting? She only raised her head when the [Guard Captain] spoke.
“How long does it take for the city to rise and fall in a full cycle?”
He blinked, but he was familiar enough with the city’s phenomenon that the answer sprang to his lips.
“Er—about fourteen minutes. Why?”
The woman stood up, dusted her robes, and stared across Fissival. She backed up and peered around the huge city that was home to millions. Far, far too far for anyone to circumnavigate without a horse. She gazed down the long road leading up the plateau and then up.
“I suppose I can only try. Very well.”
She drew her wand, and the Drakes backed up. One raised his spear, and Valeterisa focused on him. The Drake lowered the spear.
“I am not doing anything illegal. I think. If I fail—pretend you didn’t see me?”
The [Guard Captain] got no answer. He saw Valeterisa take a few steps back, then mutter.
“I’ll have to time it—very well. [Delayed Spell: Earthen Spire]. No. [Expanded Range]. [Reinforce Spell]. [Delayed Spell: Earthen Bulwark]. [Synchronize Spell].”
She aimed her wand at the ground, and all the Drakes glanced back. The [Guard Captain] scrambled away, but no rising pillar of stone flew up. And besides, she’d aimed it—he turned, and Valeterisa spoke.
Her feet left the ground. Not gently, but in a blur of motion that left the Drakes recoiling as a cloud of dust and grass swirled up after her. The Archmage of Izril flew up, arms still stretched out, and then she turned, curving through the air.
She skimmed along the rising wall of the City of Magic. Then she dipped—and her wand flashed as she recast that spell. The [Guard Captain] gaped at her—then he raced for his tower.
“What is she doing? High Command—Watch Captain—anyone, come in!”
She was a quarter of the way around the city before he managed to climb to his post and get ahold of someone in charge. No less than Supreme General Hexa snapped back at him.
“What is Archmage Valeterisa doing? Report!”
“Casting some kind of spell at increments around the city! They seem to be at systematic intervals. One spell at every sixteenth of the perimeter of the city?”
She was flying in a perfect circle, around the city of Fissival. The [Guard Captain] ran back to the lip of the floating city. Wait a second. Wait…Hexa was barking at him to apprehend her as if he could fly himself. But the Drake threw himself down.
The Supreme General had never gazed down at the edge of the flying city. She didn’t know that you could actually stick the tips of your fingers under the city and pretend you were ‘lifting’ it if you were a small child. Or an idiot. You could, then, lose the fingers as they were slowly crushed into less than paste.
But it was a popular thing for some tourists back in the day, until too many lost digits had forced the Watch to prohibit the trick. And yet…the Archmage of Izril hadn’t done that. But she had aimed her spell somewhere just underneath the city.
He could see it, if he bent down, the residue of glowing magic beneath the floating city. The city sank, and it disappeared from view, but he reported what she’d cast. Hexa muttered in a distinctly unconfident manner that the [Guard Captain] wished she wasn’t sharing with him.
“[Earthen Bulwark]? Why that spell…wait, did you say [Synchronize Spell]? What’s she synchronizing to?”
The [Guard Captain] glanced up as he saw the Archmage of Izril flying in a complete circle. She had almost reached his position, and she was so fast—he saw the city slowly rising up.
An entire city. Millions of people. How many pounds of weight he couldn’t even guess. A mountain’s worth of stone and steel and magic. Yet…it had floated, and the spells had endured for generations.
Impossible, even if it was less than impressive. Fissival flew. But as Valeterisa had said—
Once it was in the air, even half an inch, it was easier to stay there. He saw and felt a spell activate. The earth shook—and just like it did every fourteen minutes, the Walled City began to rise.
But this time, it kept going. The [Guard Captain] slowly got up as the magical towers came alive. Then he stood back, and his eyes were climbing to find the Archmage of Izril, whom he’d been laughing at with the day crew in the tower. Then he stepped back as a shadow crossed over his face.
And he looked up.
Montressa du Valeross didn’t blame Valeterisa for leaving. She sat with her head resting on her arms, staring across the City of Fissival. She would have jumped over the plaza’s high guardrails if she could fly away.
…She just hoped Valeterisa hadn’t flown off and left her behind. Behind her, the Scholarium was busy posturing and sneering about Valeterisa into the camera.
Montressa didn’t notice Hexa’s sudden agitation, but General Vors did as he congratulated Ascoden on his victory. Nor did Montressa notice anything else was amiss at first.
It was only when she heard Valeterisa’s name and saw the woman come soaring across the city like a loosed arrow that Montressa yelped.
Every head turned. Sooral’s jaw dropped.
Valeterisa was flying. Faster than she had even moved with Montressa. Her robes billowed out behind her, and her hair whipped like a storm. She seemed so incredibly unhappy about the wind resistance that Montressa understood at once why she hated flying.
“Archmage! What are you doing?”
General Hexa roared, attracting the cameras back to Valeterisa. The Archmage didn’t reply to Hexa directly. She came to a stop overhead, and Montressa saw the camera-Drake aiming the scrying orb almost directly up—
She kicked the Drake in the shins, and the female Drake lowered the camera—then realized she had nearly given the entire city of Fissival a dangerous viewpoint from underneath Valeterisa. The Archmage of Izril floated down as the Drake retreated to a better angle.
Valeterisa was…panting. Montressa saw her drop to the ground, and the Archmage spoke a bit breathlessly.
“I have one last thing to show Fissival. If I can. If not—forget I mentioned it. But magic is more than this. It has to be. If I stay in the City of Magic—this will be my gift. My only gift is this search. I cannot do it alone. So…”
She peered around. Then Valeterisa shook her head. She took off in another jet of debris as Montressa shielded her face. She saw Valeterisa soaring off across the city, then she dipped down out of sight, below the lip of a building’s roof.
Everyone looked about in confusion. After a second, someone began laughing. Mage Lord Cureq shook his head in frank scorn and disbelief.
“I think she’s actually lost it. What are we supposed to see?”
He glanced around, and everyone searched—Ascoden cast a [Scrying] spell after Valeterisa, but predictably, she was warded.
“…She’s not answering her [Message] spells. However, Hexa is kicking up ten hells. Something about Valeterisa casting spells at the edge of the city?”
Vors reported in. Ascoden frowned, and he gazed at Montressa.
“I had no idea she could actually cast [Fly]. Did you?”
“No. I don’t get what she’s showing us. Milaw? What is Valeterisa doing?”
The [Tailor] and the [Crafters] were just as anxious. And upset, frankly, about their beloved childhood hero’s treatment. The [Clockmaker] peered around and shook his head.
“No sign of anything in the city. Maybe she’ll come back. She never lied. Not that girl. When she told me she could make a spell out of my magic…I believed her.”
He cast around, and Montressa gazed across the city of Fissival again. She saw a lot of Drakes craning their necks, looking for Valeterisa too. Probably two-thirds of the city were in range of a scrying orb, and she had to believe everyone had heard of Valeterisa, even if some were dismissing her.
But what was it? Montressa stared further, into the distance. You could see for miles upon miles from the Scholarium, the highest point in the city save for the towers. Of course, the great Scrying Tower could cast a spell anywhere, but visually, she could even see Salazsar’s city in the distance, a speck on the horizon. The southern mountain range, and if she went to the other side of this plaza, she could see the sea, beyond which the eastern edge of the world lay. Southwards, Chandrar—not that anyone could see another continent from here.
A breathtaking view. Montressa didn’t love heights, but she could admire how high Fissival was on its coastal plateau. Why, even the magical guard-towers seemed small from here, and she knew they were forty feet tall, even if they were at a lower elevation.
In fact, it was dizzyingly high from the Scholarium, and she said as much.
“The Scholarium must be a hundred feet—no, close to a hundred and fifty from the ground, is that right, Mage Lord Ascoden? It didn’t feel like that.”
She was peering down at what she could see of the plateau from here. Ascoden raised his brows.
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration. We’re barely…thirty feet up from here? Some of the walls are higher, though you can climb the Scholarium to maybe eighty feet. The towers…but not a hundred and fifty from here.”
“No, it has to be higher. Look. The guard towers are tiny.”
Montressa was insistent. Ascoden snorted, but then he walked over. General Vors had gone silent as he put a speaking stone to one earhole. The Mage Lord peered over the balcony and hesitated.
“Ancestors. They are small from here. But they’re taller than the walls of Fissival. It must be some trick of the light. You know, I never noticed that.”
“I didn’t either. I could have sworn they were of the same height. And see down there. There’s a city.”
“Uh…Kallisope? That’s fascinating. Vors. Vors. Look at this. I’ve never seen Kallisope from here. They should be all the way down the coast. Vors? Professor Pex?”
Now, Ascoden turned, and he saw Vors’ expression. Then someone began laughing. Professor Pexalix was laughing wildly as Professor Worpell glanced around. The Scholarium’s students and teachers gaped at him uncomprehendingly…but then Montressa began to feel something. It was subtle, but she had felt this before.
On Pallass’ elevators, when she’d gone riding them. A kind of…pressure when it went up and the opposite when it went down. A subtle resistance. It was replaced by a sudden lurch in her stomach. She turned—and Ascoden whirled around.
Montressa du Valeross began to run, searching for a better vantage point. The citizens glanced at each other blankly, and some followed her. But the [Crafters] just turned to Milaw as he realized what she had.
But unlike Montressa, he trusted to something else. The trembling [Clockmaker] raised a wand. He cast one spell.
He aimed it at the nearest guard tower, seeming small, barely in sight. Then Milaw turned white. He looked around, and then word began coming in from the edges of the city.
For if the Scholarium, in the center, couldn’t detect what was happening—the guards on the walls, the citizens at the edges of the city, and especially the Drakes gawking up at the City of Magic saw it.
Fissival was flying.
They were only actually fifty feet up. Montressa was exaggerating, because they were so much higher than she could have imagined.
Only fifty feet into the air. A young Drake woman of about fifteen years of age peered over the edge of the City of Magic and saw the [Guard Captain] staring straight up at her. She gasped, stood, and nearly fell.
Someone hauled her back, and at this point, the Watch began urging citizens to stand back from the exposed city’s edges. Yet…even they couldn’t stop themselves from gaping.
Fissival was flying. Drakes were screaming to their relatives, sending [Message] spells to friends and neighbors in other cities and demanding they check the scrying orbs or spells.
“Fissival is flying!”
And they’d get a response like, ‘yeah, yeah, Fissival ‘flies’, I’ve seen it before, good for Fissival. What’s this really about?’
Then the disbelief would change to incredulity. The first [Scrying] spells captured the City of Magic leaving the ground—slowly.
Slowly. Painfully. At first, the audience had no idea why Archmage Eldavin himself interrupted Drassi’s broadcast about equal pay for female Drakes and cut to an image of the City of Fissival’s network.
Then…they began to pick up on what was happening. Yet—oh—
It was hard. Harder than she’d thought, and she had tried to calculate how much Fissival weighed.
She didn’t have to struggle with that element of the city, thankfully. It was floating, which suggested it was a net-zero weight. But as the Earthers who knew more advanced physics could have told her, even if something of Fissival’s size ‘weighed’ nothing, shifting it and displacing all that air?
Let alone moving it? The first fifteen feet were easy. That was because of her spells.
Sixteen [Earthen Bulwarks] of reinforced stone, grey and tough enough to withstand direct hits from [Lightning Bolt] spells, rose and pushed the Walled City of Magic from below. At equidistant positions, they rose simultaneously, pushing the city higher like fingers pressing it up. As one might hold a bowl with a sixteen-digit hand.
That…wasn’t bad. They were just spells, and even if she’d had to time them and anchor each one, they were only Tier 4 spells. Enhanced for radius and strength.
But the city began to rise, and she knew it would work. Fifteen feet was easy, but then Valeterisa knew that she needed another method to raise the city of magic. Which begged the question—how?
Even the highest-level [Warrior] in the world was only as ‘strong’ as his reach. And only half-Giants would have been able to reach the City of Magic once it had cleared fifteen feet of ground. The earthen spires kept rising, but they began to crack.
“[Pillar of Obsidian]. ”
A central spire rose directly underneath Fissival’s base as Archmage Valeterisa flew around, stopping the cracking spires and continuing to lift the city. Could they feel it yet? Most wouldn’t notice. The flying Archmage saw the city continuing to rise and tried to guess how high she could raise it with the mechanical advantages of geomancy alone.
Fifty feet? Sixty? The higher the spires extended, the more fragile they became and the wider their bases would need to be. There was a diminishing cost, and so she prepared herself. As soon as the base of the City of Magic cleared the divot in the earth, the smooth basin of dirt it had rested in so long—she would fly under it.
Something caught her attention. Dirt and debris were cascading down from the City of Magic’s underside, even root systems that had clung to the base of the Walled City of Magic. This least-defensible Walled City had never been impressive with its short walls. Even the Antinium had come close to attacking it.
Yet…Valeterisa had long wondered why Fissival, of all the cities, had such shoddy defenses. Her answers had come in the history books and studying its defensive protections: the city could project a dome to cover the entire City of Magic at need. She had wondered why. A dome was not as efficient as Pallass’ more pyramid-shaped [Cage of Pallass] spell, which could stop entire armies attacking.
That had led her to understand where the Walled City of Magic was supposed to be. Walls? Walls were for cities that feared conventional attacks. Walls were no good against foes with wings. And Fissival…had never been on the ground during wars.
For the first time in an age, someone glimpsed the Walled City of Magic as it truly was. As dirt fell away from the rounded underside of the City of Magic, Valeterisa saw something staring at her.
It was a Dragon.
Not a real one, obviously, but a mural. Raised stone, colored, but so old it had worn away. A Dragon, one of the long ones with a flowing mane like water and twin whiskers, was twined around the basin of the City of Magic. Riding upon its back were Drakes, even some Gnolls. It was chasing or flying with another Dragon that Valeterisa associated with storybooks, the Dragon’s scales…her scales?…glowing a faded white as she blew frost breath across a series of cities in the distance.
Crests. Cities. Valeterisa’s eyes widened and she spoke.
“Memorize this. [Capture Image]. Capture…”
She flew in a circle, eying the Walled Cities, ancient crests. Some she recognized, like Pallass. Others…others were gone. One had even been removed, visibly chiseled away from the rock face. The Dragons flew over tiny Drakes, building higher, learning magic from their Ancestors, until some stood upon a newly-built City of Magic. The greatest [Mages]…
And still the city rose. Now, Valeterisa sensed the [Pillar of Obsidian] faltering. Twenty-five feet while she watched? Barely enough space—and she was aware she might not have the strength.
But she had to try. This was already…already…
This wasn’t enough. Magic should be more. So Valeterisa dove and noticed that each eye of the Dragon and some of the murals had glassy orbs. Spells? Placed to do what? Rain fire or help the city levitate?
They were dead and dark. But they watched her as the daughter of Fissival flew down. Valeterisa gazed up at a second sky and got a bit of dirt in her eye.
The City of Fissival was almost as dirty from beneath as Montressa thought her underwear was. But—Valeterisa put her hands on the stone.
“How to lift something like this? A puzzle. [High-Speed Flight].”
She upgraded the spell to a level she didn’t dare fly normally—even with barrier spells, she could and nearly had killed herself. But if she pushed—
“[Stoneskin]. [Body of Diamond].”
—She became the lever that moved mountains. And the lever could not break. Her arms began to scream, but the spells reinforced her, and the city…
Didn’t move. Of course it didn’t. How did you lift a rock? Valeterisa hadn’t enough force in her.
“Lift a rock, lift a rock…”
Her eyes alit on the rubble below her. Then Valeterisa blinked.
Rocks. Professor Pexalix. She swooped down as the city deadlocked twenty-five feet up. Then the first stone rose with the Archmage of Izril.
“[Levitation]. No—[Reverse Gravity]!”
Far better. Of course! Her thoughts were straining, trying to balance flight with the spells she had to maintain—Valeterisa began casting the spell again, then realized the rocks were trying to tumble around the dome, fly into the sky.
She anchored them to the underside of the City of Magic. This was pushing—pushing the boundaries of anything she had considered. She was not Xrn, the Small Queen. Yet look.
The city was still rising. Now, the [Earthen Bulwarks] were reaching the limits of their usefulness, so Valeterisa halted them, and they fell to the ground, breaking. The obsidian spire collapsed, and then it was just her and the city, floating as more rocks stuck to it. However—now it was like Montressa’s battle.
Mana. She had to maintain the [Reverse Gravity] spell on every single boulder. The larger they were, the more mana they cost.
“I cannot…keep enchanting stones.”
The city was slowly moving up. Inch by inch. Not fast. Why was it so hard? Maybe she didn’t understand the physics. She thought she had overcome the weight limit, so every extra stone should move the city faster, but it resisted her.
Valeterisa pushed with her own arms, and Fissival kept rising. She felt the mana burning out of her veins. Now it was forty-five feet in the air.
Higher. She gazed upwards and then looked around. Valeterisa wondered what they saw.
Show them magic. She only wished she had more of it in her veins. The first mana potion touched her lips as a single Shadow Familier held it up for her to gulp.
They rose so slowly, but when Montressa reached a place where she could look out over the edge of the City of Magic, they were rising.
The Scholarium was in chaos. Students leapt out of classrooms, running, or grabbed scrying orbs.
They were flying! But every inch took almost a minute. Something was wrong.
“It’s too heavy. We’re sinking! She can’t lift it alone! The mana cost—”
Ascoden was trying to imagine how Valeterisa was managing it! General Vors gaped around as Montressa just stared into the distance. It was almost midday, and she could see so much of Izril. But Vors heard Hexa muttering into a speaking stone.
“—keep the stabilization spells—”
He turned, but the Supreme General was already hurrying away to find the others of Fissival’s Three. The [General] saw citizens gaping out—but then—already—
The Walled City began sinking. He felt it as the sudden feeling of going up reversed. Slowly, the City of Magic sunk an inch. Then a foot. Then—
The Archmage of Izril appeared. She flew up back towards the Scholarium, wobbling, and the city held as she burned her mana, keeping it aloft. A crowd surrounded her as she dropped, and Vors knew, at once, Valeterisa had pushed too far.
Her face was not pale or white—it was gray. She was gasping for air as her body tried to recover some of the energy it felt leaving. But it was magic, not anything else. She almost fell to her hands and knees, but Montressa caught her.
“I cannot make it fly higher. Too much downwards pressure. It’s not enough.”
Valeterisa was whispering. The students and teachers of the Scholarium watched her, listening.
Not enough. Her head rose, and sweat ran down her face. Vors saw the scrying spells focus on her, and then someone spoke.
How he had the ribs left to draw breath, the [General] didn’t know. How he had the gall to speak…he beggared belief.
For Dorigal spoke, leaning on Mage Lady Sooral’s arm.
Every head turned to him. The son of Dragial pointed a claw at Valeterisa. He spoke, his voice carrying.
“Fifty feet. That is all the Archmage of Izril can show us. It is more than I can do. But some day, I swear to you all. I will see Fissival fly beyond the clouds.”
He gave her a long, frustrated look. And almost—Vors almost tossed him over the edge of the plaza, but the boy did look at her with the barest glimmer of respect.
It was more than his teachers. Valeterisa’s head lowered, and their descent began to pick up. Ascoden reached for his mana potion.
“If we could link…”
His voice was frustrated, and it belied his realization that even if he, Vors, and Montressa linked, they probably wouldn’t give Valeterisa more than…what, five more minutes? She had already, clearly, gone through a number of mana potions.
Montressa was already giving Valeterisa some magic. She heard Valeterisa whispering.
“I don’t understand how to lift it. I just—tried. No data, no studies. How do you lift something that high? Stones. Professor…”
She glanced up as the old Drake approached. There were tears in his eyes as he beheld his student.
“You have taken the first step. The rest is up to us.”
He laid a trembling claw on her shoulder. More mana, but a drop in the bucket being emptied. The Archmage of Izril’s head sagged, and a hand caught her arm.
“Look at you. A hundred spells. It must be a hundred and you’re doing it without sitting, or even help? Milaw? Milaw, come here!”
Ierythe had hold of Valeterisa’s arm. Magic ran down her fingertips, and General Vors blinked. His mana was like a roaring torrent, reaching Valeterisa in a rush, as much as he could channel. Instead of that, he saw an old woman, a [Tailor], whose own clothes were hand-stitched and could probably last another age and be as comfortable as could be. A knitting needle stuck in her hair, holding it in a bun, a comfortable apron-skirt around her legs and woolen socks.
Just a citizen, no [Mage]. However, from her came a thin line of magic that connected her hand to Valeterisa’s arm as the Archmage turned. Pure, refined mana, like a shimmering thread, thinner than a vein, running into the Archmage.
Almost lossless transmission. Then a [Clockmaker] with a cap was running forwards, his mustache blown almost sideways by the wind. He joined Ierythe, and a [Butcher] followed, a Drake who linked so fast that he put a [Battlemage] to shame. A Drake flew a dozen feet, and his chair nearly brained the other [Crafters], but he was already adding his flow of mana.
The [Crafters] of Heneith Street joined in, and they were another drop in the river. Yet—Montressa saw the hands supporting Valeterisa, and her head rose. Her eyes closed and then focused.
A razor’s edge of concentration. The hazy mana leaking from her stopped, and Montressa saw, like threads, each spell connected to her refining itself, reducing the wasted magic. The Archmage exhaled, and the city’s fall slowed. General Vors stood there, feeling like a new student before masters.
How had he never seen this?
But they were still sinking. In desperation, Montressa cast around. If only someone had something to teach Valeterisa! If only…
Her swiveling head caught a group of young men and women. Humans, staring over the edge of Fissival. Montressa ran.
“You. How can she do it?”
Eun screamed as she grabbed him, then turned. Saif, Eun, Jacques, Damla, and the other Earthers focused on Montressa.
“What? Do what?”
“How do planes fly? How can she—lift a damn city? A rock?”
Eun blinked at her. Then he understood what she was asking. Saif gave Montressa a look of disbelief, then he slapped his forehead.
“Airplanes? We know that! And she’s never seen or heard of a rocket! Guys—”
“Shut up and show her! It’s like this. You have this—”
Damla was trying to sketch in the air, and Eun found a piece of parchment. They began babbling about aerodynamics, but then one mentioned a jet engine. Then…a rocket engine.
Valeterisa’s head rose as the Earthers followed Montressa back. Even now, fighting for distance, she listened as Montressa and the Earthers surrounded her. She smiled.
Then her face fell. The Archmage of Izril’s eyes fluttered—and she raised a hand as her nose began to bleed.
“Ah. I’m out of mana. If only Eldavin were here. Or anyone else.”
She stared up, strained, disappointed in herself, and Montressa’s face fell. She closed her eyes, and Eun stared around. The South Korean man knew something of what was going on, even if the magical details escaped him. He saw all the Drakes and Humans trying to fuel a leaking battery, like pouring buckets of water into a breached reservoir.
Then—a beam of light illuminated the air. Eun recoiled at his first sight of the Grand Plaza of Bliss beginning to activate. He pointed at it.
“What is that?”
Ascoden explained briefly, sweating as he poured mana into Valeterisa’s shoulder. It probably wasn’t even filled much, but Eun just watched it. Then he grabbed Saif’s arm.
“Saif. Saif. This sounds stupid. But what if she used…the power of friendship?”
He tried to explain it, but all the other ways of saying it left him, leaving only the dumbest method. But his pointing finger found the beam of light, and Saif gazed up.
“No way. No way. You mean like Dragonball Z?”
“I never watched that.”
Valeterisa peered around as Jacques covered his eyes. But then her own head rose. She looked up, and she came to the same conclusion Eun had in a moment.
“Let go of me. I can try.”
The others backed away, and Valeterisa slowly began to rise into the air. She flew higher, and Eun saw her streaking up. Chasing after that beam of light coming from the plaza.
“What’s she…? I see. Get to Bliss Plaza, now!”
Vors roared. The Scholarium focused on him, then—Milaw began to run, and Eun saw more Drakes and students and citizens following. But a hand touched his shoulder. He turned and met two bright orange eyes.
“You have a future here, young man. We need thinkers like you.”
Professor Pexalix told him solemnly. Slowly, his and Eun’s heads rose. They saw a single figure streaking into the air.
Valeterisa’s hair streamed behind her as she shot higher, so fast she left the running people far below. She was racing, trying to reach the Grand Plaza before the magic ritual unleashed.
She flew into a glowing beam of pink light turning to viridian at the center. There were only a few Drakes and Humans below, and they stared up as the Archmage of Izril closed her eyes. Then Valeterisa spoke.
She reached out—and stole the Grand Ritual’s spell. Drakes standing on rooftops, citizens peering out at their floating city, saw the Archmage of Izril floating in the air.
A family peered up at Valeterisa. Then—their mother pushed them.
“Go downstairs, now.”
“She’s not going to kill us, Mom—”
“No, the plaza! Get to the plaza.”
The idea caught hold like a bolt of lightning falling among pieces of metal on the ground. Drakes looked up and realized what Valeterisa needed. It might not have been the power of friendship as they streamed into the plaza and the gentle drain on mana began taking from thousands—but another beam shot up into the air as someone manually activated the Grand Plaza of Strength. Valeterisa turned to it and saw another beam shoot up, bright ochre. She closed her eyes.
Maybe it wasn’t friendship or even liking her. Maybe they just really wanted to see what she could show them. Maybe they wanted to see—
She would try to answer them, then. Valeterisa flew across the City of Magic and began to cast a new spell. She took the mana floating up from the Grand Plazas and dove.
They were barely thirty feet above the earth now, and if the City of Magic sank further, she might well be crushed to death, unable to teleport in Fissival’s contained network.
Yet—Valeterisa had an idea. A theory, born of Earth’s knowledge. Fire. Fire and air. There was nothing gentle about it, no [Levitation] or [Reverse Gravity]—but sometimes magic was fire and science.
The Archmage of Izril dove for that narrowing gap between earth and sky, and realized…she was too late.
Someone had beaten her to the center of the City of Magic’s base. His wings cascaded around him, turning to clouds, and his scales flashed with iridescent cream turning to a golden sunrise. His eyes were gleaming with pride.
The Djinni of the Great Library, Heorth, was carrying the City of Fissival as he slowed its fall. Just like that statue in the plaza. Valeterisa stopped a moment, and he spoke.
“In the Age of Reckoning, when they first bound me to the library and the Gnolls reemerged from far below, six young Dragons would lift this city into the sky. The lazy ones called me to help. They did it with wings. A full Dragon could do it without help. Valeterisa. Show me what an Archmage of this era can do.”
His eyes glowed brighter, and Valeterisa exhaled. She saw the city sink another inch and placed her hand on the City of Magic’s base. But she did not heave nor push—she was no Magus Grimalkin.
Nor could even he do this. Valeterisa’s own eyes began to glow. The Djinni, Heorth, felt the winds pick up.
He was a being of Clouds-Knowledge-Magic. At his heart, in his very inception lay the synergy of essence to manage the Great Library. He had seen this magic before, and his pointed teeth flashed as he laughed.
“[Directed Spell: Windstorm of Karaz].”
The first spell that Valeterisa cast blasted so much dirt into the air that the Drakes closest to the edges of Fissival saw it rise like a wall of dirt. It wasn’t enough, of course. Valeterisa bound the spell, aiming it straight down as Heorth bought her time.
“What…can you show me?”
“I have to—remove the limiter on the spell. [Mages] suffer no backwash of spells. But I have to inflict it on us.”
Valeterisa’s lips moved as the Djinni whispered to her. She pointed down, then touched his arm.
“[Greater Fire Resistance]. But I can’t cast it on you—”
“Mundane flames won’t harm me. Do it.”
Valeterisa pointed her wand down as the ground closed in.
“Then—[Empowered Spell: Flame Jet]. [Whiteflame Jet].”
The first wave of fire blasted downwards, and the heat baked the dirt. Then it turned white, and the Djinni felt the first sear of flame on his body. But he grinned—because the roaring wind stoked the fire. And it grew warm.
Thermals were rising across the City of Magic. Flame and dirt and smoke—but the air magic the Archmage of Izril was casting was intensifying.
After all, hot air rose. Birds floated on thermals from warm areas, and it could, perhaps, even propel larger beings into the air.
Maybe even a city. Now, [Earthen Spires] were trying to push the City of Magic higher along with the increasing jets of flames and air currents.
It should be working. It should—for a city of one solid mass like Fissival? Even if it wasn’t perfectly aerodynamic, so much force was pushing upwards and it had no weight—why wasn’t it flying?
[Ritualist] Kories knew the answer. He sat in the Teleportarium, watching an image of the Archmage of Izril. His supervisor, who was sniffing one robe and wondering why it stank—was growling.
“Our gravity stabilization spells are fighting, General Hexa! We can’t pour any more into the spell.”
Kories spoke quietly, and the rest of the team below glanced at him. None of them had been allowed to see it with their own eyes, but they had felt it, seen the news coverage. She was on Wistram News Network, and they were flying—but there were spells anchoring Fissival to the ground that were now fighting the Archmage of Izril.
Fighting Fissival. Its citizens were pouring magic into the Archmage’s spells, and here he was. The [Supervisor] snapped at him.
“This city only flies when it wants to! Keep an eye on the Teleportarium!”
The [Ritualist] opened his mouth—then he stared at the magicore network that showed the cities nearby Fissival. It was a small, broken part of the continent. But what had astounded the few Drakes allowed down here was…
This map was one of the most complete in the world. For it showed the new lands of Izril in perfect detail. It only looked a bit like a butt. The network had reconfigured itself in the days after the Meeting of Tribes. Yet…only the Walled City of Gems, Salazsar, and a tiny circle of lights indicated places where the Teleportarium’s power could reach.
No wonder Fissival had sacrificed the network in the Great Plains. Kories studied the map as he watched Valeterisa fighting, refusing to give in. As his [Supervisor] stomped past him to speak to General Hexa more privately, he nudged Kories.
Pretty hard, because the young Drake slammed forwards with a cry of pain. The rest of the team peered at him as the [Supervisor] backed up.
“What? What—sorry, General Hexa, just a klutz. Kories, pick yourself up and—oh Ancestors.”
The [Ritualist] pushed himself up and then noticed his claws. He stared at something on his claws. It was…a little jade key. Multicolored, from the green everyone thought of to a pearly white. It had been inserted in a little socket at the magical panel he had been sitting at. Right now, it was attached to his thumb-claw. He’d accidentally pulled it out.
“Put it back! Put it back—”
The [Supervisor] began freaking out. But it was no good. The key was part of a magical link. When the link was severed, you had to restart everything. You couldn’t just jam it back in. Of course, it was supposed to be locked, but the [Supervisor] must have forgotten to turn it in all the excitement.
“Supervisor Linnej. Report! What is going on?”
Supreme General Hexa was shouting, and Linnej was frozen in place as the entire panel went dark. Kories helpfully answered for him.
“Er…the gravitation spells, Supreme General? They just went offline.”
He didn’t wait for a reply, but ran for the upstairs. And as he did—he felt the ground suddenly lurch beneath him, and his stomach dropped for a second before it got used to the acceleration. He was laughing as, delayed in the scrying orb—
Fissival began to rise.
They were flying. Not by inches, not by feet, but up, faster, faster. Valeterisa knew that whatever force had been fighting her was gone. She climbed with Heorth, and he grinned at her.
“Go and see. Just go and see.”
Flames and wind blew down in a hurricane below, a pillar of flame. A copy of…another world. The Archmage of Izril flew out of that world of heat and air, and she saw the wind rising.
Leaves and grass floating upwards. It carried her up. She floated upwards alongside the rising City of Magic. This time…when she rose, she saw a sea of Drakes, scales of every color, staring at her. Staring as they rose into the air.
A hundred feet. Two hundred. Valeterisa flew higher, the mana of an entire city running through her. It was in her veins. But she almost didn’t feel it or the triumph.
She was gazing down at the City of Magic. And they were looking right back at her. Valeterisa gazed down through familiar streets she had run through as a girl. Then—her gaze picked out a single, tiny figure, frozen in place.
A little boy with dirty brown hair, no more than maybe five years of age, was gaping up at the Archmage of Izril. He had a wand in his hand that was fit for a child. Maybe he could cast spells with it; maybe not. He had robes cut short so he wouldn’t trip on them, and his round cheeks were slack.
He was gaping straight up at her as she flew overhead. The Archmage of Izril gazed down at him, and it was unclear who seemed more stupefied. Then she flew past him, glowing like a second sun of magic.
The City of Magic began to slow when it reached six hundred feet. But it was still climbing. Valeterisa didn’t know if it were her waning magical control or Heorth slowing it down. She knew from experience it grew harder to breathe the higher you went.
A thousand feet. That was more than enough. Her body was revolting against every second that it was chaining so many spells together; the mana she was conduit for was scorching her.
But Valeterisa closed her eyes as Fissival floated. The city looked out across Izril, and then—
Then, they saw. The students, the teachers, the citizens—
And the other cities.
The Teleportarium was in chaos. Supervisor Linnej had fled, and there was no point restoring the gravitational spells. The city was flying in Valeterisa’s hands.
So why was [Transporter Chief] Istrix here? He couldn’t have said why. He had looked out across the continent of Izril, and something had pulled him down here.
He stood in the map room of Izril and stared at the cities that pulsed when they wanted to send him something. He had long since stopped marveling—until the new lands had appeared and Fissival had sent dozens of ‘experts’ to confirm that this was legitimate and sell copies to the other Walled Cities.
Even now, the Teleportarium surprised Istrix. But he had forgotten…not all those surprises were bad.
Right now, the Drake was the only person seeing what was happening to the map. The glowing dots of the cities illuminated by Fissival’s Teleportarium network were…expanding.
Slowly. As the city rose, the bubble widened with increasing speed, and Istrix’s stunned eyes saw cities that hadn’t been part of the network for hundreds of years, thousands, beginning to glow. He didn’t understand—until he thought of the spell.
The spell. What if altitude…? Like someone trying to draw a straight line to the City of Fissival? It would be impossible unless the Walled City of Magic were in the right place.
Like a thousand feet straight up in the air. He saw shining lights appear and felt so weak at the knees he sat down.
Walled Admiral Asale worked in his section of Zeres as the Admiral of Supply, the Quartermaster of the Fleet. He had traditional office spaces accorded to him, although he hadn’t understood why until he studied old maps of Zeres.
This was the spot where Zeres had used to receive shipments that didn’t come in via harbor. But that was ages ago. Even so—the rooms that held so many goods were still used for that same purpose, even if no one sent anything anymore.
He was also watching the scrying orb showing Fissival along with the rest of the continent. So that was why, when he saw and felt the flash of magic running through the entire room behind him, he didn’t run screaming. Drakes and Gnolls streamed out of the storerooms where magical lines long buried flashed to life. Admiral Asale slowly reached for a cup of coffee and sipped at it.
“Someone find the Serpentine Matriarch. Check that. We might only have a few minutes. Ask them if they can send me a bunch of those sunrise mangos. I love those.”
The Walled Cities were aflame with [Messages]. In each city, rooms had begun lighting up. Some were still used for the same purpose—
In another, Watch Captain Venim freaked out as the Watch Barracks began to glow. He ordered a complete evacuation as Grand Strategist Chaldion himself came to look. The Grand Strategist stared at the rooms that could send things or…people and muttered.
“The Defense of Manus, Antinium Wars. Zeres’ Battle of Gorgons, Naga Incursions. Someone make a list.”
A junior [Tactician] looked up as the Grand Strategist leaned on a cane. Chaldion glanced over.
“Make a list of every single encirclement or siege of a Walled City that isn’t Fissival since its Teleportarium network began failing. Make me three copies.”
The Gnoll saw Chaldion remove his fake eye and rub at his eye socket.
“Each of Fissival’s Three. Which I will ram up their worthless behinds with my cane. There has to be a reason they stopped.”
“Well, yes. I doubt they get much foot traffic up there.”
Venim panted. He stared at the floating city in the scrying orb, already beginning to drift downwards. Slowly. Held aloft by a Djinni and a storm of winds. And the Archmage of Izril. Chaldion nodded slowly.
“Yes. If they can’t use the network, I suppose so. You’d need a great [Mage] to do that.”
He stared long at Valeterisa. Then he cursed.
“A shame they got rid of this one like all the rest.”
He scowled at the display, and Saliss of Lights walked past Chaldion, stared at the glowing Watch Barracks, and slapped Chaldion cheerfully on the back of the head.
“It’s a tradition in every city, old man. Take a good look around before you throw stones. They have a lot of high ground.”
Istrix was gazing at the network of Izril when he noticed something strange. The map of Izril had always been a picture of weakening magic, of failure as Fissival could only maintain the local region.
When he saw it light up…he had thought it showed a great mistake of the ages, some lost idea. But then he realized it wasn’t all incompetence and forgetfulness.
Because…Pallass was active, but the steady blue light wasn’t green for a ready delivery or red for a problem or telling him not to send.
It was orange.
Distinctly orange. There was no median point between blue and red. If anything, the orange-yellow color was crossed with a violet center, like someone really wanted you to tell this was not a normal status.
“What the hell does that mean?”
Istrix whispered. More Drakes were running downstairs, and General Vors and Mage Lord Ascoden stopped when they saw the map of Izril. Istrix just pointed.
“Look. Pallass…Hectval…that must be Liscor. All the cities in that region. Heading down…Zeres is clear, but—”
Dozens of cities in a kind of downwards stain were all showing the same color. As if something was…wrong. But what? From Liscor to Pallass, every city wasn’t ready to send. Dead gods, Zeres seemed like it was ready to send fish or something, and someone was trying to load a crate of mangos in exchange for ‘coffee’.
But what was this? Then Vors whispered.
“No. Forget that. Look. The north.”
Every head rose, and Ascoden’s scales shivered. He saw no cities there. This was an old map, and the new area had been added in. But…there were some dead lights in the north.
General Vors slowly turned, and he was no student of Magus Grimalkin. But he thought the Sinew Magus would quite have approved as Vors gave an order.
“Get me all the paper in the Scholarium. Copy—write everything down.”
There were even cities in the new lands. Old or new? But the map was already fading.
Fissival was sinking. Drifting downwards, unable to sustain its altitude. Maybe there was something about gravity that the levitation spells couldn’t fight.
Yet the proof was more than a permanent fixture in the heavens. Every single person in the city had seen the City of Magic truly flying.
That vision could inspire. It was something to reclaim.
It was already changing the world.
For instance, [Chief Engineer] Bellien was someone whose name you probably shouldn’t know. He had no expectation anyone would know his name.
[Chief Engineer] was a class. It didn’t mean he was in charge of all of Pallass’ Engineering Guild. Good thing too, because that was a political role, and he liked his place where he was on the day-crews. It was a fine time to be alive, working on huge projects and learning new concepts of…well, everything.
Ideas were flooding into the Engineering Guild so fast that even the best were sleepless, dreaming of new concepts. But they needed…industry. And more knowledge! And more points of reference.
Yet they had a guiding star, and Chaldion had promised more, soon. Bellien was eager to meet them.
Especially if they were easier to deal with than Troydel. The young man had given a lot of erratic lectures, and they needed someone who could start from the bottom, not tell them a Drake could fly and go from there.
He was a work in progress. For example…Bellien was hunting for a sheaf of documents. Every week, Troydel had to submit a new one, and he had achieved the Engineering Guild record for most proposals refused already.
Then again, most junior members didn’t have the right to submit proposals for budgets, but it was how Troydel was learning to submit and create blueprints. Bellien had to admit he’d gotten better, but that wasn’t, uh, a huge first step.
Most of what Troydel wanted to make was highly, highly complex, and while some ideas were being greenlit and in progress—like copies of the bicycles and Felkhr’s entire wing of support staff—Troydel’s ideas had thus far never survived on their own merits.
It took a second for Bellien to find what he wanted, but then he pulled out a bunch of hand-illustrated images. They were pretty good, and the entire idea had been one of Troydel’s best, but he had personally refused to greenlight it.
The dangers of being above the earth were not unknown to Bellien. A two-floor elevator fall killed anyone but Grimalkin, or so their [Safety Consultants] loved to say. Besides that…it had been hard, even with Troydel’s explanations of physics, to believe.
Yes, birds and hot air and all that. But believing fire and air could lift people? Much less…well. Bellien stared at the image of Fissival. He had seen it rise. So, calmly, he hunted for his stamp and struck the paper describing a giant cloth balloon. Normally, he demanded a miniature proof-of-concept, and Troydel had never delivered one of those. But he supposed someone else could do the work for the lad. He struck the wood stamp down.
Amidst it all, she descended. Archmage Valeterisa landed in the middle of the Scholarium, and Fissival’s citizens and students and [Mages] surrounded her.
“This changes nothing.”
Who said that? Montressa raised her foot to kick—
Mage Lord Ascoden. He stared up dreamily at Valeterisa. Smiling, but sadly. She landed on the ground and eye him.
“That is what I wanted to show them. I was challenged to demonstrate magic. So I have. Regardless of anything else—that is magic.”
Her eyes were alight, and she was almost smiling, but it faded as Professor Worpell and the Scholarium’s elite walked forwards. The Drake was not smiling. But even she looked at Valeterisa differently.
“Archmage of Izril.”
The whisper ran through the crowd. Valeterisa studied Worpell and waited.
“Valeterisa. You are without a doubt one of the finest [Mages] living. No one can deny that after this moment. You have done what Fissival has long known it can do. You seek the magics of old, and for your accomplishments, you have been acclaimed an Archmage, a title that speaks for itself.”
Worpell sounded exhausted, but Montressa didn’t miss what she’d said. Her eyes widened with outrage, but Valeterisa forestalled her. She simply listened.
“I have not the…the…strength to watch over the Scholarium. Headmaster Tierres, I leave it to you. I am tired. My great students pass, and I will not stand against Valeterisa’s instatement in the Scholarium.”
The old Drake seemed as though she aged with every second. The [Professor] sagged, and someone, Dorigal, helped her step back. Her scales were grey, but another Drake took her place.
Montressa had never met Headmaster Tierres before, but one look told her that the second of Fissival’s Three stood before her.
Magic’s director glanced at Valeterisa, and she blinked at him. He was as old as Worpell, and she knew him too.
“Oh, Headmaster Tierres. What would you like to say?”
The old Drake had gold-rimmed glasses, and unlike Worpell, he did use a magical tool to keep himself upright. But unlike Chaldion, his cane was magical and hopped; it was tall and shaped such that he could lean on it wherever he went.
Montressa could see why he didn’t move around much. But he was not ignorant of Valeterisa and the debate around her. The old headmaster spoke slowly.
“…I still oppose it.”
The Scholarium buzzed. Students were incredulous, citizens aghast. The second of Fissival’s Three went on as Hexa and a female Drake that Montressa didn’t know hurried forwards. Tierres went on.
“Your magic is undeniable. By deed, you have won over the hearts of many, perhaps, Valeterisa. But we are a city united by magic and…love of Fissival. You have left. You are the Archmage of Wistram and the north. You could have stayed. You were always rebellious, and when you graduated, I told you that the Scholarium needed great mages. But not of your kind. I oppose it—but I cannot stop your instatement as Mage Lady of Fissival.”
He turned away. Not once had he met her gaze. He gazed past Valeterisa. Then his head lowered as Montressa burst out.
She was vibrating with fury. The [Aegiscaster] met the old [Headmaster]’s gaze and guessed he might be Level 40. At least. He had enough power in that gaze to be that strong, or even, perhaps, Valeterisa’s level, but he was faded.
“What do you mean, Miss?”
“Why do you resent her so? She could have been your Archmage. If only you—and every Drake who was around her—hadn’t pushed her out of the city, she might have stayed. Was it so hard to admit a Human could do magic on par with you?”
“Human? This has nothing to do with her species, H—Miss. It was always about her attitude. She questioned, but she did it loudly. She pushed, alone, rather than worked together. She walks the loneliest of paths where magic is her only goal.”
Mage Lady Sooral hissed. Montressa turned redder. She opened her mouth to reply, then Sooral hesitated. Headmaster Tierres turned his head and focused on the Archmage of Izril. Montressa turned her head up, and her face fell.
Milaw gazed across the crowd in concern.
She was weeping. Tears ran from Valeterisa’s cheeks, hot and large, and she was no graceful weeper. Nor was she even the most talented blubberer, because the tears were not a waterfall.
She just cried. Yet it was the first such tears anyone could remember seeing, even people who had known her of old. Valeterisa’s tears landed on the Scholarium’s floor, and when she did speak, her voice was choked.
“He asked me to risk my life and fight for Izril’s sake. For nothing but pride in being me. It was a ridiculous thing for a [Mage] who loves logic and magic to answer. But he was there, and he looked me in the eyes and asked me, from one ill-loved child to another.”
Montressa knew. Valeterisa’s head moved back, and she stared, as she had stared at the Drake wearing Erin Solstice’s face once before. That burning gaze. The authority to command any army of Drakes.
“General Sserys of Liscor.”
Now, the crowd was wide-eyed and silent. Even Fissival’s Three listened as Valeterisa cast around. At her city. Her people. Second-Class Citizen Valeterisa. Mage of the Draconae Scholarium Valeterisa.
Archmage of Izril, Valeterisa recalled the words that the [Spear of the Drakes] had said to her.
“Are you a daughter of the walls? Am I a daughter of the walls? He saw me—and knew me. He did not even know my name, but he saw it in me. I wanted to be. I would have been, but you did not want me.”
She peered around the Scholarium. Her words fell like her tears, a soft confession. Then—the voices of disbelief rose and silenced themselves before they could quite voice any objections.
For truth spells existed. But even if they had not—a continent listened. It would be easy to disbelieve Valeterisa. But the Meeting of Tribes had seen miracles and impossible deeds. Not everyone believed. Maybe most didn’t. But those that did felt it in their bones.
Wing Commander Embria’s forkful of noodles finally fell into her bowl and splashed some of the hot broth into her face. Imani’s attempt at ramen was growing cold in her new establishment, Barefoot Kitchens. You needed a reservation these days, and Wing Commander Embria had gotten one for the leaders of the other companies from Liscor’s real army.
Wing Commander Xith and Narkr sat next to Embria, open-mouthed. Narkr almost rose in outrage, her tail twitching in disbelief. Then she looked around at the silent Liscorians. They had all heard that voice, and an entire city listened.
General Sserys. She had seen Liscor’s army turn on Zeres and Manus. Slowly, Wing Commander Narkr sat down. She looked at Valeterisa, and those words made her scales chill without end. Not crawl, nor her stomach sink.
Daughter of the Walls. She had seen that in her very dreams. A helmeted head glancing the way of a girl born in Liscor’s army. A wild grin, and a voice. If you heard it, just stand up and go. That glorious [General] who had escaped even death to jump into one last fight.
“I am a Daughter of the Walls. If you had called me like him, I would have come. For twenty years I waited, but not once. Not during the Antinium Wars, nor any time since have you ever needed me.”
Valeterisa’s voice reached more than just Liscor, though it echoed throughout the entire city. A Wall Lord lowered his head and pressed his claws into his forehead.
Ilvriss, of Salazsar, wondered if he were looking at a mirror. Not of Valeterisa—but of the stupid faces of the Scholarium. He saw a reflection of an older Drake, but still, his head rose, and he looked at Valeterisa. He spoke to Osthia, Nerul, and Xesci.
“Her. We need her.”
Ilvriss’ gaze followed Valeterisa along with Fetohep of Khelt, sitting upon his throne in Khelt. The king’s golden flames burned brighter in their sockets, for here was an outrage to his nation. A servant, poorly served.
“They were unworthy of you, Archmage.”
The King of Destruction agreed. He looked at Valeterisa and turned to Amerys.
“Now there is your peer, Amerys. If she had stood on Zeres’ walls or against the Antinium, where would we be now?”
The Archmage of Chandrar turned to Valeterisa, and her gaze sparked with sympathy. But disappointment as well.
“If we had met on the battlefield time and time again serving two great causes, Wistram would now be free and I would be an [Archmage] in truth.”
Her eyes shone with fury for a rival lost and magic cast aside. The King of Destruction just nodded sadly.
And Rafaema of Manus looked at Valeterisa and wondered if that was how she would look in four hundred more years. She raised her claws to her face and wondered if Valeterisa’s tears were hot or cold.
For hers crackled with lightning, and they wouldn’t stop.
“No more. At least use us well. No more.”
She turned away, then turned back to keep watching, like someone seeing a vision of the future. Rafaema’s wings opened, and she almost flew out the window, but she waited.
Waited, because there was something else. There had to be. She looked north and then at Valeterisa.
Not her. She could not live like that. The Lightning Dragon spread her wings and roared until Manus’ fortress shook. She had a thousand questions to ask her kin. A thousand questions, like thunder, of how to stop this. How many had they thrown away? How many children of the walls? Rafaema turned back and watched the sorry end to this tale.
If only she had been a Dragon. They would have loved her too well.
Valeterisa had been called. And she had answered. Now, the Archmage of Izril stood in the City of Magic, weeping.
“I am a citizen of Fissival. Second-Class Citizen Valeterisa. [Mage] of the Scholarium. Even if my home has never loved me—I have always loved it. I always wanted the Scholarium to be a bit proud of me. Just once. I stand here, in front of you. Can’t you acknowledge me? Even now?”
She gazed around, and thousands of students, her people, watched her. But the eyes of the people she wanted passed over her face. As if they were afraid to linger.
Even Dorigal saw that. The [Crafters], Montressa—and Valeterisa herself. Just as she had known. She hiccuped and then shook her head. Valeterisa slowly produced a handkerchief, blew into it, and stared at it.
She probably hadn’t [Cleansed] it in nine years. She tucked it away and then nodded. Her voice was slowly returning to normal. And like the old memories…Montressa heard a sigh in Valeterisa’s voice.
“Yes. I have loved Fissival. Coming here, I have felt all the reminders of why I left. Love. Pride in my city. Exasperation. Frustration. I see what it could be—but what it is. But if General Sserys asked me a second time, I would go. Because that is what it means to be a daughter of the walls.”
Ascoden closed his eyes. Montressa saw Valeterisa touch her chest slightly, and someone exhaled. Then, the Archmage of Izril’s eyes opened, and that clear gaze sparkled, the only bit of magic in her. A dreamy cloud as deep as a foreign world waiting to be explored.
“I have come home. It was painful, joyful, and all these other things. Now, to do what I have put off for a while. For you are right, Headmaster Tierres. Sooral. I am a [Mage] who loves only magic. It is so hard to balance that against my love of home. So—”
Her finger rose, and it touched the side of her head. Valeterisa whispered.
Montressa’s face slowly turned to one of dawning realization. The crowd susurrated. Did she just—? Pexalix closed his eyes, but Valeterisa’s tears stopped.
Her expression cleared, and her back straightened. She dabbed at her face again and seemed mystified by the tears. Then she gazed around.
“That’s better. Ah, now I see. I see you all, with neither love nor hatred. Headmaster Tierres, this is an optimal time. In witness of the Scholarium, I would like to submit a patent. After all, a spell need only be witnessed by three members of the Scholarium in good standing.”
The Drake seemed wary, but he could hardly refuse her. Valeterisa nodded, and Cureq spoke derisively.
“If it’s ‘Valeterisa’s Uplifting Magic’, we have seen it, Archmage.”
She gave him a blank look without anything more than a vague impatience.
“No, this is new magic. I am casting it now. Please stand back, Montressa. Or hold me, but do one or the other.”
Montressa clung to Valeterisa’s arm gently, gazing up at Valeterisa’s face. But she did not see a wreck of emotions buried by magic. Just…a kind of sadness. Valeterisa had cleared her emotions, but not erased them.
She took nearly a minute to cast her spell as everyone watched. Not even Ascoden and Vors, closest to Valeterisa, could see the spell. But Montressa could. Valeterisa patted her on the head.
“Stop crying, apprentice. It was a good visit. Now—”
Her voice echoed a bit, then popped, and Montressa stumbled slightly, though she hadn’t moved. Valeterisa caught her, and she kept speaking.
“—it’s time to go.”
That was all. Montressa felt nor saw anything else until she looked up. Then…she saw Tierres’ white face. His scales had turned dead white. And Montressa had to crane her head to see Worpell’s expression. Because…
She and Valeterisa were about two dozen paces left of where they’d been. The Archmage of Izril turned. A few [Students] seemed puzzled.
“That’s it? That’s just [Lesser Teleport].”
Cassa, one of the young students who’d first seen Valeterisa, muttered. Then someone kicked her in the tail.
“You idiot. You idiot.”
Kadril, the older student, muttered to them. He was shaking. He pointed a claw at Valeterisa and said what had all the other members of the Scholarium speechless.
“It’s impossible to [Teleport] in Fissival. Even [Archmages] of old couldn’t do it. Only the Teleportarium works! Only—”
Then his voice choked off. Valeterisa turned, and her eyes caught them all.
“I submit my patent: [Network Teleport]. It makes use of existing magics. I would prefer not to scribe the exact methodology of the spell.”
She stared down at her feet again, and this time…Montressa saw her tracing the Teleportarium, staring at the leylines written long ago. Valeterisa glanced up, and Headmaster Tierres was frozen in shock.
He only spoke after half a minute of dead silence. His voice wavered.
“Accepted. And I want to say, Archmage Valeterisa…”
His eyes searched hers as Valeterisa took his clawed hand and shook it vaguely. She neither smiled nor scowled. The Archmage of Izril bowed and then nodded to Montressa.
“Thank you, Headmaster. Now, I believe it’s time to go. Apprentice…no. Montressa. Are you fit to travel?”
It took a heartbeat for the Scholarium to realize that Valeterisa was walking for the edge of the plaza. Montressa began to follow, and someone called out.
“Wait. Where are you going?”
“North. Somewhere. I’ve missed my niece’s birthday for eight years. And I have other engagements. Including Wall Lord Ilvriss.”
Valeterisa called out absently. Someone ran after her.
“W-wait. When will you be back? We need to learn that spell.”
Valeterisa turned, and Mage Lord Cureq’s mouth worked.
“Because it’s teleportation. Along Fissival’s networks! We can go anywhere with it! If we restore the Teleportarium—”
“—You could go anywhere it reaches. Or build a new, self-contained grid. Yes.”
“So you need to teach us, Valeterisa—”
The Archmage of Izril stared at the Mage Lord. Slowly, she tapped her finger against her chest.
“I have the patent. For economic purposes, that seemed like a very wise investment.”
“But you have to teach us!”
Cureq shouted. Valeterisa just gazed at him.
“But that would devalue my magic. And it seems to me Fissival was never the right spot. I thought about the Great Plains, but…no. The High Passes.”
“The High Passes?”
He couldn’t catch on, but everyone else did. Montressa looked up, and Valeterisa spoke musingly.
“There is a door, but it barely works. I wish to study magic. Together. With apprentices and [Mages] and resources. I will do it somewhere with access to north and south. Building a new teleportation network is not impossible, and the most value is in the center of Izril. Liscor, maybe. If Fissival ever figures out the spell, I will, of course, expect my patent to stand. It has been witnessed by most of the Scholarium.”
Now they got it. Ascoden saw General Vors slowly sag as Hexa and dozens of other [Mages] tried to run forwards, but Valeterisa was just…going.
“Valeterisa, wait! Your position—give us a chance to say—”
“I heard you the first time.”
She looked back once, and they froze in their tracks. The Archmage of Izril gazed about and then down at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] closed her eyes, smiling with that same bittersweet realization as she understood. Valeterisa stood in the city she had entered humbly, without ever showing them the spells she had learned. Either of them.
The calm Archmage bowed her head to Tierres.
“I have always been a fine student of Fissival’s Scholarium. I learned all the lessons you had to teach, Headmaster.”
Then she took off.
Mage Lord Ascoden found Valeterisa before she had left Fissival proper. He rapped at Milaw’s door, and Eun and the Earthers crowded in as the Archmage of Izril shed her concealment spells.
“You are supposed to be chasing my illusion. What was wrong about it?”
The Mage Lord shrugged.
“Nothing. The Human element made me think you were here.”
“Ah. That’s not magic. Hence my failure.”
Valeterisa stood up and embraced Ierythe. She stood amongst the last gathering of Heneith Street, their Archmage. The last in Fissival.
Not just Heneith Street. The [Butcher], a [Baker], and possibly even a [Chandler] were among the Drakes and Humans and even a Stitch-man speaking quietly to Valeterisa. She remembered them all, and she had forgotten to change her clothing or what day of the week it was.
“Are you going to be okay? I have gold, I think. Sooral might be petty. I must go.”
Ascoden watched as Valeterisa cast a spell, checking Ierythe’s health, but the old [Tailor] looked healthier than she had been in years. And she was patting Valeterisa’s hands, squeezing her fingers tight with a grip so strong it shocked them both.
“My dear. My dear. You always had to go. We should have never let them take what they did from you, but you kept shining, even in all the mud they slung at you. Now? The entire city sees it. The only thing that’s changed is…”
Her eyes were awash with tears. Tears…but Milaw spoke with the same kind of terrible heaviness in Ascoden’s chest.
“The only thing that’s changed is where we’re supposed to be.”
The Archmage of Izril had lifted the City of Magic high and dropped it. Now, everything, all the anchors and ties were coming undone. It was still hard. As hard as something you loved and hated to break. Like family or home. But the Archmage of Izril simply tapped her forehead as her eyes watered.
A hand slapped down her fingers, and Valeterisa gently squeezed Ierythe’s shoulders. She sniffed.
“But tears are so inconvenient.”
They had a long time for Valeterisa to say her goodbyes to each person and cast [Restoration] the last few times she could. As she finally stepped back, the Archmage noticed Montressa trying to fend off the Earthers begging her to take them with her, name-dropping an inn. Valeterisa watched with urbane amusement, and she and Ascoden stood aside.
“I can’t let you have them. Although they’ll be going to other Walled Cities, some. I guess I am a son of the walls. I’ll have to study [Clear Emotions]. You know, if you call and the best [Crafters] of Fissival go—and some students and teachers and even a rogue Mage Lord or two—the City of Magic won’t allow it. It can’t allow it.”
Valeterisa turned, and Mage Lord Ascoden met her eyes, then stared into a vision of the future. She glanced back at Milaw and shook her head.
“Why would they give it all up? Even if I asked?”
“Because it would be better. When that day comes, though, even if you had a Level 50 ally on your side, an entire Walled City would be holding them back.”
Valeterisa was silent for a bit. Then she nodded.
“If Fissival holds back its people from doing what they wish, then we never were a free city of magic, and they were never truly citizens, even Second-Class. If they do—I will come against them with Salazsar’s armies. As the Archmage of Izril.”
Mage Lord Ascoden smiled. He laughed and then held out a claw. Valeterisa took it, and his grip was light as he met her eyes.
“Call. No matter if it tears out Fissival’s heart and leaves it bleeding. It is a long process to fix this city or build a new one wherever you go. But call. Better to fight for our heart than lose it.”
The Archmage of Izril nodded, then she turned and beckoned to her apprentice. Side-by-side, they walked out the door, and the City of Magic flew quietly behind them, low to the ground, as they flew away from it.
Valeterisa looked back several times, but when Montressa asked her how she was feeling, she just shook her head.
“I’m leaving again. I’ve left another Valeterisa behind, and I will never know how she lived or whether she was happier. But I think this one will be fine.”
And then, empty-handed, they continued on their way. But someone noticed everything that had happened. So there was a reward. There had to be. It wouldn’t have been fair, otherwise. Even if magic was its own reward—
For the people of levels, there was always this.
[Aegiscaster Level 34!]
[Skill — Spell Reflection Barrier (Lesser) obtained]
[Skill — Enraging Taunt obtained!]
[Grand Magus of Mind and Studies Level 54!]
[Spell — Conjure Midnight Familiar obtained!]
[Skill — My Mana Runs Thick as Blood obtained!]
[Skill — Arcane Discovery (Weekly) obtained!]
…What was that last one? Did that mean what it sounded like? Two people woke up in a small tent with very mixed emotions.
“Valeterisa! Valeterisa, guess what? I leveled! I got a new Skill for my barriers, and—”
“Eight years ago, I reached Level 50 and consolidated my class into [Grand Magus of Mind and Studies]. I gained [Parallel Thoughts] and leveled twice that year, without Skills.”
So the City of Magic’s student left it sitting on the coast and waited. Waiting for the day, once more, when she returned home.
Author’s Note: This chapter is about 33,000 words. I have done some editing on the third day, but no rewrite of Volume 1. Mainly because it is my understanding I wrote about 30,000 words in two days.
On my final chapter before my break. Let’s just say that it’s tiring and say that’s an understatement.
However, I swear to you, I had plans for a more sedate, slice-of-life Valeterisa chapter. Then I realized I had two chapters instead of one and it grew ambitious.
It’s not my fault. I just like writing this story. Anyways, I am going to rest and I’ll come back stronger than ever. For now, the Archmage of Izril has her chapter. Everyone deserves their own chapter.
But I’ve got a lot of time. I’ll write your chapter for a million…two…eight billion…I don’t have time to write your chapter, but I wish I did. I hope you understand Valeterisa now, and I’ll see you in a bit. Wish me lots of rest! Thanks for reading.
The High Passes by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!