“I can’t believe she scratched me,” Gabe said, for far from the first time. He was rubbing at his throat with one hand, despite the fact that he had healed the tiny pinpricks as soon as they had been inflicted in a rather excessive display of divine light. “How is everyone always scratching or stabbing or breaking me? Why do I even bother being an invulnerable half-demon if everybody gets a free shot?!”
“I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that you continually seek out and provoke the only people wherever you are who can actually do these things to you,” Toby said mildly.
“You make it sound like I have a death wish,” Gabriel grumbled. “I’m unlucky and dense, not suicidal.”
“I honestly can’t decide which would put you in more danger,” said Trissiny.
“And for the record! I did nothing to antagonize Ruda, she’s just a bi—a jerk,” he finished, glancing guiltily at Trissiny.
“I give you credit for the effort,” she said dryly.
Gabriel cleared his throat. “Sorry. Habits. But seriously, how Ekoi managed to scratch me is a pertinent question.”
“She’s a kitsune,” Fross explained, fluttering over to hover between them. “A potentially very powerful kind of fairy from Sifan. It’s actually really rare to see one outside their home country; they don’t like to travel. But then I guess it’s no surprise that Professor Tellwyrn has friends everywhere.”
“Maybe that means Professor Yornhaldt will come back soon,” Trissiny murmured.
“Be that as it may,” November chimed in, bodily inserting herself into the conversation, “whatever Gabriel did doesn’t justify a professor assaulting a student!”
“I actually think Professor Tellwyrn will agree with you on that,” said Shaeine from the sidelines. “Regardless of the very slight nature of the injury, she has strict rules about such things. If this has not been brought to her attention, I suggest we do so. If Professor Ekoi is as potent a force as Fross implies, it is doubtless best if she is prevented from making a habit of corporal punishment.”
“That’ll be an interesting conversation,” Toby said fatalistically. “Tellwyrn doesn’t have a high opinion of tattletales, even when they’re in the right.”
“Tellwyrn’s opinions are irrational and arbitrary,” Trissiny snorted. “The rules are the rules; she made them. November and Shaeine are right: Ekoi cannot get away with this.”
The handful of other students present simply stood at the periphery of the room, watching November and the sophomores in silence, several with frowns or raised eyebrows in response to tales of the new magical sciences teacher sinking her claws into Gabriel.
They were meeting in Martial Spell Lab 3, an octagonal room attached to the gymnasium, with a padded floor and enormous plate glass windows for three of its wall sections, which looked out over the prairie to the east. That glass, however, was no less fragile than the stone which comprised the rest of the room, and all of it would stand up to mag artillery fire. This was one of the chambers in which spell combat was taught and practiced; the defensive charms covering every inch of the room were the best that could be had. Allegedly they’d only needed to be replaced three times since the University’s founding, which was impressive considering the nature of the student body.
Further discussion was interrupted by the arrival of Professor Harklund through the door opening onto the main gymnasium. He was a man in his middle years, with the receding hairline and expanding waistline to prove it, but his jowly face carried a smile, as it habitually did. Despite his Stalweiss surname, he had the dark complexion of a Westerner. He dressed in traditional wizard robes of plain blue, a custom so outdated as to be an affectation, but despite that Harklund was one of the least-mocked professors at the University. A bronze pin displaying the moon and stars sigil of Salyrene was affixed as always to the breast of his robe.
“Hello, eager learners!” he said cheerfully, sweeping his gaze across the assembled students, pausing at each of them as he did a quick mental count. Class sizes at the University were small enough that most teachers didn’t bother reading names off a list; they knew who to expect and could tell at a glance if someone was absent. Professor Harklund, this time, had the opposite problem. “Ah, Ms. Fross, you are not enrolled in this class. I’m afraid you don’t meet the prerequisites, my dear.”
“Yes, I know!” Fross said brightly. “I happen to have a free period now this semester and I like to study my own projects, so I wondered if you wouldn’t mind if I audit this class? I’m very interested in different methods of using magic.”
“It’s not that I mind,” the Professor replied. “I never object to students wishing to learn. This is a strictly practical class, however; we will be wielding divine energies in significant concentration every day. That is potentially injurious to fairies.”
“And,” he interrupted gently but firmly, “any methods you might use to mitigate that risk could disrupt the actual workings of the class. If you clear it with Professor Tellwyrn and Miss Sunrunner, and get their assurance that your being here is both safe and not disruptive, I certainly don’t mind if you watch. For this session, though, I’ll have to ask you to clear the premises.”
“Okay,” Fross said rather glumly. “I’ll see you later, guys.” She fluttered to the door, which opened to admit her, then drifted gently shut once she was gone.
“Well, then!” Professor Harklund went on more briskly. “Welcome to Introductory Lightworking! This is, as I’m sure you know, a new addition to the University’s offerings. I’m sure you know this because several of you were instrumental in getting it added to the curriculum! The only firm prerequisite for enrollment in this class is an established ability to wield divine magic. An awful lot of lightwielders do nothing but call on the energy and just…spray it out, unfocused. That includes a number of fairly high-ranking priests who really have no excuse not to know better.”
“Not all cults emphasize magic use,” Trissiny said pointedly. “Salyrene is the only goddess of healing and magic; other faiths have other priorities.”
“You are correct, Ms. Avelea,” Harklund said amiably. “To put it in more Avenist terms, then, would you send any soldier onto the battlefield as poorly-trained in the use of a sword as the average Avenist cleric is in the use of the light?” He gave her a moment to consider that, just long enough for her to develop a good scowl, before continuing. “As a counter-example, Themynra’s faith is about reasoning and judgment, which has nothing to do with magic…except when it has everything to do with magic. It certainly does not show good judgment to use tools without developing skill in their use. And indeed, I understand our Ms. Awarrion has a proven facility at magical shields, is it not so?”
“I believe I have attained a certain basic competency, if I may be forgiven for boasting,” Shaeine said diffidently.
“Shaeine is modesty personified,” Gabe said with a grin. “She’s crazy good with shields.”
Professor Harklund grinned. “We’ll take the time to explore the skills each of you already have, of course. I will be demonstrating new subjects as they arise, but as I told our pixie friend just now, this is a practical class. There should be time in each class period for everyone to receive individual instruction, and you will of course be expected to practice on your own. Now then, for the most part I plan to limit my talking to explanations of specific actions I expect you to take, but I will begin our semester with this one piece of theory.”
He paused, glancing around at them with a knowing half-smile, before continuing. “The light is caught up inevitably in religious concepts, coming to us as it does through the auspices of the gods. Interestingly, even among the dwarves, who can touch the light without any god’s help, an animistic faith devoted to it is common. All this leads us to a whole slew of misconceptions about just what divine magic is, and what it does. The truth is this: the guiding principle of the divine is order.”
“I thought divine light encouraged life,” said a boy unfamiliar to the sophomores, probably one of the new freshmen.
Harklund pointed at him. “That’s one of the more common misperceptions, Mr. Mosk. It arises from confusion between the two schools of magic used for healing. It is the fae which encourages life, and the distinction between it and the divine helps illuminate—pardon the pun—their respective strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the healing arts. For example, fae healing is excellent for major tissue damage, and even can reset broken bones if the proper spells are used. However, it has a tendency to accidentally encourage conditions that are caused by an overgrowth of life where one is not wanted. Infections, viruses, cancer. Divine healing, on the other hand, attempts to restore the body to its own base state, which also serves to purge it of alien incursions. However, a simple surge of divine energy hasn’t a physical component, and thus does not repair physical disruptions in the body of a certain size or severity. For instance, if you heal someone with a bone broken and left in the wrong position, you can cripple them for life. Heal someone with a blade embedded in their organs, and you likely condemn them to an excruciating death.”
November gulped audibly. Professor Harklund nodded, his expression solemn.
“In both schools of healing there are, of course, ways around these handicaps, which is what distinguishes a true healer from someone flinging around holy light or fairy dust. Healing is not the focus of this class, though we will of course cover it in some detail later in the semester. For now, however, we’ll begin with a relatively simple form of lightworking: the manifestation of solid objects.”
He held out a hand, a golden glow springing up around him, and suddenly a long, narrow cylinder appeared in his palm, apparently made of pure light. Harklund casually twirled the radiant golden quarterstaff as he continued speaking. “Some deities, notably Avei, grant shielding as an inherent gift to their clerics. If you do not come from a deific tradition which has this ability, however, you can make a shield simply by making something solid. You can, in fact, make just about anything—with certain limitations on size and complexity. There are differences and outliers, but the rule of thumb is you can’t create any object more massive than your own body. Only rigid things can be made, nothing flexible or malleable. A light-crafted object also cannot be changed once it exists; if you want something else, you must dismiss your creation and start over. There are further limitations and provisos, but they tend to situational and can be particular to the source of your magic, so we will address those in detail at a later date.”
The staff vanished, and in the next moment he was holding a traditional leaf-bladed short sword. “I often marvel that this practice is not favored among the Sisterhood. A priestess who can do it would never be disarmed. Ah, but do please correct me if I start to wander into theology,” he said with a wink. “As I was saying earlier, it naturally comes up when we discuss the divine, but isn’t directly germane to this class. Now then, holding a physical object made of divine light requires some concentration, but much less than it takes to create it in the first place. Today we will be attempting to make a simple object—the staff, as I just demonstrated.” He did so again, first dismissing the sword. “Its very simple form is an easy first project, and it also happens to be a particularly useful thing to know. There are a thousand and one uses to which a good staff can be put. Next time we meet, we’ll start to work on holding divinely created objects in existence without focusing your whole concentration on it. The trick can be dicey to acquire initially, but I think you’ll find, once you get there, it’s quite easy. All right, then! Who would like to start?”
Gabriel and November stepped forward simultaneously, then had a short, polite scuffle as each tried to yield the floor to the other. Professor Harklund had to end it by nominating Gabriel to try, admonishing each of them to pay close attention but please not attempt to follow the instructions until he could work with them individually.
The directions given were all about focusing, concentrating and feeling, the kind of talk that was familiar to anyone experienced with using magic but quite difficult for particularly concrete thinkers to initially grasp. Gabriel went about it with a most peculiar expression, a frown of intense concentration that kept flickering into a look of pure, childlike delight.
Trissiny eased over next to Toby, who was watching with a smile. “He looks so…”
“Yeah,” Toby agreed, nodding, his smile broadening. “He does.”
Gabriel’s lesson was interrupted by a yelp from November, who had manifested a golden quarterstaff in her hand, positioned so that she clocked herself in the head with it and tumbled over backwards.
Professor Harklund was by her side in seconds, placing a hand on her forehead and illuminating her with a gentle golden light.
“By far the greater part of your time spent in this class will be in individual practice,” he said to the others as he gently helped a wincing November to sit up. “However, Ms. Stark has just demonstrated the reason I ask that you not attempt new lessons unsupervised. As we get into more complex studies, the potential hazards become more severe. All right, Mr. Arquin, where were we?”
Gabriel got it a few moments later, after Harklund suggested he give up the two-handed staff grip he was holding, as the second point of contact increased the complexity of the initial summon. He absently rested his left hand on the hilt of his sword, and almost immediately found himself holding a staff made of light. No sooner had he whooped in triumph than it flickered out, leaving him grimacing.
“Very good!” Professor Harklund said approvingly, clapping him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Gabriel, holding it is another matter entirely, as I said. We’ll get to that in due course. Some of you may find that a magical aid to concentration can help with the initial summons, if you’re having trouble making that breakthrough. If any of you are still struggling by the end of this class and don’t possess any such devices yourself, I can provide one. This really is very much like learning to walk; getting the trick of it in the first place is the only hard part. All right, Ms. Stark, I believe you demonstrated a prodigious grasp of the basic technique without even meaning to. Ms. Avelea, would you care to go next?”
They went around the room in that fashion, each of the nine students attempting the feat individually. Trissiny did it all but instantly and without apparent effort, as did Shaeine; Professor Harklund left them to practice on their own, occasionally directing them to assist classmates who were getting irregular results from their repeated attempts. Once a student had managed to create a staff from midair, the Professor instructed them to keep at it and get a feel for the act. This caused steadily increasing tension among the remainders before they were called up to be walked through the process, but he had a very calming manner and was adept at handling classes of nervous pupils. By the time the session ended, more than half of them, working alone, had figured out the trick of holding a manifested staff in existence. Of those, only Trissiny, Shaeine and a junior girl named Clara had managed to keep one without actively concentrating on it. Everyone else lost theirs as soon as they attempted to speak or do anything with their staves—which probably averted several impromptu duels.
Everyone except Toby ended up having fun.
He simply could not get it to work. He never grew frustrated or nervous, simply staring at his open hand with a fixed, blank expression, creating futile spurts of light. Golden beams shot forth from either end of his fist at one point, but they were just light, with no solidity. At another, he conjured up a glittering outline, as if a layer of dust had settled over a staff, but not the staff itself. Eventually the Professor partnered him with Gabriel and Trissiny to practice and moved on to the next student, pausing only to give Toby a few encouraging words.
Still, despite all their best efforts, the class time came to an end without Toby having achieved more than a few interesting light effects. Harklund spoke with him quietly at one side of the room while the other students filed out, though Toby’s classmates waited to accompany him.
“It’s like he said,” Gabe said, slinging an arm over Toby’s shoulders. “It’s just…a trick. Once you get it, it’s the easiest thing. Hard to wrap your mind around in the first place, though.”
Toby just nodded, as calm and as distant as before.
“The man is absolutely barmy,” Maureen said in an awed tone.
Most of the freshman class had split after escaping the crowded, humid greenhouse, which had somehow seemed to become twice as crowded while Professor Rafe’s excessive personality was present. Now, the girls were on the way back to…
“Wait, where are we going?” Maureen asked, looking around. “This isn’t the path to the Well.”
“I frankly do not know,” Ravana declared, “nor am I terribly interested. We’re unlikely to fall down a hole or encounter a minotaur provided we stay outdoors and on campus, and to be quite honest, I feel an urgent need for some fresh air.”
“Imperial society is, on the whole, far more expressive than Narisian,” Szith said slowly. “Am I correct, then, in concluding that Professor Rafe was exuberant well beyond local standards of behavior?”
“Exuberant,” Maureen said, “irrational… I think the term would be eccentric if he were rich or a noble. Me, I’m goin’ with shoes-on-ears batscratch crazy.”
“Traditionally, academics are allowed to be eccentric, as well,” Ravana commented.
“He didn’t even notice me,” Iris burst out.
All five of them came to a stop, staring at her. At the rear of the group, several paces behind, Addiwyn snorted disdainfully.
“Professor Rafe?” Maureen asked cautiously.
“Lord Gabriel,” Iris said, seeming on the verge of tears. “He didn’t even…augh, not that I blame him, I babbled like an idiot. I’m such an idiot.”
“He noticed you,” said Szith. “In fact, he spoke to you.”
“You’re right,” Addiwyn snapped. “You are an idiot.”
“Excuse you?” Iris shrieked, whirling on her.
“If you spent a little more time worrying about your studies and less obsessing about boys,” the elf sneered, “perhaps you would be a happier, calmer type of idiot. Are you even aware that you were just in a class?”
“I’ve me doubts whether that qualified as a class,” Maureen mused, while Szith subtly interposed herself between Addiwyn and Iris, who had gone from the brink of crying to the brink of attack, judging by her posture and suddenly balled fists.
“It is hardly unconventional or inappropriate for college students to dwell on their love lives, or lack thereof,” Ravana said mildly.
“Besides which,” Szith added, “apart from Professor Tellwyrn’s frankly lunatic homework assignment and Professor Rafe’s instructions to drink something distilled from grains, which I personally am going to regard as a joke, we hardly have any school work about which to be concerned.”
“Really, Addiwyn,” Ravana added, “I don’t presume to know the reason for this directionless hostility of yours, but I cannot imagine how you expect it to end well for you.”
Addiwyn stalked forward until she was within arm’s reach of Ravana and stood, glaring down at her. They made an odd tableau: both girls slender, blonde and attired in a similarly old-fashioned style. The elf towered over the human, though, and wore an expression of almost childish fury—while Ravana, who looked the more physically childlike of the two, was calm and seemed faintly amused.
“Are you threatening me, little girl?” Addiwyn asked coldly.
“I am exercising common sense,” Ravana replied. “That you took it as a threat is a case in point. It is never a good idea to indiscriminately alienate everyone you meet.”
Addiwyn curled her lip, sniffed disdainfully, and shoved rudely past her, flouncing off down the sidewalk.
“Just what the hell is that girl’s problem?” Iris growled at her back.
“She can still hear you,” Szith observed.
“As Addiwyn has fortuitously walled herself off from our shared room, I believe we can dismiss her airs and nonsense from concern,” said Ravana. “She will either come around or come to grief; on her head be it. Meanwhile! You mentioned Professor Tellwyrn’s homework, Szith. I think it’s time we got a head start on it.”
Maureen and Iris drew back from her hesitantly; Szith just raised an eyebrow.
“Y-you’re eager to get started drawing up plans to ambush and…what was the word? Oh, right, neutralize each o’ yer roommates?” Maureen asked hesitantly.
“Oh, goodness, no,” said Ravana, waving a hand as though brushing away cobwebs. “We will not be doing that, ladies.”
“So…you want to do the homework, but you don’t want to do the homework?” Iris blinked twice. “I’m confused.”
“It’s not homework,” Ravana said with a smile, “it is a test. Tellwyrn’s pushing us, seeing how we react to pressure. To manipulation.”
“Apparently I react by getting confused,” said Iris.
“Aye, add me t’that!”
Szith remained silent, watching Ravana closely.
The blonde turned and resumed walking along the path, forcing the others to fall into step or be left behind, and carried on speaking. “Rather than let her turn us against one another, girls, we are going to do an equivalent group project, which will require some research. Let us make for the library while we have some free time.”
“Research on each other?” Maureen asked. “In the library?”
“No, no, Maureen. We’ll all get to know one another organically, over time, as such things are meant to happen. No, the subject of research will be the true enemy here. Arachne Tellwyrn is rather famous for being inexorable and unstoppable, but there are cracks in that awesome resume of hers. She has been beaten. She’s been outwitted, she has made mistakes, she has several times allowed herself to be manipulated by becoming overly emotional. We are going to perform a brief review of everything known about her adventuring career, find all the weaknesses, all the areas in which she can be and has been beaten…” She grinned, eyes fixed on the distance far ahead. “…and rub them in her face.”
A weighty silence hung over the group for several long seconds.
“Ravana,” Maureen said at last. “I like ye an’ all, please don’t think I don’t. But that… I really believe that is the worst idea I have ever heard.”
“It certainly sounds that way, doesn’t it?” Ravana said, half-turning as she walked to give the gnome a pleased smile over her shoulder. “And that is why it will work.”