Her name was Cognita. That was what she told the people she met.
Her name was Cognita. She had once been shaped and given life by Archmage Zelkyr, the greatest expert in Golem creation of his era. Perhaps ever. Because Cognita was a Truestone Golem.
The word itself was a symbol of her authority. Truestone Golems or Truestone Constructs as they were once known were thought to be the pinnacle of artificial creation. For if Cognita was not the strongest Golem that could be made, she alone had what other Golems lacked. Personality. Thought. Feeling.
Perhaps even a soul.
But who could tell? Few people found Golems reassuring, despite their usefulness. And Cognita was feared for reasons beyond just her nature.
She killed mages. She had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands. And yet she was subservient, helpful, polite. So those who met her were both terrified and confused by her, because a monster should look and act like a monster.
But what Cognita actually thought was a mystery. At all times her carved eyes judged and saw, but never gave away anything. She had seen countless mages, seen their triumph and their end. She looked at two more now.
One was a half-Elf, the other a Human. Both were young by the standards of their species. Once, they had been friends. The Golem saw traces of it still, even as they argued.
“They won’t ever let you stay. Not after what you said.”
“They haven’t accepted me thus far, Springwalker. Why should those fools change their minds now?”
“Don’t call me Springwalker! And you know damn well there’s a difference between keeping your head down and poking the beehive!”
Pisces and Ceria were shouting in front of Cognita, a rarity in itself. Few people raised their voices anywhere around the Golem, but Pisces knew Cognita. He alone had sought her out, asked her questions, befriended her.
Ceria just didn’t care. She was close to kicking the mage—again. He hopped away from her, glaring.
“Those philistines that make up the so-called Council—they are blind to what I proposed, but you at least should be able to consider the implications of what I’ve said!”
“Implications? You want to create an undead that can level, Pisces! You’re an idiot! If you succeeded you’d destroy the world, but that won’t happen because it’s impossible!”
He raised a shaking finger. He was angry. He was always angry, and hurt, of late. So was the half-Elf. Together, Cognita saw fury and fear on both sides clashing together.
“It is possible. In theory! Didn’t you listen to my proposal? If I were to create an undead by weaving the spells into it on a much more in-depth level than normal—something closer to how a Golem is created than a body is animated—it might work!”
“What’s wrong with that idea? I have all the pieces of the puzzle in my possession—almost. Cognita taught me the formula used for embodying Golems with sentience, don’t you see? That alone—”
“Only you would be stupid enough to ask! Cognita is—”
Pause. The half-Elf’s face shifted towards Cognita and the Golem saw her red cheeks pale slightly. She looked away rather than meet the Golem’s gaze.
“Sorry, Cognita. But Pisces—you’re a fool. It would never work. Why hasn’t a [Necromancer] done it before? Two reasons. One—it’s stupid and the second is that if the undead could level, they’d destroy entire nations!”
“I would only make one. And it is possible, but only with the correct base materials.”
Pisces’ voice was calm. He stared at his former friend, speaking with the conviction that was halfway into insanity. He glanced at Cognita too, but his gaze was burning. He looked at the Golem not as a threat or something to be feared, but as a challenge. A vision of what could be done.
“Golems require high-grade materials to be built. Mana stones, rock without impurity—Cognita, if I may refer to your construction, you are a product of both spellcraft and the superior base products from which you were given life. So why not apply that theory in the case of the undead? Most bodies are just that, bodies. But if there were a way to obtain superior parts—”
Cognita turned back to look at the half-Elf. She was furious. And the Golem knew the conversation was over. Ceria pointed a shaking finger at Pisces.
“You’re—disgusting. And insane. And I don’t have time to argue with you. If you want to go spouting off crazy theories, go ahead. I’m going to practice real magic.”
She stormed off. Pisces called to her once as she left, but Ceria did not turn her head. He turned back to Cognita in frustration.
“I’m sorry you had to witness that, Cognita. Please, accept my apologies. I thought I could convince Ceria with your help, but she is unwilling to listen to reason.”
Cognita made no immediate reply. She could have told Pisces a thousand things, spoken from decades of observation. Some would help, others might shatter the young man. After a moment, Cognita made a decision and spoke while looking Pisces in the eye.
“She cannot accept what you do. And you cannot accept that she does not consider you a friend. Perhaps the question is then whether you value friendship or magic more.”
He was speechless. He opened his mouth to respond, but Cognita strode down the hallway after Ceria.
If it had been Pisces or anyone else, Ceria would have ignored them or shoved them aside. But Cognita’s deep, inflectionless voice made her tense in sudden fear. She turned, trying to conceal the fear in her heart.
“I believe Pisces would like me to express his apologies in his stead. However, I will not do so. I would merely like to speak with you for a few more moments if you have time.”
Ceria paused. She was still furious at Pisces, livid. His presentation to the Council had set Wistram in an uproar, and he was now more of a pariah than he had been before.
That wasn’t the only reason she was so angry, though. The day Illphres would challenge Archmage Zelkyr’s Golems was only two weeks away. And so Ceria was angry, frightened, and nervous. But she tried to hide all that from Cognita.
The Golem was the enemy.
“Talk to me? I—sure, Cognita. Why do you want to talk?”
“Hearing your reactions and thoughts intrigues me. I was created to think and learn, and this topic—and your discussion—is interesting to me in a way few things are.”
That was extraordinary. And unhelpful. Ceria stared at Cognita as if searching for a weak point. But the stone woman was flawless.
“I guess I can talk.”
“Very well. Thank you.”
The Golem fell silent. After a few seconds of awkwardness, Ceria realized Cognita was waiting for her to speak. Ceria didn’t know what to say. She’d said what she thought. Pisces was insane. His idea was insane. But Cognita—
She glanced up at the Golem. Cognita’s face seldom changed, but Ceria could remember her smiling just once.
“Cognita? Did you really teach Pisces one of Archmage Zelkyr’s spells?”
The Truestone Construct—the thing that had a name and a mind—paused.
“He asked. And it was a an incomplete spell. I believe Pisces has a chance of completing it. In his own way.”
Another revelation. This one hurt Ceria’s heart. It was one thing to know Pisces was smart, acknowledge that he could do things Ceria could not. He was a genius, but this? Pisces had a chance to do what Archmage Zelkyr could not. Cognita had said so. It made Ceria doubt the angry words she had spoken to him.
“Do you support him doing necromancy? Do you even care?”
“I see in his magic something akin to what mages do when they shape Golems, but different. I care not if they are dead bodies or clay and stone that is shaped. I believe his ideas are intriguing. I wonder if he will be able to do as he claims. Even for Zelkyr, the only creation he was able to imbue with true intelligence was a Truestone Golem, my kind. What base material would be equivalent among the dead?”
Ceria had no idea. But she shivered again to think of a walking thing, some shambling zombie with rotting flesh that could grow stronger. What if it could talk? What if it could think, like Cognita? A talking, leveling undead was too close to an actual person, yet indescribably far away from life at the same time.
“I don’t know if Pisces can do it. But I feel like it’s wrong. That’s all I can say. I’m sorry. I have to go.”
She didn’t want to look at Cognita anymore. The Golem nodded.
“I will leave you to your business before mentioning one last issue. The day when your master and four other mages plan to challenge me is fifteen days away. I trust they are all prepared and aware of the consequences of failure?”
The breath caught in Ceria’s chest. She stared back at Cognita, eyes wide. How did the Golem know?
“That—that’s right. They know. My master knows.”
Cognita nodded once again.
“Please inform her that if she or any of the other mages desire to wait or change the appointed time, I would be happy to do so. Good night, Ceria Springwalker.”
She turned and began to walk away. Ceria took one look at Cognita’s back and fled.
“You told Cognita when you’d be challenging her?”
Illphres looked up with a frown as Ceria slammed the door behind her and stormed into the room.
Ceria clutched at her hair. She’d run all the way to Illphres’ room. The mage shrugged.
“Oh, yes. We told her.”
“It’s convenient. It means she knows and won’t be busy, and it means we can’t back out.”
“But if she knows, she could set traps. Prepare—”
“She won’t. She never has and never will. But this way we won’t alert the entire academy when Cognita goes striding up to the top floor.”
Illphres was too calm. She was always calm. She held a book with a light blue bound cover in her hands, glancing at the page and at Ceria as she spoke. It was her personal spellbook.
“Calm down. Stop pacing. It’s annoying.”
Ceria stopped. She whirled and looked at her master.
“Tell me you can do it.”
Illphres sighed and closed the book. She stared at the ceiling, and then looked at Ceria.
“We have a chance.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it was nearly done once.”
Ceria’s ears perked up. Illphres nodded.
“A group of mages nearly succeeded. So we can too.”
“But how do you know? Is there a history or—”
“A few records of challenges, but no. We can tell just from the Golems in the room. Sit. Think about how we can tell.”
Ceria sat unwillingly. She fidgeted, and then came up with the only explanation she could think of.
“The missing Golem. The one replaced by the metal one.”
“Exactly. That’s proof.”
“But that’s only one of the five Golems—”
“No, it’s a sign. Think.”
Illphres sighed as her tone grew waspish. She hated explaining things when she thought Ceria should understand.
“Any idiot could figure it out. Archmage Zelkyr made this challenge for any mages trying to reach the higher floors, didn’t he? He designed it to be challenged over and over again, which meant that he would expect his four guardian Golems—plus Cognita—to never be destroyed. They would fight in tandem and overwhelm their opponents without sustaining enough damage to be destroyed.”
“So the missing Golem—”
“It’s a sign that someone broke their formation. And nearly won, too. Because if they could isolate one of the Golems long enough to destroy it, it meant they could hold off the rest. None of those Golems would be easy to disassemble with any one spell.”
“And that means you can all do the same. Easier, especially if one of the Golems is weaker…”
Ceria sat up, eyes shining. Illprhes nodded calmly.
“We can do it. There is a possibility.”
“That makes me feel better. I was talking with Cognita—”
Slowly, Ceria explained her argument to Illphres. The mage rolled her eyes when Ceria was done.
“I heard about that. Levelling undead? I don’t see why everyone’s so upset. ”
“It’s no different from anyone else leveling up. A half-Elf can live for centuries if they want, how’s that different from an undead? It sounds like it would be hard to make more than one or two. If they get out of hand you can destroy them. The real reason you’re upset is because you hate necromancy.”
Ceria bit her lip and made no reply. Illphres sighed.
“Necromancy is magic. I don’t fear your friend. He reanimates the dead. I freeze people. And I hardly look better than the undead. You have seen beneath my mask. You know that.”
“It’s not the same.”
Illphres raised an eyebrow.
“Magic is magic, and that boy Pisces was your friend, once. Does knowing he practices necromancy change all that?”
“I suppose you weren’t good friends, then. Enough.”
Illphres waved away Ceria’s objections and levitated the book in her hands over to the half-Elf.
“Study the [Glacial Spear] spell. I want you to make at least some progress before the challenge day.”
“I’d learn more if you let me keep the book! Or made me a copy!”
Ceria complained as she bent over the pages of tightly-written text. Illphres laughed sardonically.
“Copy the book? I don’t know how to write magical spells down. That’s a specialist class, [Magical Scribe] or some such. And it would take a Level 40 one to write that spell down.”
Ceria looked up with a frown. Illphres nodded. She began lecturing as Ceria listened with one ear and read with both her eyes.
“Spellbooks are rare because they can’t be copied without extensive study by a powerful mage, or a class with similar Skills. And scribing a spell is only possible for someone of an equal or higher level than the spell itself. So a Tier 4 spells might be rare but findable in a given collection of spellbooks, but Tier 6 would be extremely difficult to locate. And Tier 8—”
“How would anyone learn the spells, then?”
“By piecing together clues left by other mages, following instructions in languages other than magic to come up with it. Or by leveling and obtaining it or coming up with such a spell themselves.”
“So this spellbook—”
“Can you let me borrow—”
Two weeks was too long and too short for Ceria. She went through each day emotionally and mentally exhausted, and tossed and turned each night with nervous, physical energy.
That also led to her actively avoiding her friends, and them avoiding her. Ceria was waspish, irritable, and prone to snap at anything and everything. She confined herself to her room when she wasn’t with Illphres or the other mages.
Three days before the challenge, Ceria was in her room, almost out of her mind with the agony of waiting. She heard a knock at the door and snapped.
“Come in already!”
Pisces entered. Ceria snapped again.
“Please, just listen!”
His eyes were sparkling and Pisces was rubbing his hands together. He looked like he had in the past, full of life and enthusiasm. Ceria couldn’t bear to see it, not now, not when she was so anxious.
“Pisces, I’m not in the mood—”
“Hear me out, hear me out I implore you! I was just talking with Cognita—”
It was the last name Ceria wanted to hear right now, but Pisces couldn’t know that. She tried to stare a hole in his face as he talked excitedly onwards.
“She and I were discussing intelligence, cognizance and how only she among all the Golems has it. I opined that it was a mystery why Zelkyr would have failed with other Golems when she revealed this to me! Archmage Zelkyr only imbued Cognita with the capacity for thought. But over the years the other Golems have achieved a low level of intelligence, at least communally.”
Ceria just stared at Pisces, arms crossed, trying to decode his words. He stared at her, practically shining with energy.
“Don’t you see what this means? The Golems in Wistram can think! They can learn to think, that is! And if there’s a possibility of them learning, why not in a creation designed for that capacity? Why, we know that feral Ghouls can think in a primitive hunter-predator sense, and other undead like Crypt Lords, Liches, and Revenants can all—”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
Ceria cut Pisces off flatly. He looked astonished. She stared at him.
“I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear about Cognita—I want you to get out!”
Pisces stopped. He stepped back, looking hurt and offended. He half-turned towards her open door as if he was going to storm out, and changed his mind. Instead, he turned towards her, and spoke pleadingly. She didn’t want to hear, but his words washed over her.
“Ceria, I don’t understand why you’re not giving me a chance to speak. I’m trying to prove a point. I know you have objections to my—to what I do, but please, listen! My goal isn’t to destroy the world or create armies like Az’kerash. When I practice necromancy, the reason I started was—”
It was too much. Ceria interrupted Pisces with the only thing she could use. The truth.
“They’re going to challenge her.”
He stopped, frowning.
Ceria knew she shouldn’t tell him. But now the dam had burst and she let it out. It was a relief and terrifying to say it out loud.
“Illphres. Jurix. Bastam. Ophelia. Qum. They’re all part of a group—they’ve been training all year and they’re going to challenge Zelkyr’s Golems to go to the higher levels.”
The half-Elf stared down at her hands, at her bitten fingernails. She saw Pisces sit down hard on the side of her bed out of the corner of her eyes.
“It’s going to be three days from now. Right before lunch.”
Her breath caught in her chest at the words. It was out. The secret was spoken, and now Ceria felt it pressing down on her harder than before. Pisces spoke quietly.
“Illphres and four others? They’re serious?”
Ceria nodded. Pisces went still. She could feel him close to her. A familiar presence. Comforting.
“I would advise you to stop them. If I thought they would listen. Cognita is—an unknown quantity. I believe she is more than a match for any of the Archmages of today by herself.”
“Yeah. She probably is.”
Ceria hugged her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth a bit. She nodded and then shook her head.
“But they’re going to do it. Illphres is going to fight. I can’t stop her. I wouldn’t dare try. She has to do this, don’t you see, Pisces? If we can’t go above, we can’t be true mages. Wistram is stagnant. We don’t have real Archmages, just fakes! Don’t you see—”
Pisces cut her off shortly. Ceria looked and saw he was staring at his feet as he sat on her bed.
“I know. Wistram is decaying. Magic is not as powerful as it was before Zelkyr. Powerful, yes, and one could argue there are more mages being produced by the academy as a result of the Golem’s presence, but—I know. And I believe Cognita knows this too.”
“We have spoken about it. On occasion.”
Ceria grabbed for Pisces. He jerked, but she yanked at his dirty robes. Part of his shoulder and chest became exposed as he fought to loosen her deathgrip.
“Don’t warn her. I mean, she knows, but don’t tell her anything. She’s—”
“I won’t. It wouldn’t matter if I did. Cognita wouldn’t cheat. She’s waiting for a mage to—Ceria, please. I won’t tell anyone.”
Slowly, Ceria let go. Pisces adjusted his robes and the two fell into silence. After a few minutes, Pisces spoke again.
“Thank you for telling me. I won’t reveal a thing. I promise.”
“And I hope—I most sincerely hope Illphres and the others defeat Cognita. I would like you to know that, Ceria.”
They stared at each other. It had been a long time since Ceria really met Pisces’ eyes. He looked older, she realized. In a few short years he’d grown older, from a late teenager into a young man. Older, more tired, more bitter.
But still him.
Pisces looked away first. He stood up, brushing himself off and then realizing he was in Ceria’s room and stopping.
“I’ve got to go. I’ll leave you to—we can talk later, Ceria.”
He began to leave but stopped. Ceria was holding on to the back of his robe.
He looked back at her, eyes wide. Ceria stared at him. Slowly, Pisces sat back down.
“The door’s open.”
Ceria said it without really caring. She and Pisces sat together with the open doorway leading out into the corridor. Part of her told her she was an idiot for blurting out all those secrets, but Ceria knew few people ventured down this hallway, especially at night.
She didn’t stand up to close the door. And neither did Pisces. Eventually, the door did get closed, by magic. But no one left the room until the next morning.
The day of the challenge Ceria couldn’t eat. Everything leading up to this day seemed like a brief dream, something someone else had experienced. But what was worse was the day itself.
It was too normal. It was too quiet. It was too—
It wasn’t a holiday. Classes went on like normal, and mages gathered in the corridors, gossiping. They ate in the banquet halls, and walked about as if they had not a care in the world.
Ceria skipped all her classes. She’d skipped the last eight days in truth, spending all her time with Illphres and the other mages. Now she ate breakfast with them, or rather, watched them eat with her stomach trying to shove itself back out her mouth.
“Eat something, Ceria. We can’t have you fainting when we walk out of there.”
Jurix pressed an apple into Ceria’s hand. She looked at it and turned green. He snatched it away.
“Okay, don’t eat. I’ll do it for you.”
“Watch it, Jurix. Don’t eat too much. We’ll probably be moving around a lot.”
Bastam warned the Dullahan as he ate sparingly from a bowl filled with oats and honey. His tail was wagging back and forth faster than normal, but he appeared calm. So did the others. They were far too calm compared to Ceria, who looked as pale as a Selphid by now.
“I think I’ll pull out my stomach before we go in. I’ll be lighter that way.”
Ophelia murmured as she spooned some gravy sparingly over her breakfast of eggs and bacon. Did her hands shake a bit? She smiled at Ceria and the butterflies danced in the girl’s stomach.
“Bah. You lot don’t know anything. Dullahans know to eat a big meal the day of a battle and a small one later. Isn’t that right, Qum?”
Jurix stared across the table at the other Dullahan. He preferred to eat with his head on his shoulders, an oddity for a Dullahan. Qum nodded and spoke softly.
“Proper intake is key.”
Illphres glared at the two. She was eating sparingly as well.
“Just so long as you pass it before noon. If you think I’m fighting a battle alongside two constipated Dullahans—”
Everyone laughed. It was a rare joke—actually, not a joke since Illphres said it. But it was what they needed. Ceria tried to smile and failed. She fidgeted in her chair, and checked the position of the sun through a window. When it was right overhead, the challenge would begin. But it felt like it was frozen in the air! She looked back at Jurix as the Dullahan made a joke.
And then—it seemed to Ceria as if she remembered walking around with the others in a blur, listening to them talk. But suddenly, disconcertingly, she was standing in front of the two doors that led into the challenge room, as if the day had gone in an instant.
It was time.
The hallway was simple. Long and straight, it let people come up either stairway at both ends of the corridor. In the middle of the hallway, two double doors sat in the stone wall, the only entrance to the upper floors.
The five mages and Ceria gathered there, but not in silence. Each one was nervous now, and Ceria could sense it. But none of them gave voice to that worry. They joked instead, or stood calmly, or shooks hands or claws. They formed up in front of the door, but not before stopping to speak to Ceria of all people.
She was their lone witness. The mages had told no one else that today was the day, and none of them had apprentices. Ophelia was the first to hold Ceria’s hand, smiling warmly. The stitches around her mouth pulled as she kissed Ceria on the cheek, to the half-Elf’s shock.
“Once this is over I might have to teach you a bit as well. It’ll all be different, Ceria. I promise. Mages will change. This place will change.”
“I’ll be waiting for you to shake my hand. So don’t go anywhere—this won’t take long.”
Jurix grasped Ceria’s hand tightly as he looked her in the eye. She nodded, throat too constricted to speak.
Bastam was next.
“You know, I saw your exam. I thought that you had courage then, courage and daring. I thought to myself, that’s what we’ve forgotten, all the older mages. I’ll show you we have it today.”
He passed her by and Qum was there. The Dullahan bowed his torso to Ceria and then held up his head. He regarded her solemnly.
“Luck to us all.’”
Illphres was last. She and Ceria stood apart from the others as the mages began casting spells. Ward spells, spells to increase their physical condition or protect against attacks. Illphres cast no spells. Hers was already active.
The walls of the corridor were already frosting over with ice. Ceria began to shiver and shake uncontrollably as the temperature around Illphres lowered and lowered again. The other mages weren’t affected—they all had artifacts to protect them against her cold, but Ceria didn’t have any.
Illphres looked at Ceria without an expression on her face, but then she let the ice reshape her lips into a smile.
“Seems like I need to increase your training if you’re cold from only this much. Remind me once I’m out.”
Ceria tried to smile, but her lips couldn’t move. Illphres stared at the double doors, and Ceria felt the chill around her grow deeper. It was so cold. But the mage’s voice was light when she spoke next.
“If I was an adventurer, if I had gone out into the world and fought monsters and gone into dungeons for a few years, maybe I wouldn’t be so scared now.”
The woman turned back to Ceria, smiling.
“I grew up in Wistram. I spent my life here. But perhaps if I’d gone out into the world and gained more experience—well, I’d probably be scared all the same. There are wonders and horrors in this world, Ceria, remnants from the ages when gods still lived, memories of empires long gone. This is one of them. And today we will challenge the power of one of the true [Archmages] of Wistram.”
“I know you’ll succeed. I know it.”
Illphres just smiled. She put a hand on Ceria’s shoulder and the half-Elf shivered. Illphres looked deep into Ceria’s eyes as she whispered to the young half-Elf.
“Remember this, Ceria. For good or bad it matters not. In tragedy or triumph it is the same. Today you will stare into the heart of it.”
She smiled at Ceria. Her hand was cool on the half-Elf’s shoulder. Cold to the touch, but not freezing. The ice thickened on the walls around Illphres. She looked into the half-Elf’s eyes.
“This is magic.”
Then she turned away. Jurix stepped up to the doors and glanced to his left and right. Illphres stood next to him on his left with Qum further down, Bastam and Ophelia on the right.
They nodded. Jurix took a breath, and then put his hands on the double doors. He pushed, and they flew open.
As one, the five mages stepped into the room that lay beyond. Ceria took a step towards their backs, but dared go no further.
The Golems of Zelkyr waited in the room beyond. She caught a glimpse of five figures, standing on the other edge of the room. A golem made of burning rock. A metal reaper standing tall and silent. A behemoth knight made of metal. A dark thing already bounding across the room, quiet, panting.
And Cognita, standing tall and proud against the obsidian doors, arms outstretched.
Welcoming the challengers.
Then the doors slammed shut and Ceria saw nothing else. Heard nothing else.
The challenge had begun and she could only wait. If there were any gods, Ceria would have prayed. But she could only hope.
It felt like time stopped after the doors closed. Ceria stared at them, and then wondered what she should do. Sit down? No—she wanted to be standing when everyone came out.
But how long would it take? Suddenly, Ceria was consumed by that question. She shivered in the freezing air as she stared at the double doors. Not a sound passed from the room beyond. She couldn’t tell what was happening. She could only imagine.
What would happen first? Would Cognita speak before the battle began, give the mages one last chance to turn back? Would Illphres or the others speak? She wasn’t one for speeches, but Jurix might say something, or Bastam.
How long would that take if they did that? Or—what if the fight began the instant the mages stepped into the room? Would it be over in seconds?
Surely not. Either way—Illphres would slow them down with ice. She’d create barriers. It would be impossible to kill her and the others in an instant. They were already warded and prepared for battle.
So how long would it take to destroy the Golems? Ceria guessed as she shivered in front of the door. The ice generated by Illphres’ field of cold was still coating the walls, overwhelming Ceria’s own ability to nullify the chill.
When would it be over? No—when would the mages come out? Because, surely, they might rest after the battle. Ceria tried to calculate the time it would take.
Magical battles were rarely long, but this one was different. So…five minutes? That was far too short. Ten? Twenty?
Ceria waited. She knew the minutes were passing as she tried to put a number to her fear. After five minutes she felt relieved. Or told herself she was relieved.
Five was too short. If it was over in five, it would mean they were—
No, no. Not five. Obviously not. Ten, then? It still felt too quick. Or was it too long? Ten minutes, with every mage in there throwing their best spells at the Golems?
After ten minutes, the fear in Ceria’s belly turned into spikes that tried to push themselves out from within. A little thought in her head began to whisper to Ceria. It was too long. They were taking too long. Wouldn’t she have noticed something, seen some change if the Golems were falling? If it was silent like this for so long, it would mean…
No, no! Illphres was an expert at drawn out battles. This was just playing into her hands. Ceria kept telling herself that. She’d be locking down the Golems with ice, creating fortifications they had to battle past. A long wait was good—they might have to wear down the metal knight Golem, or Cognita. It didn’t mean—
It was a faint sound, but the only one in the corridor. Ceria whirled. She saw a single tear of water fall from the ceiling. It splashed with the faintest of noises in the corridor. She looked up.
The ice on the walls was melting. Illphres’ ice was beginning to melt, slowly gathering condensation into droplets that fell down around Ceria. A few fell around her, and then one landed on her neck.
She jumped as if she’d been struck. Ceria turned her attention back to the door, trying to ignore the melting ice. But it kept melting, more and more of it, as the chill lessened and the walls became slick.
The melted ice puddled on the stone floor, wet, cold. Ceria stared at the door as the last of the ice turned to water. Minutes passed, too many. She felt the water touch her shoes.
And she knew.
But she told herself she didn’t. Ceria lied to herself, promising her rapidly beating heart that the doors would open at any moment and Illphres and the others would come out, beaming, battered, but alive. They couldn’t be dead. They couldn’t be.
But soon the fear in her heart turned to a suppressed panic in her chest. Ceria wanted to scream, but didn’t dare to. She wanted to run, but there was no one to run to. The lie in her mind became something else. So long as the doors didn’t open they were alive. So long as the double doors were closed, they were still fighting. They were still—
The doors opened. Ceria stepped back from them and nearly slipped. She blinked her eyes, willing the figures to be Illphres, Jurix, Ophelia, Bastam and Qum—
Cognita walked out of the double doors, her stone body whole and undamaged. Ceria stared at her.
And her heart broke.
The Golem saw Ceria standing by herself in the corridor and stopped. She stared down at Ceria, and said not a word. At last, Ceria looked at the doors.
She had to ask, though she knew the answer. Cognita nodded. She spoke softly.
“They failed the challenge. They are dead.”
“It’s not true.”
Ceria started towards the doors. She couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be. Cognita could not be here, undamaged. She had to be injured, destroyed. She couldn’t be—
“Ceria Springwalker. I would advise you not to go within.”
“Let go of me!”
Ceria tried to push Cognita’s hand away, but the Golem was immovable. The half-Elf squirmed out of the grip and ran for the doors as Cognita let go. She pushed desperately on them, felt them give.
Ceria flung open the doors and stared at what lay beyond.
Pisces heard the scream and knew. In truth he had known thirty minutes ago what the outcome would be. It wasn’t anything the mages had shown him.
It was the look in Cognita’s eyes.
It was a small clue, but one the young man understood. He alone had talked to Cognita. He had seen how her face changed. Very little, but she too had expressions. She felt. And ironically, Golems were bad liars.
Cognita had feelings. She could feel passion for something, and he had seen her eyes change when he spoke of his ambitions, of what might be done with magic that had never been attempted before. He had seen the spark in her eyes.
But he hadn’t seen it as she strode into the chamber. She had known how the battle would end. She had taken the measure of her opponents and seen what would occur without fail.
If Pisces could have, he would have stopped the five mages. He nearly broke his spell of [Invisibility] to try, but one look into their eyes told him they wouldn’t be stopped. They didn’t care that he was there. They’d seen him, all of them, he was sure. And they’d known from his face what their chances were.
But they’d gone anyways. Because they couldn’t turn back. Because they were true mages.
And now they were dead. And Ceria—
He saw Cognita carrying the half-Elf out of the room. She fought the Golem, punching her, casting spells, but Cognita ignored her. Pisces heard Cognita’s voice as she told Ceria that if the half-Elf entered the room and fought the Golems she would be killed. And he saw her head turn and knew that was meant for him as well.
Pisces couldn’t look at Ceria as she collapsed on the ground. Instead, he slipped away when he saw the group of five lesser Golems enter the room and exit with bags of holding. He knew what they were doing.
He knew where they carried the dead.
Mages died in Wistram. Not as often as one might think, but enough so that it was not rare. Failed experiments, duels gone wrong, simple suicide or accidents like slipping down stairs—
And of course, those who failed the challenge. Pisces walked after the Golems, noting how other students passed them, oblivious to what the Golems carried. They were just things to most of the mages.
But the Golems had purpose, and they fulfilled all manner of tasks. Such as finding a place for the dead.
The catacombs of Wistram were extensive, dark, and off-limits for Pisces. For all students, really, but especially him. Two suits of armor stood guard on the entrance at all times, a hallmark of another time when the remains of one mage might be destroyed by an enemy.
But the remains of the recently deceased went to another room, where the process of decomposition was initiated by Golems. Only the bones would go below.
Pisces slipped into the room, unseen by the five Golems. He saw them emptying the bags of holding onto the stone slabs. The room was empty save for one dead student. Pisces saw a dead body with too pale skin and realized one of the Selphids must have evacuated it for whatever reason.
Six bodies, then. Pisces sighed softly when he saw the remains of the mages that had been alive not an hour ago.
Illphres, Bastam, Jurix, Ophelia, and Qum. Not all were recognizable. Not all were in one…piece. The Golems bent over their bodies, hands raised. Pisces realized with morbid fascination that they would disassemble the bodies without tools, only brute strength and unyielding fingers.
For a moment, the young man hesitated. He was uncertain, but he stood up as one of the Golems reached down for Bastam’s face.
“It is not right. It is not fair. But it must be done. So. Rise.”
The bodies jerked and came to life. The Golems paused, not comprehending as two of the six corpses in the room slowly stood up. Pisces felt the magic leave him and staggered. He drank a small potion at his side, cast the spell again. The mana in him burned as it left, but then six corpses were standing.
Not zombies. Not Ghouls, or any of the lesser undead. Burning eyes and flames in empty sockets stared back at Pisces as he looked at the six Liches, mages claimed by undeath to roam the earth.
Liches, yes, but more powerful than their skeletal counterparts. That was just magic used to reanimate long dead bodies. So close to death, these six fallen mages were stronger than Wights, more powerful than common Liches. They were as close to Revenants as he could make them.
The Golems turned towards the undead. They didn’t understand what had happened, but they had their orders. One reached for the thing that had been Illphres.
The Golem fell backwards as a fist struck his chest. Pisces heard the stone crack and saw Illphres’ frail hands moving. She leapt at the Golem, faster than he had ever seen her move. Pisces saw the other Golems fighting now, reacting to the threat.
Too slow. Pisces let the undead knock the Golems down but didn’t bother trying to finish them off. Instead he turned and ran towards the door.
Wistram was in uproar. Pisces ran down the steps, shouts and screams echoing behind him. The six dead mages followed closely, making no sound as they ran behind him.
He had hoped they wouldn’t be seen as he ran down the corridors, but there were too many students and mages about. But they’d made it. Pisces leapt down the last flight of stairs and gasped for air.
Ahead of him, a tunnel lead up towards a gate, guarded by two huge shapes. Armored knight Golems. They blocked the way. Pisces pointed a finger and his undead leapt towards the Golems. They reacted swiftly, raising their swords and shields and charging into the battle.
Pisces ignored both sides. He ran on, using [Flash Step] to evade one of the Golems who tried to cut him as he passed. He had only one goal in mind as he broke the lock on the gate and ran through it.
The catacombs were dark. Ward spells shone in Pisces’ eyes, enchantments designed to prevent the dead from rising by siphoning the mana away. He ran past sarcophagi, alcoves in the wall, coffins and burial urns, searching frantically.
It had to be here. He knew it was here. All the books said—
There. Pisces stumbled into an open corridor and saw the tomb. It was a dark, thick stone slab covering a stone bed. There was only a single glowing line of text, written in an ancient language on the cover. Pisces couldn’t read it, but he knew what it said.
The grave of Archmage Nekhret, one of the true [Archmages] of Wistram. And the only one to be buried in this place. The others had died elsewhere, or left no bodies to bury, or at least no bones.
But Nekhret—Pisces stumbled over to the stone lid and heaved at it with all his strength. He couldn’t budge the heavy stone. Only when his four remaining undead ran towards him and pushed did the lid fall to the ground with a crash.
Pisces knew he had to hurry. He knew he had only minutes before the mages would come, or the Golems to protect this place. But his breath caught as he saw the yellowed bones and the grinning skull of the former archmage. It was just a body. Just a body.
But the bones still glowed with power. Pisces reached out with trembling fingers and then remembered. He took out the small bag of holding he’d stolen from the Golems and reached out to take the bones.
The instant Pisces’ hand touched the first bone he felt the world shift. He cursed, looked around wildly. Then he realized the magic was coming from the stone coffin itself.
Something was growing out of it. Pisces cried out in terror and shoved the rest of the bones into the bag of holding. He stumbled away, his undead forming a wall around him as something appeared in the air.
A shadow blacker than color pulled itself out of the darkness. From underneath the coffin, more…things appeared. They drifted upwards, taking forms that were vaguely like real shapes and at the same time not.
Dark night made the blade one of the apparitions drew. The blade glowed in the darkness, or rather, made the darkness shine around it. It was the antithesis of light, the darkness in every ray of light.
Slowly, the other summoned creatures drew weapons as well. They were undead, or perhaps something greater. Pisces knew it as he ran, leaving the bodies of the former mages to buy him a second of time. Nekhret’s last curse on those who would plunder her tomb.
He should have expected it. But Pisces hadn’t thought. He’d only known this was his chance. Now he ran as the apparitions flew after him, screaming with voices that made him throw up as he used [Flash Step] to dash up the stairs.
The undead stormed out of the catacombs as evening drew into night. The students of Wistram and mages heard their screams and turned to fight. Golems and mages alike battled the dark apparitions in the hallways, classrooms, and banquet halls, fighting to save their lives.
Ceria sat in front of the doors leading to the room with the Golems, staring at it. Holding herself back from going in. She wanted to. She wanted to die.
Her master was dead. The other mages were dead. They had died, and the Golems remained. All of them. Each one was intact, each one whole. Ceria couldn’t remember—she had seen them lying on the floor—
The memory was too horrible for her mind to actively remember, but Ceria knew she had seen the four Golems before Cognita had pulled her back. Damaged, maybe, but all intact.
They were all still there. And the mages—her friends—Illphres.
Ceria wanted to go in that room. She wanted to cast her spells, fight for the few seconds she could. She knew she’d die. But she wanted to prove that Illphres had taught her. Prove she’d been right. Not that she’d done all this for nothing.
It was impossible. Ceria was just dreaming. She’d wake up and—and wake up in her bed. This was just a bad dream.
But it was reality. And although Ceria sat in the corridor for hours, wishing, praying, reality would not change for her.
In the end, it was someone else who made Ceria look up.
“Ah. You’re still alive?”
It was a voice Ceria had never heard, not once. She looked up and saw Amerys standing over her. Amerys, the Calm Flower of the Battlefield. One of the King’s Seven.
The woman stared down at Ceria as the half-Elf clutched at her arms, hard enough to bruise her skin. She looked at the doors.
“Well, Illphres is gone now, is she? Too bad. I’ll miss her for morning practice. She was always the best at making barriers.”
That casual sentence, the simple acknowledgement of everything Ceria was denying, was too much. She leapt to her feet.
“Shut up! Shut up!”
Amerys looked at Ceria, calmly. Not with amusement or scorn, but with something as cold as Illphres’ ice in her eyes.
Ceria couldn’t lie. But she didn’t want to say it. Amerys studied her and shook her head.
“You know, she told me she was challenging the Golems tonight. She asked me to stop you from killing yourself if she failed.”
Ceria stared at Amerys in shock. The woman nodded.
“I would have come earlier, but I figured that you’d either be in that room by now, dead, or wallowing in misery out here.”
“But she—she didn’t think she’d—she was going to—”
Amerys snorted softly. Ceria choked. Now tears were falling from her eyes again. Amerys looked back at the doors and sighed softly.
“Perhaps she would have. But Cognita was too strong, wasn’t she? If I’d agreed to help, we probably would have died. Then again, maybe not. We’ll never know.”
“She asked you?”
The woman nodded, meeting Ceria’s horrified stare.
“I told her no.”
“Why? She asked you and you said no? You—you coward! If you’d been alive, if you’d helped her—”
Ceria began screaming at Amerys. The woman shook her head, ignoring Ceria’s helpless fury.
“It was too risky. If there was a chance of me dying—I told Illphres I wouldn’t risk it. I told her to wait, even if it was for another decade, to challenge the Golems with ten times their number if they could. It turns out I was right.”
“She was brave! She was a true mage! She and Jurix and Bastam and the others—they had courage. You’re supposed to be a famous mage! Why didn’t you go? Are you afraid? Are all of the King of Destruction’s servants such cowards?”
It was only when Amerys’ eyes flashed with fury that Ceria realized who she was talking to. A living legend, the equivalent of any Named Adventurer. Amerys spoke softly, but her voice was filled with controlled…passion.
“Coward? I suppose that’s fair. But if I am a coward, it is for my King. Do not misunderstand me, half-Elf. I would go in that room and challenge the Golems alone if it were not for Flos, my liege.”
The woman turned away from Ceria. When she looked back over her shoulder, her eyes were shining with something similar to the look Ceria had seen in Illphres’ eyes.
“Because he is a king worth being a coward for. Because someday he will return. Make no mistake; someday I will be at his side and we shall challenge the Golems together. We will walk beyond those doors and see for ourselves the heights of magic. But until then I will do all I can to live until the day he calls for me.”
Ceria could say nothing to that. She let the tears run down her eyes as she stared at Amerys. The woman looked away and shook her head.
“Until that day I wait. Hah, it is hard to wait for him for so long. But he is worth it. My lord Flos is…and it isn’t as if there aren’t other dangers to fight in that time.”
“What do you…”
Only now that she was standing, looking at Amerys fully did Ceria see the cut on the woman’s leg. It had gone through her magical robes, cut into her flesh. It was bound tightly with gauze.
“Yes, I am.”
The Human woman looked at Ceria, not without a trace of pity. But only that. A trace. She pointed to the stairs.
“See for yourself.”
There were less than sixty dead in truth. Less than sixty, but over half as many wounded, some critically. To Ceria, descending the steps and walking through the hallways in numb silence, it was as if the rest of Wistram were a reflection of the death above.
The shades called by Nekhret’s spell had flown through Wistram, not hunting Pisces but setting upon every living being they could find with death and cold fury. The mages and students, unprepared, had fought back, but many of their spells had failed to affect the magical creations.
If it were not for Cognita, if it were not for the Golems and the Archmages and senior mages, Ceria later learned, the casualties would have been far higher. Most of the shadows and phantoms had flown into the banquet hall during dinner, and it was there the battle had been fiercest.
Only sixty had died. But one of those sixty lay on the ground of the banquet hall, amid the overturned tables and trampled food and drink. He had fallen mid-gallop, hands raised, a wand still held tight in one of them.
His face wasn’t calm. It was desperate, fierce. Ceria stared down at Calvaron’s body and looked into Beatrice’s eyes as the Dullahan held him.
“This is your fault.”
She told Ceria that, as Mons sat on the ground next to Calvaron. Ceria didn’t know what to say.
Beatrice turned away. Ceria stared at Calvaron until the Dullahan screamed at her. She wandered away, mumbling to people who asked if she was hurt. At some point she saw Cognita, organizing Golems as they helped tend to the dead.
She saw Pisces just once. He was imprisoned in a cage of magic, guarded by Golems who were there to protect him from the angry mages and students. He stared down at the ground, face pale. He didn’t see her.
The trial began that night and lasted well into next day. The charges were simple. Pisces had stolen the bones of one of the Archmages. He had plundered Archmage Nekhret’s tomb and unleashed her spell of retribution on the academy. All the dead were his fault.
The punishment was equally simple. The Council was split, many calling for banishment. Wistram had no jail. The others called for death.
Ceria watched the trial taking place, saw the outrage on the faces of the people around her. But she was numb to it all. News of what had passed above had spread, especially after it came to light how Pisces had reanimated the five fallen mages to break into the catacombs. That was a tragedy on its own, but the mages channeled their shock into anger against Pisces.
Many voices spoke up that night, all for killing Pisces. The mages that held out argued against the death penalty because it would tarnish Wistram’s image, because it was wrong in this day and age, because they didn’t have the stomach for it. None because they felt sympathy for Pisces. He kept his head bowed as students and mages hurled accusations against him, screaming.
Beatrice spoke, and then Mons. She didn’t plead for Pisces’ innocence. She just told the Council she had no idea what was happening, and asked that Pisces be punished. She didn’t say what that punishment should be. Montressa stared at Pisces as if he were something she had never seen before.
Ceria was the last one to stand. When she did, the room went quiet. The mages knew she had been Illphres’ student. They knew she had been there when they had challenged Cognita and the other Golems, and when the doors had opened. It was Illphres’ body and the others Pisces had used to reanimate. They waited for Ceria to attack Pisces. She wondered if they would stop her if she tried to kill him.
There was nothing in Ceria’s heart. She looked inside her for her soul, but found it missing. It lay back above, in a corridor frozen in time where the frost clung to the walls. And as Ceria stood before the Council she spoke what was in her heart.
Archmage Feor, the hero of her people, stared down sympathetically at Ceria. She stared back blankly.
“You have known the mage known as Pisces the longest. He has wronged you perhaps most of all. Is there anything you would like to tell the Council regarding his fate?”
Ceria stared around at the august assembly of faces staring down at her. She nodded slowly. When she spoke, her voice was quiet, but magnified by the spell so it filled the room.
“There is something. If my master—if Illphres knew what Pisces had done with her body…she would have laughed. She would have laughed, and she wouldn’t have cared at all.”
The room fell silent. The mages murmuring to each other grew quiet as Ceria continued.
“Pisces? I know him. He was my friend. Once. I hate him for what he did to my master—for what he did to the others. I hate him so much I think I might kill him. But I hate the rest of you even more.”
She looked around the room, eyes burning.
“You knew they were going to challenge the Golems. You knew. They asked you—each one of you to join them. You all said no. So they had to go by themselves, only five of them. If there had been six, or ten—they might have lived. But they went alone, because the rest of you are cowards.”
Shock. Anger. It was all the same to Ceria. She stared around the room and addressed the Council of Wistram to their faces, called them what they were.
“You are all cowards. Fearful, small people, living in the shadow of the Golems. You won’t ever find true magic, not here. Not while Cognita and the Golems are the true rulers of this place. I’m leaving—I won’t stay here, hiding from the truth. So long as the Golems live, there are no true mages in Wistram. None, except for the dead.”
She turned and walked away. Voices shouted after her, but Ceria was deaf. She sat down and saw the Council restore order, begin to vote.
One more person strode into the room, unannounced. But she brought silence with her.
Cognita. She stood in front of the Council, the death of mages on her hands yet no trace of it marring her smooth exterior. Perfect, wrought of stone. Immortal. And she spoke for Pisces.
“I would ask you not to vote to execute this young student.”
The answer came from Feor. Ceria looked at him, and saw a trace of that fear in his eyes. In all the mages’ eyes. They looked at Cognita and saw something they could not surpass, did not dare to challenge. She addressed them calmly, her voice booming throughout the room unaided.
“Because it would be unjust. There have been other mages whose failed experiments have killed far more. There have been other students here who have committed greater crimes and been expelled for it. The death sentence has never been passed down for a true mistake made by a student. I argue for exile, not death. If you pass judgment, let it be for what he has done, not what he is. Necromancy is not a sin.”
Feor stared hard at Cognita.
“And what will you do if we vote to kill him?”
She replied calmly.
“I will do nothing. My role is to protect and serve Wistram and those who live within. But if you do decide to execute him, I will expect you to kill every student who errs thusly from now on.”
The mages murmured as she left. Pisces raised his head to stare after her. He saw Ceria staring at him and looked away.
In the end, the Council argued for hours, but voted. It was close, but those who voted for exile were slightly more numerous than those who voted for death. Feor stood on the podium, staring down at Pisces with contempt.
“For your crimes, we exile you. You will never set foot on Wistram’s shores again, under penalty of death. And this shall be spread across the world—no true mage of Wistram shall treat with you, Pisces.”
The young man didn’t look up. Feor’s gaze turned to Ceria’s and softened.
“As for you, Ceria Springwalker. You must leave as well. Pack your belongings. You will leave Wistram with the next ship.”
One thing happened in between the time Ceria spent wandering Wistram. The half-Elf was attacked by Beatrice for defending Pisces as the Dullahan saw it, only saved by Mons. She was an exile among the other mages, none of whom spoke to her.
But one mage thought of her, or rather, her master. Amerys stood in front of the door that was still covered with frost and tried the handle. It didn’t work.
In the end Amerys gave up on waiting for a key to be brought and blasted the door open. The thunderous sound drew other students to her room. They backed away when they saw her exit the room, holding something in her hands.
“Here. Give this to Ceria Springwalker.”
“Do it. Or I will find out.”
Amerys thrust the ice-blue spellbook into the hands of one of the students in the crowd. He recoiled, but after she glared at him, took the book with trembling hands. Amerys strode away without a backwards glance.
The unfortunate Drake held the book in his hands, hesitating. He started down the corridor, but never got to Ceria’s room.
A young man stopped him in the hallway with some of his friends. The Drake and he argued. Gold was offered, then secrets. In the end the book was traded and it went with the young man.
Charles de Trevalier walked through Wistram, upwards, onto a balcony where Ceria had sat with Illphres once before. He stood on the edge over the open, looking down into the sea. Then he let the book drop down into the sea.
It splashed when it hit the water, and Charles saw the book freeze the ocean around it. It disappeared beneath the waves, encased in ice.
He turned around, smiling, and saw the Dullahan staring at him. Charles’ smile disappeared, but Beatrice said nothing. She turned and walked away.
Two days later, Ceria found herself standing in the entrance hall, waiting. The ship was here at last, ready to take them to Izril. It wasn’t her choice. This was the first ship and so she had to be aboard it.
Someone else stood in the entrance hall, far away from her. Pisces kept his head down as he clutched the few things to his name. A spellbook, and a small bag. Ceria stared at him but he didn’t raise his head.
No one had come to see her off. Montressa had stopped by her room. Beatrice had not. Ceria had seen a few other students as well, but the rest of the mages had avoided her as well as Pisces.
This was it. Ceria stared numbly at the doors and realized it was time. She was leaving Wistram, a failure. With nothing to her name but a few coins and memories.
The word caught Ceria as she started towards the doors. It came from a tall figure, Cognita. She strode towards Ceria and stopped before the young half-elf. Ceria stared up blankly. Cognita inclined her head.
“Ceria Springwalker. I regret the death of Illphres and the other mages.”
“Do you really?”
Ceria said it numbly. Cognita nodded.
“I do. But I was created to protect and so I shall.”
“In that case, I hate you. I’ll hate you forever and I think you’re a slave. You don’t have will. You’re just a thing that pretends to sometimes be alive.”
“That is your choice.”
Cognita accepted Ceria’s statement without a hint of displeasure. She bent down to Ceria. Her eyes were intent on the half-Elf’s face.
“But I see in you something worthy. So I ask that you accept what comes next, and know that it is a sign of respect, not mockery.”
Cognita didn’t answer. She strode towards the doors and threw them open. Ceria and Pisces shielded their faces from the sun’s glare.
“Step forwards, you two. Side by side.”
Unwillingly, Ceria did so. She stared at Pisces and he looked down. Cognita looked at both students and raised her voice.
Her words echoed throughout Wistram. They weren’t loud, not a shout, but they travelled through the corridors, into rooms, making mages stand up and go to the windows. Those that were already watching were joined by other mages as Cognita spoke to the academy.
“Today Wistram will see two students depart from its shores. These two mages leave, one exiled, the other in contempt. They leave as failures by the reckoning of the Council. But the Golems of Wistram disagree.”
She swept an arm out. Shading her eyes, Ceria heard Pieces draw in his breath. She looked out, down the winding stone staircase that led to the stone harbor and gasped.
Golems stood on the staircase. Hundreds of Golems. Stone ones carved to look like Humans or other races, suits of animated armor, creations Ceria had only seen once or twice. A Golem made of pure emerald stood next to one that seemed to be made of the wind itself. It stood next to a being of wood with moss and flowers growing out of its body. It held a sword out, saluting the air.
Cognita’s voice rang out again, and Ceria saw students and mages appearing on the stairwells and bridges above the entrance hall. They stared down at her as the Golem kept speaking, stared at her and Pisces.
“I am Cognita, greatest of Archmage Zelkyr’s creations. Though I am no mage, I hold his authority, which supersedes all others so long as I remain. Thus, it is within my power to graduate you two on this day. Ceria Springwalker, Pisces, you have shown the qualities of a true mage of Wistram, both of you. Neither of you will fall behind any other mage nor disgrace Wistram’s name. I hereby name both of you full mages of the academy.”
Ceria stared up at the Golem, barely able to comprehend what was happening. Pisces’ face was pale as he looked up at the Golem. Cognita smiled slightly, and motioned them forwards.
It was a dream. Ceria slowly began walking down the steps, Pisces at her side. She looked at the rows of impassive Golem faces, and saw how they were turned towards her. Watching her. As if they were alive.
“Golems of Wistram! Salute these young mages as they go forth into the world! Though they may leave these shores, they pass from here not as students, but as true mages!”
Step by step, the two descended. Ceria’s ears were roaring, and she saw the ship ahead of her, drawing closer. She stopped with Pisces only once and looked back towards the citadel. The doors were thrown open and a tall woman made of stone stood there. She raised her hand and her voice carried clearly to the two down below.
“Go, Ceria Springwalker and Pisces. Walk proudly as true mages of Wistram.”
Then she turned and the Golems began to file back into the academy or walked into the sea. Ceria turned and caught Pisces’ eye for a brief moment. Then she turned and boarded the ship and sailed away from Wistram.
This is how the story ended. Ceria and Pisces took the ship for several days to Izril, seldom speaking, and not at all to each other. For their part, the [Captain] and [Sailors] treated the two mages with great respect. They had seen the Golems lining the stairs for the two mages—they were surely some of Wistram’s best.
The irony was not lost on Ceria, but she could only think about Illphres, about Calvaron, and felt the emptiness in her vanishing day by day. Not because she wanted to feel again, but because life was going on. It was as if she left that part of her with Wistram.
She knocked on Pisces’ door on the last day of their voyage, when land had been spotted. He let her in and she sat on a chair while he sat on the bed.
He said that at last, looking up at her. Ceria just stared back until he looked down again. There was nothing he could say, and nothing she wanted to hear. She eventually said what was on her mind.
“Once we reach the shore, we’ll part ways. I never want to see your face again, understand?”
They heard sailors calling out overhead, guiding the ship in to dock. Pisces shifted, wiped at his eyes. Ceria saw tears. She had none herself.
“It truly—it truly was a wonderful place, wasn’t it?”
She looked at him. Pisces was crying.
“It was just like my dream at first. It was everything I had hoped for. It was the place where I wanted to be forever. It was worth waiting for. Worth giving everything up for.”
Slowly, Ceria nodded. She stared past Pisces, seeing friends and memory, stone corridors, magic and sadness and happiness in the moment before she blinked. Then she did and it was gone.
“It really was.”
They sat in silence as the rocking ship slowed and they felt it stop. Ceria stood up and looked down at Pisces.
She walked away, carrying the rucksack filled with the few things she had to her name. Ceria walked away from the ship that had taken her from her hopes and dreams, away from the young man who had once been her best friend.
But never would Ceria forget. In her dark dreams, in the moments when she sat around campfires with the new friends she made, in the days spent walking, footsore and tired, searching for a place to rest, she’d always think back on it.
An isle in the sea. A citadel of dark stone, standing in a bubble of calm while storms raged around it. Hallways full of magic, impassive stone golems, students and mages of every race. A place of wonder, of magic.
The place where mages gather. The home of sorcery.
The half-Elf walked away, and was lost in the night. And after a moment, the young man, the necromancer, stepped off the ship. He looked back once, and then he was gone too.