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The phrase “full English breakfast” apparently didn’t have an analog on Aerb, but the idea had apparently tickled Bethel’s fancy. She had started with the traditional full English breakfast, then moved on to other Earth nationalities (apparently other countries had their own take on it), and once she’d exhausted those, she had moved to making full breakfast versions of Aerbian nationalities. I was pretty sure that no one had asked her to do that.

On the morning of my second day at Speculation and Scrutiny, it was a full Grebellian breakfast, and I couldn’t identify literally any of the ingredients. There were some crispy, greasy things that looked like they had once been the skin of a reptile, and were close enough to bacon, some blue-colored slime that looked like Jello but had the consistency and mouthfeel of eggs, a pile of fruit with a variety of greens, and six other sides that looked almost, but not quite, completely unlike normal breakfast foods.

“Can I make a polite comment without having my fingers cut off?” asked Pallida as she looked over at Bethel.

“Of course,” replied Bethel.

“And nothing else chopped off either,” Pallida clarified.

“Oh,” said Bethel. “Well, then it depends on what you were going to say.”

“This isn’t quite what they eat in Grebells,” said Pallida. She picked at an orange blob with her fork. “Or at least, it wasn’t when I was there.”

“Your criticism is duly noted,” said Bethel.

“Where did you get this stuff, anyway?” asked Amaryllis, picking up a crispy piece of skin. “Your backpack gives you access to Earth foods, but none of this seems like it should be possible with your combination of abilities, because there are base ingredients that wouldn’t be available on Earth.”

“I paid for the ingredients,” said Bethel with her arms crossed. “A young neighbor boy was walking by, and I offered him a sum of money if he would run to the specialty market and get a few things for me.”

“Ah, that’s the problem,” said Pallida. “Most of what you got probably came by bulk teleport, with not enough demand that it would be fresh.”

“Again, your criticism is duly noted,” replied Bethel. Her voice was a bit more frosty than it had been.

“Alright, fine, don’t mind me, I’ll be eating,” said Pallida. “If you want tips though, I have tips.”

We ate in silence for a bit, but I finally made eye contact with Valencia, and she took that as her cue to speak. She gave me the impression that she had been waiting with bated breath for me to notice her.

“Do you want to hear my Hogwarts theory?” she asked.

“Uh,” I said. “Hogwarts theory?”

“Not this again,” muttered Pallida.

“Well,” said Valencia, “I was thinking that everything happens for a reason, and so I was thinking about Harry Potter, and that there must have been a reason that I was given those books.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “And that reason extends beyond just me wanting you to get started on reading a relatively inoffensive children’s series as a form of socialization?”

“Yes,” said Valencia.

“There were parts that I found offensive,” said Heshnel with a frown.

Valencia waved him off. “Not important,” she said. “What I was thinking was that since you’re at a magical school --”

“Please just call it an athenaeum,” said Amaryllis.

“-- I was thinking that there might be similarities, and that Hogwarts was placed as an important clue,” said Valencia. She smiled at me. “I’ve started breaking things down into houses.”

“I’m not sure that’s going to be helpful,” I said. I turned to Heshnel. “What was offensive? The house elves?” In Harry Potter, they were a knobbly little slave race that had been mind-fucked into being perfectly subservient, which had some definite Implications, and which I was pretty sure no Aerbian elf in their right mind would find a flattering depiction. I was fully ready to leap to Rowling’s defense with a discussion of the origins of Earth elves and the ways that Aerb elves had been drawing on a different tradition.

“The Death Eaters,” said Heshnel. “They’re a caricature of the Second Empire.”

“It’s not important,” said Valencia with a frown. They had been sitting together the night before, and I thought this was probably a continuation of that conversation.

“By all means,” said Heshnel with a wave of his hand. “Go ahead.”

“Anyway,” began Valencia.

“The Death Eaters are the bad ones, aren’t they?” asked Solace.

“As depicted in the book, yes,” said Heshnel, frowning slightly. “Their stated aims, however, are noble, and their means are given a blanket condemnation without any consideration of nuance or the fact that those means were used by bad actors. There are a number of fallacies.”

“The young one would like to talk, Hesh,” said Pallida.

“It’s rude to call people young,” I said.

“Most people take it as a compliment,” said Pallida with a raised eyebrow.

“I believe he meant within this context,” said Amaryllis. “In which case I would agree, it’s unnecessarily demeaning for no good reason.”

“We’ll see if you say the same once you’re thirty thousand years old,” replied Pallida.

“Would you like to hear my findings or not?” asked Valencia, looking at me.

“Of course I would,” I said. “Sorry, we have too many people at this table.”

“I didn’t say anything,” said Grak.

“Well, yes, you’re much more considerate,” I replied. “Valencia, you have the floor, I’ll register my objections when you’re done.”

“Okay,” said Valencia, looking pleased. Everyone else listened to me, which was a bit of a shock. “To start with, I tried to split the houses between the two schools of magic in Sound and Silence, but that didn’t seem like it worked. Instead, I realized that you have four professors, one for each house. Then the question was which house each of them belonged to. I want to talk about it a bit more, but I think Ermaretor is Slytherin, Oberlin is Gryffindor, Leister is Hufflepuff, and Malus is Ravenclaw.”

“This is all gobbledygook to me,” said Pallida.

“Then you’re welcome to read the books,” replied Valencia. “Juniper, what do you think?”

“I don’t have enough information,” I said. “And the house system is just a typology, and typologies are always a case of square pegs and round holes. Just because you can take four people and fit them into four houses, that doesn’t mean anything more than that the numbers line up and the system is flexible. It’s a magic eye test. You might as well do the same thing with the four humors, or get creative about how you’re counting people and do enneagrams or horoscopes or Myers-Briggs or … whatever.”

“More gobbledygook, but I think a different flavor,” said Pallida.

“So you don’t think it’s worth anything?” asked Valencia. She looked a little hurt.

“I’m saying … okay, why did you put Ermaretor in Slytherin?” I asked.

“She’s ambitious, cunning, focuses on power, and she’s evil,” said Valencia.

“She’s likely evil,” said Amaryllis, who had finished her food. “There’s a difference.”

“The code phrase she gave you might have been a red herring,” said Raven. “We’ll see what happens at this meditation class.”

“The penumbral are literally shadow people,” I said. “It’s in the name. If she were evil, it would be too on the nose.” I turned back to Valencia. “I can see your reasoning, but I could also make an argument for Hufflepuff, because in her lesson she put a lot of focus on the people who had come before, the importance of loyalty to the athenaeum, and stuff like that, and in private conversation with me, a lot of what she was talking about turned out to be fair play, even if it was, I’ll admit, a little bit of a Slytherin way of talking about fair play.”

“What houses would you put them in then?” asked Valencia, frowning at me.

“I’m just saying that they probably don’t go in houses, and just because we can make arguments for which houses … it’s asking the wrong question, I guess,” I said, scratching my chin. “You’re presupposing that houses are a sensible way of looking at a collection of four people. You might as well slot all of us into houses.”

Valencia gave me a very guilty look.

“Okay,” I replied. “I guess I should have seen that coming. What I’m trying to say is that unless I get a lot more evidence, I’m going to assume that the Hogwarts houses aren’t going to map onto my instructors, the other students I meet, or anything else.” I hesitated. “Keep working on it though, and if you think you have something that’s more of a match than you’d get just by random chance, let me know, okay? It’s wouldn’t be the strangest thing that had happened this week.”

“I would like to hear more about these ‘Death Eaters’,” said Solace.

“The abolition of death is not, in and of itself, immoral,” Heshnel began, but I was already wolfing down my food again, and the ensuing fight between everyone who was more than four hundred years old (and a bemused, immortal Bethel interjecting occasionally) didn’t really capture my attention in the same way. I was hoping that they could keep from each other’s throats too much while I was off learning things.


On my second day of college athenaeum, Lisi was waiting for me in “A Still Magic Primer”. She had already found her seat, and as soon as I came in, she began waving her hand frantically, as though she was incapable of registering that we had made eye contact with each other. I resigned myself to my fate and climbed the stairs to sit down beside her.

“How was your meeting with Ermaretor?” she asked.

“How was dinner with Reimer?” I asked.

“Informative,” said Lisi with a slight sniff. He sang like a canary. “What did you discuss with Ermaretor?”

“Politics,” I said. “Nothing really important.”

“She called you ‘the bursar’s man’,” said Lisi. “What did she mean by that?”

“Uh,” I replied. “Not really sure that I’m at liberty to -- oh for fuck’s sake.”

The day before, there had been a student standing up there with Ermaretor, moving her hands in a way that was apparently typical of the less-trained vibrational mages, and which was likely used in place of a speaker system for some reason (practice for the mages, I was guessing, or maybe just because student labor was cheap). The student that had been there the day before had looked pretty bored with the lecture, but the audio quality had been clear, so it was easy enough to forget that she was even there. Unfortunately, the student who had replaced her was a rhannu, and unless there was some other compelling reason for a rhannu to be staring daggers at me, I was pretty sure that it was the same rhannu that I’d met the night before. Being on the student council apparently meant that you were able to swap work study. At least we’d been able to put a name to the face the night before; she was Jiph, no last name, a graduate student, vibrational mage, and ‘activist’ of local renown.

“What did you do?” asked Lisi, watching me with a skeptical look.

“Nothing,” I said. “She’s, ah, a member of the student council.”

“I know that,” said Lisi. “Why does she hate you?”

“She’s probably listening to what we’re saying,” I replied.

“Does she know why she hates you?” asked Lisi. “Even if you were worried about eavesdropping you should be able to clearly state information already known to her.”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Reimer was talking about some of your complications,” said Lisi.

Fuck. “Look, Reimer and I haven’t seen each other in four or five months, and we were never really that close to each other even when we saw each other every day.”

“He said you were like a brother,” said Lisi.

“That doesn’t sound like him,” I replied with a frown. It sounds like something he’d say to impress a girl who wanted information, maybe.

“He said the black sheep of the family,” said Lisi.

“Ah,” I replied. “That sounds more like him.” I was trying not to look at Jiph, who was still staring at me, and whose anger hadn’t abated much. I wondered whether she would be able to keep up the same intensity for the whole class.

“He said that you were with a girl who looked like Amaryllis Penndraig,” said Lisi.

“He did?” I asked. Traitor.

“Yes,” said Lisi. “He also said that you went to prison.”

“You could probably have found that out just by calling up one of your relatives,” I said.

“Probably,” said Lisi. She was looking at me with an uncomfortable amount of intensity. “I knew Amaryllis Penndraig.”

“I had her poster up in my room,” I said. “Future Leaders of Anglecynn.”

“Reimer said,” replied Lisi. “He thinks that the girl he saw is Amaryllis. I’d like to meet with her.”

“I’ll ask,” I said.

“Now?” asked Lisi.

“Class is about to start,” I replied, which was thankfully true. They were doing some setup down at the front that they hadn’t done the day before, and a couple of people were involved. When I looked more closely at the armor, I saw that it was shimmerplate, a signature of imperial agents, which started raising alarm bells. I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, the point at which this would all explode into mayhem and carnage. I rested my hand next to my vambrace, readying myself for GTFO mode.

One of the visitors setting things up had a storage entad, and deposited on the front stage area a giant flat stone that was at least ten feet across. Following that, he put down all kinds of papers circling the stone. When he was finished, he touched the stone with a very specific motion, which caused the center of it to change shape into a concave surface. This quickly filled with murky black water that came from nowhere. Staring at it, I was uncomfortable, because it certainly seemed like a summoning ritual of some variety.

“Welcome class!” called Ermaretor as she surveyed the room. She was wearing another colorful dress, which I still thought was an odd fashion choice given her grayscale biology. “As you can see, we have a special treat for you today. Behind me is the Urquhart Stone, on loan to S&S from the Penndraig Museum of Curiosities for the next few weeks. I was planning for today’s lesson to go over foundational still magic theory, as it was known to the ancients, but I made a few calls, and it turned out that I was able to secure the use of the Stone. It’s an entad with a very specific power; when given the notes, correspondence, memoranda, and other writing of a person, the Stone is able to bring a simulacrum to life, one of some limited intelligence which can answer questions.” She beamed at us. “Class, I would like you to give a welcome to a shade of one of the most prominent thinkers on still magic, a man who revolutionized the magic, in addition to his many other accomplishments in diverse fields.” She swept a hand behind her, and the man tending to the Stone pressed his hand against it. “Uther Penndraig!”

I went still. Of fucking course it was Uther Penndraig. But if I was hoping to see Arthur again, even the older version of him I’d seen in Masters’ mirror, I was disappointed. Instead, the water stirred, and from it rose a miniature version of the Loch Ness monster. I’m not saying that to be glib about it, it was to the exact proportions of that famous photograph, though obviously not as big, given that it fit within the dark waters. Why, exactly, the entad would work like that, I had no idea, and I had no clever ideas (though it was entirely possible that I’d have been able to make a correct guess using a dumb idea instead).

“King Uther, what are the fundamental differences between magic?” asked Ermaretor, in what was clearly a rehearsed question.

The sea monster didn’t speak with Arthur’s voice. Instead, it was a timeless, androgynous voice.

“The magics of Aerb can be divided into four distinct categories,” said the sea monster, “The first is phenomenological, magics founded on simple, understandable, base principles. Of these, gem magic, feng shui, and conjoinery are the most prototypical examples. The second category is metaphorical, where there is no one binding truth to the magic, merely reflections of humanoid interaction with the base subject. Blood magic, dibbling, and water magic are the most prototypical examples. The third --”

The sea creature’s voice cut out, but its toothless mouth kept moving. I stared at it for a moment, not understanding what had happened. It didn’t become clear until I looked around the room and saw that everyone else was still listening in. I felt a surge of adrenaline as my hand went to my wrist to twist the vambrace into panic mode, and I stopped myself just barely in time as a different thought occurred to me.

Jiph was the one providing us all with adequate sound. There wasn’t some new threat that had revealed itself, it was just a member of the student council specifically excluding me from the lesson. I locked eyes with her, and she gave me a very curt nod before looking away. Unlike the other student, she didn’t seem to use her hands when using vibration magic; she kept them tucked away, with her arms crossed.

The sea monster continued talking. He was apparently having a dialogue with Ermaretor, but I couldn’t hear either of them, and I hadn’t yet learned how to read lips, if it was even possible to read the sea monster’s lips in the first place.

On the one hand, it was really doubtful that there was anything of value to be learned from this lecture, at least on the face of it. If the entad worked like Ermaretor had said it did, then it was just a fantasy spin on the old ‘reconstructed from his social media’ trope. I had no specific cause to question that, and it did seem like my style. So they had a fake Uther, the one revealed by his writings, and not even a full collection of his writings either, given that Degenerate Cycles wasn’t there. There would be nothing in the books, notes, and letters that surrounded the entad about Earth (except for the fiction Uther had stolen from there), the dream-skewered, or his life as Arthur, because someone would certainly have noticed (that someone likely being Raven, who I could readily assume had read every scrap of writing that Uther had ever produced). So there wasn’t much that I was going to get from this lesson, unless I was particularly interested in hearing an introduction to still magic as it had been practiced five hundred years ago. There probably wasn’t going to be a test, and at the end of the week, I was going into the temple to become a still mage, skipping to the front of the line, before leaving the athenaeum forever. Not being able to hear was no big loss.

On the other hand, I really did want to hear what Arthur had to say. Back in high school, he always had some hot take on almost everything, sometimes cobbled together from nothing in the space of a few minutes, other times the result of some actual deep thought on his part. Part of the fun, at least for me, was trying to tell which was which, and where I could, I tried to undercut his arguments entirely. Arthur was smarter than I was, better at rhetoric and debate, but he spoke off the cuff with some regularity, and the few times I’d been able to catch him out had been golden.

(I still missed him. Maybe he was a monster, and maybe the memories were a bit tainted, but I still missed him.)

It was just so petty to use magical powers to deprive me of that. Even just to deprive me of the lesson on its own was petty, mean and spiteful in a way that I would hope she’d be above.

As the lesson went on, I wondered what Jiph’s plan was if I lodged a complaint with Ermaretor. I wasn’t going to do that, because I was going to be a good little protagonist and keep my eyes on the prize, nevermind this idiocy. Still. That didn’t stop me from wondering what the game was, what she would say if I went to Ermaretor after class.

And up a level, it was possible that some bullshit was going on. There shouldn’t have been anything to learn from the entad recreation of Uther, but I could think of a dozen unlikely mechanisms by which he might have something valuable to say. Maybe there was some correspondence that Raven had never got a hold of which would shed light on some possible future plot, or maybe there were a lot of small, innocuous things which the entad could add up together to have some relevance to us. I was sure that the Dungeon Master could engineer it somehow. And if I was meant to hear something here, then it was possible Jiph was screwing all that up.

Or more likely, the Dungeon Master had put her here in order to leave me blind to whatever entad-Uther would say. Or, no, even more likely, this was a challenge, not meant to stop me from learning something, but a barrier I was expected to get past on my own. If I failed, there would be consequences of some kind, and maybe a second chance, but there had to be some stakes to the challenge. That was what I would have done, as a DM.

I started going through my options. I couldn’t read lips, and so far as I knew, Languages didn’t allow me that ability. I was, nevertheless, trying to read lips, so in theory, it might unlock at any point, but I couldn’t depend on that. I had a lot of different magics, but none of them seemed to help me either. Bone magic let me have some sense of my bones, but it wasn’t a physical sense, and bone magic was almost entirely concerned with the bone’s connection to the soul, rather than the bone as it existed in the body, meaning that I couldn’t do something like moving my hand over onto Lisi’s desk and listening in via bone conduction.

Spirit seemed like it might be an option. The spirit/soul system logically had inputs and outputs, because if you saw an image, it had to have some way of moving into storage and spinning up a thread (e.g. how an image in a book could logically operate as a memetic attack), but I hadn’t yet found the input or output threads of the spirit, and futzing around with the mechanism of my consciousness in the middle of class in order to get information that might be completely irrelevant seemed like a really bad idea.

I burned through a few bones, one by one. I didn’t actually have any idea what stat would govern hearing, since in theory it was both physical (the eardrum) and mental (the ability to distinguish between sounds). The game rules that Reimer had given didn’t seem to specify anything about vision or hearing, which was weird, since that was part of D&D’s core rules, but I didn’t know whether those were rules hidden from the players, rules he’d forgotten to include, or if it was DM fiat every time.

Eventually I thought I was able to hear something from MEN, and though it was difficult with the split focus of listening and keeping up a burn at the same time, it was at least better than sitting there in silence. I’d missed maybe fifteen minutes of the lecture.

“-- phenomenological,” finished Uther, the start of the sentence completely unintelligible. “In this case, the school of magic is extended, not through metaphor, but by deeper understanding of the phenomenological nature. Stillness, defined, is not the absence of kinetic motion, but the absence of change in any form. Now, I will grant that many forms of change are reducible to the kinetic movement of elemental particles, whether we consider heat, chemical reactions, or indeed, light.”

Ermaretor waved a hand, which she’d done a few times before, and Uther-the-sea-monster stopped talking. “Among the circle of scholars, Uther is seen as a remarkable figure, not just because of everything that he did, but his uncanny ability to make predictions about the world, even when evidence was thin on the ground. The idea that light had a speed was foreign in Uther’s day, but he declared, with some conviction, that not only did light have a speed, it was composed of ‘elementary particles’ and, paradoxically, also waves. In the battle of Alheim, against the Dread Radiance, Uther was able to use still magic to completely nullify the offense of the Dread Spears and bring an end to the reign of the Hallowed Shards, in a feat that was then thought impossible, and only now fits easily within the modern frameworks.”

Typical Utherian bullshit then, Still Magic 100 or something like it. Maybe a virtue, maybe just raw skill, but Uther was like me, and could easily go beyond what was possible for everyone else.

Uther continued on. “If still magic, then, is the stopping of things, the halting of change, there are further applications outside the realm of traditional study. When we take the iconic view of the still mage, we think of a speeding cart barrelling down the winding roads of Chisholm, stopped in its tracks with no damage to the passengers or goods, but there are other forms of change as well, beyond the mere physical. Still magic might stop a certain class of connections between an entad and its user, or at least those aspects which are dependent on change, rather than static in their nature. It might stop a chronomancer’s clock, or a dibbler’s spell. And though I have not yet found practical applications of it, a still mage can stop mental processes.”

Ermaretor waved a hand, which stopped Uther. I wondered whether he was on a script. That hadn’t been a part of how she’d described the entad. “It’s a difficult technique,” she said. “But yes, a grandmaster magus of still magic can invoke the stillness of the soul and make themselves immune to soul magic, if they have the time and attention to mount such a defense. Similar defenses can be mounted against all manner of phenomena that would seek to change you against your wishes, so long as you have conscious effort to still that change. For most of you, this will remain a bit of useless arcana. For others, I hope that this will be something you take to heart. There are future classes that deal more specifically with defense against esoteric threats.”

I stopped burning bones, and the silence became nearly complete again. I was running low on useable bones, the ones that I could replace through the mirroring trick, and besides that, it was too difficult to split my focus between listening, burning bones, trying to connect the things that were being said to what I knew to be true, and how I thought about Aerb’s magic. None of it seemed objectively useful though, and the sound quality with the boost was low; I thought I was probably hearing what they were saying through the inevitable echoes around me, which wasn’t the ideal way to take in a lecture.

The upper reaches of still magic were a bit dizzying, but that was no great surprise. Short of another sacrifice, I wasn’t going to get there for another twenty levels or so, but in a pinch … well, there were a lot of things that I would probably try in a pinch, different methods of flensing myself away, but still magic seemed like it would be one of the go-to ones, since it offered a form of countermagic. I’d read about Uther stopping lightning bolts and lasers in their tracks against the Dread Radiance, but I hadn’t actually known that it was advanced still magic. I tucked that away for later analysis.

As for Uther’s thoughts on how to divide magic, he was the expert, not me, but it really sounded like the same kind of bullshit that he’d spouted in high school, if maybe marginally more refined. To my knowledge, the system that the simulacrum was espousing here in class wasn’t one that Uther had presented in the books he’d published, and I could sort of see why, because it wasn’t all that convincing. The only reason that you would see four clear categories of magic system is if there were four underlying mechanisms of design, or if they were all the result of four underlying rulesets. To start with, that wasn’t how I designed magic systems, but even with that set to one side, it really didn’t seem like you could chunk all the magic systems (some of which I knew more familiarly than others) into broad groups, especially not if you had to fit druidic magic in there somewhere. I really wanted to quibble over the definition of ‘distinct’, because if it were four categories that were overlapping, I might be a lot more willing to accept that he was describing something that was real and/or useful.

(To my way of thinking, you would be better off with different axes, though even there you would probably run into problems, and I wasn’t sure that it would be that useful. You could put magic systems on scales according to how firm their rules were, what resources they used, where progression came from, which attributes they focused on, and so on, which would give you different quadrants or octants or whatever, but even if you did that, what would it actually show?)

I closed my eyes, fixed my bones, and then sat out the rest of the lecture, occasionally glancing at Lisi’s notes in order to see if there was anything that I really wanted to listen in on, something about a conspiracy at S&S, or deep and previously unheard lore. I saw Lisi write down ‘still mages limited by range and power not internal well’, and I wondered to myself why this was being taught in class, why Uther would have felt the need to say that, and why Lisi felt the need to write it. Why would anyone ever come into this class without knowing that? Who would that come as a surprise to? Based on Lisi’s notes, a lot of the remainder of the lecture was on the implications of those base limitations, and again, it seemed like the brain dead sort of observations that I would doodle in my notes at school, rather than any deep insight. It was an intro class, and I was reading it instead of experiencing it, but I still wanted there to be more somehow, some vital secret revealed instead of just stuff that I could easily have learned from a book.

(The higher levels of still magic were well outside the day-to-day of the average still mage, who worked primarily in either industry or disaster response. There were lots of applications for bringing things to a halt, and most of the people in the class with me would presumably be going into prestigious but mundane occupations of that nature. I was almost past the point of being amazed by Aerb as I walked through its cities, but I had still been gobsmacked to see still mages casually holding girders in place at a construction site.)

“What did you think?” I asked Lisi, once the lecture had come to a close.

“I’m still waiting for the classes to begin,” she replied with a frown. “Ermaretor hasn’t seen fit to delve into the force equations yet.” She looked down at Jiph, then over at me. “You have Parson’s Voice. Ask the girl you were with whether I can meet her.”

I sighed. That wasn’t the sort of thing that I wanted Jiph to overhear.

“When we’re outside,” I said.

“Parson’s Voice can be used indoors,” said Lisi as she gathered up her materials.

“I know that,” I said. “Security concerns, which I have to imagine you’re very aware of.”

“Eavesdropping,” said Lisi with a nod. She got out of her seat and I followed her down the stairs. “You still haven’t explained who you are.”

“It’s complicated,” I said. Really fucking complicated. “Do you really not get this whole diplomacy thing?”

Lisi whirled around and looked at me. The family resemblance was particularly strong when she narrowed her eyes at me. “Why do you say that?”

“Keep moving, I don’t want to be late,” I said. Surprisingly, she did as I asked. I tried not to watch Jiph as we walked past her; her petty attempt at disrupting the lesson had been largely successful, and I was hoping that if I just ignored her, she would think that I didn’t care.

“Okay,” said Lisi, once we were outside the building and on our way to the next. “Speak with her.”

I raised my hand to the tattoo and pressed against it. Unfortunately, if I wanted to keep my status as a tattoo mage secret, I was going to have to pretend that I couldn’t move the tattoo, which left it sticking out slightly. The collar I was wearing was high enough to partially hide it, but it was still conspicuous, though not as conspicuous as moving the tattoo would be.

“Lisianthus Penndraig would like to speak with you,” I said. “I told her that I would ask. My old friend Reimer seems to have had an extended conversation with her.” I was hoping that I could phrase things oddly in order to avoid giving too much away.

[Fine,] said Amaryllis.

“Wait, really?” I asked.

[I think that we should tell them both,] replied Amaryllis. [Not the full truth, but something substantially correct. They’ll have made guesses, and those guesses may get back to Anglecynn. We need control.]

“Well, we could have talked about this before now,” I said.

[Yes,] said Amaryllis. [I assumed you asked because she’s pressing the issue?]

I nodded, then remembered I was on comms. “Yes,” I said. “And I do see your point, but Reimer --”

[Minimal information only,] said Amaryllis. [There’s more we might be able to get from him, but he’ll need more of the truth.]

“Will do then,” I said. I let my fingers fall from the tattoo and looked at Lisi. “I guess you’re going to get to meet her.”

“When?” asked Lisi.

“Tonight,” I said. “Dinner at my place.” I gave her the address, and she quickly took her notebook out to write it down, repeating it back to me. “Reimer will be there.”

“Good,” said Lisi.

“Good?” I asked. “I’m surprised you’d want him around.”

“We’re friends,” said Lisi, frowning at me. We had made our way into the classroom and found seats together. The chalkboard in front of us was filled with equations and diagrams over its full ten-meter span.

“Friends, after a single day?” I asked.

“It’s easy to make friends if you know how,” replied Lisi. She turned to me. “There’s some discussion among the cousins about what Amaryllis Penndraig’s status is, if she’s not dead.”

“We can talk about it over dinner,” I said.

“So she is Amaryllis?” she asked.

“Classified,” I replied. She didn’t laugh or even smile, but the class started shortly after that.

“Alright, settle in everyone, does anyone need recalibration before we start?” Our instructor, Leister (magus, second order) stood before the class, smiling. No one raised their hands, and his smile widened by a fraction. “I see that some of you have moved, I hope not in an effort to trip me up.” He laughed at that. “At any rate, I have the first bit of bad news today, which is that you’ll have the first spot of homework for this class today. It will be given at the end of session, so please be sure not to miss it. With that said, I’ll introduce the topic at hand, which is all about frequency and amplitude, how they’re defined, and the fun stuff that you can do with them, whether you’re an engineer or a vibration mage.”

As it turned out, there really was a ton of stuff to know. Some of it was very basic, which I didn’t mind, and some of it seemed incredibly complex, particularly the math side of things. Leister demonstrated in a variety of ways, partially through drawing on the chalkboard, partially with his (beautiful) voice, and partly with pieces of string. My increased KNO was definitely helping with the trigonometric identities and math part of it, which I had never been particularly stellar at back on Earth, and I found myself taking a lot of notes. The fun thing about Leister as a professor was that he always related things back to what we were actually studying, which was vibration magic. A vibration mage’s ‘breath’ was of primary focus, namely in terms of how much needed to be used to accomplish certain effects, and how the fundamental properties of vibration (and waves) played into those applications.

There were, thankfully, no particular upsets, no long-dead friends coming back from the grave to give lectures, and no new personalities. Lisi didn’t even interrupt me or try to talk over the instructor. Score another point for the class, I supposed. We were given homework right at the end, written up on the chalkboard, all of which would take supplemental reading and some amount of math.

“It’s all a method of slowing us down,” said Lisi as we walked to our next class. (I had literally all my classes with her, which I wasn’t too thrilled with.)

“Is it?” I asked. “You don’t think any of that was useful?”

“Some,” replied Lisi. “It’s a base for future learning and might be helpful in that respect. But two years of groundwork is far too much, and the primary purpose of it is to deter people from classes, or worse, as Ermaretor explicitly stated, to instill a culture in graduates.”

“Ah,” I said. “You’d prefer that they just taught you the things that were most directly useful to your pursuit of choice and didn’t make you take anything else to round it out. Like a trade school.”

“Of course,” said Lisi, looking affronted. “Anglecynn trade schools are focused entirely on training people to be productive workers with as little time, effort, and cost expended on that training as possible. That’s the model the athenaeums should be following.”

“But they don’t, because they have other considerations, like tuition, politics, culture, et cetera,” I said. “Makes sense to me.”

“It’s inefficient,” Lisi scowled, as we went and took our seats in the next classroom. I was looking forward to Oberlin.

“It’s inefficient, but that’s the kind of thing that happens,” I said. “Especially in a place like this, where there’s a rate limit on both types of magic and no competition.” A monopoly on magic was, in essence, what the athenaeums were, with all the negative impacts that inevitably had. I was mildly surprised that neither Uther nor the Second Empire had managed to do some trust-busting, but not that surprised, given that the athenaeums worked together and represented a vast amount of power.

“What’s inefficient?” asked Reimer as he climbed the stairs to come sit with us.

“Sound and Silence,” replied Lisi. “Good to see you.”

“You too,” said Reimer. He looked between us for a moment, then sat next to Lisi, putting her between the two of us. “How’s it going, Joon?”

“Fine,” I said.

“We’re invited to dinner at his house,” said Lisi. “I thought we could go together.”

“Oh,” said Reimer. He glanced at me. “Sure.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “Just … be careful what you say about the house.”

“Why?” asked Lisi, her eyes widening slightly. Either I hadn’t used the right tone with that warning, or I had. I hadn’t meant to spook her.

Oberlin came into the room shortly after the last of the students had, carrying something that looked like a mannequin, which he set down on top of the mats. It wasn’t quite a department store mannequin that I was used to though, since it had clockwork contraptions at the joints, and far better workmanship, but it wasn’t that far off. Given that there was no clockwork magic (at least, that I knew of), I suspected that it was an entad. That hypothesis was mostly confirmed when Oberlin touched the mannequin on its chest and glowing blue goop flowed out of it, surrounding its head, torso, and limbs, then becoming firm and opaque, changing color and adding features all the while. Eventually, it looked human, so real that I would have struggled to tell it apart from a real person. It was also fully nude, and quite clearly male. I cast a glance at Lisi, who didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest.

“This is an entad,” said Oberlin. “It can take the form of any humanoid, and while transformed, has fully realistic anatomy. What I’m going to show you today will be gruesome, by almost any reasonable standard. If you would like, you have a few minutes to leave while I give a practical overview of the combat applications of vibration magic. You have until the week’s end to change classes. For anyone else, the school provides counseling if you have difficulty with what you see here today. Knowing what it looks like to see a person die is vital to the practice of combat magic, and an important part of this class.”

There were fewer people in the class than there had been the day before, five or six missing students, and I was surprised that two more left as Oberlin continued to talk. That was nearly a quarter of the class gone in two days, leaving us at nearly thirty people, the smallest of my classes. Oberlin was pushing people out of the class, seemingly for ideological reasons, and it was working. I wondered how the athenaeum felt about that.

“The mortal species have some resistance to magic in many of its forms,” said Oberlin. “This resistance is weak; it will give you a fraction of a second when under assault. Unfortunately for vibration mages, extended contact with the subject is necessary for all our most precise attacks, meaning that in a full combat situation, you will either need impeccable control, overwhelming power, or some form of assistance. It is nevertheless the case that a skilled combat mage is capable of producing death at a distance, within line of sight for most intents and purposes, though there are a few caveats. I will now demonstrate the three most common methods of attack for a vibration mage on this entad.”

Oberlin went over to the small desk beside the stage and pulled a small knife from the desk. He began to hum, an unearthly sound that I was pretty sure was the result of either unique vocal chords or vibration magic. He paused for a moment and looked at us, still humming, and then turned his attention on the mannequin.

The more I looked at the mannequin, the more real it seemed. It was breathing, or at least giving the impression that it was breathing. And when Oberlin directed his attention at it, it started clutching its ears and screaming in pain. Oberlin rushed it and stabbed it in the throat with his knife, which caused the screaming to become a gurgle as blood rushed out of the wound. It fell to the floor, now gripping its throat, and Oberlin stopped his humming.

“That’s the first method,” said Oberlin. His shirt had been sprayed with blood. “It doesn’t take much skill to generate a pitch that’s loud enough and painful enough that you can find an opening. Debatably, you might say that I killed him with a knife rather than the magic, and I might grant that. This isn’t a person, it’s an entad, capable of only basic responses to stimuli, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it would work on a person more often than not. Those of you who are going to become vibrational mages, you can take lessons that will teach you proper control for this specific technique, but this class exists largely to give you the practical basis. Obviously, you might also want to take a course that will give you the skills and experience necessary to kill with a weapon of some kind.”

Oberlin bent down to the body, which was now a corpse, and removed the knife. I looked over at Lisi and Reimer. She was listening with rapt attention, making notes while her eyes never left Oberlin. Reimer looked a little bit ill. When I looked back at Oberlin, all of the blood was gone, and the entad was back to looking like a mannequin. He touched it again, and the goop came out of it as it reformed itself, human again, but this time female. I didn’t see why it had to be so realistic, or if it had to be, why it couldn’t wear clothes. She didn’t look like anyone I knew, thankfully.

“I will give you some caveats about distraction,” said Oberlin. “First, it can be difficult to use when you have allies around, given that the essence of the technique is sound generation, and sound is notoriously hard to keep contained. Possible, but hard. Second, the distraction technique is largely about sensory overload and pain response, neither of which are present in all the mortal species, and not to the same degree among those who have them. There are a number of books that catalog specific responses to both sound and pain; in particular, I recommend Thurston’s Aural Weakness. Third, it should be fairly obvious that this requires a secondary method of either incapacitation or murder. If you have a gun, use it, otherwise, depend on other tools in your toolkit. And fourth, this method is non-lethal on its own. That might make it tempting to some of you without the proper disposition toward combat magic, but it’s vital that you see that as a weakness of the method, not a strength.”

Oberlin turned toward the woman and held out his hand. “I would advise everyone to cover their ears.”

I did as he said as soon as he said it, because whatever else I was thinking about Oberlin at the moment, I was pretty sure that he wasn’t fucking around.

He began humming again, with the same tone as before, like a singer giving a pitch before the performance began. Then there was a loud bang, a rush of air that ruffled my hair, and the entad-woman fell to the ground. It was strangely bloodless. I slowly uncovered my ears. It had been considerably louder than a gunshot, but I didn’t think quite loud enough that it would have caused damage.

“Not like it is in the illustrations and stories, is it?” asked Oberlin as he looked out at us. “That was a directed pressure wave, raw force applied through vibration magic. Most of the damage comes from the boundary areas within the body, places where the differences in density cause different parts of the body to press against each other or shear rather than moving as one. In particular, the lungs will be harmed more than almost any other part of the body, enough to kill. To do it like in the stories and tear the head from the body would take the full breath of a skilled vibration mage. To vaporize flesh would take even more power, power that’s not realistically available to us. A pressure wave is enough though, at least for the majority of the mortal species.”

He went to the corpse, which was leaking fluids, and set it back up again, transforming it first into its clockwork form, then into another human woman, this one different than the first. Still naked, which still bothered me.

“Pressure waves are deadly,” said Oberlin, “But they take a significant amount of power to accomplish what they do. It does benefit from being the fastest lethal method in the vibration mage’s arsenal, but the requirements make it difficult to use at a distance with any efficacy. In addition to that, I’ve never found it that much more powerful than a firearm, and because the pressure wave is kinetic, most things that stop one will stop the other. Defenses against firearms are extremely common, at least in combat scenarios. A pressure wave is flashy, especially when you use it with power well in excess of what should be lethal, but I would liken it to a gun with three or four bullets, one that you need to spend years of study to master. It’s rarely worth it.”

I was pretty sure that the woman standing behind him wasn’t going to be ‘alive’ for long. Somehow it was much harder to take than when it was male. I wondered whether the entad picked at random, or whether Oberlin was trying to make a point about latent prejudice and how we needed to be ready to kill someone no matter what their gender was. It hadn’t actually felt any different to kill women, but there was still a part of my Midwestern upbringing that instinctively recoiled at the thought. Tiff would probably have called that bigotry. Maybe the Aerb version of her would call me out on it, if and when we met, if and when she got the full story. All I could say in my defense was that I had killed a few women, which I thought probably counted for something, but that was a gallows humor way of making that argument.

“The last method is resonance, and as I said in our first class, that’s my specialty,” said Oberlin. He looked over at the naked woman standing there. “The resonant frequency of a human being is between five and ten hertz, dependent upon magnitude of vibration, but ‘resonant frequency’ as a concept is difficult to apply to a mass of different materials. For the purposes of killing, the heart and the skull are the easiest targets, though given how many of the mortal species have more than one heart, the skull has become the de facto method. The technique for resonance is a difficult one, because it has to be uniquely tuned, and because it takes a fair amount of time and observation, relative to a combat scenario where every second can be vital.” He turned to the woman. “Starting now,” he said.

For a half second, nothing happened, then the woman began clutching her head. She fell to the ground and rolled slightly, before she had what looked like a seizure, and finally went still. It didn’t take more than four seconds or so.

“I try my best to be humble, but this is beyond what can normally be expected of a vibration mage, should you face one in combat,” said Oberlin. “The primary benefit of the technique is its range, and the fact that it requires no line of sight, so long as you can feel the vibration at a distance, which any sufficiently skilled vibration mage should be able to do. On a clear, dry day, it takes me half a minute to kill someone a half mile away. With a proper vibration sense, it can be done around corners, attacking someone behind cover, though in that case, range is more limited.” He walked over to the corpse and it reverted back to being a mannequin once more. “There are limits and countermeasures to this, naturally, as there are for all three primary modes of attack available to a vibration mage, which is what we’ll be covering in the next half of the class. Before we go on, are there any questions?”

To my surprise, Reimer’s hand went up. I was considerably less surprised that Lisi had a question; her hand was up with much more urgency.

“Arthur,” said Oberlin, pointing at Reimer.

Reimer blinked for a second, but didn’t correct the instructor. Not that Arthur wasn’t his name, but that wasn’t how he introduced himself, and no one back in Bumblefuck had called him that (and I was guessing that the same was true for Fumblebuck Reimer). “Vibrational mages can create and manipulate light,” said Reimer. “Is it possible to create harmful radiation using vibration magic, and if so, is it possible to do so in a combat scenario?”

Oberlin frowned. “There are a few hundred people who have attained the knowledge and power necessary to create light,” he said. “To my knowledge, it’s never been used in an offensive capacity. Given that intensive research efforts are often implicated in the exclusionary principle, research is tightly controlled, and carried on at a satellite site well outside Li’o. I can’t speak to the efficacy of radiation as an offensive weapon, given that it’s entirely untested in combat situations, but perhaps in another few years you’ll be able to get an authoritative answer.” Oberlin paused. “You’re not one of those planning to be a combat mage.”

“No, sir,” said Reimer. “Just curious.” He’d looked pale before, but some of the color had come back into his cheeks.

Oberlin nodded, then pointed to Lisi. “Lisianthus?”

Lisi quickly lowered her hand, which she had kept up through the whole exchange with Reimer. “What about multimages?” she asked.

“A rare breed,” said Oberlin. “Cross-applicability varies widely. We’ll have an entire unit on combined forces and how they’re typically handled, and I’ll save discussion of multimages until then, because there’s a good deal of overlap between the two subjects. If you have any specific lines of inquiry, let me know after class, and I’ll try my best to work them into the lesson plan. I also have extended office hours for anyone intending to become a combat mage.”

Lisi gave a curt nod.

I found my own hand going up.

“Juniper,” said Oberlin with a nod.

“Are we going to discuss utility aspects of magic with regard to combat?” I asked. “Things like eavesdropping on communications, echolocation, signals intelligence, illusions, that kind of thing?”

“We’ll cover it in brief,” said Oberlin with a nod. “There are other classes that better cover some of those subjects; once you’ve gone through initiation, Disambiguation is one of the more important classes you can take, as is Sensory Adaptation, both of which will serve to expand your capabilities. Neither, however, will cover the combat applications, which I’ll go over, likely as part of tomorrow’s course. You’re right that there’s more to combat engagement than simply killing people.”

He took another three questions, none of them terribly illuminating, before moving on to the second half of the class, which was all about the typical defenses against vibration magic, with a lot of attention paid to how common they were in comparison to how effective they were. The primary opponents of a vibration mage were those brands of magic that could apply a counterforce of some kind, which could act to nullify either the sound, pressure wave, or resonance in some way.

  • Warders were a definite problem, but they were largely immobile, so only a problem if you were attempting an assault, and apparently not worth much mention outside of that.
  • Still mages could stop both sound and pressure waves dead in their tracks, but attempting to still their head from vibrating was too difficult to be practical, because the human head didn’t take kindly to having all motion in it stopped. Even if they did it, they’d be left with their head stuck in place.
  • Velocity mages could produce a counterforce, and they were hard to target if moving at speed, but counterforce of any kind didn’t come naturally to them, they needed to be prepared, and they had little in the way of control.
  • Gold mages could use their tactile telekinesis in a similar way to still mages, and had a great deal of built-in instinctual defense against kinetic attacks in general, but they were more or less defenseless against the resonance attack, especially because applying telekinetic force to their own head was liable to result in injury.
  • Revision mages could revert the damage, and the experienced ones could do so automatically, for which vibration mages had no real counter. That would lock a revision mage in place, but eventually the vibration mage would run out of ‘breath’, and the revision mage was unlikely to run up against any of their own fundamental limits.
  • Passion mages under the influence of anger could tank the pressure waves and partially negate the resonance, but only a skilled one under the effects of some emotional influence, and not in a way that was sustainable.
  • Rune mages could create wearable runes that absorbed both vibration and kinetic energy, but for that to protect them, they would have to position the runes at the proper points on their custom armor, which most wouldn’t unless it was part of their modular kit or they were specifically preparing for an encounter with a combat vibration mage.
  • Vibration mages could counter each other, but there wasn’t a perfect symmetry between offense and defense, because defense against any of the three attacks cost much less than the associated offense, and tended to be quite effective. The one sticking point there was the pressure wave, because if it was a single enormous wave-front, it was much harder to counter than something like a tone or vibration, and harder to detect as well.

That was hardly exhaustive, but it covered the bases well enough. There were bloodline magics and specic magics to get into, as well as entads, but it was already a lot to keep in mind, even if I could have worked out some of it from base principles or my own experiences. I accumulated a page full of notes, then another, and finally a third. From what I could see of Lisi’s notes, she was making at least twice as many as I was. I wasn’t sure how much of this we were actually supposed to learn or remember; my impression was that the barrage of scenarios and information was Oberlin’s way of weeding out more students, or maybe just getting us accustomed to a particular way of thinking in which there were manifold threats to consider, more than any one person could really be an expert in. If you went into an encounter not knowing what you were facing, or with the possibility that your intel wasn’t correct, you would need to think on the fly. I could see where that would be vital to a combat mage, even one that was part of a national or international organization.

“We’ll be on this topic for the rest of the week,” said Oberlin. “Your homework for tonight is thirty inches on the three primary forms of combat for a vibration mage, with arguments for when to use each of them. We’ll talk more in depth tomorrow. Your assignments are due at the start of class and will be graded by the week’s end with notes.”

Oberlin picked up the mannequin and left, though the bell hadn’t rung yet.

“Thirty inches?” asked Reimer. “Is he insane?”

“You can’t do thirty inches?” asked Lisi.

“I can,” said Reimer, defensively. “But I have other homework to do, and if I have to go through Li’o to get to Joon’s, then a dinner of some kind there, it’s going to be tight.”

“I can help, if you’re having trouble,” said Lisi. She hesitated. “Did you read about using light generation for radiation somewhere?”

“No,” said Reimer. “Came up with it on my own.”

“It’s moderately clever,” said Lisi. Reimer beamed at her, and raised an eyebrow at me when he caught my eye. “I’m sure that someone else has already considered it,” she continued, which deflated him somewhat.

“Do you know any cross-compatibility with other schools of magic?” I asked Lisi.

“There’s a reason that I’m taking blood, still, and vibration together, aside from just convenience,” said Lisi. The bell rang, and she sat up as though she already had a Pavlovian response to it. I hadn’t even put my stuff away, and I hurried to fill my backpack back up as I followed after her. “Still magic is the second most powerful defensive magic after warding, which makes it invaluable as part of a larger package. Unfortunately, it’s touch or near-touch, which limits it, a limit which can be overcome by spraying blood onto opponents in the course of battle, or delivered with extensors in at a distance.”

“Extensors?” asked Reimer, and I was glad he did, so I didn’t have to expose my ignorance (especially since I didn’t know whether my ignorance would be hard to explain or not).

“The blood contains the power of the soul,” replied Lisi. “An extensor is any of a variety of additives that allow that connection to last longer.”

“Oh,” said Reimer. “It’s also the same name of a particular type of muscle.”

“Yes, I know that,” replied Lisi, frowning slightly. She continued on as we walked. “Blood magic allows the application of still magic at a distance. It’s technically possible even without blood magic, but for someone who has no natural connection to their blood, the connection is so fleeting and difficult to use that it’s practically worthless. Aside from that, vibrational magic helps with pulse timing attacks, and allows for overclocking the heart.” Lisi looked at me, because I was laughing. “What?” she asked, clearly annoyed.

“You really call it that?” I asked. “Overclocking?”

“That’s the technical term,” said Lisi, still frowning at me.

“So you pump your blood faster?” asked Reimer. “Does that … I mean, is there a benefit to that?”

“There are clear benefits to greater internal control of the body’s natural cycles,” said Lisi. “The ability to manually control my heart rate will have a number of applications. I already control the flow of blood, which is itself useful, especially in a fight.”

When we reached our next class, there was a note on the door, and a number of other people in our ethics class gathered around the door. Lisi pushed past them and read from the note.

“Ethics class is canceled until the end of this week, when it will recommence with a new instructor,” she said out loud. She looked to one of our other classmates. “Will this affect our grades?”

“How should I know?” he asked her.

She made her way back to us without deigning to reply. “Did you hear me?” she asked.

“Sounds like we have some free time, I guess,” replied Reimer. “Your place?” he asked me.

I ignored him and pressed my fingers to my throat. “Ethics professor is missing under mysterious circumstances, do you know anything?”

[She was arrested three hours ago,] replied Amaryllis. [Are you safe?]

“Yes,” I said. Lisi and Reimer were both looking at me. “Do you know why?”

[Unclear,] replied Amaryllis. [As soon as we’re done here I’m probably going to find my way to the lawyers we have on retainer and find out whether they can get more information. This feels like it might be important.]

“Yes, it does,” I replied. “Keep me posted, even if it means interrupting.”

[You have meditation next,] replied Amaryllis. [Do you want me speaking into your ear during that?]

“I guess not,” I replied. “Let me know if it’s urgent. Stay safe.”

[You too,] replied Amaryllis.

Reimer and Lisi were watching me as I brought my fingers down from my throat. “Well?” asked Lisi.

“My people don’t know much,” I said. “The rumor is that she was arrested, but what for is a mystery.”

“Demonblooded,” said Reimer. I shot him a dirty look. “Oh, come on Joon, we’ve done that whole circus enough times that you have to understand what I mean. Regardless of what you think of the demonblooded, they get arrested more than normal people, for reasons that, yeah, probably have more to do with prejudice than anything else, but they do get arrested more often.”

“Fine,” I said. I let out a sigh. “Well, I have to stay on campus for the meditation course, so I have an hour to kill.”

“We can start work on our assignments,” said Lisi. She turned to Reimer. “If you’re worried about the inches for Oberlin, I can help you.”

We ended up going into a study room and working through our assignments. Most of the conversation was between Lisi and Reimer, since I was keeping my thoughts to myself, and also because I didn’t want to be found out by some awkward slip of the tongue. I knew a fair bit about Aerb by now, enough not to make a total ass of myself most of the time, but being covered for all the major things still meant that there was room for me to be wrong about a lot of minor things.

I wrote the essay for Oberlin first. I didn’t know the traditional style that they used at S&S, but I was a new student, and Oberlin already knew the score, more or less, so I stuck with the five paragraph style that I was used to, after first doing some estimation to see how long it would need to be to make thirty inches.

“Can I see?” asked Lisi when I was finished. I shrugged and slid it over. She read it silently, staring at the words like she was going to bore a hole into the paper. “Hrm,” she said as she set it down. “Trivial observations.”

“Oh?” I asked. “In what sense?”

“In that they’re trivial,” replied Lisi. “They’re the first things that anyone would consider.”

“Oh,” I said. “Isn’t that sensible though? Those are the things most likely to be correct.”

“Here,” said Lisi, grabbing Reimer’s essay from his hands. “Reimer has the opposite problem, he’s trying too hard to be clever.”

“Wow,” said Reimer with a disbelieving smile. “That cuts deep.”

“True though,” I replied.

“Fuck off,” said Reimer.

“Here,” said Lisi, looking over Reimer’s essay. “‘Superior range allows for removal of support personnel prior to engagement with heavy attackers.’ How would you know which ones were support personnel? And which kind?”

“I don’t know,” said Reimer. “I was assuming that I had proper intel.”

“Magus Oberlin pointed out that was a poor assumption on the first day,” said Lisi. “And ‘support personnel’ are unclearly defined. Revision mages, by most ways to parse that, would count as support personnel, and attacking one of them first would be a bad idea, because they’re resistant to attack and you would give away whatever advantage you had.”

“I only meant --” began Reimer.

“You meant ‘support personnel contingent on that actually being a good idea’,” replied Lisi, “Which isn’t a good guiding principle and doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of vibration mage warfare.”

“I was under the impression that Oberlin wanted us to show him how we thought so he could tailor his lessons to us?” I asked. “I’m not sure that it does anyone any good for you to rewrite our essays.”

“I wasn’t planning to rewrite them,” said Lisi.

“She just wanted to tell us how wrong we were,” said Reimer, casting a smile in my direction.

I wasn’t sure how he was able to do that. He would laugh and joke like we were friends sometimes, like nothing was fucked. I didn’t think much of the fact that he was doing it here on Aerb; he’d done it on Earth too, before I’d taken my leave. And then after he’d played nice, he would turn around and tell me that I was a piece of shit who more or less deserved to wallow in my self-pity. Craig had told me to fuck off and then cut all contact with me, which I at least got, and Tom seemed to think I was still a good person and a worthwhile friend, despite the evidence, but I just didn’t really understand what it was that Reimer got from being something like a friend to me.

“Well, I should get going,” I said, grabbing my perfectly serviceable essay back. “Ermaretor is having me take a meditation class, and I’d rather get it out of the way sooner than later.”

“Why are you taking a meditation class?” asked Reimer.

“Why does she want you to?” asked Lisi.

“Politics,” I said, which wasn’t quite a lie. “That, and she’s covering her ass, since I’m not really a conventional student.” I felt a twinge of worry about whether or not ‘covering her ass’ was appropriate language around a princess, but I had already said worse, so that ship had sailed. Amaryllis had a mouth like a sailor, when she felt like it (albeit a pretty sailor).

“You never explained why she called you the bursar’s man,” said Lisi.

“We’ll talk about it over dinner, I promise,” I said. “I’ll meet you both there.” Leister’s problems would have to wait until later.

I left the two of them behind, glad to have some time by myself, and checked in with Amaryllis.

“Update?” I asked.

[Nothing yet,] said Amaryllis. [I’m not looking forward to another few days of this. The Immobility Plate breathes and bends better than it should, but it’s not perfect.]

“Well, I appreciate you playing shadow,” I said. I was making my way to the building where the meditation class would be held, and felt my foot drag as I had a thought. “Was it so bad, the last time?”

There was a brief bit of silence from the other end. The last time she’d played shadow, Fenn and I had been going on our one and only proper date. We hadn’t ended up needing her as backup, but she’d been there, just out of sight, in the same plate armor, less concerned with hiding her identity, but still suffering through it, just to play bodyguard for us as Fenn and I played at being two normal people on a normal date.

[Heshnel can hear what you say,] replied Amaryllis.

[I can,] confirmed Heshnel. [I apologize, but that is a limitation of the tattoo.]

“We can talk about it in private, if there’s something you’d like to say,” I replied. “We could even say it outside of Bethel, if you want true privacy, though it seems likely to me that she snoops around in our dreams at night, so who knows.”

[You’re going to meditation class now?] asked Amaryllis.

“I guess so,” I replied. “I hope you know what you’re doing with Lisi and Reimer.”

[Me too,] said Amaryllis, which wasn’t at all reassuring.

I didn’t want Reimer to be a part of my life anymore. We’d been friends for ages and spent enormous amounts of time together, and we didn’t really get along that well. And this wasn’t even the Reimer that I could spend hours talking/arguing about movies, games, and random internet crap with. It was some other Reimer, essentially the same but from a completely different culture, and with none of the shared history. I wouldn’t have wanted the real Reimer, let alone this imposter. But if Lisi had sensed weakness and latched onto him, then he was a liability, and if he knew things about the previous version of me, then he was an asset. The only logical thing to do was to keep him close, as much as I didn’t like it.

I wasn’t particularly looking forward to meditation class, but I was hoping that I would get some kind of bonus from Library Magic, if not on a game-mechanical level, then at least from all the meditation that I’d done. There were other meditation-like aspects of other skills too, ways of shedding attention on other things in order to settle into a particular mindset, which I hoped would be helpful. All that aside, it wasn’t like they could tell that I wasn’t meditating right, so it would mostly just be a time sink.

And naturally, there had to be a twist, because as soon as I walked into the small classroom, I saw Jiph sitting there with the others. She didn’t seem to see me, and I froze for a moment, not wanting any part of this. She would notice me, and then I would have to suffer through her making this ‘class’ miserable as well, probably by having a high pitched whine in my ear for the duration, or something equally petty. I decided to go up to her and see if I could (somehow) head this off at the pass.

“Hi,” I said. “Can we talk?”

She turned to face me with a quizzical look. “Yes?” she asked. None of the hatred or anger was displayed on her face. I wondered if that was a performance for other people, or if something else was going on.

“Uh,” I said. “I think that we got off on the wrong foot, and --”

“You met Jiph,” she replied. She placed a hand on her chest. “Sonee.”

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry, I --”

She waved a hand. “We get it a lot. In human terms, we’d be twin sisters. She gestured to her dress. “We try to dress differently, but I have no idea what she was wearing today.”

Now that she’d said it, I could see that. Sonee was wearing a light blue dress, while Jiph had been wearing something closer to a pantsuit. If my mind had registered the difference, I must have immediately discarded it. People could change clothes, after all.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand. “Sorry for not realizing.” That was a better recovery than I had ever made in my life (which was damning it with faint praise).

“You too, and it’s fine,” replied Sonee. “So you had some trouble with my sister?”

“Some,” I shrugged. “Half student council stuff, half politics.” I paused slightly. “Can I ask a potentially offensive question?”

“Sure,” said Sonee. Her lips quirked up in a smile.

“If I understand rhannu right, you were split apart from the same individual?” I asked. She nodded once, seeming slightly amused. “Is it common for you to be so … different?”

“It varies,” replied Sonee with a shrug. “Assuming it’s not a misfire, then no, usually we end up pretty similar. We each get half, and on average, two halves of any person will be somewhat similar.” She shrugged again. “It happens. It’s rarely pleasant.”

“A misfire?” I asked, as the woman I took to be our instructor came in.

“One half lives, the other dies,” replied Sonee, speaking quickly and quietly.

“Welcome, welcome everyone,” called the woman wearing flowing clothes who had entered the room. It was a small class, not more than a dozen people, which wasn’t surprising given that it was an extracurricular that was supposed to teach people how to meditate, something that apparently wasn’t required to be let into the temple. The room was smaller than a lecture hall, but much larger than it needed to be for the dozen of us. “This is ‘Meditations on Meditation’,” she seemed entirely too pleased by that. “My name is Henneta, and I’ll be your instructor. We’re here to learn how to meditate. Officially, this course is recommended for those who have cause to think that they might have difficulty in the temple, though anyone is welcome to join.”

When I looked around, I realized that Henneta and I were the only two (presumed) humans. I thought maybe the reason for that was because of the variations in biology and psychology, which might lead to either more difficulty with meditation, or at least the perception that it might be more difficult. Henneta herself was only probably human, given that there were species like the Ell who were visually indistinguishable from human. If we were on Earth, I probably would have called her Asian (dark hair, epicanthal folds, short, darker skin), but there wasn’t a clear counterpart to Asia on Aerb. I had always been terrible at guessing race with any specificity.

“This is not a class,” she continued, forcing a smile, “And provides no credit, just so we’re entirely clear. Instead, we are here to better ourselves. To start, I’d like everyone to grab a mat and find a place you’ll feel comfortable.”

I took one of the mats leaning up against the wall and went over by the window. It wasn’t one of those foam yoga mats, since I didn’t think that those had been invented on Aerb yet. Instead it was something similar to tatami, though I had no idea what it was made of, aside from some kind of plant.

“The first thing that I’d like you to do is relax your muscles and control your breathing,” said Henneta. “We’ll get to the meditation in just a bit, but for now, we need to speak about what meditation is, at its heart. Meditation is the letting go of thoughts, of allowing your mind a time where it does not think. In the modern world, we spend all of our time so focused, even on those things which aren’t drawing our attention, which can interfere with our ability to step back from the world and see it for what it is.”

Coming from an Aerbian, this was hilarious. I still kind of missed the sheer connectedness of Earth sometime, the way that I was never more than ten seconds away from being able to read something new on the internet, or look up the answer to a question. It was a terrible thing to feel nostalgia for, but I still had buried bits of muscle memory that saw me reaching into my pocket when I got bored. There were books to read, more than I could ever finish, but it wasn’t the same, because there was nothing that gave me the quick burst of dopamine that checking reddit did.

“Settle yourself,” said Henneta. “Relax the muscles of your hands and feet, then your limbs, get into a position where there’s as little tension and thought given to the position of your body as you can. This will vary from species to species, so do what works best for you. Relax the muscles in your face. Let everything go slack. Now, close your eyes.”

I did as instructed, though I was a bit skeptical.

“Now, focus on your breathing,” she continued. “Make sure that it’s happening without effort. Sometimes it helps to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, if you have a nose. Either way, make sure that your breathing is done without tension, completed without thought.”

I settled into my position and tried to let my mind be free, which I thought was probably the next step. Meditating for library magic felt kind of like trying to induce a sensory deprivation experience without actually going anywhere, enough that I could focus on the books and let random thoughts drift through my head, like I was in a rowboat with the oars pulled in, letting myself drift, paying only enough attention to dip a hand in the water and make small corrections to where I was drifting.

“Imagine woodland,” said Henneta. “Dappled light, green leaves, a soft breeze, small animal sounds, the call of a bird.” Her voice was soft and slow, lulling me into a deeper relaxation. “There’s a man in the woods, clad in armor, his face obscured. He’s engulfed in flames.”

My eyes went open, and I stared at Henneta. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to her. She had her eyes closed and sat in the lotus position, with her feet resting on top of her thighs. I had abandoned meditation entirely. I was intent on figuring this out, and steeling myself for whatever was going to come next. If Parson’s Voice could be used silently, or with subvocalization, I would have been screaming at Amaryllis to get over to me, and maybe even telling Heshnel to get Bethel ready for a drop.

“This is a method called kalatet, a technique of juxtaposition,” she continued, eyes still closed. “The woods are calm and peaceful, but there’s a man, on fire, walking between the trees. Take that man in your mind’s eye, watch him. He’s unconcerned by the flames that engulf him, calm and serene. The flames don’t burn the plants, the fire doesn’t spread. He’s approaching you, stepping through the underbrush. He means you no harm.”

What the actual fuck. I had no idea what to do. A part of me wanted to scream at the others, to tell them not to think about the flaming man, but I had no real basis for saying that, no proof that it was anything nefarious, just a gut feeling that things tended to go wrong around me, and that threats never stayed hidden for long. That instinct had been misfiring lately, raising my hackles when things were fine, causing me to reach for my sword when it wasn’t needed, but …

Maybe there was such a technique as kalatet. Maybe it was a dumb idea I’d had while waiting at my bus stop a few years ago that made it into Aerb despite the fact that I’d forgotten about it, or maybe it was the natural consequence of a Juniperesque civilization I’d designed, one that explored the inherent tension between creation and destruction.

The image seemed too clear to me, too focused, and it was a man, an entity, the kind that could invade thoughts and dreams if given half the chance.

Henneta continued talking. I was making an active attempt to hold onto my senses, to stay as focused and tense as I could. Needless to say, I wasn’t even remotely attempting to meditate anymore.

Kalatet is about the imperfection of the world,” said Henneta. “The woodlands are peaceful, serene, and your mind might feel them marred by the presence of the man, on fire, coming toward you. Know that this is part of the world, come to accept that this, too, is the same as the woodland, that there are things we cannot change, problems we cannot solve.” Her voice was calm and sedate. “There is a tension, and we are embracing it, holding it, letting it soak into our understanding of what it means to live and to be. Meditation is not a retreat from the world, to a place where no thoughts exist, it is a way to reorient ourselves into a better place. Watch the man on fire among the tree, see how he is not harmed by the fire, how he knows not to react to it. Accept him as part of this world.”

The more she talked, the more unsure I became. If things were really going wrong, wouldn’t I see some sign of it? Wouldn’t there be, I don’t know, bloody noses from the people meditating around me, seizures, something like that? All I saw around me were calm faces. All I heard was measured breathing.

I closed my eyes and slowed my breathing. It was a weird form of meditation, one foreign to my concept of the practice, but that didn’t mean that it was a threat, or supernatural, or anything to be worried about. More than that, if it was a threat, then I knew virtually nothing about it, and the fastest way to find out would be to get as minimal exposure as possible. I tried to weigh my options there, whether it made more sense to do the same meditation while surrounded by friends and allies, or wait to do research on the practice later, and decided to err on the side of action.

I let Henneta’s words wash over me, trying my best to ignore them, and put myself in the place she’d outlined, tranquil woods with as many of my own touches as I could think of, enough to let go of some tension. Birch and ash trees, small yellow butterflies, enough clouds to obscure the sun and let in shafts of light, soft moss and miniature mushrooms.

And there, in front of me, a man on fire, his features obscured by flame. I was thinking too hard for it to be anything like meditation, keeping the picture in my mind and looking for signs of malfeasance. I controlled my breathing and tried to relax, to picture the wrongness of the man on fire as something apart from me, a manifestation of the terrible things I couldn’t change. He was Arthur’s death, Fenn’s death, the nine thousand hells, everything that I wished I could change. He walked closer to me, and it was hard to tell whether I had made him do that, or whether my mind was just following what it had been told on its own. I added to the scene, cladding myself in armor, giving myself the Anyblade laid across my lap, all as much without exiting the scene as possible. Henneta droned on in the background.

The flaming man took a step closer to me, and this time I was sure that I hadn’t intentionally imagined it. There was a solidity to the scene now, and I wasn’t just ignoring Henneta, her voice had become indistinct. It had shifted to being dream-like, with a sense of unreality that went beyond the fact that it wasn’t reality. It felt like being in a soul trance, the way that my mind kept turning away from other thoughts, focused on the burning man that was walking ever closer.

Fortunately, I had some experience with the soul trance, and pushed back against it, opening my eyes into the real world, which flooded back into focus. Magic of some kind then, and from the looks of it, not a pleasant one.

Henneta was still sitting there, still droning on, repeating herself more than she had been. Her eyes were closed, and she sitting in the lotus position, carrying on as calmly as she had been. I had no idea what was happening to the others, but it didn’t seem like it could possibly be good. Deaths, disappearances, and now this. How long had this been going on? Who was implicated? Ermaretor was the one who had sent me here.

I stopped to think about my priorities here. The reason that I was at S&S was to unlock the two magics, but the secondary reason, which seemed like it might become the primary reason, was that something fucky was going on with some unknown number of students and staff. I had a strong urge to go around screaming and trying to snap everyone out of their trances, or call in Amaryllis from wherever she was, but I had no idea whether that was actually a sound course of action. The problem at S&S, whatever it was, had been going on for months, which meant that this particular edge of it was just part of a larger pattern. If I reacted now, I’d be kicking the hornet’s nest without actually knowing a single damned thing about the hornets, where they were, and what they were trying to do.

I stayed where I was. It was possible that the people around me were going through something that they couldn’t get out of, and that I was simply failing to help them, but I hoped that it was nothing that couldn’t be undone. Sonee had seemed nice enough, and if the man-on-fire had come for her … well, they couldn’t be killing people here, someone would have noticed that, and I was both a skilled soul mage and the only living spirit mage, so if something had gone wrong, I had some amount of confidence that I would be able to set it right.

Henneta stopped speaking for a moment, allowing us to sit in silence.

“Alright,” she said. “I want you to come up from the surface, return to the room, retether yourself to your worldly concerns. Touch those emotions that you left behind. Connect to that focus that we keep inside us. Open your eyes, and see.”

I did as instructed. I looked at the people around me, trying to get some kind of clue that something had gone wrong with them, that they were possessed or controlled. There was nothing, not even someone who looked like they were puzzled by our instructor talking about a man on fire.

“How’d you do?” I asked Sonee, trying my best to be chipper (but not suspiciously chipper).

“Fine,” she replied with a shrug. “Different technique than I remembered, but it seemed fine. Weird, but fine.”

“Did he … walk toward you?” I asked.

“Huh?” she asked, staring at me. “What are you on about?”

“It was part of the instructions,” I replied. “Imagine that he’s walking toward you.”

“Oh,” replied Sonee. She relaxed slightly and shrugged. “Must have missed that part.”

I wasn’t sure how that was possible, given that Henneta must have said it a half dozen times. I said my goodbye, disengaging as quickly as possible, and left the building, walking until I thought I could talk to Amaryllis in peace. Meditation class had given me the willies. To my surprise, she walked up beside me, wearing her Immobility Plate, before I could use Parson’s Voice.

“Let’s get home,” she said. “I’m itching to get out of this armor.”

“Yeah,” I said. “One sec, I’m going to change into mine.” I went for the vambrace and dialed it to ‘oh crap get away’ mode.

“Anything that I should know about?” she asked.

“Oh, you know, someone was going to attack me in my mind, there’s a probable infohazard involved, and I once again have no idea who to trust or how to help,” I said with a sigh. “The usual.”

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Alexander Wales

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