Lee Jia shivered as a gust of wind blew past. Fallen leaves scattered across the road, Autumn was in full swing and the air was getting painfully cold. She knew she wasn’t prepared for the winter. She had overstayed her welcome in Nayeong city and the locals had gotten wise to her tricks. Laundry was hung higher out of reach and rarely left unattended—and every eye was on her as she tried to slink through the food stalls in the market.
Lee Jia could get by on forage and small animals outside the city, but the linens were a bigger problem. A local group of thugs had found and ransacked her hideaway, and though she had escaped safely, she was now left with nothing but the clothes she wore and a palm-sized medallion that she now idly fiddled with between her fingers.
Lee Jia stared down at the golden medallion and frowned, recalling how she arrived in her current circumstance. In an act of desperation she had visited the city’s magus administrator—some Tae something-or-other. She didn’t expect much from him, mages were rarely sympathetic to commoners and this one was appointed by the noble houses to oversee an entire city—he’d be even more arrogant.
The administrator was easy enough to meet even for someone like Lee Jia. He took visitors regularly in his relatively humble office within the city hall, and he didn’t require appointments. There was often a small line of people with questions or complaints waiting to see him.
The guards eyed her suspiciously, but eventually it was her turn and she was ushered into the office. The magus was younger than she expected, maybe only a handful of years older than her rather than the wizened old bureaucrat she’d been expecting. The rough, dark-gray hair and wolf ears on his head marked him as a half-spirit. That wasn’t unusual—most people born in Goryeo had some measure of spirit ancestry. Lee Jia herself had the ears, eyes, and tail of a cat.
“How can I help you, miss? Though I should warn you that I can’t promise to do more than hear you out if you aren’t an official resident.”
Lee Jia grimaced—the mage’s greeting immediately had her at a disadvantage. Mages were supernaturally perceptive and intelligent, and he had already guessed that Lee Jia was not technically a resident of the city. She lived in the shanty town that existed between the city walls and the border of the magical wards protecting the city—an area tolerated but not officially recognized by the city.
Lee Jia hesitated for a moment, but decided to push forward. She didn’t have much of a choice, anyway.
“I’ve come to turn myself in.”
The man’s hand stopped in the middle of whatever document he had been writing as he looked up at her, nonplussed.
“I’ve come to turn myself in.”
Lee Jia’s expression was dead serious as she repeated herself.
“I entered the city illegally, and for the past month I’ve been stealing food and linens and stashing them outside the city to prepare for the winter.”
The administrator raised an eyebrow as Lee Jia freely admitted her crimes.
“No, I mean—wait, that was you? Do you have any idea how much paperwork—no, never mind. I meant why? What do you hope to gain from telling me this?”
Lee Jia sighed and slumped her shoulders, her tail and ears drooping sullenly.
“The gangs caught on to what I was doing, and I guess they thought I was stashing valuables. They ransacked my place this morning and it was all I could do to escape with my life and my honor intact. By the time it was safe to return, the food was gone and they’d torn the clothes and blankets to shreds—probably for wasting their time.”
The administrator’s eyes turned more and more contemptuous as she spoke, and when she finished he simply shook his head.
“And…? This somehow led to you coming here to confess your crimes? Again, why?”
Lee Jia shrugged hopelessly.
“I was hoping that if I was imprisoned, I’d at least be kept alive long enough to make it through winter, even if that means forced labor or something.”
The man stared blankly at Lee Jia for a moment before shaking his head and scoffing.
“Incredible. You steal from the people of my city, then come crawling to me to beg for more. I’ve heard enough, guards!”
As if they had been waiting for the signal, the guards burst into the room and had Lee Jia by the arms before she could even react.
“Take this petty thief outside the city and beat her. You’ve standing permission to repeat the punishment should you ever see her inside the city walls again.”
Lee Jia cried out, slipping the grasp of the guards with practiced ease before bounding across the room. She leapt over the desk—knocking over stacks of paper—and grabbed desperately at the magus administrator.
“You can’t do this! Please! I have nowhere else to go! I can’t make it through the winter like this, I’ll die for certain!”
The magus’ cool contempt was replaced with raw disgust as he struggled to extricate himself from Lee Jia’s grasp. He thrust a talisman towards her, causing a wave of force to blast Lee Jia across the room.
She curled up into a ball to protect herself as the guards began raining blows down on her. The mage simply brushed himself off and grimaced down at Lee Jia as he watched the guards beat her. When he was finally satisfied, he gestured for them to stop.
“Enough! That will do for now. Take this cretin outside of the shield formation and watch her until she’s out of sight. Kill her if she attempts to return. You should consider yourself lucky, girl, that I don’t have you branded as an exile. Trust, however, that should my gaze ever fall on you again, it will be your end—understood?”
Lee Jia’s shuddering form offered little response other than a pained whimper. As they had been ordered, the guards dragged her outside of the city’s safety and dumped her out in the wilderness. Lee Jia could only limp sadly away until she was out of sight. Only once she was well and truly away from the city did she finally let out a shuddering breath and gaze down at the object hidden in her palm, a small golden medallion she had taken from the magus.
As her thoughts returned to the present, Lee Jia frowned down at the medallion. She had no idea what it was, but her intuition told her it was important—it certainly looked valuable. It wasn’t easy stealing from a mage, but the plan had gone better than she expected. The beating had been unwelcome, but not surprising—and it served to distract the mage from her theft. Besides, after a week on the road, her bruises were already mostly healed. Hopefully selling the trinket would be enough to get her started in a new city.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden tingling sensation across her entire body. The white fur on her ears and tail stood on end as a shiver unrelated to the autumn chill ran through her. She recognized the feeling—she had just crossed the edge of a city’s shield formation.
A sharp crack and a flash of light startled Lee Jia into nearly dropping the medallion. Glancing down at the source of the disturbance she saw the medallion crumbling to dust in her hand. She blinked down at her now empty hand in confusion.
“That can’t be good.”
Lee Jia broke into a cold sweat as her mounting dread began to turn into a full-on panic. The sixth sense that she had always relied on felt like an alarm bell ringing in her head. Without further thought, she turned tail and sprinted back the way she had come.
Lee Jia cried aloud as she collided head first with the shield formation she had just crossed a moment ago and her skin burned painfully where she had touched it. She picked herself up off the ground and checked her surroundings.
The feeling of being trapped was putting her on edge, but there didn’t seem to be any imminent danger. What was going on? What was that medallion and what did it have to do with this place? Trapped as she was, and without any answers presenting themselves, Lee Jia forced herself to calm down and follow the road once again.
When Lee Jia finally came within sight of the city she was shocked at what she discovered. First, the shield formation was the biggest she’d ever seen—it had taken her all day to reach the city after crossing the threshold. Second, in spite of the extravagant wards, it was much smaller than she expected. There couldn’t be more than a few hundred people living there. The third surprise came when she found the city’s entrance completely unguarded.
Lee Jia approached the gate warily. As she crossed the threshold she saw a few people milling about inside, none of whom seemed to pay her any mind. Strangely, most of them seemed to be wearing the same green brocade robes—like a uniform. Worse, they all seemed to give off the same familiar feeling. Lee Jia had always had a good intuition, and trusting it was how she had stayed alive until now. Right now, that intuition told her that every person in this town was a mage.
Even knowing she was trapped within the wards, Lee Jia felt the uncontrollable urge to turn and run. She didn’t belong here, she was just a regular mortal. A commoner—no, worse than a commoner, she was a discarded orphan and a criminal. A thousand of her could die without being worth a single hair on the heads of one of these people.
One mage she could handle—carefully, and only if she was prepared to die if she failed and flee as far away as possible if she succeeded. An entire town of them? Never mind the winter, she’d die before the end of autumn if she tried to ply her trade here.
She turned to leave, ready to try her luck surviving in the wilderness, when instead she nearly bumped into a wizened old man who had appeared behind her.
Lee Jia let out a shriek of surprise as she fell backwards away from the man. She took pride in staying aware of her surroundings at all times, but she had not seen, heard, or smelled this man’s approach. He had not been there before.
“Hoho, you don’t appear to be Tae In-Su. Might I ask how you came into possession of his token, young lady?”
The old man’s hooked nose and beady eyes, along with the feathery down that grew in place of his hair reminded Lee Jia of an owl as he carefully scrutinized her. She suddenly felt very self-conscious of her appearance. Her white hair had been cropped short and uneven—cut by herself, without a mirror or proper scissors. She was short and skinny—underdeveloped for her age, perhaps as a result of malnutrition. Her ragged clothing hung loosely from her tiny frame, and she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d bathed.
“I-I um, I don’t know what—”
Lee Jia cringed and bit her tongue on her response when she saw the old mage quirk an eyebrow at her. Mages! She’d gotten lucky with Tae In-Su, the city administrator. He had been young and inexperienced, but this one was old, and mages didn’t get old unless they were ancient. The old man before her would probably know she was lying before she did. She sighed and resigned herself to whatever fate had in store.
“Fine, I stole it. I was fleeing the city and hoped I could sell it to get a head start in a new place.”
The old man laughed jovially at her grumbled response, apparently unperturbed by the admission. He regarded her coolly as he stroked his beard.
“Oho! That’s quite an impressive feat. Did you know what it was when you stole it?”
“No? I just grabbed the first thing I could. Anything from a mage would probably be valuable to someone.”
“Hmm, perhaps, yes. Yet of all places, you brought it here. How did you decide where to go after stealing the token?”
Lee Jia eyed the old man suspiciously. What was this? Why did he care? These questions didn’t make any sense to her.
“I don’t know. I just picked whichever road felt right. That’s always worked for me until today.”
“I see, I see.”
The mage simply nodded and began walking down the street. Something told Lee Jia she was expected to follow, so she did. After a few furtive glances up at the old mage, she worked up the courage to speak.
“Um...can I ask a question?”
“Oh, please do!”
Lee Jia wasn’t sure why the man seemed so pleased, but continued anyway.
“What was that medallion? A token you called it? And what is this place? I’ve never seen so many mages.”
The old man burst out laughing for some reason and Lee Jia frowned as he composed himself.
“My apologies, young lady. I was merely surprised. That was several questions and an astute, yet fundamentally mistaken observation. I will do my best to entertain them anyway. First, I should introduce myself—I am Magus Hwang Sung.”
The man gave a pause and Lee Jia belatedly realized he was waiting for her to give her own name in response. She blushed slightly as she introduced herself.
“Lee Jia. Lee is a borrowed surname, I don’t know my parents.”
She mentally kicked herself for volunteering extra information for no reason.
“Very well Miss Lee. To answer your questions, all of them really. This place is the recently founded Grand Academy of Spiritual, Martial, and Arcane Arts. A place for young and talented practitioners from across the continent to hone their craft.”
Lee Jia’s eyes widened in surprise. She felt the urge to flee rising up once again, but suppressed it.
“This is a mage college!?”
“Not exactly, no. Goryeo’s colleges are indeed places of learning for mages, but only for mages. This place was created as part of a peace treaty between the three major powers of the continent—Qin, Yamato, and Goryeo. Ah, but I see your eyes glazing over already, so I will spare you the minute details for now.
“Suffice it to say that this place is unique in that immortal practitioners from all three powers gather to share knowledge and test their abilities against each other. Perhaps even combining the different disciplines into something greater than the sum of their parts. Or that’s the theory at any rate. In truth, the inaugural generation has yet to begin their training here. That’s where your stolen trinket comes in, understand?”
Lee Jia wasn’t sure she did, but she nodded anyway.
“The token was an invitation given to a promising young mage with the expectation that his talents could be further honed by this unique opportunity. Alas, it seems that fate has interceded to extend that invitation to another.”
His eyes twinkled a bit as he smiled down at Lee Jia. Wait, was he saying that—no, that’s crazy, Lee Jia wasn’t a mage. Magus Hwang chuckled at her confused expression.
“Hoho, I can tell what you are thinking. It is indeed my intention to have you take Tae In-Su’s place here in the academy. Your past and your peerage are of no consequence to me, it’s your talent I am interested in. Stealing that token was no small task, and neither do I believe in coincidence. That strong intuition of yours is a sign of latent talent, and as a teacher it is my greatest desire to see such talents realized. I won’t force you of course, if you’d rather go back…”
Lee Jia shook her head violently. She couldn’t believe her luck! Was this a dream? Her? Becoming a mage? It made no sense, but it wasn’t a chance Lee Jia was going to pass up.
“No! I mean, um, I don’t really have anything to go back to so—”
“Excellent! Come along, then. We’ll get you situated.”
Lee Jia felt as if her entire world was being flipped upside down as she followed the old mage. Just what kind of world had she gotten herself caught up in?