“Do you think we are ready?” Khalik asked as the two young men walked toward the training grounds.
“Maybe?” Alex shrugged. “There’s no way we’re going to know that until we actually get where we’re going and find out what sort of evil’s been planned for us.”
“True enough,” Khalik forced his eyes forward as the stadium loomed in front of them. “I wish we knew more.”
“Yeah, so do I, man, so do I.”
Alex had woken up before dawn that morning feeling like he’d swallowed a bucket of snow and ice. His nerves raced, getting the better of him, and he'd asked himself a half dozen times what madness had made him take such a dangerous sounding course. Each time he’d answered in the same way: ‘learn to deal with the dangers now, before they faced more serious ones later.’
It had been a quiet morning, helping his sister do some preparatory homework for her classes beginning in two weeks. The morning passed slowly and he had kept looking at the door, waiting for Theresa to arrive and signal his time go.
When she finally did—dead-tired, stinking of something terrible but about as happy as he’d ever seen her—he’d fixed her something to eat, gathered his supplies and stepped out the door. Khalik had been waiting for him just outside the now very busy insula, and the two men had started their long walk toward COMB-1000’s meeting place.
There was no running today.
They both had a feeling they’d need their strength.
“Do you think we are ready?” Khalik asked again as they stepped into the stadium.
Alex sighed. “I hope so, Khalik, I hope so.”
The stadium was empty except for a small gathering of students in the centre. Most of them tough-looking individuals, reminding Alex more of hard-bitten soldiers than wizard students. One was a hulking male minotaur and another was a selachar woman. Two others were beastmen that looked like dobermans. All of them looked like they were used to battle. There were some exceptions though. Some of the younger looking ones had a naive excitement in their eyes. Some of the more well-dressed looked confident, but soft.
He could see one student was wearing a green shirt with the Ursa-Lupine Brotherhood’s symbol on it. What he didn’t expect were familiar faces. Alex blinked when he saw the tall, raven-haired Isolde standing on the opposite side of the crowd, with her arms folded, and her brow furrowed in concentration. Her mouth moved constantly, muttering something beneath her breath.
On the other side stood—surprisingly—the familiar form of Derek. The young man looked nervous, but he was among the only students who had come equipped for battle. He wore a chainmail shirt that hung down to his knees and a longsword belted to his waist. He paced back and forth, glancing from time to time at Isolde across the crowd as some of the other students ignored him.
Khalik and Alex took up positions on the outer edge of the crowd. With a low cry, Najyah descended from the sky, landing beside her master and examining the students with her sharp eyes. There was no amusement coming from the familiar this morning: only fierce caution.
Alex looked at Khalik. “Think this is all of us?” he counted maybe twenty students out of the more than a thousand that had arrived on campus a week before.
“Maybe,” Khalik said. “A brave group, nonetheless.”
“Yeah, brave,” Alex glanced over at Derek again. What was he doing here? What was Isolde doing here? Weren’t they second years? And from what little he’d seen and heard of the red-haired young man, he didn’t seem the type to be taking the most dangerous course on campus.
Alex’s eyes narrowed.
A known cheater suddenly taking a course run by the chancellor himself.
He’d have to watch him.
Then the air began to shimmer. The entire class went silent.
Chancellor Baelin stepped out of thin air as he had when he had made the announcement about the potion detonation. The towering, grey-furred goatman scanned the gathered students, his eyes lingering on each one. Again, Alex couldn’t help but feel that gaze was piercing right through him. He shifted his right shoulder away from the chancellor.
Baelin’s beard clasps jingled. “That looks to be all of you. Welcome to COMB-1000: The Art of the Wizard in Combat. First, I’m going to tell you that I am proud of you. You have made a choice to start down an ancient path of wizardry. The first path of wizardry.”
He rose to his full height and his eyes seemed to look not at them, but at something distant. Something long passed. “Before there was Generasi. Before there were any schools of wizardry, there was only the spellcaster, the power they wielded, and the world trying to wrench that away from them. Magic was a tradition written not in ink, but in blood. Spells were transferred not in books, but on stone tablets, on the skins of monsters, or by the sacred word of master to student. These were barbaric times…and the lie we tell ourselves is that they ever ended.”
He gestured to the empty sky. “Dragons in the frozen wastes. The Ravener in Thameland. Leviathans in the western sea and zaratans in the east. The Metal gods to the south, and the demon rulers of the realms beyond the sky and earth. These threats are ancient. And they have not disappeared into history, like so many young and foolish wizards have.”
Alex gulped. There was a gravity to the old wizard’s words that set the hairs on the back of his neck rising. The old man didn’t speak of things like he’d read about them, he spoke of them like he’d seen them.
“The wizard plays with powers. Great powers. The higher the wizard climbs in the spell-tiers, the more danger the wizard opens themselves up to. Assassins. Demons. Greedy rivals and more. One must defend oneself against all these threats, using allresources. Today, you are starting down that ancient path that made the first wizards survive long enough to build the school you attend today. Now, some might ask why we are beginning two weeks early. The answer is simple: today is a test.”
He waved a hand through the air, and an illusion shimmered into being above him. Alex recognized the wasted landscape of the Barrens of Kravernus which Lucia had pointed out when they’d arrived in Generasi.
“Today we will be going into the Barrens,” the chancellor said. “And we will measure how much you bring into this class. One must already have survival instinct and talent if one even hopes to take the first steps down this path. Today, I’ll be randomly splitting you into groups of…” he mentally counted off the students. “Four.”
He waved a hand at the illusion which shifted until it pointed to a natural tower of stone rising from the blasted landscape. “You will use all of your magical skill, your ingenuity and your combat skill to reach the escarpment by the time class ends in three hours. If a group member, or if the group as a whole fails to reach it, then that individual or group, will be required to visit the registrar’s office and select another course.”
Another wave of his hand created a series of shimmering symbols in the air. “I am marking you all with this spell.” The symbols flashed, streaking forward like birds in flight, landing on the back of the students’ hands and pressing themselves in like tattoos.
“I will monitor you through those. The area that we go to today is one of the safest in all the Barrens. The monsters there are some of the weakest, and those that are somewhat stronger, can be avoided or even defeated with the correct application of power or wit. If you find yourself in danger or no longer wish to finish the test, call my name and say ‘release me’. My spell will then summon you to my side. I will then transport you back to the university, where you will need to select another course. If you are gravely injured during the test, the spell will automatically summon you to my side, and I shall transport you to the infirmary. If this occurs, you will need to choose another course, if you recover.”
A grim silence had fallen among the students.
Baelin looked at them solemnly. “Do be aware that this course involves real dangers. I am with you as a safety net, but accidents have occurred. People have died during this course, though I have prevented many, many more from dying either during the course’s run, or after they complete it. Nonetheless, if the only reason you are taking this course is to ‘impress the chancellor,’ then I warn you, you should leave now. That is not the only way.”
Though the chancellor did not look at any one student, Alex caught Derek startling at his words. Some of the other students shifted uncomfortably as well, but none left.
Baelin nodded. “Very well. You are all adults. I trust you can make this decision with eyes open. Now, are there any questions?”
Isolde’s hand immediately shot up. “Chancellor-”
“Call me Baelin. I’m not one for formality.”
The tall woman seemed to wince. “I-can you tell us what kind of monsters we’ll encounter during the test?”
“Likely muupkaras—some troops of them make their homes in the area.”
“What are those?” Alex whispered to Khalik.
“I have no idea,” the young man whispered back.
“Shh!” a student near them hissed.
“And, though they are not common in the area, bonedrinkers have been known to hunt these grounds.”
Alex did not like the sound of that.
“Are there any wild mana vents in the area?” Isolde asked.
“No, you will be safe from that threat. My expectation for you today is not to destroy every threat you meet,” Baelin said. “It is to test your judgement and basic ability to adapt. Evaluate your obstacles. Cross difficult ground at speed using magic and wit. Defeat what you should. Avoid what you can. The challenge today is not easy, but not impossible. If you cannot overcome this, then there are other courses at the university that I might recommend before trying your hand at COMB-1000 again. This course is rigorous. Its learning curve is steep. Finding that you are not ready today is better than discovering it three months from now when the challenges are far more perilous. Any other questions?”
Someone raised their hand. “Um, sir, couldn’t you teach us some things before we go into the test?”
Baelin nodded. “I could. I could teach you the geography of the area. I could teach you the exact hunting grounds of the bloodthirsty creatures there and how to defeat them in the easiest way. I could teach you spells. I could teach you weapon craft. I could teach you the anatomy of your enemies. And at the end of it all, you would easily be able to destroy these enemies and reach the tower like you were just having a quick walk across campus. We could do this all semester, and you would be able to survive the Barrens of Kravernus quite well. And then, you would graduate and encounter a situation you had no preparation for, and you would likely die. At best.”
He gave them all a grave look. “Today tests your ability to adapt with what you have. It is the basic requirement to take this course safely. After, we can grow your knowledge and give you more resources to use. Remember, if you are not ready, there is no shame in admitting that and using my spell to escape harm: knowing your limits is also the mark of a Proper Wizard.”
The chancellor’s goat-like eyes scanned the students, but no one raised their hand. “I shall see you all on the other side. Be safe.”
With that, he waved his hand forward and the air shimmered between his fingers. That shimmering spread out in front of him like he was throwing a net over the class.
Alex and Khalik nodded to each other.
“See you on the other side, if we are lucky,” Khalik gave a nervous smile.
“You too,” Alex said.
Baelin’s teleportation magic washed over them.
Then the stadium was empty.