“Have a seat; we’ll debrief on the test and talk about what you can learn from your experiences today.” Baelin waved a hand over the flat top of the escarpment.
Stone benches with curved backs shimmered into being atop the stone. The students looked at each other and silently poured their tired bodies into the seats, some stretching over the backs of the benches. Now that they’d made it through the test and could finally savor a moment of calm, Alex realized that Derek wasn’t there. He wondered what had happened to him.
He eyed the bench skeptically before dropping down between Khalik and Isolde. Despite her fatigue, the raven haired young woman was sitting upright, posture perfect. To their immediate right, Thundar reclined on a bench which he had all to himself.
The four of them gave each other tired, victorious smiles.
Alex swore that he wouldn’t just bake a pie for Khalik, Theresa and Selina: he decided that he was going to feed his entire team so well that they wouldn’t be able to move for days.
The chancellor began.
“First of all, you are all here because you defeated the dangers that were before you. Well done.” Baelin nodded. “But the nature by which you achieved this varied. I believe that just as on a written test, it is important not only to see that you passed, but also to examine what you did well and what you did poorly. It is only through these examinations that we improve. It is only through improvement that we survive greater threats.”
Alex found himself nodding at the words.
“First, let us get the painful parts out of the way. I find it better to deal with life’s difficulties early in the day, and then consider its positives after.” He looked to the two students who flew to the top of the escarpment. “Minervus and Rayne.”
“Y-yes chancellor!” one of them jumped in their seat.
Baelin’s lip twitched. “You were the first to reach the escarpment. And that is to be commended. You showed quick thinking in using your flight spells to arrive at the end goal without danger to yourselves. …what do you think of your performance?”
“Uh, we got here safely and used our resources to do so.” One said nervously. “We did well.”
“You performed adequately,” Baelin corrected him. “Your first attempt to fly to the goal did not take into account your immature mana pools: you are only second year students, and flight is a taxing spell. It was obvious you would not be able to make the journey from the beginning. Yet, out of instinct and without proper consideration for your current abilities, you made a decision to try, only to discover partway into your first attempt that you could not succeed, and then, you were forced to return to your group. Not surprisingly, this destroyed any trust you might have built with them.”
“I observed all of you throughout the test using the spell I laid upon you. Minervus. Rayne. Your group was then forced to make its way through the Barrens with the added burden of keeping an eye on one another as potential internal threats, while also watching the surroundings for external threats. With your attention split, your group could not defend against the first muupkara ambush you encountered and lost one of your number. Then, when you came upon the bonedrinker, you did not have the resources to face it. You two took to flight, leaving your last remaining member to deal with it alone. This allowed you to escape, and I am not one to argue about the morality of leaving companions behind. Some find it deplorable. Some find it a tool of survival. It is up to you which of these beliefs you choose to follow…but from a practical standpoint, a proper wizard must ensure that any resources abandoned can no longer be useful to you. Otherwise, you will be wasting resources in the long run: so, in return for guaranteeing your own safety, you have now very likely made enemies. And the last thing a wizard needs is more enemies. Further, you will now have to go through the rest of the semester with a class that knows you abandoned your companions. Think on how this might affect your future performance or group work.”
Rayne and Minervus fell into an uncomfortable silence as their classmates' gazes lingered on them, and Baelin turned to the group of fireball wielders.
“Rhea, Malcolm, Shiani,” Baelin said. “Your entire group consists of second years who have all passed the first year of battle-magic. You are trained for combat, many of you also have skills in the weapon arts, and you used these skills to overcome the threats you encountered through a direct approach. If we were grading you on ‘confirmed’ kills, you would definitely score the highest. How would you say you did?”
The three battle mages looked to each other then leaned together, whispering for a moment. Finally, they nodded and one spoke up. “We relied too much on our mana, our experience and magic. We faced every threat head on, using the magic we were trained in. In the end, we were all almost out of mana when we got to the escarpment. That’s why one of our members failed…”
Baelin gave a gruff sound of approval. “That is my assessment as well. You made excellent use of your magic, but once your mana ran low, you became as helpless as any other ordinary mortal. Had you made use of less powerful spells earlier in the trial, had you made use of the weapon arts or even simply avoided threats, then you would have had plenty of mana in reserve for the final leg of the journey. Remember, wizards must use all resources, for mana is limited. We will go over more of this in time.”
He turned to the next group. “Caramiyus, Angelar, Nua-Oge.” He addressed the canine beastfolk and the selachar wizard. “Two first years and two second years with various skills. You performed well in using a combination of stealth, superior senses of smell, hearing, and tactical movement to avoid most threats. This left with you plenty of energy for the final rigors of your journey. You lost one of your number in an ambush, though you tried to protect each other. How did you perform?”
One of the canine folk growled. “We tried to protect the last member of our group. But, he panicked during the second ambush and we couldn’t save him.”
“A fine assessment,” Baelin nodded. “You were able to save as many as you could, but the last was unable to master their own fear. Despite him being the most powerful—in terms of magic—of your group, he was the first to fall. In future, focus on expanding your range of magic. At times, only power can solve a situation. The skill is to determine when. Still, you performed very well. I expect great things from you.”
He paused. “You will have already noticed that one group did not make the escarpment. I shall not reveal the mistakes of those not present, which leads me to the final group.”
He looked to Alex’s group, and all of them rose slightly on the seats.
“P-” Baelin paused. “Khalik, Isolde, Alex and Thundar. One second year and three first years. You showed cooperation from the very beginning, and used a multi-pronged strategy: spellcraft, falconry, melee combat and distraction. Oh-Wait, before I forget-”
He made a clutching gesture.
The air shimmered in front of Thundar, and his mace materialized before him. Its flanges were bent from the fall, but another twist of Baelin’s hand straightened them in mid-air. The overwhelmed minotaur gingerly took hold of the weapon. “Th-thanks, Baelin.”
The chancellor smiled. “Think nothing of it. Now where was I? Ah, yes. You used a varied strategy to overcome the threats you faced and minimized them as much as possible. Khalik, your use of your familiar for scouting helped the party avoid most trouble. Isolde, your knowledge as a second year gave the team the knowledge they needed to react properly. Thundar, your physical prowess and bravery in addition to your spellcraft helped protect more vulnerable members of your team. Alex-”
“-your use of a first-tier utility spell—practiced and modified—as a tool of distraction was able to help the rest of your team react to situations and put your enemies down. To the team, what do you think of your performance?”
The team looked at each other.
Isolde spoke up first. “We performed well. We defeated less enemies than other teams, but we were the second group to arrive at the tower. We took no injuries and defeated or drove off any enemy we came across.”
“Well said,” Baelin nodded. “I must particularly commend Alex. Though he did not defeat any enemy himself, he used a simple spell—a resource most wizards in the height of their power would disregard—to turn the tide of each fight you came into. That is the Art of the Wizard in Combat: to turn all resources into ways to achieve victory. My only critique for this team is that the second ambush you faced might have been avoided with more thorough attention to your surroundings. But, then again, perhaps not, considering the level of experience of most of you. Well done.”
He rose from the boulder. “You all will be welcomed into class as the term begins. Remember, from next week on—if any of your entourage would be interested in auditing this course—please invite them, as a wizard must learn to make use of all members of a group regardless of their varied tactical strengths. Next time, we will continue to break down how today went for each of you, and then we shall continue with a lecture on general tactics. The week after will be another practical class. Go home and rest, you deserve it.”
“Thank you,” the class responded and Nua-Oge said, “Blessings to you, sir.”
Baelin paused. “I would say that I hope each of your deities bless you, but…such a thing would not be appropriate for me to say. Come, let us return. If any of you have any questions, I shall wait for a time after class.”
The world shimmered back into focus around them, and they reappeared in the stadium. The class of COMB-1000 was exhausted but their spirits were high.
Baelin stood at their centre, watching the groups slowly come together for a time and then go their separate ways.
Before his group could say a word, Alex turned to them while the other groups were reorienting themselves from the teleportation spell.
“So! Who likes pie?” Alex grinned. “I’ll be baking up a storm for my sister and friends this weekend. And, if none of you are busy, it’d be great if you all came by. We have a place at the southern insula. I’ll be making meat pie, chicken pie and apple custard pie for dessert. Seriously, we were awesome today, you should come over”
“Free pie?” Thundar cocked his head. “Sounds like a great deal to me. It’s good to celebrate with the group after a victory.”
“That’s great! And you Isolde? Come on, you’ve got to come.”
The second year shifted. “Well…I suppose it would be rude to refuse such an invitation, and I do enjoy apple cake.” Her eyes bore into him for a moment. “Very well, I shall attend.”
“Awesome!” he grinned. “This’ll be great. You’re all gonna love it, I swear.”
He’d been cooking since they had gotten to Generasi—off and on—and he’d been using The Mark each time. This would be the first time he’d have a chance to really push himself in the kitchen since he’d left Thameland.
“You promise much, Alex,” Khalik said as Najyah fluttered to his arm. “I cannot wait to try your cooking. Today is a day to be celebrated.”
Alex agreed and said goodbye to Khalik, Thundar and Isolde before turning to leave the stadium. Then he paused, looking at the chancellor. Others had asked him the questions they’d needed to, and the old wizard looked to be readying to depart.
One of his final comments had stayed with Alex. The one about the gods.
Baelin seemed like a potentially valuable resource for later when he began looking into the mysteries of Thameland…but for now, he felt it would be premature to ask those sorts of questions. Anything that might be related to him, The Ravener, Thameland or The Fool could wait until trust was built…if it was built at all.
But there was one question he could ask now--one that he had been curious about for weeks.
He approached the chancellor. “Um, Ch-er, Baelin.”
The chancellor looked down at him with those ancient, soul-piercing eyes. “Yes, Alex? Good job today, by the way.”
“Um, thank you, sir. Uh…about what you said at the end. About deities…why is there no divinity on campus? Why are the priests not allowed near Generasi?”
Baelin looked at Alex for a long moment, almost seeming to become a statue; like an ancient gargoyle perched on one of the school’s buildings. “Do you follow Uldar, Alex?”
“Er, yes,” Alex said, though The Traveller once again came to his mind. She’d done a lot more for him even passively than Uldar had lately.
“Are you devout in your worship?”
Alex paused. “Not…not as much as others.”
“Then I will speak candidly, since you asked.” Baelin looked at the sky, and for a moment, a dark rage crossed his face with such intensity, that Alex took a step back. “I have lived a long time,” he continued, and his voice sounded as old as the earth. “And have seen many things. Over time, I have come to certain conclusions. One…”
“...is that deities are parasites.”
Alex gasped, less at the words and more at the sheer amount of venom in them.
“They are no more than overgrown mana vampires that suck faith and spirit,” as Baelin spoke, each word seemed to echo from an impossible age. “Most sit on their thrones watching the world, its triumphs and troubles, from a distance. Some sleep and do nothing, and others just take, only visiting cruelty upon their followers. They are mighty, but how does that make them different from a sufficiently practiced user of magic or a ruler of spirits or demons? Or even a mortal tyrant? Yet, they claim ‘rulership’ over the soul. It sits poorly with me. It was my decision to set the policy that bans priests from campus. Wizards are to master the strands of the cosmic tapestry even as a warrior masters a blade, or a painter their brush. There is no need to muddy up life’s journey with beings that take, and then only give back irresponsibly.”
His lips tightened. “They hand lumps of power to their priests like a father handing a child a sharpened sword. Some are good, but they still claim lordship over a universe that could continue spinning long after they have all died.”
He glanced at Alex. “Cultivation is an example where mortals can access the power known as ‘divinity’ without the need of deities. They are simply gatekeepers to a power that can be open to all.”
Alex swallowed. “I-I see.”
The chancellor smiled. “Ah, hear me prattle on. Pay no heed to my words, and go have yourself a rest. You’ve got enough to worry about in the upcoming semester.”
With that, the old wizard gave him a final nod, shimmered and stepped back into the air, vanishing from the stadium.
He left behind a young man who had gained an answer.
And many more questions.