“A wizard will spend much of their life in hazardous surroundings,” Baelin said to the class. “Which you will train for today, with your chosen entourages.”
It was another hot day—hotter than mid-summer in Thameland—and the students of the Art of the Wizard in Combat were gathered in the stadium. Despite the loss of some classmates during Baelin’s test, the number sitting before the chancellor had grown in the following weeks. Those who had entourages had brought them, increasing their number by a few new faces.
The student named Malcolm had been joined by Eyvinder: a tall, bald man with pointed ears and a greenish cast to his skin. He looked like some of the elves that Alex had met at Generasi, but his features were harder and sharper, like he’d been carved from flesh instead of being born.
Nua-Oge, the selachar wizard, had been joined by a horrifying looking beastfolk that drew everyone’s eye. He was by far the most gigantic beastman Alex had ever seen: the towering Thundar—a foot taller than Alex—and Baelin would have only reached the monster’s chest. He was so powerfully built that he looked more than capable of tearing through a castle wall. His skin was a steel grey over most of his body, but stark white over his chest, neck and throat. From the slight hunch in his back emerged a dorsal fin that rose into the air like a knife. His head and neck were so thick that they covered most of the area between his shoulders.
The beast that he most resembled was a shark, and his eyes were black and lifeless like those of a doll.
Minervus and Rayne—the pair who’d abandoned their companions during the test—filled out their ranks with five warriors who had come to the university with Minervus. Shortbows were slung on their backs. They were an enigmatic looking bunch with features that looked similar to Minervus himself, implying some kind of familial relationship. They moved in a way that made them seem like they were the same person.
In Alex’s group, only two of them had brought entourage members to join the class. Theresa sat between Alex and Khalik, with both her sword and massive hunting knife belted at her waist. She held her bow over her knees and watched Baelin very closely, her eyes only shifting to look at the newcomers that Isolde had brought with her.
They had met them that morning: Svenia and Hogarth. Hogarth was a short man who was built like a boulder. Scars marked a face well hidden by a thick, black beard: long and wild, unlike Khalik’s well-sculpted one. Svenia, meanwhile, was as tall as Alex and looked like someone had put her together from iron wire and bear meat. Both were armed with heavy crossbows, broad-bladed swords, and spiked halberds.
They looked hard as nails, but—if Alex was honest—everyone’s vicious looking guards and attendants seemed like cheerful babes next to the giant shark man. Even the bonedrinker would have looked tame next to that burly monster.
Alex looked over the group, counting the new additions to their class. Taking into account the entirety of the new entourage, they actually had more people than they’d started out with.
Before Baelin’s test, the class saw a mere twenty students enrolled, and The Barrens had whittled them down to twelve. Now, ten new entourage members—a full half of them coming from Minervus’ group—swelled their number to twenty-two.
An odd thought struck Alex.
Many entourage members hadn’t started auditing the class right after the test. A few of them, like Theresa, had attended the lectures, but for most, today’s practical battle class would be their first class. The surprising thing was that they were all allowed to enter without being tested.
Alex raised his hand.
“Yes, Alex, what is it?” Baelin paused his lecture.
“Ummm, is there a test for entourage members, before they can go into The Barrens?”
“No: you have all passed the test,” Baelin said. “And so all of you are trusted now, and that extends to those who you are responsible for. You made decisions and adapted to the circumstances of The Barrens, and so I trust your judgement. Besides, you are walking down a dangerous path, and one that you are ready for.
He gestured to the class. “Were I to deny your entourage the privilege of auditing COMB-1000, I would be denying you resources for the class, the opportunity to experience perils with those close to you, training for those who will accompany you outside of the university, and preparations so that all of you might work together as a group. That is why I hope you have brought every member of your entourage.”
Alex chuckled. “I brought half of them. The other half is my ten year old sister. So…I don’t think that would be a good fit.”
He continued to laugh and a few others, including Theresa and Khalik, joined in. They only stopped when they realized that the chancellor wasn’t laughing.
He wasn’t even smiling.
“I fail to see the humour, I fear,” Baelin’s eyes seemed to bore right into Alex, making the young man squirm in his seat. “Did she refuse to attend? Of course, that is her choice.”
“Uh…” Alex said, his eyes shifting back and forth uncomfortably. “Well, I never offered.”
“I see.” Baelin’s words rang with a flat disappointment. “I am surprised, I have to say. You show a lot of sense.”
An air of discomfort descended over the class. Students and their entourages exchanged nervous glances. Baelin himself did not change at all. Yet, he suddenly seemed bigger.
He hadn’t shifted his position, risen up to his full height or done anything intimidating, but it felt like the ancient wizard became much larger. Like there was an aura coming from him that had spread to fill the stadium.
Alex swallowed. “I…well…she’s a child, chancellor.”
“…I see. A child,” Baelin nodded, his body visibly relaxing. “Of course, of course, a child. Alex, would you mind answering a question of mine?”
Alex had a bad feeling that he wouldn’t want to. “Uh…sure?”
“Can children die?”
Silence swept the stadium again. Not even the wind broke it. In that stillness every student held their breath and Baelin’s eyes seemed to dig into Alex’s core.
“I…pardon me?” he asked, unsure if he’d heard right.
“Can children die?” Baelin asked with the same easy tone as though he wanted to know what the market’s daily special was. “Can they be killed? Hurt? Harmed? Massacred?”
A horrible image flashed into Alex’s mind at that moment: what might have happened if he hadn’t seen the silence-spider in Coille forest when it was hidden in that tree, ready to drop down on his sister.
He forced the thought away, unconsciously sliding into the deep belly breaths of meditation breathing. “Um, they can.”
“They can, Alex. They most certainly can.” Baelin let out a long breath. It sounded tired in a way that Alex couldn’t even begin to comprehend. “And it is not only children,” he glanced over the class. “Mothers. Fathers. Brothers. Servants. Attendants. Teachers. The more you grow in power, the more people in your lives will be endangered. Power. Attracts. Attention. And wizards must not only safeguard their loved ones, but ensure they have ways to safeguard themselves.”
The beastman paused for a moment. “Let me tell you a story, one that is relevant for both our task in The Barrens, and to the topic that young Alex has brought up. A long time ago, there was a wizard by the name of Hathar-Motkin. He was a powerful sorcerer and demonologist of his day, and he—like all of us—sought power. And he achieved that by way of sacrifice. Demons can have vile ways of feeding themselves, and he provided them with what they wished to eat most. I won’t detail what that was, because I’m not going to make some of you sick before class even starts.”
He began to pace back and forth in front of them, his hooves thudding into the stone. “Suffice it to say that many other wizards lost family to Hathar-Motkin’s inclinations. And he made a lot of enemies. Many wizards think they are safe in their towers,” Baelin continued. “Or their sanctums…or schools. Almost every other wizard worth remembering at the time wanted his head, and if you had put them all together, they would have filled every single seat in this stadium. And one of his enemies was me.”
Murmuring spread through the class.
“To avoid his enemies, he thought to build himself an impenetrable fortress.” He gestured behind himself as though that fortress was standing right in the stadium. “He forged a wizard tower out of star metal, then warded it with spells that repelled all magic but his own. Spell after spell after spell was linked together like chain mail, and then he placed a massive force sphere over his entire domain. Wizards tried to break through. So did demons and armies, and even one particularly angry dragon.”
He shrugged. “And none could get to him; until one very clever sorceress conceived of a notion, and sought out myself and a number of his most powerful enemies to enact it. And what do you think we did? Hmmm, any guesses how we adapted?”
The student named Rhea raised her hand: she was part of the battle mage group of second years. “There’s a saying among my people,” she moved her hair to the side, revealing a pointed elven ear. “That no tree can stand against a strong enough wind. You combined your strength and blasted his defences to nothing.”
“Hm, a good thought.” Baelin nodded. “But one that failed us. Our enemy had prepared his defences well, and made the field his own. He could repair his defences faster than we could rip them down. And we really wanted to rip them down. Who else…ah, Isolde.”
“The terrain was to his advantage…so you used magic to change it so that it was to youradvantage?” she guessed, leaning forward slightly to see if she had answered correctly.
“Very good!” Baelin boomed, making many of them jump. “We did just that: those of us with the power carved an even larger circle of magic around his domain—outside his wards and spells. He had guarded a large area, but—working together—we could affect an even larger area. Which is precisely what we did; we were able to teleport his entire domain into the ocean: the most northern ocean, where the water is so cold that it would be ice if it weren’t for the saltiness of the sea. And we waited for him, and we bombarded him with our most powerful spells, again and again.”
He laughed then: a hard laugh like stone grinding on stone.
“Not only did Hathar have to combat our attacks, but he also had to cast magic to make the temperature in his domain—which was dropping so very, very quickly—livable, deal with the pressure from the water’s mass crushing his force sphere, and adapt to his own bewilderment and fear. He couldn’t, so he panicked: teleported away. And we tracked him. Then it was all of us, against one of him, and none of his stolen power could help him.”
“Um,” Caramiyus—one of the doberman-like beatfolk—raised a hand. “What happened to him?”
Baelin gave another hard laugh. “Again, I would not want to make you sick before our class. In any case.” He looked back to Alex. “I’m not insane, Alex. I’m not going to demand that you drag a ten year old child with no experience into a battlefield, even if I am present to safeguard you all. But attending some of the lectures and discussions might do her some good. She might learn ways to protect herself, ways that might have indeed saved some of Hathar’s victims. Give her things to think about, Mr. Roth. Do think on offering her a choice.”
“Um, she has class at this time. She’s in the junior school.”
“Ah! Of course, that makes sense! Well, her general education takes precedence. Minds are sponges at that age: no sense in denying her the chance to fill it. I would suggest, though, discussing some of the topics from this class with her yourself: such as the other point of my story, the importance of terrain.”
He turned to the entire class again. “Today your task will be to capture ten vent-drinkers. They are common in the western wild mana vents where you will be going. These rifts in the earth concentrate and pour the world’s ambient mana up from deep within in its core and into the air. They are the source of Generasi’s high ambient mana, and they are also very dangerous.”
Baelin waved a hand behind him.
The air rippled and pulled apart like a curtain, revealing a strange chasm glowing with different coloured lights. It was like looking through one of The Traveller’s doorways.
“Such pure, wild undiluted mana cannot be utilized unless processed in some way. Further, standing too close to the vents can cause you physical burns or disrupt your mana. The wild mana in the air can warp your spells unless you have a profound control over them, and for wizards and others sensitive to mana, walking near the vents will feel like you’re attempting to swim through something akin to hot mud. And your opponents, the vent-drinkers—while harmless to most things—are far better adapted to the terrain than you are. Find ways to take away that advantage without wounding them mortally. Utilize your strategies from the test and tactics we have discussed. And work together. Now, without further ado, let us begin.”