They appeared on top of the escarpment they’d gathered on after Baelin’s test. This time the benches were already there, awaiting their arrival.
“Sit down, sit down.” the chancellor gestured to their seats. “I’ll be back in one moment. Ah wait, I almost forgot.”
He waved a hand and more benches appeared in a semi-circle around the boulder he’d sat on last time. “There are, in fact, more of you this time. At least…for the time being.”
The air shimmered around him and he vanished into it.
His students looked at one another as a familiar, uncomfortable silence filled the air. Alex had experienced the same feeling many times before: at the church school, the atmosphere in a class had become exactly the same when one of their number was about to be in a lot of trouble.
The class waited, shuffling awkwardly in their seats.
Until Baelin abruptly reappeared with Minervus and his entourage beside him.
“Have a seat, and we’ll get started,” he said to a beet-red, sweating Minervus who appeared to be on edge. Maybe he was angry. Maybe embarrassed. Maybe both. When Alex had last seen him and his entourage, they were still trying to herd the vent-drinkers. From the expression he now wore, it looked like things hadn’t gone very well.
“Alright, so let’s talk about the practicum today,” Baelin began. “You faced a challenge where your ‘enemies’, such as they were, had a terrain advantage that you did not. What did you learn?” he asked.
Alex paused. He had gone into the discussion expecting Baelin to ask ‘how did you do?’, like last time. ‘Not what did you learn?’
“Ah yes, Thundar,” Baelin said.
Alex had been so deep in thought, that he hadn’t realized the minotaur had raised his hand.
“Teamwork makes the dream work,” Thundar smiled and said.
Alex started to laugh, along with some of the other class members.
Baelin smiled too. “What a ‘delightful’ expression. ‘Teamwork makes the dream work’, hah! I’ve never heard that before. This is why I so enjoy teaching: you all help keep me young. …well, young in my own mind, at least. I’ll have to introduce that at the next Administrative Meeting. So yes, ‘teamwork makes the dream work’. What else?”
Alex raised his hand next, speaking when Baelin called on him. “You’ve got to take into account the resources you have, and change a plan when those resources change.”
“Very good,” Baelin said. “Battle…or indeed anything in life, is constantly moving and changing like a river. Advantages turn to disadvantages. Allies fail and help comes from unforeseen directions. A Proper Wizard adjusts to these changes, quickly and decisively. What else?”
Malcolm raised his hand. “You’ve got to make sure you prepare for different situations. Knowing a lot of different kinds of spells is better than being hyper-focused.”
Alex winced: at the moment, by necessity, he himself was hyper-focused on force spells.
“What makes you say that, Malcolm?” Baelin prompted him.
“Well.” Malcolm scratched the back of his head. “I mostly know ice spells that, well, kill. I accidentally killed two vent-drinkers when I was only trying to capture them. If I had something less lethal, then I’d have gotten all three, probably.”
“A fine point,” Baelin agreed, spreading his hands. “These days, specialization is very much in vogue in academic wizardry. It is seen as efficient. Specialists in lightning magic could rend the skies in half, while a generalist wizard might have a larger tool box, but far less mastery over any specific kind of magic. That said, one of the greatest strengths of wizardry is versatility. By learning a wide array of spells, you might be better prepared for any situation. There is one point I might add to your observation, Malcolm: even if you are a specialist, then you can shore up your blind spots with resources other than magic.”
He gestured to the rest of the class.
“Nua-Oge knew ice spells less lethal than yours, Malcolm, but she also brought a powerful ally with her, one who was unaffected by the rigours of the mana vents. Isolde, Alex and Minervus also brought allies.” He gestured to Khalik, Thundar and Alex. “Your three colleagues used a hunting familiar and physical force to subdue their quarry. You brought an ally as well, Malcolm, which shows your head was in the right place. It was just a simple misfortune that in this situation, Master Eyvinder’s high levels of natural mana were not a boon, and so he was unable to be in close proximity to the wild mana vent. But, he was still of great aid to you. Even if you don’t have the correct spell, you can substitute your magic with an ally, or a carefully chosen weapon or tool.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Malcolm said, glancing over to Eyvinder. “You can expand in ways outside of magic.”
“Well said.” Baelin nodded. “What else have we learned?”
A hand rose from the end of the class.
Baelin turned to its owner without missing a beat. “Ah, Minervus. What is your question?”
“With all due respect, what was the point of this?” Minervus asked.
Everything went dead silent. One might have heard a fly cough.
Baelin cocked his goat-like head at Minervus, seeming nothing more than a kindly old man listening to the voice of a grandson. His eyes, however, were utterly focused on the young man like a snake eyeing a mouse.
“Do go on,” Baelin gestured to him in invitation.
‘Don’t keep talking,’ Alex thought.
Minervus kept talking.
“I don’t really understand the exercise, Baelin,” he said. “We’re supposed to be learning how to engage in combat, right? Adapting and using our resources? Why’re we grabbing lizards like chicken wranglers? I get that it was about getting them away from the mana vent, but if they don’t fight back, then how is that training us to protect ourselves?”
“Hm, an interesting observation,” Baelin said. “How does what we did today play into the wizard in combat? Hmmm, let me ask you this: should you kill everything you fight?”
“Well, a dead enemy is one that can’t come after you later. Killing it or running away from it makes sense. Capturing it just lets them strike you in the back later.”
“I see. And let us say for a moment, that you were trying to track down a creature who could provide an excellent source of mana for your alchemy or even bolstering your spellcraft...but the creature is only useful to you alive?”
“Well, uh. Then I’d capture it.”
“Precisely how, Minervus?” Baelin pressed him. “You have cornered a beast and it is fighting to escape you because it is a beast and it believes that you have captured it to make it your meal. Thus, it fights for its life with every fatal measure it possesses, while youcannot respond in kind lest you lose the resource the living creature can provide. What then?”
“Um…” Minervus muttered.
“Hmmm, you seem to be having some difficulty with that one.” Baelin stroked one of the clasped braids of his beard. “Let us try this: you are returning to your sanctum after purchasing some ingredients that you need for a ritual. En route, you are attacked by armed rogues. They move quite well, and it is obvious they seek your head. Using your method, you run away, only for them to pursue you. They are determined, of course. And so, you kill them. What have you learned about who sent them or why?”
“Well, vent-drinkers can’t fight back, right? So why them?”
“Hmmm, if I may be so bold.” Baelin leaned forward. “Could it be that you do not see the benefit of the task because you were only able to capture one of the creatures alive? At times, one can be tempted to disparage areas where they do not excel. One blames lack of oversight, administrative structure, or random chance when things do not go so well. Is this it?”
Minervus winced. “My…my companions weren’t able to work well near the mana vent. So it wasn’t fair.”
Alex blinked. That was the first he’d heard of this.
“Your companions? Many of them were able to reach the vents just fine,” Baelin waved his hand over Hogarth, Svenia, Theresa and Grimloch.
“No, I mean my…”
“Yes?” Baelin pushed.
“Er, my companions, my flesh golems…being so close to the mana vent disrupted my mana connection to them, and they don’t function that well with just verbal orders.”
Alex whirled toward Minervus’ companions. A lot of their strange behaviours suddenly started to make sense: how they had moved nearly in time with each other, why they only seemed to react to Minervus, why they all seemed to look like one another, and why they hadn't said a word for the entire class.
Even now, as everyone’s attention lay fully on them, they didn’t react or move. Even their breathing seemed…unnecessary, and intermittent, like it was merely a performance and not an actual bodily process.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Alex said. They looked utterly life-like aside from those few tells. He supposed that ‘flesh’ was one of the more ‘special materials’ used to make certain golems that Sim Shale had hinted at on their tour of the workshop.
Alex didn’t even want to know how these constructs were made. A shudder ran through him.
“Indeed. Your golems were at a disadvantage. A major disadvantage, at that. But, you had ways to adapt. You had your classmates.”
“But, you said I’d ruined their trust with what happened during the test,” Minervus tried to explain himself. “I determined that resource was spent and decided to act on my own.”
“Rayne concluded otherwise,” Baelin pointed out. “And so, he was part of a group that successfully captured ten vent-drinkers. Instead, you went out on your own and managed to capture one, despite bringing the most companions, who were also the most obedient and coordinated. Trust in you has lessened further, and…” he gestured to the sky. “A full-grown xyrthak was approaching us. Had your classmates taken longer to capture the vent-drinkers because you did not provide them aid, then everyone would have had to deal with a flying opponent that is far beyond any of you. It would have been necessary for me to step-in and the learning opportunity would have been lost.”
“This…” Minervus fell into an angry silence. “This…”
Baelin looked at him for a long time, before sighing. “Alright. I can see that you are not ready. I will put in an immediate transfer request so that you might enter another course of your choice. It is still early in the semester, and you can still catch up.”
“Wait, what?” Minervus flew to his feet. “What…transfer? But it wasn’t a test!”
“A Proper Wizard is always tested, Minervus,” the chancellor said. His voice sounded firm as iron. “They are tested by their magic, by their foes and by their own limits. You have found yours, and until you can learn more wisdom in your decisions, your continued presence in the class would endanger your life, the lives of your colleagues, and hinder all learning opportunities. This is a favour, and should you wish to do so, you may continue to audit the lecture portion of the course if you do not fill this time slot.”
Minervus stewed, and then grudgingly bowed his head. “As…as you say.”
“Good,” Baelin nodded. “I encourage you to take this course again, when you are ready.”
After they had teleported back to the stadium, the class fell into an uncomfortable silence. Minervus organized his things then stomped through the doorways with his ‘entourage’ of golems behind; as soon as they left, excited chatter began to spread through the class.
Several of the students surrounded Theresa, Grimloch, Hogarth and Svenia and bombarded them with questions, congratulations and compliments. Theresa looked to be growing flustered from the attention. Meanwhile, Alex went to stand in line with those who had after-class questions for the chancellor.
Isolde was last in line in front of him, and she gave him a curt nod and warm smile as she stepped out of line.
“Ah, Alex, here again,” Baelin beamed at him. “I swear, every single class you’re staying behind to ask something.”
“Hey, I’m at magic university, I think it’d weird if I weren’t filled with questions literally every waking moment,” Alex said lightly, glancing toward the doors to the stadium. Minervus had exited that way minutes earlier.
“Chancellor,” he said. “...those wild mana vents, that’s an incredible source of power.”
“That they are,” Baelin chuckled. “And a very tempting one, though if you’re thinking of harnessing one, I’d advise against that until you’ve been studying for a few decades.”
“Decades?” Alex blinked. “Is it that hard to harness?”
“Indeed, while the air and natural processes of the world gradually calms the mana naturally, doing so artificially and on demand is a very difficult process.”
“Ah,” he said, slightly disappointed. “That’s too bad.”
“Too bad?” Baelin stroked his beard. “Alex, each vent pours out enough power per day to energize a sky skip for months. That’s more power than most archmages need, let alone a first year. Why are you thinking about this?”
“Well,” he said, glancing back at the gates Minervus had gone through. “I’ve been thinking about golems, for the future, you see…”
He didn’t mention how near he intended that future to be.
“...but I’ve learned they need a lot of mana, among other things. Probably more mana than I’ll be able to provide for a very long time, so I was thinking of substitutes.”
“Aaaah, and so you thought to use a gaping hole that pours out the most dangerous mana you can find? And I thought you had goodinstincts, Alex,” Baelin chuckled. “It takes a creature or apparatus that can process an incredibly disparate selection of mana and convert it into a single source: creatures or devices that can do that are either rare, dangerous, expensive or all of the above. There are other, safer things that can donate the mana to power a golem.”
“Oh?” Alex pressed. “Like what would you suggest?”
“The sacrifice of sentient beings,” Baelin said seriously.
Baelin burst out laughing. “I jest! That practice hasn’t been common in alchemy for some five hundred years! …in most places, anyway. But magical items could be good donators, if you don’t mind them being drained. Better they be embedded, though.” For an instant Alex wondered if Baelin and Hobb were friends.
He paused. “Embedded?”
“Indeed. A golem that produces a great deal of mana to power itself can also power and interface with magical items embedded in its body, if one simply attaches them during creation.”
Alex’s heart nearly stopped beating. “And…then what happens?”
“Well, the golem can utilize the items. Some golem-crafters graft magic swords onto their arms, or magical orbs into their chests to create a variety of spell effects. When you learn more about golems, you’ll learn about this.”
“Yeah…yeah…okay…” Alex said, only half-listening. “Thanks.”
“Any time. Don’t do anything that would get you expelled, now. Don’t look at Minervus as an example: his golems are bound to him, but not crafted by him, otherwise the connection between their mana would be deeper.”
“Right…makes sense. Thanks again.”
Alex walked away, considering more possibilities.
Mounted magic items?
An image came to him: a colossal figure of clay.
One that fired deadly red beams as it battled his enemies.
If he did this right, he might have just found the perfect use for the fire-gems from The Cave of the Traveller.