“Yes!” Khalik grinned, tapping his name where it appeared on two lists: one for Magic Lore I and one for Earth Magic I. “Aaaaah, my brother would have never let me hear the end of it, were I not to gain top-five in at least two classes.” He raised an eyebrow as he tapped the top name for Magic Lore I. “Oho, I see that we have a familiar name at the top spot for Magic Lore. Well done, Alex.”
Alex grinned as he saw his name emblazoned at the top of the sheet.
Most of the names on the Honours Lists were written in black ink, but the top three names were embossed with gold ink for the top spot, silver for second place and bronze for third. The ink seemed to glitter with its own inner life, and Alex felt a flutter of pride and amazement to see his own name in raised gold letters.
Magic Lore I’s midterm had been the easiest of all the tests he’d taken. For one, it was an entirely written test: no spell-casting, practical exam, or anything of the sort. So, the only thing it really tested was how well he memorized, regurgitated and processed magical theories and history.
No spellcraft involved.
Magic Lore would normally be something he was already good at, but with The Mark helping to boost his memorization and application, he knew he’d aced the exam before even reaching the last question.
“Holy hell,” Thundar blinked. “That’s not the only class either, look at this. Top Rank for POTI-1000: Alex Roth. Guh, I really should have taken that class so you could teach me. Let’s see, though...hah!” He tapped his own name, which was fifth place in Body Enhancement and seventh place in Illusions. I got two, so far! Better than I thought!”
“Nice job!” Alex said.
A cheer went up from Shishi, and Alex noticed her pointing at a name—written in Tarm-Lungite symbols—in fourth place in Lifeforce Enforcement I. She and Theresa were all smiles and exchanged double high-fives.
Alex raised an eyebrow.
He was surrounded by some very, very talented people it seemed.
His chest puffed out a little. “I guess talent attracts talent.” He grinned, noting his name at the top of POTI-1000’s list. No ‘Derek Warren’ was anywhere on the list, though he did notice ‘Carey London’ in tenth place—last spot on the Honours List.
“Still damn impressive, though,” Alex muttered, then frowned, noticing Kybas—the goblin student he talked to during class—wasn’t on the list for POTI-1000. A quick scan revealed Kybas’ name in second place for The Study of Magical Beasts, though.
Alex thought back to how much the little goblin loved his young crocodile.
No surprises there.
He swallowed, scanning the lists until he found FORC-1550 and sighed.
No ‘Alex Roth’ appeared among the names of the top ten for that class. No surprises there either. He’d done very, very well on the written test, but those lost points in speed for casting his spells had knocked his average down on the practical part to the low eighties.
That was one of the reasons he’d focused on learning spells that could be sustained: spellcasting while dealing with The Mark still slowed him down, and while that didn’t much affect day-to-day life, in situations of high-tension—such as combat—a few heartbeats could be costly.
Still, he’d done well enough on the written part that he’d hoped they would have balanced each other out and let him get a top ten spot. Apparently, it wasn’t enough—he supposed that was what happened when competing with some of the most talented students of wizardry in all the world.
“Okay, what does this even mean?” Thundar pointed at the top of the sheet for Mana Manipulation I. Above even the top ten, Alex’s name was embossed in larger print with a silvery ink that sparkled as though it were liquid diamond. Beside it was Val’Rok’s seal and the printed words: ‘Challenge Exceeded’.
Khalik’s eyes widened and he swore in his mother tongue. “You challenged the exam for credit and defeated it?” the young prince gaped. “What kind of monster are you?”
In all the Honours Lists for first year classes—of which there were many—only a handful of names were embossed in the diamond ink.
“A friendly monster.” Alex grinned proudly.
All around, he could hear whispering among the other students. Others had begun to notice his name had appeared in gold multiple times and were wondering aloud who ‘Alex Roth’ was.
‘Not going to rate high on any lists of suspects for ‘The Fool’, now am I?’ Alex chuckled internally, even as he, Khalik and Thundar looked at each other and exchanged nods.
They searched for the sheet for COMB-1000.
Three cheers erupted at once.
In gold lettering: Alex Roth.
In silver lettering: Khalik Behr-Medr.
In bronze lettering: Thundar, Son of Gulbiff.
In fourth place: Isolde Von Anmut.
Six more names were ranked after that. It was a small class, and so the only name that did not appear on the Honours List was Rayne’s.
“Isolde!” Khalik called. “Come, come you must see this! First group is best group!” He laughed uproariously.
Alex looked over to see Isolde, who was staring up at several Honours Lists, nodding in satisfaction at each. Her friends were chatting to each other and seemed to have lost interest in the lists.
“Isolde!” Khalik called again.
“Hm? What? What? What?” she blinked, shaking off her concentration. “Ah, hello friends. What is it?”
“Come! See your name immortalized with ours!” Khalik laughed.
Isolde raised an eyebrow, and her blue eyes lit up in anticipation. They flicked to Alex again and that note of challenge entered them. Alex’s eyes darted back and forth as she approached, with her head held high.
“Did we do well?” she asked as she arrived. “Ah I s-”
The colour drained from her face and her eyes went wide. Her jaw fell open. “Fourth?” she gasped as though she’d just learned her father died.
“Yeah!” Thundar said, clapping her on the back. “We did damn well! A big, bad four!”
Isolde stumbled forward slightly, but caught herself. Her eyes continued to stare at Alex’s name embossed in gold. Then they shot to other lists. She began to tremble when she saw the list for POTI-1000 and outright gasped again when she saw what he’d achieved in mana manipulation.
Isolde stepped back, shaking her head. And at this point, she’d caught Theresa’s attention.
“Is...olde? Are you alright?” Theresa asked.
Isolde, however, turned to Alex. She shook, muttering something under her breath.
Khalik and Thundar had stopped laughing.
“Uh…” Thundar started.
Isolde swore loudly in Rhinean and immediately began to rush through the crowd toward the exit.
“Isolde? Isolde!” shouted one of her friends.
“Ah shit,” Alex said. “Isolde! Isolde!”
His friends called after her too, but she kept going, her speed increasing as she neared the doorway.
“Running in the hall is unsafe,” Hobb chided from beside the board.
Thinking quickly, Alex decided to try something he’d been practicing for awhile.
“Isolde! I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t do anything to you! What’s wrong, come back to us!” he called to her.
She froze in front of the entrance, and slowly turned back with an incredulous expression.
He hadn’t spoken to her in the common tongue, but in her own mother tongue of Rhinean—one of the languages he’d been slowly practicing for months using The Mark.
“I…I…” she said in disbelief, as Alex, Thundar, Theresa and Khalik rushed through the crowd. Isolde’s friends also pushed through.
As the six of them arrived in front of a gawking Isolde, her face twitched, and suddenly, she broke down into tear-filled laughter.
“Thank the elements,” she gasped before the stunned group. “Your accent is terrible. You are human, after all!”
“I do not like to lose, particularly at things at which I excel,” Isolde explained.
The group had long left the hall and gone to a more secluded spot on campus. Each of them had grabbed drinks from a nearby stand and were sitting among the trees. Shishi and Isolde’s two friends had departed for classes, which left Alex, Thundar, Theresa, Khalik and Isolde seated within a copse of trees, away from prying eyes.
“And, thankfully, that is not an experience that I am subjected to very often.” Isolde sipped her steaming hot cider. “I work diligently and maximize my natural gifts in order to learn quickly, efficiently and well.”
“Yeah, so I heard. One of Val’Rok’s graduate students told me that you topped all the first year Honours Lists last year,” Alex sipped his drink, leaning against the same tree as Theresa.
Khalik whistled. “Every list?” he said with true respect in his voice. “For every class you took? That is incredible: even the most gifted general cannot win every battle.”
Thundar watched everyone quietly, remaining silent and taking a long sip.
Isolde gave a bitter laugh. “Incredible? It is expected.” She shook her head. “My grandfather is the head court wizard for The Emperor of Rhinea.”
Thundar spit his drink onto the ground, while Theresa began coughing into hers. Alex nearly inhaled his, and started making choking sounds. Only Khalik took the information in stride. Likely his own secret made him a little less shocked at her revelation of status.
“I see,” he said. “That would mean a great deal of pressure: a pedigree like that comes with expectations.”
“Truthfully spoken,” Isolde said. “It was drilled into me at an early age to excel in the study of wizardry by my grandfather, in hopes that I would gain a position at court upon my graduation. It is not an easy task: the court wizards are highly skilled, and the choice is also half-political.”
Her gaze darkened. “And there are those that do not wish for me to enter, as that would grant my grandfather another ally. As such, my performance here must be exemplary: unassailable by any standard.”
“That sounds like a lot of pressure,” Theresa said.
“Of course it is,” Isolde agreed. “But I do relish it: the thrill of accomplishment is one that I am used to and one that I very, very much enjoy.” She paused. “But, Theresa, in truth, it can be so very tiring at times. So very, very tiring.”
“Jeez, that must have made it really rough, when uh…that stuff happened in potions.” Alex winced.
“What stuff?” Thundar asked.
Isolde’s jaw tightened. Alex heard the grind of teeth against teeth. “I met a handsome, young, easy-going count’s son from the countryside of my homeland. He was delightfully charming, helped me relax and brought a romance to my life…and I thought…well, perhaps we…”
The grinding intensified. “…it turns out that when he said he was ‘fascinated by my mind’ that his meaning was far less romantic than I thought: I sought to help him with his studies, and unknown to me, he copied my assignments. To professor Jules, it looked like I might have helped him cheat. It was resolved in my favour, and I received no academic demerits, but I was disqualified from the Honours’ List for POTI-1000 while the scandal was being investigated. Once it was proven that I had no knowledge of his misconduct, the list was already finalized.”
She swore in Rhinean. “A foolish, foolish mistake. And what do I see today?” She looked at Alex. “A first year who joined Generasi while knowing only onespell exceeded my performance in first year mana manipulation after only half of first semester and will now proceed to second year, and secured the top honours for many, many courses…including defeating me—along with two other first years—in the chancellor’s personal course. It is a shock.”
Alex grimaced, imagining how things must have been in the previous year for her. He’d been working himself to the bone since he’d reached Generasi: how would he have felt if one of his achievements went up in smoke because he was manipulated by someone he trusted.
“Well, uh,” Alex said. “The grad student I talked to said you were doing very well. Like, your feelings are your own, but you impress the hell out of me.”
The others nodded in agreement, but Isolde let out a short laugh. “I have begun to hear professors and graduate students alike speaking about you. In POTI-2000, one of the teaching assistants spoke about how you were offered a position to help with professor Jules personal research. That is an honour that is unheardof for a first year. It is astounding!”
Alex thought he noticed an edge in her voice as she said it, but didn’t voice that.
“So here I am,” she said. “Struggling to throw off the shame of my lack of judgement…while you fly like an eagle. I must say, my compliments. My compliments.”
Silence filled the copse of trees. Then Thundar raised his hand. “Hey, why don’t we all pool our resources? Come together as a herd?”
“Hm?” Isolde looked up at the minotaur. “What do you mean?”
“Yes, what’s this, Thundar?” Khalik asked.
“Well, I feel ya: you have to perform as best you can, and you’ve been doing it all by yourself, Isolde,” Thundar said. “But a lone bull gets killed without a herd.”
“I-I have friends,” Isolde said a little defensively.
“I know,” the minotaur said. “But when we saw you in the library, you were all by yourself. You work on your own, don’t you?”
“....yes. As I was taught.”
Thundar lifted the charm-necklace he’d received from the chancellor. “Baelin said his students sometimes form lasting bonds, right? Why don’t we do something like that? Together, the four of us crushed his first test. We work well together. I know Khalik and Alex study together a bunch, and I sometimes join in, but what if we worked together a lot more closely. We’re the big, bad four.”
“What’re you saying?” Alex asked.
“I think I might know…” Khalik said, intrigued. “Remember that brotherhood we saw recruiting in the stadium? Ursa-Lupine Brotherhood of Generasi?”
“Yeah…that really old battle mage thing?”
“Well.” Khalik shrugged. “It is really old, true, but it had to be started by someone, sometime, right?”
Alex’s brain began to follow. “Like how Carey London started Campus for Uldar.”
“What do you mean?” Isolde asked.
“I mean,” Thundar said, leaning forward and grinning. “The four of us come together. Start our own official little private society of wizards. Something that can last for our time here and maybe beyond graduation. Something that can grow. A big bad four that helps each other like we did in The Barrens, now, and later.”
Alex’s mind began to race at the possibilities.
Isolde looked at Thundar closely. She was frowning, but her eyes were intrigued.