It continued on in much the same vein. Each time, they began with a simple task, that grew progressively more and more complex until I was finally forced to admit defeat.
I was asked to break a series of increasingly harder materials with my bare hands to test my vitalism and augmentation, and to summon and control a variety of animal spirits to gauge my proficiency with primaturgy and conjuration. Between those tasks, Zhou-fa had set me on a technical question, structured around his interests in astromancy, a field that I knew laughably little of. I had babbled and waffled my way through the question, and I hoped that it at least some of the nonsense I had spouted was accurate.
With how laughably poor my elementalism and evocation were, once I had finished with the standard variations of the elemental blasts, they’d taken pity on me and allowed me to proceed on with ontomancy and transmutation.
This was it. My time to shine. I’d been hoping for this particular classic combination, and it was the one I was most confident with. Water had been turned mud, and mud to sand, and sand to stone – all standard transmutations taught in schools. I was eager to demonstrate more of my capabilities, to showcase transmutations of higher complexity than what was expected of school students.
Unfortunately, I did not get the chance.
“Alright, then,” Pan Zhou-fa said, nodding. “We’ve seen enough, I think.”
“We’ve taken more time than expected, it seems,” Arcanist Rhones agreed. “Let’s move on to the next section of the interviews.”
I wanted to protest and speak out. Ontomancy and transmutation were my only saving graces. I had frequently excelled in those disciplines in school, back in Corden. But with only a B+ and a B in those disciplines, as measured by the Standard Comprehensive Framework, there must have been other applicants before me capable of displays that would exceed anything I could demonstrate.
If they were aware of my indignation, they made no effort to acknowledge it. “You are aware of how the Arcanum is organised, correct?”
I nodded to Arcanist Rhones. The Arcanum was the oldest academy of higher learning in the Kingdom, dating back to the days when it had still been the Fornian Empire, and it was more deeply rooted in traditions than its contemporaries.
“The Arcanum consists centrally of the five Institutes, each corresponding to the five core traditions of Elementalism, Primaturgy, Vitalism, Ontomancy, and Cogniturgy,” I said. “Supporting them peripherally are the various Departments. Students and faculty enrol as members of the Colleges, which serve independently as the sites of practical supervision and holistic academic direction for students. Currently, there are nine Colleges, each of which has their own histories, traditions, and cultures.”
“Indeed.” Arcanist Rhones leaned forward, fixing me with a piercing stare. “Now, Mister Korr, I would like to ask why you have chosen to apply for a position in Quintus?”
Because it’s a recently established College, and everyone says it’s the easiest to get into.
“I believe that Quintus, being the youngest of the nine Colleges, offers more opportunities and is more accepting of a diverse student population,” I said instead. “I’m from a town called Corden, and while my family works in the potions trade, none of us have ever been full-fledged alchemists. No one in my family had ever attended tertiary education, and, well – I doubt that a college like Heraldia or Farsage would even consider my application.”
Pan Zhou-fa snorted, an uncharacteristic break from his serious demeanour from earlier. “You’d be surprised,” he said. “I attended Heraldia myself, and some of the noble idiots there can make a Shade seem bright in comparison.”
“I’m a noble idiot, Zhou,” Priscilla pointed out, glaring at him. “But true. I was from Quintus’ twelfth cohort of students, and I can fully say for certain that we were always kept on our toes by the common class.”
Arcanist Rhones brought the discussion back to focus. “Let’s not go off topic. You wrote in your application that ontomancy was your core tradition of choice?” I nodded, and so he continued. “Have you given any thought as to which of the Departments you wish to enrol in for your first-year options in addition to your studies in ontomancy, if you were admitted as a student?”
“Yes, sir. A major study in the Department of Arcana, and minor studies in Enchantment, Transmutation, and Negation.”
“A major in Arcana?” There was almost a gleam in Zhou-fa’s eyes. “Most students take it as a minor option, since Part I Minor Arcana serves as a prerequisite for higher Spellcraft in other Departments.”
“The least subscribed as a major discipline of study, and the most subscribed for a minor option,” Arcanist Rhones agreed. “Out of the over two hundred applicants invited to these interviews at our college, only six of you indicated a desire to take major Arcana.”
It was true. Arcana was many things – while it was the study of magic for magic and by magic, it also went into the philosophy of magic in itself. A minor study in Arcana provided sufficient theoretical background for practical uses in other subdisciplines.
“I’m interested in Numeromancy,” I explained. “I can’t say that I know a lot about the field, at the moment, but I’ve tried looking into it.”
“Numeromancy?” Zhou-fa quipped, interested. “Do you intend to go into specialised spellcraft?”
“Not exactly,” I said slowly. “It’s kind of a silly reason, really, but…”
“What is it?”
“I’m interested in Systematics,” I admitted. “I’m don’t really have an interest in most of cogniturgy, but I’ve always been fascinated by what people generally refer to as the System, and the different methods by which magic bolsters our intrinsic cognition to process the world. To me, all that the System is in all its various forms is just neuromancy applied in the field of cogniturgy.”
They didn’t interrupt just yet, and so I figured I should continue speaking. “I’m only a Level 16 on the Standard Comprehensive Framework,” I said. “And my highest statistic is only a B+ in ontomancy. Even in Corden, quite a few of my friends had higher affinities and proficiencies.
“But – and I don’t mean to brag – somehow, I can occasionally come out ahead of them in tests and assessments in school, even though they may be a full grade higher than myself as judged by the Standard Framework. The System as displayed through the Standard Framework, while a convenient and impartial tool, isn’t everything. Besides, beyond a certain point, the scale becomes meaningless, just as it eventually becomes impossible to measure the height of a growing child with a scale etched onto a wall.”
“True,” Zhou-fa said, engaging in the conversation. “I take it you know why this is so?”
“Dimensional reduction,” I said, nodding. “The System – no matter how one chooses to have it displayed, in all its various matrices and frameworks – ultimately comes down to compressing high-dimensional data into more comprehensible lower dimensions, while maintaining meaningful interpretation.”
“I would have you explain further.”
This wasn’t quite what I expected – no one back in school, not even my teachers, showed much interest in the basis of the System. To them, the System was simply the System; and they treated the Standard Framework as the be all and end all, although it was only one such possible System. Just another facet of cogniturgy.
“I guess… well, there was this study conducted by Arcanist Loda several centuries prior,” I said. “He had five classrooms of young students engaging in augmentation exercises, each focused solely on a specific type of enhancement, and charted changes in their proficiencies for augmentation throughout the study period. At the end, though each group became specialised in specific augmentations, only one group actually showed a change in readings per the Standard Framework.”
“A classic study.”
“The key point is that the Standard Framework takes multi-variable data to churn out a value for each of its reported statistics. Not all data is accounted for by the underlying spell matrix, however; and the relative weights for each parameter is defined by the spell matrix, though they would be of different importance in different practical situations. Therefore, interpreting the readout must be done with caution,” I said. “More advanced methods – Systems reporting the Keldeth’s Criteria, for example – investigate each discipline to a higher depth, but with the need for more complex spellwork.”
“True. But you must be aware of the so-called curse of dimensionality?”
“As dimensionality increases, the volume of the space increases proportionally more, such that available data becomes much sparser. Additionally, the amount of data needed to acquire a reliable result must increase together with the sampling depth and distance – and so, since cogniturgy is the means of probing the sample space in the first place, this necessitates spell matrices of higher complexity, to the point where one has to be an accomplished cogniturgist to generate the most advanced of Systems.”
Off to the side, there was the scratching of a quill on paper as Arcanist Rhones wrote down more notes. “While interpreting and displaying statistics is the most common use of the System, there are also more varied and exotic functions,” he commented. “Have you heard of Jorhim’s Grand Quests?”
I doubted that anyone interested in Systematics at all hadn’t heard of the infamous Jorhim. “Vola Jorhim developed a unique System of his own design, that in addition to assisting the human mind’s capacity for comprehending information, utilised numeromancy and cogniturgy as a means of providing direction and motivation toward the completion of self-beneficial tasks autonomously generated by the System. Quests, he called them.”
“Then you must be aware of what happened to him.”
I nodded. “For all that he called them, Quests are similar to the Divinations used by the oracles and seers of old – magically-guided predictions, based upon numeromancy, observation, and inference. Predictions, however, leave room for error. There must have been a variable unaccounted for in the underlying spellwork of his System, because after he joined the crusade that fended off the Second Abyssal Incursion, slew the White Terror of Bleakspire, and reconciled the Peasant’s Revolt of 752, he famously committed suicide by leaping off the Fanged Tower while wearing an active magical suppression cloak. While no one knows the reason for certain, it is mostly agreed upon by scholars that his System guided him to do so under the guise of a Quest, though it is unknown what reward was promised.”
“If you’re keen on Systematics, why not choose to take cogniturgy as your core option instead?” Priscilla questioned, curious. “It’s a more relevant core tradition to Systematics than ontomancy.”
“I’m more confident with ontomancy. Besides, ontology and teleology are important considerations in ontomancy, and they feed in directly with the fundamentals of Arcana,” I explained. “And… beyond just that, I have no interest in half of higher cogniturgy, anyway. Systems mostly rely on internal cogniturgy for processing information, and don’t need external cogniturgy for influencing the minds of others.”
“Ouch.” At my questioning look, she explained. “I may work in the Department of Enchantment, but my exact speciality is creation of sentient enchanted equipment.”
I could feel myself blanching. Had I just brazenly insulted her field of study right in front of her?
“We should bring this to a close, I think,” Arcanist Rhones said, thankfully cutting in. “Thank you for your time, Mister Korr. We shall take your application with due consideration, and inform you of our decision by long-distance Sending between the hours of noon and evening five days from now.”
I gave a hasty bow – mom and dad had drilled it into me to do so when they had sent me off two weeks ago. “Thank you for your time, Arcanist Rhones, and Junior Arcanists Gale and Pan.”
With that, he gestured toward the door, a wave of raw mana flinging it open, and I took that as my cue to exit into the empty corridor.
“Thoughts?” Florian asked the moment that the boy left the room.
“I must admit, his initial performance was rather lackluster,” Zhou-fa said, looking over the comments he had written down. “He had some interesting ideas – I quite liked his direction of using a negation-based approach in the enchantment exercise – but he lacks innate talent in the various disciplines.”
“Can it be remedied if he works hard enough, though?” Priscilla asked.
Zhou-fa considered the question, but then shrugged. “Hard to say. Besides, the boy’s got a point – both the exercise given to him and the Standard Framework measurements considered in the initial screening of applicants only measure specific aspects of holistic magical talent.”
“True,” Florian agreed. “I must say, though, his transmutation was remarkably intricate, and he has an eye for detail. I take it that was why you saw no need to further test his limits back then?”
“Having him turn the stone to glass would have been wholly unnecessary. We all saw how his sand looked, and we all know that he could have formed a glass sculpture perfectly resembling any one of us if he wanted to.”
“Well put. Let’s see… ah, his elementalism and evocation leave much room for improvement.”
Zhou-fa snorted. “He’s rubbish at them.”
“Harsh, but true.” Florian took a moment to glance over his own notes. “Ah, he was rather crafty with the augmentation exercise as well. Had to give the points to him, though – he may not have relied fully on augmentation to bolster his strength, but weakening the structure in the oakstone with ontomancy was a nice touch. Quick spell-chaining, too.”
“Mmhmm,” Priscilla made a sound of agreement. “His answer to the surprise astromancy question went on a tangent, though.”
It had been clear that the boy wasn’t confident in his answer to Zhou-fa’s questioning at the time. It wasn’t unexpected – this was meant to test the abilities of prospective candidates to apply existing knowledge to novel situations, and of the many applicants they had interviewed, few had gone down the line of reasoning they had intended when they set the topic of discussion.
“He’s not entirely wrong, though,” Zhou-fa said, and Florian looked at him, surprised. Astromancy was not Florian’s specialty, but Zhou-fa was an expert in the field.
“What do you mean?”
“Most of established astromancy pertains to drawing upon the aether from the aether fields of distant star systems, to be manifested and channelled in different ways,” Zhou-fa said, summarising the gist of the expected starting point that candidates took the discussion. “Taelin Korr, however, instead suggested that astromancy is derived from the movements and sounds created by celestial bodies as they traverse aether fields – and in so doing, provide not just the loci of spell matrices, but also generate the somatic and verbal components through which mana can be stirred into motion and magic can be shaped.”
“Harmonices Mundi,” Florian said. “Harmony of the Worlds. If I remember correctly, Kepler performed much work on the idea when he pioneered the field of astromancy, but ultimately his contemporaries concluded that using magic in such a way is impossible.”
“So it was thought to be,” Zhou-fa agreed. “Recently, however, it has come to my attention that some of the folks over in Planar Studies observed the locals of the Xuan-Ti system utilising celestial energies in such a fashion in their section of the Material Plane, in a hybrid process of Augmentation, Elementalism, Vitalism, and Evocation. At the moment, they’re designating the practice under the term ‘cultivation’, pending a means of establishing communications with the locals.”
“Fascinating,” Florian mused, and sighed. “Nine hundred years that the Arcanum has been established, and we still know laughably little about the true depths of magic.” He shook his head. “But, again, we are venturing off-topic. What are your thoughts on his final discussions?”
“He’s passionate about the topic, that’s for sure,” Priscilla voiced their common opinion. “It’s almost like a Light spell went off when the discussion took a turn toward numeromancy and systematics.”
“Definitely some extracurricular reading, but not exactly uncommon knowledge,” Zhou-fa pointed out. “That being said, he’s got a decent grounding in the non-magical aspects of arcana. Given some time and effort, I think he could do well in his major study.”
“That’s only one part of the course, though. We need to consider his aptitude for core ontomancy, as well as his desired minors in enchantment, negation, and transmutation.”
“It wasn’t the best we’ve seen today, but I have no concerns about his aptitude for enchantment at this point,” Priscilla said. “Transmutation’s good, too. We didn’t have much of a look at his capabilities in negation, however. I reckon he could do well if he takes up a minor study in the Department of Warding, but the course is only offered to second years at the moment.”
Privately, Florian agreed with that assessment. He had a faculty position in the Institute of Primaturgy, and he was more of a generalist compared to his peers, but he had a specific interest in the discipline of warding. Considering Taelin’s varied approaches toward the assigned tasks, he had the potential to go far, given the chance.
“Very well, then,” he said. “Let’s firm our final scores for Taelin Korr, and put his papers in the pile.”