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Within the hour, I found myself in the most uncomfortable of positions, and sorely regretted all the expectations I held for the Arcanum’s famous matriculation dinner.

I didn’t know whether it was luck, fate, or deliberately planned sabotage, but the place card assigned to me at the table saw me seated right next to one of Quintus’ fellows that would serve as one of my future supervisors who were scattered amongst our group.

And now, about an hour into the meal, he was flat out drunk, and causing all manner of shenanigans.

“Oi, Zhou!” he slurred, grinning toward the astromancy expert that had been at my interviews, seated opposite him. “Come on, let’s have an arm wrestle; you and me! No augmentation; all brawn, all muscle!”

That was… well, surprising, to be honest. The man beside me who had introduced himself as a ‘Gault Flavinx’ prior to his intoxication looked younger than Zhou-fa did. He was also noticeably less muscular, and I felt like even a bundle of twigs like myself could take up his challenge.

Just opposite me was another student – Daario Morse, a fellow commoner I had the briefest of conversations with before Gault took seriously to his commitment to alcohol. We shared a minor in negation in common, but no other classes.

Zhou-fa sighed. “Please just have Camille purge you of that vile toxin you call alcohol already…”

Gault wagged a finger. “No can do, Zhou! We’ve both got to enjoy ourselves while we can before we take to supervising these brats!” He paused, then looked over at the pair of us beside him. “No offense.”

“Uh… no problem?” Daario said hesitantly, and that earned him Gault reaching over to deliver a clap of approval on his shoulder.

He was handsome, and if I were able to notice that, my peers were surely capable of doing likewise. Several girls a few places down were catching glances at him, and I half-considered asking if they were willing to exchange seats, propriety and adherence to the Arcanum’s traditions be damned.

“Good lad,” he praised. “Come on, Zhou! What’s wrong? Don’t tell me you’re scared?” He held both hands up, emphasising his lack of musculature. “Look at me! We said no augmentation allowed; is the big scary Pan Zhou-fa afraid he’ll lose?”

“Why are you like this at every formal occasion?” Zhou-fa groaned, exchanging a commiserating look with me. “For context – he used to be my student in his time at Quintus, and he causes this same ruckus. Every. Single. Time.”

Huh. Zhou-fa didn’t look that old. Gault had to be a rather recent graduate for that arrangement to work out.

“No spoilers!” Gault protested. “What about you two, newbies? Care to take up the challenge?”

Zhou-fa quietly mouthed a ‘no’ toward me – not that I had any intention of agreeing. Daario, unfortunately, hadn’t seen the sign, and hesitantly spoke up.

“No augmentation allowed, you said?”

“Nope!” Gault grinned. “None at all! This here’s a gentleman’s contest!”

Daario deliberated a moment longer, but then agreed. Slowly, he placed his elbow on the table, waiting for the challenge to begin. A predatory smile grew on Gault’s face, and Zhou-fa sighed deeply. He clasped hands with Daario, and began to count down for the match to begin.

“Three, two, one…” he said. “Let’s goooooo!”

It was a one-sided battle. The moment that the signal was given, Gault was quickly becoming overpowered, his hand moving precariously close toward the table.

At least, that was how it should have proceeded. Within the blink of an eye, so fast that I missed it, Gault’s hand was somehow now pressing down on Daario’s. Surprised, the boy tried to struggle – but somehow, his enemy refused to budge in the slightest.

Finally, Daario gave up. “How?” he asked, once his hand was relinquished, as Gault took a celebratory swig of his drink in honour of his victory.

“He cheated, that’s how,” Zhou-fa grunted.

“Don’t mind him,” Gault said, winking. “He’s still sore that he lost when I first challenged him to the same contest in my fifth year.”

Zhou-fa refused to take the bait. Instead, he turned toward us. “Here’s a question for you two – what do you think Gault did to turn the tables?”

Daario didn’t seem to have any clue, and he’d been the one to take up the challenge. “It felt like the more I tried to push him away, the less I was able to do so… but beyond that…”

“And you, Taelin Korr? What do you think happened there?”

“Well…” I began, unsure why I was even being dragged into this. “It definitely couldn’t have been augmentation – maybe ontomancy?”

“Ontomancy?” Daario frowned. “How does that fit?”

“A sub-branch deals with the natural laws and forces of the world – but no, that wouldn’t work either; this isn’t gravitational manipulation…”

What was it? I tried to lay the facts out straight – Daario easily won on muscle strength alone, that much was evident. Then in the blink of an eye, the tables were turned, and all of his struggles only reduced his chances of victory. It could have been cogniturgy – perhaps a mental illusion directed at the three of us to make it seem like he was winning, but that didn’t sound right…

“Ontomancy is partially correct,” Gault hinted, eyeing the pair of us as he took a generous sip of his drink. “Not bad. Most people accuse me of cheating with cogniturgy as their first guess. Me! Can you imagine that?”

I tuned out his drunken and meaningless words. Ontomancy was the right track? It was the field that dealt with a variety of topics – existence, the nature of being, and the natural laws of the world. It wasn’t augmentation, and so…

I had an idea.

Still, surely it couldn’t be the right one, could it?

“Gault, sir,” I said slowly, uncertain even as I phrased it. “You wouldn’t happen to have transmuted space, would you?”

There was a sudden silence in our corner of the table.

“First try?” Gault spoke, part incredulous, part indignant, and fully drunk. “Shenanigans! I call shenanigans! You spilled the beans didn’t you, Pan Zhou-fa?”

“You really transmuted space?” It was the only possibility I could think of, but to have it confirmed was…

“Ehhh, it’s a bit more technical than that – it’s a mix of transmutation that draws inspiration from conjuration, and some good old-fashioned ontomancy – but yes, for a first year, that’s close enough to the truth to earn you passing points…”

“But how?” I pressed, trying to keep his wandering mind back on topic. “Ontomancy requires an entity! It needs an existence! Space isn’t the air in the way; it’s just… space! It’s the fabric of reality!”

Of course space exists,” he scoffed. “What, how do you think we’re all still floating in the Material Plane, rather than plummeting off to the middle of the Abyss?”

“But you can transmute it? Change it to something else?”

Gault shrugged. “It’s more of a bending and twisting, but sure, I’ll take it.”

“How?”

He slumped into his seat, idly running his finger over the rim of his glass. “How good are you with comprehending manifolds, topological spaces, and working out transition maps that won’t end up with the spell backfiring?”

I blinked.

“Numeromancy?” I asked with renewed interest.

He startled, looking at me seriously for the first time. “You understood what I just said?”

“Not everything,” I admitted. “But a manifold… I think I’ve heard that before? It’s a space that is locally Euclidean, though it may be much more complex globally?”

“Ehh, yes and no, but close enough for now,” he said, peering at me. Then, without warning, he grinned widely, turning toward Zhou-fa. “Hey! Zhou! We’ve got another one!”

“I am aware,” Zhou-fa reluctantly replied to his newly enthusiastic colleague. “I attended Taelin Korr’s interview, a fact you would remember if you would just care enough to maintain your sobriety.”

Gault ignored him. Instead, his attention had shifted back onto me. “So! How did I do it, you ask? Worry not, Taelin Korr! I, Gault Flavinx, shall bestow unto you the grandest wisdom this day!”

Within moments, I sorely regretted ever even asking.

“It took a lot of tinkering to get it working, and right now it really only works for arm wrestling – anything on a larger scale takes too much mana and strains the matrix too much – but back in my fifth year of studies, I had waaaay too much time on my hands, and so I figured – hey, you know what? Bitch, I’m Gault Flavinx, let’s bend space! And so, I got to work, emptied out the college’s stock of wine, and – no, wait, hear me out! – I started by modelling all of space-time as a giant cow, and if you work under the rough approximation that pi equals to three, then…”

-x-x-x-

With the morning came the first official day of classes. The night before had thankfully ended with Gault mercifully passing out, in the middle of his explanation that somehow led to him putting infinities into one another.

I wasn’t sure how much of that was fact or fiction, but one thing I knew was that I had to stay far, far away from the man if ever he was within reach of a glass containing anything remotely alcoholic.

The rooms that Quintus provided for its students were positively luxurious compared to my own room back home. After a nice, long night on a lush bed that I didn’t have to personally enchant or transmute overnight for a restful sleep as I did back home, I awoke and departed early for the morning classes.

Courses run by the Departments had multiple sessions of the same lecture, to account for timetabling clashes that different students would face. My first lesson was in one of my minor studies – Transmutation – and though I knew that out of all my acquaintances so far, Claire Rhogard shared that particular course with me, I didn’t know if her schedule would fit with mine.

Besides – after dealing with the drunken ramblings of Gault Flavinx the night before, I could surely use some peace and quiet devoid of social interaction.

Quintus was fairly on the outskirts of the Arcanum, compared to the older colleges located in the heart of the academy. Several students – richer students, or ones who wisely devoted themselves to enchantment and cogniturgy – had self-driving carriages to take them to and from their various destinations of the day. Alas, such was not my luxury to be had, and I was doomed to a pedestrian life in both senses of the word.

The Department of Transmutation was an aesthetically striking set of buildings. Geometrical constructions were etched into its walls, and the ten buildings that collectively made up the Department were arranged in a tetractys. Transmutation was the art of change, but the traditions of the field had originated by the ancient empires’ dedication to understanding and altering the forms of the natural world, and so geometry was deeply ingrained in its culture.

Lectures and classes were held in the central building of the tetractys formation, that also served as its administrative building. Peripherally, the various academic divisions of the Department engaged in active research and development, or specialised training in specific subfields.

One of those was the Division of Exotic Transformations, and I was determined to avoid that like a plague. Somewhere in those halls was where Gault Flavinx worked when he wasn’t getting drunk or providing supervision to students, and I had no intention of crossing paths with him today.

I wasn’t the first to make it to the lecture hall. Small pockets of students had clustered together, and they paid little mind to my entry. I claimed a seat for myself, and took stock of my fellow students.

I didn’t recognise any of them, which probably put them as members of the eight other colleges. There was no need to wear the college’s academic dressing outside of formal occasions, and so I had no means of discerning which colleges they came from. A fair few, however, boasted the coat of arms of various noble Houses, marking them as members of the noble class.

There was still a good twenty minutes or so before the lecture was due to begin. Taking the opportunity to clear my mind and be refreshed and ready for the first official lecture of my life in the Arcanum, I withdrew a pencil, compass, eraser, and straightedge, and began to mindlessly construct various geometrical figures.

It was a hobby that I had taken up as a kid. Without much else to do in Corden, when we’d been taught basic geometry as part of elementary education, geometrical construction was a simple way to pass the time.

As I continued working on creating my regular 17-gon, I had my eraser levitating and spinning over the parchment, suspended by formless mana. Formless magic was laughably pointless compared to structured magic – that which belonged to any of the five core traditions – but it was a useful exercise in control frequently utilised in early education. Most kids that kept up with the exercises could keep a light object like an eraser in the air indefinitely without too much wobbling.

For my part, however, I was absently letting it trail in the air, directing it this way and that. My intention was not to train my control – if practising mana control was my purpose, I’d perform the entire construction without physically touching the tools at my disposal. Right now, all I wanted was a nice, pleasant, relaxing rest before the lecture began, and –

“You!”

Caught off-guard, I let the eraser hang lifelessly in the air, my 17-gon still several vertices away from completion.

Claire Rhogard was there, accompanied by five other students I thought I recognised as my fellow Quintus students from the day before. She was the only noble of the bunch, but it seemed they all saw no distinction in that regard.

Now that I was brought back to reality, the lecture hall was definitely much more filled than before. Led by Claire, the group of Quintus students she managed to herd along with her settled in my row of seats.

Planes, what’s all this mess?” she asked, confused. “No, never mind – you! Do you know how long we were looking for you?”

“What?”

“It’s the first day! Everyone goes to classes together on the first day!” She glared at me. “And you know that I’m taking minor transmutation as well! Explain yourself, Taelin Korr!”

“I had no way of knowing whether we’d even be attending the same lecture, since we all have different combinations of classes in the Departments –“

She would have none of that. “Bah, excuses!” Then, she shrugged. “Well, now that we’re here, maybe I’ll introduce you to everyone, since you didn’t hang around after the dinner. That’s Kaesa Alm, Zarith Mulnar, Pascal Rolo, Desmond Farron, and Nadine Fulworth. Here’s Taelin Korr, and I have it on good authority that we shouldn’t judge him for what he considers to be an enjoyable and valuable pastime.”

Gah. Weren’t nobles supposed to be stuffy and stuck-up folk with their heads in the clouds? Why did she have to engage in so much conversation?

“Whereabouts are you from?” Desmond struck up conversion, leaning back to look at me past Claire’s shoulder.

“Corden,” I answered. Seeing the lack of acknowledgement of the name, I clarified. “It’s a little town on the southern end of the Kingdom, close to the Fendalgard border.”

He whistled. “That’s faaar. Never went any further south than Highwater, myself.”

The northernmost cities and towns of Renaitia were far better off than the cities to the south, a result of much of the Kingdom’s major infrastructure being centred around the capital in the north. Though we were both commonfolk, I’d seen for myself the past weeks how different the people in the north were from what I was used to. Back home, my family was fairly affluent in our local town, and I was one of the more magically inclined children among my peers, but here in the north, my family would be unremarkable, at best.

Accordingly, we didn’t have many dealings with nobles, either. Technically, we were considered part of the duchy of House Arundale, but our town was left to our own devices for the most part, since we were one of the smaller settlements in the sparsely populated southern territories.

He didn’t follow up with any further comment, and turned to his left, smoothly transitioning to speak with Kaesa and Pascal instead.

“You don’t have many friends, do you?”

I glared at Claire, unsure whether she was being naïve, making fun of me, trying to annoy me, or actively looking for a fight.

“Just an observation,” she said, shrugging, and took her writing implements out. “You should work on your cogniturgy negation, by the way. I can hear your thoughts practically leaking out.”

What the –

And sure enough, I felt a strand of magic probing at me – just at the surface of my mind, only able to glimpse a general sense of my mood. That it had gone unnoticed, however, was something I hadn’t been subject to with the folks back home.

Claire Rhogard was far too chatty for my liking, but damn if she wasn’t good at cogniturgy.

“Thanks for the compliment.”

The hell –

“Ah, and now there’s confirmation,” she said, grinning. “You know what? Work on both your negation and keeping a straight face. It’ll do you some good.”

Thankfully, the lecturer chose to make his appearance known, and the students in the lecture hall quickly fell silent.

“Welcome to the Arcanum, and welcome to Part IA Minor Transmutation. I am Jasper Reston, one of the Department’s professors, and I will be handling your first lecture series of the course,” he said succinctly. “I expect and assume that all of you are now fully versed in the assumed prerequisite knowledge leading to your application to the Arcanum, and I shall not waste any of your time and mine reviewing what should already be common knowledge. Instead, today, we shall take a step back to examine and expand upon the root of transmutation, that will serve you well in your upcoming years of study in the Arcanum.”

Without a sound, with only the slightest of movements, he manifested a complex set of transmutations. The podium and stage – no, the entire room – twisted and bent this way and that, and suddenly, the lecture hall filled with students was now arranged as a series of concentric circles of varying heights, with the lecturer in the very middle in a deep depression.

“So,” he said, and if the hall had been quiet before, it was now absolutely silent. “What is change?”

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About the author

Innate_Lymphoid_Cell

Bio: Real life immunologist-in-training playing make-believe magic in a hypothetical world, when not dosing mice or crying over uninformative results.

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