“What is change, he says,” Claire muttered, groaning. “But does anyone ever ask how is change, or why is change? Nooooo.”
It had been an eye-opening first lecture to begin my time in the Arcanum. In Corden, even my teachers hadn’t been close to being able to replicate the displays of transmutation that Jasper Reston had performed.
“Poor change. Sucks to be him,” I said distractedly, still mulling over the contents of the lecture.
He had promised to take us to the root of the subject, and he most definitely had. He had begun with examining change from an ontological point of view, showing how perspectives had shifted over the history of the field, allowing for new and novel transmutations to be generated. A change in form had been the primary focus of the lecture, fully taking up most of his time, but he had also thrown in relevant examples of changes in mana, changes in thought, changes even in the primal spirits that primaturgy dealt with; changes in life, changes in death, changes in change itself.
“When is change?” Pascal quipped helpfully.
“Not sure if that really applies, though; you heard him going on about the notion of timeless change and reverse-time change and how they could relate to transmutation just before his lecture ended.”
Claire threw me an odd look. “You were still listening at that point?”
“Of course I was,” I said, mildly offended. “Do you need to copy down my notes?”
“And deal with the heptagons and dodecagons you probably doodled on your notebook? No thanks.”
“Don’t be stupid,” I scoffed. “You can’t draw a regular heptagon with just a compass and straightedge.”
She rolled her eyes, muttering something about an ‘arcana nut’ under her breath. “Well, I’m heading back to Quintus for a nice afternoon rest and relaxation,” she said. “You guys are free to join me, if you want.”
“I’ve got core ontomancy next,” I said, glancing at the others. It didn’t seem like there were any other ontomancers in Claire’s group that attended the morning’s lecture.
“Ontomancy, after all that endless meandering about change?” Claire winced. “Well, have fun. Say hi to Clarence for me if you see him.”
In the end, Claire, Nadine, Pascal, and Desmond headed back to Quintus. Kaesa Alm and Zarith Mulnar both shared minor augmentation, and it seemed that both the Institute of Ontomancy at the very heart of the academy-city and the Department of Augmentation lay in the same general direction.
The walk there was filled with the general niceties and exchanges. Kaesa was an elementalist while Zarith was a vitalist, and both of them were taking a major in conjuration. As with Desmond, they came from the northern cities, and I had the sense that being in the Arcanum wasn’t quite as different from their usual lives as it was for mine.
Kaesa was one of the two students at Level 21, while Zarith was a Level 23 on the Standard Framework. If they’d noticed my level, they were polite enough not to draw any attention to it, at the very least.
“And it turns out that Jasmine Fardale is together with another supervisor called Gault Flavinx,” Zarith eagerly continued with the gossip he’d heard from yesterday’s dinner, and up until now, it sounded like his night had been drastically different from my own.
They must have immediately noticed my reaction, because Zarith looked inquisitively at me. “You know him?”
“Sat next to him and Pan Zhou-fa at the dinner,” I said. “You’re telling me that that man actually has a stable relationship going on?”
“That’s what she told us? Was blushing and everything as well,” Zarith replied. “Said that both of them were in Quintus the same years. Is there something wrong?”
They weren’t satisfied leaving it at that, however, and so I acquiesced. “He’s not bad, or anything,” I grudgingly said. “Planes, he’s probably a far more brilliant ontomancer and transmuter than I’d ever be. Just… keep him away from alcohol if you don’t want to be subjected to barely coherent ramblings about the finer details of transmutation.”
It was now Kaesa’s turn to wince – she’d been barely holding on with her sanity intact after the morning lecture, and any further talk of transmutation could bring her over the tipping point.
As we continued down the roads of the Arcanum, enchanted carriages lined with materials obtained from the Far Planes sped by every now and then, that pointed toward the wealth and prestige the occupants within had to possess. Transmutation of materials from the Far Planes was still currently impossible, and they were far more valuable than even gold or dragonsteel that were already notoriously difficult to transmute. They were recovered from expeditions, and only the most adventurous, skilled, daring, or desperate of mages would voluntarily undertake such grand ventures.
Zarith whistled appreciatively. “Had to be from a marquis’ family at the very least, that one,” he said. “And one of the more influential ones at that. Maybe even a duke.”
Soon, we neared the intersection that fed into the heart of the Arcanum, which housed the five Core Institutes. With a quick goodbye, I made my way toward the Institute of Ontomancy.
It was busy in the heart of the academy-city, as I quickly realised. Beyond the students and faculty coming and going, it was also an active commercial hub, and I spied stores selling all manner of enchanted items and material components for advanced spells that I could hardly afford to shop at. There was a small barracks maintained by the Kingdom’s military, serving as a recruitment point for mages into the army’s various divisions. There were no active wars currently being fought, but a defence force needed to be maintained at all times in the event of another Abyssal Incursion, or if other outworlders chose the chance to instigate a Planar Break to conquer our world.
The five Core Institutes were arranged in a regular pentagon, each positioned along the circumference of the perfect circle that demarcated the city’s heart. Along the way, I passed the Institutes of Elementalism and Cogniturgy, before finally making it past the magically reinforced gates of the Institute of Ontomancy.
Where geometry had been the theme of the design of the Department of Transmutation, ontomancy, as its direct parent discipline, revolved around a similar theme, but extended it even further. A fractal bud grew into a fractal tree; and there were sculptures of the famous acorn seed that represented teleological pursuit surrounded by sculptures of oak trees, each piece constructed from a composite of the five Platonic solids.
I would have loved to stay longer to admire the beauty of this place that had seen over nine hundred years of history, but alas, I had a lecture to attend.
And I most definitely wasn’t alone in that regard.
The lecture hall was packed. With students having to select one of the five core traditions, there were many, many more students than in the morning’s Minor Transmutation lecture. There had to be several hundred students in attendance, at the very least.
There was no hope of searching for familiar faces in a place like this. If ever anyone from Quintus wanted to sit beside each other during lectures, coordinating a meetup beforehand or investing in a set of long-range and quasi-permanent Sending Stones tuned to a particular network was definitely going to be necessary.
And so, I sat beside someone I didn’t recognise, and waited for the last five minutes before the lecture was due to start as more and more students streamed in. I closed my eyes, thinking of the morning’s lectures, and the independent readings and transmutation practices I would need to carry out once the day’s classes were finished –
“ – really Level 16? Here?”
That sudden awareness of the quiet mutter somewhere in my vicinity caught me off-guard. I could feel it, now, the slightest brush of magic that marked the cogniturgy of someone feeding information back to their System. I was too late to react, however, and by the time I was able to search for where it came from, the sensation had fully disappeared.
It was… annoying, if I were to be honest. I didn’t need to cast my own spell of the Standard Framework to know that I was probably the lowest level out of the hundreds present here. I needed to raise it, and quickly – the issue was that the readout was the composite of multiple different variables, chief of which were affinities and proficiencies. Mana control, for instance, a skill I thought I was decently good at, wasn’t measured by the Standard Framework.
Was there a better method to raising affinities and proficiencies beyond simply performing routine castings of the desired discipline? It was the method that my teachers back in school had prescribed, and the few books in the local library dealing with the subject seemed to support the notion.
But that was something for later.
Right now, the lecture was about to begin.
Professors and Arcanists at the Arcanum had to have a flair for the dramatic, because without even introducing himself, he began his lecture with a question.
“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”
He paused for a moment, letting his intended drama sink in.
“But let us try that again,” he said. “To be, or not to be? That is the question.”
…what was he even doing?
“As ontomancers, our primary focus – and the very basis of our craft – is questioning existence itself. To be, or not to be? Is, or is not? What is? Why is? How does it be? What is it? Where is it? When is it?” he cast his gaze across the room, delivering a piercing stare. “If you do not ask yourself that at any given moment, then you have failed as ontomancers.”
Again, he let his words hang momentarily.
“If you successfully answer, and ever-engage with these questions, however, then, ontomancers of tomorrow – you hold the power of reality itself in the palm of your hands.”
With a snap of his fingers, the world faded away. There were no chairs, no tables, no lecterns. Hundreds of students – myself included among them – were suspended not in air, not on solid ground, and I wasn’t even sure if suspended was the right term for it.
“This is not a trick of cogniturgy; no mere illusion of the mind,” the yet unnamed professor continued. “You are. I am. My words are, and in this space I recognise as my domain, I have rejected all else that isn’t. Other than what I have chosen to be, all else does not exist. I am aware of that, and so my ontomancy holds true. Are you?”
With a second snap of his fingers, the world returned to normalcy. Without even a lurch, I was seated back on enchanted wood as though nothing had happened.
Pocket dimension. I had heard and read of it before. One of the possible powers wielded by only the greatest ontomancers.
And he had just used it without a care in the world.
“Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum, the cogniturgists would have you believe. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am,” he said. “A true statement, but they aim to mislead. I am, because I am. Cognition requires existence, that is true. But cognition is not a presupposed consequence of existence. Cogito, ergo sum are the sad ponderings of someone who needs reason to affirm their own existence. But here in ontomancy – in the enduring halls of this Institute – we need no such thing. We question, but we do not doubt. Our words are edict, and our minds are law. We are beyond doubt.
“We are, because we are, and so we are. Question everything, doubt nothing, and trust in what is and what isn’t. To know something is to know what it is, and to know it in all the facets of its existence grants us power over it, whatever it may be. Master this, and you master all of existence.” He paused for a moment. “If you remember nothing else during your next years of ontomancy in the Arcanum, at the very least, remember that.”