“So.” Zaruda broke the slightly dazed silence that hovered over the eight of them as they navigated the University’s paths. “Anyone else have the distinct feeling they’ve accidentally been sent to the loony island and we’re all going to die?” She tugged the lapels of her coat up around her ears, reached inside and somehow pulled out a bottle of bourbon. “I’ve got that, a little.”
“Well…sure, we’re gonna die.” Juniper seemed puzzled. “Everything dies, that’s just science. But not, like…right now. Probably.”
“She wants us to write essays about each other’s weaknesses,” Teal mused, “as some kind of bonding tactic. Does that seem completely ass-backward to anyone else?”
“Armies do something similar, at basic training,” Trissiny said slowly. “Conditions are meant to be intense and drillmasters make themselves into hostile figures. It encourages the soldiers to form a strong bond against any prospective enemies.”
“My people use similar techniques in training,” said Shaeine, as serene as ever. “Though I am not an expert in military matters by any means, I don’t believe soldiers are encouraged to pick at one another’s failings, however.”
“I’m not sure that woman is entirely sane,” said Trissiny.
“Hah! You should talk.” Zaruda took a long swig from her bottle, cocking a thumb at her roommate. “This one was up at buttfuck o’clock in the morning. Came back to the room an hour later, in full armor, looking worn out, and this just when I was getting up. Needless to say, we had us a discussion about shower privileges.”
“I went for a run,” Trissiny said defensively. “The main stairs up the mountain make for a good track.”
“You…you ran down and back up the stairs?” Teal boggled at her. “In armor?”
“Of course in armor,” Trissiny retorted testily. “People who expect to fight in armor should train in armor. The academic life is no excuse for me to get soft.”
“Damn, girl,” said Gabriel. “There’s not getting soft, and then there’s that.”
“What do you know about demons?” she asked, half-turning her head to stare at him.
His expression went flat. “I know to stay the hell away from them. What else does anyone need to know?”
“Hm.” She turned away from him, absently fingering the hilt of her sword.
“I’m assuming, by the way, that somebody knows where the hell we’re going,” Zaruda said, peering around. The campus was lively and lovely in the midmorning sun, with students passing them on the way to their own classes. The eight freshmen had just descended a staircase to the next level down from the upper terrace and Helion Hall.
“We’ve got Introduction to Magic with Professor Yornhaldt,” chimed Fross before Toby could reach for his map. “Derringer Hall, dead ahead! Follow me!” She flitted away down the path, occasionally darting back impatiently to the more slowly-walking students.
They had progressed only another ten feet when a figure plummeted from above, landing directly into their path. “Well,” she drawled, “isn’t this just precious.”
They stopped as one; Fross darted behind Juniper, and Trissiny gripped her sword, eyes narrowing. Zaruda snorted loudly and had a pull of bourbon. Blocking their way was a drow woman in denim trousers and a laced vest that left her muscular arms bare. She wore rectangular shades of black glass that hid her eyes, and her white hair was combed and gelled into a spiked ridge over the top of her head, the ends dyed livid green. Folding her arms across her chest, she sneered. “Another little rat scurries up from below, all prettied up and repressed half to death. Come to learn how to live without being waited on hand and foot?”
“Are you addressing me?” Shaeine said mildly. Upon leaving the classroom she had donned a dark cloak and put the hood up to shelter her face from the sunlight.
“Well, I wasn’t talking to the pixie.” The drow woman’s sneer grew to an animal ferocity. “Let me guess, Narisian? Pampered pet of the Empire, never had to work a day in your life? Word of advice, little bitch-pup: go home.”
“Okay, I think that’s just about enough of that,” said Toby firmly, stepping in front of Shaeine. “If you’ll excuse us, miss, we have class.”
She transferred her gaze to him, eyed him up and down, and smirked. “Yeah? And?”
“So this is what we’re doing? We’re hassling the freshmen now? Good, great. That’s an excellent use of our time when we’re about to be late for class.”
Two figures appeared on the ledge of the terrace above, from which the drow had jumped: a grinning boy with sharp features and pale blonde hair, who had spoken, and the dark-complexioned young man in the bone-decorated vest who had sat over the arch yesterday giving out directions.
“Hey, guys,” said the latter with a cheerful wave. “Finding your way around all right?”
“Until very recently, yes,” said Shaeine.
“Yeah, sorry about her,” said the blonde. “I’d do something, but, y’know how it is. She terrifies me. Also, I’m hoping to sleep with her at some point.”
“Fuck you, Chase,” snapped the drow, glaring up at them.
“I’ll pencil you in! How’s Thursday at eleven?”
She bared her teeth and actually growled, then turned on her heel and stalked off.
“Tanq, do correct me if I’m mistaken, but Natchua’s in our next class, right?” said Chase from atop the wall.
“That she is, my friend,” his companion replied.
“Which is very much not in the direction in which she just departed.”
“The sacrifices that must be made for a dramatic exit.”
“Do you suppose we ought to be late, too? As a show of solidarity?”
“If by ‘solidarity’ you mean ‘not setting off our insane classmate,’ then your reasoning is sound.”
“Seems like we’ve got a plan, then.” Chase seated himself on the wall, dangling his legs over, and waved down at them. “Flee, little froshes! Flee whilst you can!”
“Yeah, okay.” Zaruda shouldered through the pack and swaggered off ahead, the others trailing after her.
“Nice to see you again!” called Teal, waving up at Tanq. He nodded gravely in return.
Trissiny shook her head, muttering. “I really don’t think I like it here.”
Derringer Hall resembled a medieval castle from the outside, though within it was done in marble and dark wood, much like most of the University appeared to be. The campus was actually only a few decades old, despite the antique sensibilities of its styling, and nothing had had time to get properly dilapidated. There wasn’t even any graffiti on the desks, as the freshman class discovered while finding seats in the room where Professor Yornhaldt’s Introduction to Magic was to be held.
Given the brevity of their class with Professor Tellwyrn, and even after making a slow way across the campus and being interrupted by the ill-tempered elf, they were in plenty of time. The eight of them prowled about the classroom, talking in small groups, before drifting toward seats as the time for their class approached.
This time, Gabriel perched beside Zaruda, and leaned over to her as soon as she was seated. “So, yeah, I’m with you. Crazy island. All gonna die. How many of ’em do you reckon we can take out with us?”
She took a drink from her bottle, which was already half-empty. “Is this a strategic planning session, or are you just makin’ small talk ’cause you want to bone me?”
“Hey, don’t try to pin me down. I’m a multi-tasker.”
“You’re cute.” She grinned. “Remind me of a puppy I used to have.”
“Aha! Then my plan is working!”
Her grin widened. “Nope. Unless you’re planning to get stabbed.”
He was spared further embarrassment by the arrival of their professor.
“Good morning,” said Professor Yornhaldt in a deep baritone that seemed almost to vibrate the air. He was unmistakably a dwarf: less than shoulder-high on an average human and twice as broad, but clearly with muscle. The man resembled a brick, with nothing round or soft anywhere on his frame. That was as far as the resemblance to the famous wild-bearded, leather-and-loincloth wearing dwarves of the north went, however. Professor Yornhaldt was in a dapper tweed suit, with neatly combed black hair and a short, very precisely trimmed beard that outlined his jaw. “Ah, good, everyone’s already seated. My congratulations, you are officially better students than last year’s freshmen. Welcome,” he proclaimed with a smile, coming to stand at the front of the room, “to Introduction to Magic.”
“Thanks for havin’ us,” replied Zaruda, lifting her bottle.
“Ah. Miss Punaji, if you would please put that away.”
“Hey, I’ve got an exemption to the drinkin’ policy.”
“For the campus, yes, I was told. But there is no eating or drinking in this classroom.”
She grunted, but tucked the bottle back into her coat.
“What is magic, then?” asked Yornhaldt with a jovial smile. “Most are of the opinion that magic is a form of energy, which, like most conventional wisdom, entirely misses the point. Some energy is magical, yes: the divine, the arcane, the infernal and the even less-understood work of the fae, to name a popular few. But magic itself is not a means of acting, but a means of classifying actions.”
The Professor turned and opened the top drawer of his desk, pulling out carved wooden hummingbird the size of his palm; its tail was fully spread, its wings flung forward past its head. “There are two kinds of natural law,” he said, turning again to face them. “Objective, and subjective. Objective natural law governs the realm of physics. It is what it is, and what anyone thinks of it is totally irrelevant. In the physical world, there is nothing free from the interconnected forces that move all things. Every step you take is affected by the pull of gravity and the friction of air through which you must pass. It has been theorized that the weather can be changed on a grand scale by something so seemingly inconsequential as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the world. This is why so many things, of which weather is a good example, are beyond our power to predict: though the processes by which they come about are rational, consistent and in theory predictable, we are never able to know the entirety of the forces at work. With me so far?”
He grinned at them, and in the absence of any disagreement, continued. “This is an example of physics in action.” The Professor gently placed the tip of the hummingbird’s long wooden beak against one of his thick fingers and released it with his opposite hand. Incredibly, it hung there, rocking slightly, apparently balanced on one of the carving’s furthest ends. “Now how does this little beauty work? Any ideas?”
“It’s enchanted?” guessed Juniper.
“I’m afraid not! No, there is no magic at all at work here, merely a bit of carnival trickery. There are weights very cunningly hidden in the wingtips, you see, which shifts the whole bird’s center of mass. It balances on the tip of its beak because that truly is its most perfect balancing point. That, kids, is physics at work. No matter how much it seems like a thing should or should not be, it is. It will do what it does and nobody can gainsay it.
“This brings us to the opposite principle: subjective natural law. As one might expect from the name, this principle gives reality to what is subjectively true.” He began to stroll slowly up and down the front of the room, the carefully balanced hummingbird held in front of him on his fingertip the whole time. “While the realm of physics functions just the same no matter who is there to see it, or if anyone is, the realm of magic is what happens when the perspectives of intelligent beings are imposed upon physical reality. Magic is not the divine, or the arcane: those are magical in nature, yes, but they are merely expressions of magic. The nature of magic is that things become what it seems like they should be, to whoever is doing it. The logic of physics goes completely out the window. By casting a spell, you re-write all rules. You become, at least as far as the tiny amount of the world you are able to affect is concerned, a god. It should go without saying that the potential for disaster in casting even the simplest spell is immense.”
Raising his free hand above the balancing hummingbird, he went on. “I am going to cast a minor spell here. All this does is map a small network of artificial ley lines across this object; it’s a necessary first step for most enchantments, but has no effect on its own except to make the item amenable to having arcane magic worked upon it. In essence, it is the minimum possible thing you can do and still be working magic.”
There was no light or sound, merely his hovering hand and intent expression, but quite suddenly the hummingbird tumbled from his finger and clattered to the floor.
Professor Yornhaldt spread his hands wide, casting a long look about the room. “To perform magic is to introduce subjectivity to a physical system. It is to replace consistent rules and a resilient physical connection with the rest of the world with…whatever happens to be in your own head. It is to create chaos. Hopefully, a small and controllable amount of chaos, but by its very nature, chaos is unpredictable and uncontainable.”
“How does anyone do it, then?” asked Gabriel. “You make it sound like every act by any wizard could potentially end the world.”
“Actually, Mr. Arquin, there aren’t any wizards capable of acts that could end the world; the world is quite large. Some of the primary gods probably could, but they are generally more careful. But yes, that it somewhat beside your point, is it not? The question is, just how in blazes do wizards have any control over anything they do, when what they are doing is taking bits of our rational, predictable world and turning them into the kind of blathering soup that occurs when a person dreams?”
He tapped his temple with a blunt fingertip, smiling. “The answer, my friends, is that magic is more art than science. The answer is intuition. A wizard knows, and thus can control, what a spell will do under a given set of circumstances because he feels it. And the only way to develop this intuition is through practice. Long, arduous, potentially quite destructive practice. And that, kids, is why, despite advances in enchantment and the proliferation of mass-producable magical technologies, an actual wizard is still a rare and powerful thing. Also why getting them to do anything is damnably expensive.”
“What about enchantments, though?” Fross piped up. “I mean, they can do those in factories now and crank out piles and piles of things that are just loaded down with magic and if magic is all the subjective thoughts of one person given reality I don’t understand how that works, especially since they all do the same basic thing no matter who’s using them.”
“Ah…you must be Fross,” Professor Yornhaldt said. “Enchantment is its own realm of study, and one to which we’ll be giving a great deal of attention this semester. But you’ve struck upon a very relevant point! To enchant something is to use magic to alter it in a way that can then interact consistently and predictably with the rest of the world. It takes the enchanted object out of your little space of creative chaos and puts it back into the network of physical forces that binds all the world together, with a piece of magic now tied to it that is also part of that network. So enchantments by their very nature must be logical, predictable and reproducible. It is by capitalizing on this principle that modern magical mass-production works, but the underlying properties are the same for a factory-made moving carriage as a two-thousand-year-old enchanted sword.”
He cracked his knuckles, flexed his arms and shook his hands as though limbering up, wearing a cheerful grin. “But I believe that’s enough dry recitation for our first day. I like to start my freshmen off with a few simple tricks; they say a picture is worth a thousand words, after all. Now, nobody panic.”
Yornhaldt snapped his fingers and the room was plunged into darkness. Gabriel cursed and there came a wordless exclamation from Fross, but his injunction not to panic proved unnecessary. It was not pitch-black, but merely quite dim; they could all still see each other plainly, especially Fross, who illuminated those nearest to her in a cold blue glow.
“To begin with, let’s see who’s carrying enchantments, shall we?” said Yornhaldt from the front of the room. He did not appear to move his hands again, but suddenly a bright glow sprung up around Teal, Trissiny and Zaruda. Tobias blinked against the sudden light, frowning; upon second reflection, the girls themselves weren’t glowing, but rather objects they were carrying were. It was a bit confusing in Zaruda’s case, as it was apparently her coat that put off light.
“This is a variant of an old trap-detection spell I developed,” said their professor. “Not much use tactically as it’s fairly easily blocked, but still good for a bit of fun. Now, let’s see what we’ve got here. Ah, yes, Miss Falconer’s talisman. The Church does tend to be a bit heavy-handed with their enchantments, but given what that little badge has to do, I suppose it’s called for.”
“What does it do?” Gabriel asked curiously.
“Now, Mr. Arquin, time enough for you two to get to know each other outside of class. Moving toward the middle of the room, we see Ms. Avelea’s sword and shield putting off even more light! Nothing surprising about that, either. Important safety tip, kids: never touch a paladin’s weapon without its owner’s permission. Those are gifts directly from their patrons, and not only just about the most magical items in existence, but directly connected to the power of the gods. Accidentally offending a deity is a very silly reason to die. And over here…goodness, Miss Punaji, that’s an awful lot of power on that coat. If I may ask, what manner of enchantments do you have there?”
“Oh, this?” Zaruda slid her thumbs along her lapels. “Was a present from my Uncle Raffi when I got accepted to the University. It’s weatherproof, slightly armored and has bag-of-holding spells on the pockets.”
“Hrum. That is…an awful lot of energy for such comparatively minor enchantments. Are you sure that’s it?”
She shrugged. “Well, I guess you could say they’re bag of a lot of holding spells. He insisted I’ve got about as much cargo capacity as a merchant ship in this thing, but Uncle Raffi tends to exaggerate. He just wanted to make sure I could go a few weeks without having to make a beer run.”
“Make a beer…” Professor Yornhaldt stared at her in awed silence for a moment. “…Miss Punaji, exactly how much alcohol are you carrying?”
“I dunno. How much is there?”
“Yes. Well. All right, then. Moving on.” He waved a hand, and the three glows vanished. “There’s one more trick I like to do; it never fails to be a crowd-pleaser. This is strictly stage magician stuff, you understand. The Wizards’ Guild would make exceedingly stern faces at me if they knew I was doing it in public. Still and all, I think everyone should have a look at their aura at least once in their life, and what better time than at the outset of a magic class? Behold!”
Professor Yornhaldt threw out his hands, and suddenly the room blazed with light.
Both Trissiny and Tobias gleamed with coronas of pure gold that seemed to reach into the farthest corners of the room. They didn’t obscure the other students’ auras, however; they immediately discovered that only the aura at which one directly looked would be clear in one’s vision, with the others merely dimly perceived details in the background. Gabriel was surrounded by a cloud of darkness, shot through with streaks of green and purple; he looked like he was wearing a giant bruise. From Teal there blared an intense orange blaze as if she were on fire, which pushed outward even more aggressively than the paladins’ auras did. Zaruda had a simple but pretty halo in shades of blue. Shaeine gleamed a cold, pure white. The two fae had by far the most interesting effects: Fross appeared to be within a tiny blizzard, completely with clouds and whirling snowflakes, that almost blotted her from view, and Juniper was illuminated by a beam of sunlight from above, with vivid grass constantly growing and vanishing from the floor below her and illusory butterflies flitting about her head.
“Shiiiiiiiiiiiny…” whispered Fross in awe.
Yornhaldt gave them a few minutes to study each other before gesturing again. At his command, the glows faded from around them and light came back up. The classroom looked suddenly drab and somehow surreal after the light show.
“I know very well how tricky this campus can be to adjust to,” he said, “so I’ll spare you the indignity of homework on your first day. Besides, if I know Professor Tellwyrn, and I do, she’s got you doing something absurd and borderline sadistic. Bear with, kids, she takes a bit of getting used to but I think you’ll come to quite enjoy her classes. And, I would hope, this one. For now, though, you are dismissed, and I’ll bid you good morning.”
With a final smile and a wave of his stubby hand, he turned and strolled from the room, humming.
“Now that one I like,” said Zaruda, “even if he won’t let me drink in class. I wonder if any of our other professors will be reasonable people, or more like Tellwyrn?”
“Well, Tellwyrn hired all of them,” Gabriel noted.
“I liked her,” Juniper protested.
“The professors don’t worry me nearly as much as the other students,” Trissiny said grimly, “if that…what’s her name was any kind of indication.”
“Natchua,” Shaeine supplied.
“Thanks. Anyhow, we’re free until early afternoon. I think I’m going to go find the chapel.”
“Wait, wait.” Teal stood up, grinning conspiratorially. “If you don’t want to run into the rest of the student body—and I’m with you there, at least for now—consider this: the dining hall is open whenever we want to use it, and it’s a bit early for lunch, which means we’re less likely to have to share.”
“Eating in relative privacy sounds delightful,” said Shaeine quietly.
The others exchanged glances and shrugs.
“Ah, what the hell,” said Zaruda, standing and pulling her half-finished bourbon back out of her enchanted coat. “I could eat.”