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Aretuza Journey Story

CHAPTER 1

My name is Alissa Henson, and I am a sorceress.

I introduce myself out of common courtesy, but the truth is: I don’t intend on anyone other than myself reading these words. But if you are not me and are indeed reading this, then I should probably state why it’s being written in the first place.

It all started with something my aunt, Aurora Henson, once told me:

‘At some point in your life, you will reflect upon your journey thus far and be compelled to recall your past. For those of our longevity, this sentiment is somewhat inevitable and certain to arise more than once. So, I bequeath this advice unto you: take notes along the way, as many as you can.’

Lo and behold, it appears my dear aunt was correct. Or, perhaps the mere suggestion of such things was indeed some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy⁠—a seed planted long ago by someone far wiser than I. Would I have felt this nagging urge to recount my past had I not spent so many years dutifully documenting it? It would seem a waste, would it not? If so, I find myself thanking Auntie regardless, for I have found great comfort in the therapeutic process of self-reflection over the years. I still do.

Of course, I don’t have to recall, as I had written it down at the time, but I do indeed remember when she first spoke those words to me. We were sitting in a carriage, ambling down a dreadfully bumpy and tediously long road to Thanedd Island, where I was to become, just like my aunt, a sorceress of Aretuza. I find it hard to put in words the excitement that coursed through my veins during the journey, but if I had to choose one, I suppose ‘electrifying’ would be adequate. You see, I had known I was to be a mage from, well, my earliest memory of life. Unlike most that find their way into the illustrious halls of Aretuza (and Ban Ard, for that matter), I was destined for it. At least, that’s what I was told by my aunt and her dear friend Agnes (who was another sort of aunt to me growing up, albeit more distant). Knowing I was to be a sorceress meant I spent much of my youth eagerly anticipating the day I would become one. And being the impatient child that I was, I found the wait a tantalizing ordeal, on the cusp of torment. Much to my dismay, Aunt Aurora would often reassure me that there was absolutely zero chance of Aretuza admitting a toddler, no matter how much said toddler pleaded. Which, in hindsight, was fair enough.

I spent much of my youth fantasizing about myself as a sorceress—in a pointy hat, with illustrious flowing robes and wand extended in a striking pose⁠—although, even as a child, I knew that’s not what they looked like in reality. I knew this because I had already spent a lot of time around mages, as Aurora would always bring me with her whenever she left Gors Velen to visit her colleagues and acquaintances. I even met all founding members of The Chapter of the Gift and the Art before I could walk or talk, which, as I was constantly assured, was a rare privilege indeed.

In fact, that was the time when I had my first “conduit event,” as it’s often referred to (when a child first displays an affinity for magic). I don’t personally remember the details, but the story had been told to me many times growing up. All these years later, I still find myself smiling gleefully at the thought of Herbert Stammelford flapping around in hysterics, frantically attempting to brush the horse dung off his cloak. ‘Ghastly! Ghastly!’ he howled, so it goes. Although, I still take offense at his claim that I had merely used my hands to throw the droppings at him, outright refusing to believe a child of my age⁠—‘And a girl, no less!’—was capable of such potent telekinetic ability. The last time I met him, he professed to have entirely forgotten the event and questioned if any of it had happened at all. I think he was still embarrassed.

Anyway, the day we first traveled to Aretuza on that gods-awful wagon, I was eleven years of age, which, I’m still proud to flaunt, was relatively young for an adept. (I still don’t fully understand why we couldn’t have just used a portal⁠—although there was probably a lesson about patience in there somewhere, I suppose. Auntie did so enjoy her tutelage, both in and out of the classroom.) I had actually seen the school many times previous, from afar, yet had never been allowed to visit. Aunt Aurora had taken quite a firm stance on the matter, often responding to my pleas with an authoritative yet calm ‘when you’re ready, child.’ Instead, I had to stay at her nearby residence in Gors Velen while she taught, but thankfully I could at the very least gaze longingly at the school from across the bay. In hindsight, that was probably more of a curse than a blessing, as it did naught but further stoke the flames of my impatience.

Now, all these years later, I find myself stricken by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia as I gaze at the words I wrote so long ago. The first words I ever wrote after Aurora’s advice, in fact, scribbled upon a piece of spare parchment as our carriage pulled up outside of Aretuza:

‘I’m here. I’m finally here! This is the best moment of my life!’

I remember jumping from the carriage and standing in awe before the school, eyes wide and mouth agape. At that moment, I was sure⁠—more sure than I’d been about anything in my life⁠ so far—that becoming a sorceress of Aretuza was the only thing I wanted in the whole world.

It’s funny how things change.

CHAPTER 2

For those who have not had the good fortune to behold Aretuza and the island on which it stands, I beseech you to seek an opportunity to do so. It is beautiful⁠—within and without. Although, unless you have important business or influential acquaintances, I fear that most of the complex will remain a mystery to you. Visitors⁠—and even clients⁠—are often restricted to Loxia, which is the lowest level of the island. Still, even the views from Gors Velen are rather spectacular, and one, on a clear day, can behold the whole of the Isle of Thanedd, with the gigantic stone block of Garstang palace, its body seemingly carved into the rock upon which it stands, crowned by golden domes that shimmer in the sunlight; and the soaring solitary tower of Tor Lara (‘The Tower of the Gull’) that looms high above the cape, its summit ofttimes lost amid the clouds; and, of course, Aretuza itself. The scene is picturesque, to say the least.

I still gawp at the beauty of it all. But back then, the awe I felt was simply overwhelming.

My first day at Aretuza was⁠—as I had noted down back then⁠—a wondrous occasion! The excitement that I had been harboring for so many years came bubbling to the surface, and I grinned uncontrollably, skipped around like an excitable grasshopper, and asked far, far too many questions. I so desperately didn’t want to come across as a giddy child, but I just couldn’t contain myself. Luckily, I think the other girls were too busy fussing about their own demeanor to take any notice of mine.

But as if often the case, my enthusiasm⁠—or, well, overenthusiasm⁠—soon dissipated. My upbringing had afforded me a certain level of familiarity with the basics of magic. So, by no fault of the school itself, I found the first lessons particularly simple and, it pained me to admit, rather dull. But, I understood that was the way it was to be. I had to follow suit. Auntie had made it crystal clear that I should be afforded no special treatment under any circumstance, as she did not want other students to presume nepotism. And neither did I, for that matter.

However, despite the tedious introductory classes, I actually rather enjoyed discussing magic⁠—and indeed practicing it⁠—with the other adepts. It was exciting to witness the wonderment of those still unfamiliar with the fundamentals of the Power they were to spend their lives mastering⁠. Those that made the cut, at least…

There were seven of us ‘initiates’ at the start, but one failed the entrance exams, which I was told was unfortunate but expected, as not all who have a conduit event possess the correct aptitude for magic. To this day, I still do not understand completely how the tests assessed our capabilities, for they had no tangible relation to the use of magic or knowledge of the practice. They consisted mainly of evaluating shapes, patterns, and elements, together with a round of questioning containing rather peculiar and somewhat random themes. Since my induction, the entry exams have changed several times, usually when a new headmistress takes the helm, and the later iterations have certainly made more practical sense. Still, I passed the tests, and that was all that mattered back then. (Oh, what an embarrassment it would have been if Aurora Henson’s niece, the extraordinary and gifted Child of Magic, had failed the entrance exams. The shame would have indeed been too much to bear.)

In the beginning, there were, as mentioned, only a handful of adepts, and so we shared many lessons with the older students. It was during one of these classes when I first met the kindest girl I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling friend. Her name was Kalena. She was in her fourth year at the time, and I liked her immediately. Although she wasn’t the brightest⁠—far from it, in fact⁠—she was friendly and funny and caring and made me feel welcome. She was exactly what I needed in a companion, and I am forever grateful to have known her.

If the universe is in a constant state of balance, as some scholars assert, then it makes sense that on the day I made a friend, I also made an enemy. Her name was Yanna, and she was a member of the first class of Aretuza, which meant she had already graduated and would assist in teaching the younger students from time to time. I fear words alone would not do justice in describing the extent of contempt I held toward her and her classes: they were simply awful. For reasons then unknown to me, she would find any and all opportunity to ridicule and scorn me in front of the other adepts. The simplest of mistakes⁠—even a differing opinion⁠—would quickly turn into a scathing rant about my lackluster capabilities or, on the worst of days, some form of monotonous punishment, like scrubbing the lavatories.

I truly despised Yanna but, unfortunately, had to endure her classes on occasion, as there were only a handful of official teachers⁠—or ‘Mistresses’—at Aretuza⁠. Just four, actually, with each specializing in their own Primary Element⁠—Water, Air, Earth, and Fire. You see, it was⁠—and still is⁠—widely accepted that a young mage will go on to master only one of the elements, if they are even able to achieve that feat (many don’t). So far, there has been only one sorcerer in the world known to have mastered all four Elements⁠. His name was Jan Bekker.

And back then, I desperately wanted to be the second.

CHAPTER 3

For the first few months of school, most lessons were led by Aurora. Younger adepts rarely saw the other teachers, as their respective Elements were considered far too advanced for beginners. You see, my aunt was the resident Mistress of Water, which is widely regarded as the safest Element, and therefore the first which sorceresses must become proficient in.

From hydromancy to mind manipulation, we spent most of that first term submerged in the Element of Water, charting its many beneficial uses and learning the theory in meticulous and intricate detail. It was quite the slog, as you can imagine⁠—to be so close to using magic, yet restrained by the fetters of the curriculum’s schedule. The mundanity of the introductory classes have now all but amalgamated into one blurry memory, yet I can still vividly remember our first exercise.

We had not long since learned about the water veins that flowed beneath the ground. Practically everywhere. These veins⁠—and their corresponding intersections⁠—are one of the most accessible sources of Power from which mages can draw, and therefore an ideal starting point for the inexperienced. For our first practical, we were each challenged to retrieve a magical crystal from somewhere inside the caverns beneath Aretuza. Hidden deep within the labyrinth-like underbelly, they had been placed above the most powerful source of Power in the vicinity, and therein lay the challenge: We had to locate the most potent veins and intersections and follow them to the secret location. A relatively simple task.

Or so I thought.

Luckily, we didn’t have to go into those dark, damp passages empty-handed. We were each allowed to take a single item to help with our endeavor. Most girls, spurred by their ignorance, opted to take a water wand. This was an obvious choice on the surface, but a moment’s thought about the practicality of such an object exposed its flaw. You see, water wands can identify intersections quite easily, yet they can not distinguish the strength of the source. In short: within a maze of intersections, they were next to useless.

I decided to be rather unconventional with my selection and chose to take Scoundrel, a rather chubby tabby. Although he lived on the grounds of Aretuza, no one had claimed him as their own, and he was considered, quite affectionately, as the mascot of the school during his lifespan (which was implausibly long, if I recall). I chose him because, like most cats, he could sense sources of Power⁠, and they were said to be fond of sleeping on intersections. Scoundrel had often disappeared for hours⁠—even days⁠—at a time and would then return with a delicate aura surrounding him. I had always wondered where he was going to soak up the Power, and deduced that he probably went to bask in the heart of the complex beneath the school–no doubt where the crystals were hidden. It was worth a shot, at least. (Note: no one knows how or why cats absorb magic. It has stumped even the most inquisitive wizarding minds for centuries and is one of the great mysteries of our time.)

As it happens, my plan worked.

Barely…

I spent hours trudging behind the cat as he nonchalantly sauntered through the caverns with evidently no desire to reach any particular destination. He frequently stopped and lay down for no specific reason, or to clean himself, or to swipe erratically at a random pebble that caught his eye. However, the biggest blocker⁠—and something I really should have foreseen⁠—was the abundance of vermin living in the caves. Every time some rodent scurried out from a nook or cranny, Scoundrel would jump to action and chase it. I remember yearning for a water wand at one point when my furry friend had disappeared down a narrow passage in pursuit of a rather rotund rat and didn’t return for the better half of an hour.

After what seemed like days, Scoundrel finally led me to the secret chamber. Yet, it was not the victory I so desperately craved. There were only two crystals left, which meant I was the second-to-last student to locate them⁠. I was crestfallen. And although I sulked for a while upon exiting the caves, I soon discovered that my situation could have been worse. Much worse.

You see, the last crystal was never claimed.

Zoriyka, one of the oldest and brightest students of our year⁠, hadn’t returned from the underground network of passageways. We were reassured that this was usual and happened to one or two students each year, but they would always, sooner or later, find their way back to the surface. Yet, sundown soon came, and there was still no sign of Zoriyka.

That night, Nina Fioravanti, the Mistress of Earth, led a small search party consisting of a handful of older adepts. They had been studying the caverns as part of their archaeology classes and so were quite familiar with the system of caves. Yet, apparently, the labyrinth contained numerous corridors still unknown to them and extended far deeper than they could have imagined.

It took them twelve hours to find the girl, and she left Aretuza the very next day. For good.

Kalena told me she had bumped into Zoriyka as Klara Larissa de Winter, the school’s founder and headmistress, whisked her out of the front gate and onto a carriage. She said the girl was far from her usual cheery self⁠—her face was deathly pale, and her eyes glazed and vacant as if lost in a deep trance. When Kalena had asked how she was, she completely ignored her. Or didn’t hear her at all… As Kalena had put it, the girl was somewhere between petrified and paralyzed.

I still think about those caverns from time to time⁠—about what could have happened to her down in the dark of Aretuza’s underbelly. Or what she saw. The teachers⁠—my aunt included⁠—outright refused to talk about the situation and would scold anyone who brought it up. All I knew then⁠—and now, for that matter⁠—is that soon after Zoriyka left the school, Mistress de Winter ordered every known entrance to the caves to be sealed indefinitely, and they never sent adepts looking for crystals in the dark ever again.

CHAPTER 4

Those who know me know that I prefer a hands-on approach. I always enjoyed theory⁠, and I was always very good at it, but nothing quite compares to putting one’s knowledge and talent to constructive use. Of all my time at Aretuza, it was, above all others, Nina Fioravanti, the Mistress of Earth, who instilled in me this appreciation for the practical.

Earth is a reasonably tricky Element to learn, and I always respected those who mastered it⁠—of which there were, and still are, very few. Its difficulty stems from its inefficiency, as the Power harbored within, much like the structure of Earth itself, is stagnant. It does not actively flow⁠—like Water, Air, and Fire⁠—and so cannot easily move from one place to another, even with a magical hand guiding it. In short, it takes an incredible amount of energy to draw from and is therefore impractical, especially for unseasoned adepts.

After a year of nothing but Water (and some classes in Air), we were deemed ready to tackle the basics of Earth. I had prepared myself for a few months of introductory theory, as was customary, but was pleasantly surprised when Nina⁠—for our very first class no less⁠—took us to a nearby archeological site to assist with a dig. These outings continued for the better part of a month, and the most peculiar thing was: we didn’t use any magic. Day in and day out, we dug trenches, sifted through dirt, and categorized any objects we found⁠–mostly, we uprooted tiny bones of local wildlife and the occasional coin or worthless trinket.

Years later, I found out that we had discovered nothing of note because the whole endeavor was a sham. On the surface, at least. Nina had used the same site (which held exactly no historical significance) with every class she had taught since Aretuza first opened its illustrious doors for business. I was informed of this ruse by Nina herself years later when I was in my fourth year, during one of our private get-togethers.

Nina had apparently been fond of me since that very first dig, as, without hesitation or question, I had jumped right on into the task at hand. Unlike the other girls, I didn’t complain once about the situation, even after I had ruined almost all my garments with scuffs and stains, and she remembered that. That’s why, years later, she had recruited me for a special assignment that she described as ‘extracurricular’ and made me promise to keep it a secret from the other girls (I think I told Kalena almost immediately⁠—sorry, Nina). Of course, I, the would-be prodigy, pounced at the opportunity to earn extra credit. (Such a sycophant I was back then.)

It turned out that Nina’s responsibilities extended far beyond the Element of dirt and debris. For years, she had been in charge of solving a particular problem that emanated from Tor Lara. At the top of the tower resided an infamous and notoriously unstable portal, which no one ever used as doing so almost always⁠—so the stories go⁠—resulted in death. In fact, the whole tower was entirely off-limits to all students. Apparently, the portal emitted a strong magical field that interfered with nearby magic, and even the simplest of spells cast near the grounds would be warped into something erratic and dangerous. And so, Nina had been slowly imbuing the foundations of Tor Lara and the nearby palace of Garstang with a unique aura that, once fully implemented, would suppress all magic in its vicinity. After all, spells cannot be warped if they cannot be cast. Indeed, it was an incredible feat of magical engineering, especially for the time.

My job was to help with general research, to provide assistance with the imbuing process, and to gather any items the mistress required. The word ‘lackey’ could be used, but I didn’t mind. Even though the work itself was far from thrilling, the secrecy and importance of the venture excited me and made me feel rather special. Besides, I craved validation, and this was a sure way to gain Nina’s favor.

It was during one of the late evenings at Garstang palace when I learned about Nina’s scheme with the first years and the fruitless archaeological digs. She had chuckled quite heartily, expressing how it entertained her and saddened her in equal measure to know that the adepts, no matter how hard they’d try, would never find anything of significance during those fake excavations. When I questioned her on it, she pointed out the true nature of the lessons, and her answer is a sentiment that has stayed with me.

‘Given enough time and patience, anyone can move a mountain, one scoop at a time.’

It was a truth well-known to anyone pursuing mastery of the Earth Element and an attitude Nina wanted to instill into her students from the beginning. It turned out those outings weren’t about discovering some great treasure or long-lost secret⁠—on the contrary, such a find would have been detrimental to the lesson she wanted to teach. Instead, Nina wanted the adepts to embrace the concept of patience, hard work, and determination, even when there was little to show for one’s efforts.

‘A mage can spend a hundred years honing her chosen Element and still be a hundred years from mastering it. If one becomes entitled to instant gratification, then greatness, I fear, will forever elude them.’

I sometimes recall these words and ponder on how I would respond to them today, all these years later.

‘Perhaps, dear Nina, there is more to life than greatness…’

She’d probably scoff at that. Or laugh.

CHAPTER 5

My conduit moment was the use of telekinesis (launching waste at venerable Stammelford), and so it was always presumed I would be most proficient in Air and would go on to master it. Truth be told, I fully expected to do so (on my journey towards total dominance of all elements, naturally!).

And so, I was incredibly excited to learn the element under the guidance of distinguished sorceress Agnes—or, Agnes of Glanville, Mistress of Air, if we are to be formal, which she always was. Other than my aunt, Agnes was someone I knew reasonably well. Since as far back as I can remember, she would often visit Aurora⁠—and by extension, myself⁠—so was a frequent presence during my childhood. One could argue that my official training began many years before I stepped foot in Aretuza, and considering all the ‘spontaneous’ lessons and insightful anecdotes I received on behalf of Agnes and Aurora, one would have a solid basis for argument.

There’s no doubt about it: I had a privileged childhood. I was relatively happy, healthy, and wanted for absolutely nothing (yearning for Aretuza aside). Yet, in hindsight, the main boon of my privilege stemmed from the constant access I had to two of the most prominent women in the wizarding world⁠—practically no six-year-old could have boasted such illustrious kinship. I mean no disrespect to Auntie when I say this, but whereas Aurora was (and is) well-respected and somewhat famous, Agnes was by far the more eminent figure. She is, you see, a living legend.

In the not-too-distant past, all mages were men (a fact that will surprise no one). Indeed, there were women who could harness the power of the elements, yet they were mainly branded as ‘healers’ and ‘herbalists’ and were disregarded as anything more. Being a human wizard, you see, was a safeguarded status, and only a select few (men) were officially recognized by their peers (men) as such⁠.

Then along came Agnes.

Apparently, she had inadvertently summoned a ferocious whirlwind for her conduit event at a very young age. As the story goes, it quickly turned into a raging storm which reduced a small coastal hamlet to nothing but rubble. I thoroughly believe this tale to be exaggerated (to say the least), yet I’d never state such thoughts aloud. Regardless, word soon spread about the ‘miraculous child’ and finally reached the ears of Giambattista (one of the architects of the Novigradian Union, along with his peers Jan Bekker and Geoffrey Monck). Eager to locate and identify conduits of Power (or ‘Sources,’ as they’re referred to now), Giambattista sought out the young girl, paid her mother handsomely for the child’s life, and then subjected her to his magical tests (which would later be implemented as entry requirements for Ban Ard).

Unlike all other children tested before the girl, Agnes amazed the mage with her innate capabilities (she has assured me, on numerous occasions, that he was indeed ‘amazed’) and so was taken under the wings of Monck, Bekker, and Giambattista and indoctrinated in the basics of magic.

Soon after, Monck gathered some of the gifted children, which were referred to as ‘Chosen Ones,’ and of which Agnes was the only girl. He then sailed up Aevon y Pont ar Gwennelen (today more commonly called the Pontar) to Loc Muinne, where he convinced elven sorcerers to teach the younglings the ways of the Elder Races. And thus, Anges’ fame was secured, as she became the first-ever woman (well, girl) to obtain the status of Sorceress (or ‘Enchantress,’ as she tells it).

And that’s pretty much all I know about that. I’ve asked Agnes on numerous occasions to tell me a story about her time with the Sages of the Blue Mountains but, upon hearing the request, she always becomes aloof and delays the matter with ‘another day, perhaps.’ I’m not sure why she’s so reluctant to recall that period of her life, but I am adamant that the next time we meet, I shall coerce her into telling me a tale or two (perhaps some alcohol will help to loosen her tongue…).

As I was saying: with the influence of such a woman (and Auntie, too!) guiding me, you can understand why such lofty expectations were placed upon my small, inexperienced shoulders. For me to not excel at mastering the ways of magic⁠⁠—well, that was simply not acceptable, and there was no excuse. ‘To squander your potential is an affront to all those less fortunate,’ Aurora would often tell me. ‘You have the luxury of options, so choose the correct one.’

And so, I pursued greatness relentlessly, for it was my obligation.

Or, as I’d frame it now, my burden.

CHAPTER 6

Despite its many beneficial uses, there’s no denying that magic is dangerous, especially in the hands of an inexperienced mage, and especially when dealing with Fire⁠⁠—the most unpredictable and chaotic of all the elements. In fact, most adepts would do well to stay clear of it altogether if they value their safety and the safety of those around them. Heck, if you’re not willing to endure a lot of pain, mastery of Fire is the last thing you should pursue. This was a truth I learned right away during our first lesson with Klara Larissa de Winter, the Mistress of Fire and rectoress of Aretuza.

She was a cold (quite ironic, I know) and indifferent woman, and spent as little time dealing with the newer adepts as she could. On the surface, one could easily make the mistake of thinking Klara didn’t care for the profession she found herself in, but nothing could be further from the truth⁠. De Winter, it would often surprise folk to learn, was actually the school’s founder and cared deeply about the establishment’s image. She believed⁠—and rightly so⁠—that men and women should have equal support, and if the former had a school (Ban Ard) dedicated to nurturing the abilities of would-be mages, then the latter should have one too. And thus, Aretuza was born.

When the time finally came to meet her acquaintance, Klara was exceptionally blunt, and her past aloofness became abundantly clear. During our first lesson in Fire, she told us that she had no time for unexceptional students and would only tutor the best and brightest. ‘One of you…’ she had stated, clenching her jaw and scowling at us with her piercing, icy eyes. ‘I shall take on one of you. And that is all.’

As you can imagine, I was determined to be the one (I had to be!), even after Mistress de Winter’s attempt to rid us all of any illusions we had about the element:

‘You shall be burned. Many times. You shall endure pain and hardship. And each time you call upon the power of Fire, you shall dance with death⁠, for Fire has taken the lives of many mages⁠—both amateur and experienced⁠—and it will take yours, too, if you’re not attentive.’

She was not wrong. Fire can be channeled quite easily, yet that is far from the challenge of wielding it. Its erratic nature combined with the incredible amount of energy it withholds often leads to a mage experiencing an overwhelming surge of Power⁠. And such a surge is impossible to control. Over the years, many mages have been engulfed in flames and burnt alive due to their inability to stop the process. Some survivors have described the moment before absolute chaos and destruction as pure ecstasy, with some shamelessly professing their lust to feel such power again, even if it costs their life and hurts those around them. I guess with great power comes the potential for great corruption…

But, of course, I still very much wanted to master all four Prime Elements, and so I wasn’t dissuaded by Klara’s warning. At least, not until the prerequisite for joining her class was made apparent. That was the first time I ever saw her smile. Well, it was more of a sinister smirk, really. She very precisely and very slowly extended her hand and turned her palm upward, and then said, calmly:

‘Whoever can take my hand will be considered for the position.’

Then she made a peculiar gesture with her fingers. Her hand began to glow bright red and orange; her skin blistered, burned, and then charred as it melted from her fiery appendage. In place of recently blanched and delicate skin was now five molten fingers, sizzling and smoldering.

The challenge was clear.

‘If one wants to play with fire, one must be willing to burn.’

No one moved. Most didn’t even breathe for a few seconds. I don’t think anybody could have possibly envisioned this for the introductory class.

I wouldn’t have blamed the other girls for thinking it might have been some sort of ruse. A joke to break the ice. But I knew it wasn’t. I saw it in Klara’s eyes: she was deathly serious, and this was the dedication she required. Therefore, I was left with no choice. I had to act. And so, I tentatively stepped toward the scorching hand and reached out, slow and deliberate. In that moment, I had hoped the gesture would have been enough—that Mistress de Winter only required proof of intent.

But she was unmoving, her glassy, emotionless eyes fixated on me. Waiting…

And so there was only one thing left I could do…

I closed my eyes, grabbed her hand tightly, and howled.

CHAPTER 7

The Four Kingdoms boast two prominent schools for mages. Ban Ard School for Sorcerers in Kaedwen and Aretuza School for Sorceresses in Temeria (perhaps one day there will be no need for the segregation of sex, but for now, this is the way of it). As anyone who knows even the slightest about human nature will guess, there has indeed been an ongoing rivalry between the establishments since their conception.

The tutors of both schools meet regularly to discuss important issues of magic and its use, and are increasingly interested in the political landscape of the Northern Realms. But, mainly, they get together to gossip and boast about their corresponding academy’s various successes. I have met many of the boys of Ban Ard, and so I shall bypass any humility and openly state that academically speaking, the girls outclass the boys almost every year. Yet, the real competition does not lie with exams and assessments⁠—oh no! Alumni of either school know full well that all bragging rights instead reside with the annual winner of The Clash of Chaos (unofficially dubbed as such by the students).

Each year, the two schools meet for a showcase (or, well, showdown) of academic and physical prowess, with the previous year’s winner assuming the honor of host. I’ve lost track of who’s won most times, but I can certainly say one thing for sure: it is very close. For any girl of Aretuza, this fact alone brings much joy, as it is well-known just how serious the boys take the competition. So much so, they prioritize training for The Clash above all other academic studies, which probably explains why Aretuza often fares better on that front.

Other than the use of magic, there isn’t anything extraordinary about the occasion, as I’m sure similar events happen all over the world⁠—most folks do so enjoy a good competition. As things stand, over three days, the schools engage in various activities and events, ranging from potion-making and problem-solving to obstacle courses and dueling (the last of which is the most prestigious event and punctuates the end of the games). Points are then tallied up, the winner is awarded The Trophy of the Gift and the Art (or ‘The Clash Cup’), and then the schools spend the night feasting, dancing, frolicking, and celebrating (or consoling). Truth be told, it’s one of the most exciting times of the year, and there was always a lively buzz in the weeks leading up to the event when I was still a student⁠—I’m sure there still is.

Although most students participate in The Clash in some capacity (team-building is a fundamental part of the experience), the main event does tend to dominate the scene. And that, as tradition dictates, is a one-on-one affair. Naturally, the most prominent student is selected to represent the school as Aretuza Victrix (or Ban Ard Victor), and both adepts face off in a thrilling⁠—albeit somewhat dangerous⁠—duel. The winner of this final bout receives a hefty number of points, and so the result of this matchup usually (but not always) corresponds with the overall winner. This, as you can imagine, is a tremendous amount of pressure for the duelers.

In my third year at Aretuza, Mistress de Winter chose me to represent the school, much to the dismay of Yanna, who had participated as Victrix the previous two Clashes. I had witnessed Yanna’s rage on numerous occasions, yet I had never seen her seethe like when it was announced I’d be representing the school in the tournament’s finale. ‘How can SHE be the face of Aretuza!?’ she had shrieked. ‘She hasn’t even been beautified!’

She wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t. I still had all the imperfections that made me, well… me. Much to the confusion of my classmates, I never warmed to the idea of magically altering my appearance and so had refused to partake in the beautification process.

Yanna, however, had taken the first opportunity to do so. I had never seen what she looked like prior, but rumor had it that, before the change, she was speckled all over and had crooked buck teeth. To look at her, you couldn’t fathom such a thing, as her pale skin was now like porcelain, her smile was portrait-perfect, and her long auburn hair would always fall in just the right way to frame her beautiful, symmetrical face. The process, in short, had utterly eradicated any perceivable imperfection. (I do wonder what she would look like without her ‘enhancements’… Still pretty, I imagine. Just more naturally so.)

Even Kalena, who was usually exceedingly supportive of my choices, had hounded me for days, trying to convince me to ‘just give it a go!’ But I liked being me. And I enjoyed gazing upon the looking-glass and seeing myself staring back⁠⁠—not some glamorized stranger mimicking my movements. So I refused the process (it’s not like I couldn’t just alter my appearance later if I changed my mind anyway, so I didn’t see what the big fuss was).

Still, all of Yanna’s ranting and raving did little to change the course of events. I had been selected, and Klara was not the sort of woman to second-guess her decisions and certainly not one to change them at the behest of an apprentice. So, that was that. I was to face off against Ban Ard’s best student at the annual Clash of Chaos tournament.

Back then, I was so confident in my abilities that, truthfully, the thought of losing never crossed my mind, not even for a fleeting moment.

I believe they call that hubris.

CHAPTER 8

That particular Clash of Chaos finale was perhaps the most embarrassing moment of my entire time at Aretuza (but not the most upsetting, unfortunately). I faced a short-statured boy called Gereon, whose personality I could only describe as unctuous. I can’t recall seeing that self-assured smirk of his ever leaving his face, not even for a single moment.

Of course, of all the boys I could have lost to, it just had to be him!

I had been trained extensively in the weeks leading to The Clash by Klara herself, which comprised daily one-on-one sessions in addition to the regular syllabus. Even Yanna volunteered to help me prepare when Klara had other matters to attend to. ‘I do not wish Aretuza’s Victrix to make a fool of the school she represents,’ she had told me in a tone I had not yet witnessed from her⁠—encouraging and friendly, almost. After her anger had subsided (or diminished, at least), she was actually helpful and dedicated much of her free time. But all the advice and extra help did little to prepare me for the showdown that awaited.

Gereon, much to the surprise of everyone, it would seem, used magic that hadn’t yet reared its head in any of the former games. It turned out he was a natural when it came to constructing illusions and used tricks of the eye to completely throw me off my game. Within moments of the duel starting, I was presented with various copies of Gereon (at least a dozen) and had precisely no idea which was the real one. I stood there, in front of a crowd of onlookers from Aretuza and Ban Ard, absolutely and utterly bamboozled, my eyes flicking back and forth between numerous faces, all with the exact same conceited grin. And all with the exact same laugh,⁠ which echoed around me, mocking as I attacked⁠—and missed⁠—time and again, hopelessly unable to locate the correct Gereon.

I soon tired, drained of energy, and presented myself as an easy target for the boy. With a quick burst of air, the real Gereon sent me flying into a stone column, crushing the breath from my lungs and rendering me helpless. And, well, that was the end of that. Gereon was crowned Champion, Ban Ard won The Clash of Chaos by a trifling margin, and I was left to wallow in self-pity, flustered, heartbroken, and utterly ashamed of myself.

‘Always expect the unexpected.’ The only words ever exchanged between Gereon and me. He had said them while helping me up after the contest, his lip curled on one side, with an eyebrow raised in self-assured smugness. I didn’t care much for those words⁠ at the time—I still don’t. I mean, how can one prepare for the unknown? It makes no sense! (Although, perhaps I really shouldn’t have been so cocksure before the duel⁠—maybe that’s what he meant. Considering his own demeanor, that would have been terribly ironic.)

I didn’t attend the post-tournament feast that night. I was far too crestfallen, and so I hid away in my chambers, sulking. The thought of facing a room full of jeering Ban Ard boys made me anxious and queasy, but the idea of facing a room full of the peers I’d let down made me feel abominable. After the closing ceremony, I had also avoided Aunt Aurora, terrified at what she might say to me. I imagined the tone she would take: ‘I’m not upset, dear Alissa, I’m just… disappointed.’ The thought filled me to the brim with dread. (She was actually far more comforting when we finally spoke⁠—situations like this are often much worse in the mind than in reality, I’ve realized.)

Even though Kalena⁠—I later found out⁠—had taken a fancy to one of the Ban Ard students, she dropped her pursuit of courtship the moment she realized I hadn’t shown up to the celebrations. Instead, she found where I was moping and spent most of the evening comforting me. Well, at first, she did. But then, my incessant huffing frustrated her to the point where she did something completely unexpected. She chastised me.

‘Oh, grow up, you silly thing. Did your aunt never tell you that you can’t be the best at everything in life? Heck, most don’t even get to be the best at one thing. You’re skilled beyond your years, I’ll give you that. You’re intelligent and determined. And you know a lot about the world⁠—about magic. But you’re far too vainglorious and, dare I say it, entitled. The world, it might shock you to discover, doesn’t revolve around you. For a moment, for just one moment, stop trying to impress—to prove your worth to everyone—and have a go at just, well… being. Try and enjoy yourself. Because all of the greatness and accolades in the world don’t mean a damn thing if you’re not happy.’

This was the first time I’d ever been taken aback by something Kalena had said. And I never, ever expected to receive any sort of wisdom from her. But… there it was. Undeniably clear.

After giving me a moment to process her chiding, she convinced me to accompany her down to the hall, where the celebrations were still in full swing. She was uncharacteristically persuasive, and so I followed her lead without a second thought. And you know what? No one mocked me. No one blamed me. No one was upset (except for me⁠—initially). I actually ended up having one of the best nights of my life.

Little did I know back then, but that chat with Kalena was a turning point for me. For the first time ever, I really, truly thought about who I was and, more importantly, who I actually wanted to be, regardless of others’ expectations. For the first time, I questioned my ‘destiny.’

CHAPTER 9

Jan Bekker, the Master of the Elements, had appeared at Aretuza many times during my stay there, mainly to attend the Clash Cups (to support the Ban Ard boys, naturally). However, one year, in the wake of an overwhelming victory for Aretuza, he decided to prolong his visit and teach at the school for a semester. He stated during his opening address that he had witnessed a tremendous amount of potential in some of the girls and wanted to assist them in their ‘pursuit of greatness’ by offering a series of insightful lectures. Although, I thoroughly believe that was a mere ruse, and he was actually evaluating the mistresses⁠—perhaps hoping to learn how they were able to successfully discipline and nurture their students, who were a stark contrast to the unruliness of the Ban Ard boys (as this is still the case, it would seem his reconnaissance somewhat failed).

For those unfamiliar with Master Bekker, his general ideology and approach to magical tutelage can be summarized by an excerpt from his opening speech (the entirety of which took up almost twenty sheets of parchments during my note-taking):

‘If one does not expand the boundaries of what is possible, then one has simply failed the Gift and the Art. Remember this: It is all our obligation to pursue greatness, attain it, bypass it, and form a new standard of excellence for our successors to exceed. As mages, anything less is simply unacceptable, and it is our duty to hold our peers accountable for any and all shortcomings. Only together, through strength and solidarity, can we hope to alter the shape of our reality for the betterment of all…’

As you can see, he was a very intense man. But I suppose one has to be to achieve the feats he had. Regardless, I lapped up each and every word at the time, as the sentiment reinforced what my aunt had already taught me. Yet, it sparked in me what I would refer to now as a moment of tremendous weakness and skewed priority. With Master Bekker’s sage words ringing in my ears, I was convinced that I needed to heed his advice in its entirety and decided⁠—stupidly⁠—to perform my ‘duties’ as a mage and confront my best friend Kalena about her ‘shortcomings.’ (Heck, it’s making me feel ashamed to even write these words.)

And so I sat her down and told her she needed to do better. That she needed to pay attention, focus more, and work harder to eradicate her flaws (of which, I had rudely pointed out, there were many). I remember the expression on her face. It wasn’t one of someone upset, nor angry. Far from it, in fact. She took my barrage of condescending drivel rather well, as it happens. Her expression, it seemed, was closer to surprise than anything else⁠—she was merely surprised that her best friend could take such a pretentious stance and talk to her in that way (I truly wish I never had).

Instead of arguing or retaliating (which was well within her right), she simply tried to explain her point of view on the matter:

‘I want to travel the world. Meet people⁠—help them. I don’t care about grand achievements, about pushing the boundaries of science and discovery. I will happily leave those ambitions to the ambitious⁠—to you, and Master Bekker, and Yanna, and to all the rest. I have more than enough power to do a lot of good. To help people who truly need help. And I will⁠. I’ve decided. I will soon travel the world as a dwimveandra, and I’ll help all those in need whose paths I cross. And you know what? I don’t think I’ll ever come back…’

Sometimes, fate has an awfully ironic and cruel way of interpreting folk’s desires.

‘… I don’t think I’ll ever come back …’

Those words still haunt me, echoing through my mind whenever I’m alone. Whenever I take a moment to ponder on the past. A constant reminder that it was me⁠—my actions, my idiocy—that made those words come true in the worst possible way.

CHAPTER 10

‘We are only as strong as our weakest link. Therefore, we must surround ourselves with those of the same caliber as us⁠—equal in prowess and promise⁠—for one simply cannot fly while burdened by dead weight.’

Another one of Bekker’s maxims, in all of its pseudo-wise and warped glory. And this just so happened to be the speck of wisdom that toppled my friendship with Kalena into an irreversible moment of regret and utter despair.

‘I’m sorry, Kalena, but we can no longer be friends.’ I had said it sternly. Stoically.

But I didn’t mean it. Really. I meant only to use it as a way of… motivating her (emotional blackmail, yes; I know that now). She had taken my ranting in stride, so I hadn’t expected her to have such a stark reaction to my silly little ploy. But those words… Those words hit her hard.

‘You want to leave Aretuza? Then go! What are you waiting for? We don’t want you here, anyway!’

Again, I didn’t mean it. I was just riled up, agitated and aggressive and so very sure of myself (how most of us are mid-argument, I suppose). More heated words were exchanged, but I care not to delve deeper into our argument. Heck, I believe I’ve regressed the worst of it, which is probably for the better, as I’m sure such intricate recollection would make the memory sting even worse than it does now. How things concluded, however, is simply unforgettable.

Kalena, unable to fathom my coldness, finally burst into tears and ran away. For reasons I’m sure I will never really know, she fled to Tor Lara (perhaps because she knew it was off-limits and consequently no one would be there to bother her).

Then, I made one last mistake…

Not wanting to let things be, I followed her. Confronted her. Cornered her, I guess. But she didn’t want to talk. She wanted to be left alone. And she had precisely one way to go to get away from me⁠… up. Up to the top chamber of the tower, to where the notorious portal sat waiting. Still, I pursued her. Still, I didn’t leave her be. Still, I directed her towards her only way to escape me…

Before I could stop her, she powered up the portal and, without a second thought, had stepped through into the swirling, distorted light⁠, and into the vast, cosmic chaos beyond.

In a blinding flash, she was gone. Forever.

No one knew what fate awaited her on the other side of that forsaken portal. Most said she was likely dead, split into a million fragments and scattered across the planes. Others presumed she had been spit out in some distant and inhospitable land, far from home and with little-to-no hope for survival. But, of course, no one knew for sure. We couldn’t determine what had happened, and there was absolutely no way to pursue her (even if de Winter had sanctioned such a dangerous venture, which she most certainly did not), as the unstable portal was impossible to predict. The only thing we all agreed on was that Kalena was gone, and as the days turned to weeks, then months, then years, the sad truth became painfully clear to everyone: she was never, ever coming back.

Yet, in all the sadness that followed that event, a shimmer of hope eventually presented itself.

A few years after Kalena had stepped through the warped portal, a small group of Aretuza seniors, myself included, had ventured to a small village in Ellander to provide assistance (along with some priestesses from the Temple of Melitele). The locals had been stricken by a deadly disease, and those we could not heal (magic can only do so much) were to be made as comfortable as possible in their final moments.

One of the dying men I attended to had told me that a traveling mage (we call them ‘dwimveandras’) had passed through the previous year, and stayed for a few days to assist the locals with their work (planting crops, shearing sheep, and the like). He described her as one of the friendliest folks he had ever had the pleasure to meet, and although he couldn’t quite recall her name, was convinced it started with a ‘K’ (‘Kayden, Kayla, Keena, or summin’ like that,’ he had said).

And that was it.

That was more than enough to give me hope.

Of course, I realize the chances of it being Kalena are rather slim. But slim is far better than naught, after all. And so I take some solace in the possibility that my friend is still out there somewhere, following her dream. Helping people wherever she roams. Changing the world not through grand achievements but through humble gestures of generosity and kindness, one deed at a time⁠—being Kalena, essentially.

If this is indeed so, and I so desperately hope it is, then maybe, just maybe, our paths will one day cross again, and I can finally make things right between us.

I would so very much like that.

CHAPTER 11

My final week at Aretuza came much earlier than expected. Mainly because I dropped out of school. (A decision I still stand by to this very day, if you’re wondering.)

In retrospect, it had been a longtime coming.

Initially, I had been blinded by a predetermined vision of what success would look like. My auntie had told me who I was going to be, and I had tried, with all my might and mettle, to become that person⁠—for years, it had been my whole identity, and there was a certain level of comfort in that constancy.

I was a young adult by the time I started to question what I really wanted from life. What would bring me joy? A sense of fulfillment? What did I want my legacy to be? On the night of the Clash of Chaos celebrations, Kalena had planted the seed of doubt about my aspirations, and later, with her parting words, had instilled in me the desire to rethink⁠—and, ultimately, to realign⁠—my goals. Reflecting upon her vision of becoming a dwimveandra, I slowly warmed to the idea and began to understand why a pursuit of such a purpose was attractive. It was a life that offered freedom, adventure, and a chance to do good each and every day. Thinking about it filled me with an unfamiliar warmth—a feeling I enjoyed—and imagining myself living such a life was an increasingly enticing vision.

For lack of a better term, I had been primed, ready for a climactic moment of clarity. Yet, it wasn’t until my final year that this moment came and I truly embraced the long coming change in direction. And the final push I needed, as it turned out, came from a most unlikely of sources.

As a senior of the upper echelons of student hierarchy (or, well, something like that…), I had been paired up with one of the new adepts, to act as their mentor throughout the introductory period of their first year (it was mandatory, and a way to prepare soon-to-be graduates for the possibility of one day becoming a Mistress of Aretuza). I had been charged with guiding a scrawny, doe-eyed girl called Skylark and, upon meeting her, quickly realized just how much my previous passions had eroded during my school days. For one, she was brimming with enthusiasm for the Gift and the Art, and was utterly infatuated with the tenets that underscored our magical institution. Moreover, she was the most proper girl I had ever met⁠—both inside and outside of Aretuza. For example, during one of our many study sessions, she once mused, ‘If magic is chaos, then it makes sense that all those who wield it should be orderly. To avoid anarchy.’ (I believe it was at that moment I just knew she would become a Mistress of Aretuza, and perhaps even a Rectoress⁠—I was not wrong.)

I guess you could say that this unassuming girl was a coup de grâce to the remnants of my past self. The final blow that severed those threadbare tethers I was so desperately clutching onto. And so, with the veil lifted and my true desires clear, I knew exactly what I needed to do next.

Astonishingly, Aunt Aurora took the news of my imminent departure rather well (relatively speaking)…

‘If one wagers on a horse race, my dear, of course, one is going to yell all the encouragement they can muster to support their chosen steed. But what use is it to howl and holler at a mare that no longer wishes to compete? Hmm? It would be an awful waste of breath, if you ask me.’

I’m not sure I fully understood her analogy, especially the part about wagering (on me?), but I didn’t press my concern, as I was content with her dissatisfied tone⁠—it was far better than the vehement response I had been expecting. (My commitment to study had been wavering at the time, so I imagine auntie knew something was amiss and prepared herself for my impending revelation.)

Though, I’m still quite shocked at how fast things shifted during that final year. In what seemed like an overnight turnaround, I went from promising protege to shunned outcast (I may have skipped the part where de Winter had ‘subtly’ suggested I was no longer welcome in the halls of her academy, but the less said about that particular exchange the better, I think…).

And so, with the few belongings I had in tow, and with all my farewells said, I took leave of my once-beloved Aretuza and ventured out alone into the world to travel as a dwimveandra.

And, as it happens… I’ve never gone back.

CHAPTER 12

As of late, the days have been shorter and colder, and so I once again find myself spending more time inside, basking in the comfort of the hearth (when I have the luxury of staying in such a dwelling, that is). This also means I once again have more time to sit down and catch up with my notations.

I have somewhat neglected my diary duties over the past year. After concluding my memoirs, I found myself once again slipping into inconsistency, reassuring myself that I will surely just remember the important events upon my travels and recount them later on (easier said than done). Aunt Aurora, for one, would be most displeased with this lackadaisical approach. She always used to underline the importance of consistency, even when one didn’t feel like doing something (actually, especially when one didn’t feel like it). I recall her stating that ‘we cannot rely on motivation alone to get us through the tough times. We need unwavering commitment⁠. Only commitment ensures consistency.’ I cannot fault her logic.

Regardless, as of right now, duty does not guide my hand⁠—motivation does (I can just picture Aurora’s sullen glare judging me from across the Continent). I am inspired to write because I believe the predicament I currently find myself in simply calls for documentation. It appears to be an important affair. Well, it is curious at the very least and, dare I say, nefarious at worst (and I truly suspect the worst).

It seems the general attitude towards mages has shifted, and not for the better. A couple months back, I was turned away from a village by a hostile and rather rude alderman. ‘We nay want your wicked kind here—be gone! Be gone!’ he had shrieked at me before launching a glob of phlegm in my general direction. It was the first time since setting off from Aretuza that I had come across such animosity and, unfortunately, it wasn’t the last. Many other rural communities shunned me, even towns I had previously visited, where I had built relations and formed friendships, outright refused their usual hospitality.

Something, evidently, was amiss.

A few days back, however, I had the good fortune to run into a fellow traveler on the road. A young bard, she was, and, curiously, seemed to be afflicted by some sort of strange hex (or it was some sort of silly lark and she was merely jesting with me). She claimed she couldn’t utter a single word without bursting into song and rhyme, and after listening to her bellow out stanza after stanza, I believed her plight to be real (surely, no one would keep that up if they didn’t have to).

Anyway, we traveled together for a day (she was on her way to meet a friend who she was sure could help lift her choral curse), and during our time together she sang about the events she had witnessed in a nearby town the previous week:

‘The town was in uproar, emotions began to swell,

A fawn, they had found, slaughtered upon a well,

Its innards lay asunder, its eyes gouged right out,

A ritual of evil, there had truly been no doubt.

Yet, lucky they were, for specialists soon did come,

“We’ll find the vile culprit and shan’t leave till it’s done!”

So they searched most thorough, upon high, upon low,

And eventually they found the source of their woe.

A witch, they unearthed, her purpose most wicked,

With nowhere left to run, the wench soon submitted,

Then a pyre they did build, to burn her body alive,

Job done, they claimed their coin, and left as swift as they’d arrived.’

I may have paraphrased that somewhat⁠ (I’m no poet), but the general gist remains the same.

In my years, I have certainly heard tales of mages, corrupted by power (or just indifferent to the suffering of others), engaging in morally dubious acts. And, yes, I’ve heard tales of innocent folk being hurt during such pursuits.

But this was something different.

The troubadour told me she had heard many other stories of wicked witches, and even went so far as to describe the situation as an apparent scourge.

Of course, I don’t believe it—not for a second (and neither did she, for that matter).

Something, I fear, is terribly wrong with this scene. Mages don’t just turn evil en masse. Heck, there aren’t even enough mages across the Northern Realms to populate such widespread reports, especially out here in the countryside.

And so, I have decided to investigate the matter, for it is most certainly worth investigating.

Thus far, I don’t have much to go on, and due to the circumstances, many folks are, as you can imagine, somewhat uncooperative. But I do have a lead. A name that the bard mentioned, and a name that I have heard talk of in the few taverns I have been fortunate enough to secure lodgings in.

It is a name that I’m sure will lead me to the source of this strange phenomenon⁠—at the very least, it is something tangible that I can pursue.

The name, so it goes, is ‘Hale’.

See also