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Chapter 1

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Of Imps and Irreverent Illusions

illusion / ɪˈl(j)uːzj(ə)n / (n) 1: something not there 2: damned useful magic

Shikya listened to the snoring on the other side of the door for a moment. Moral quandary: Is it better to leave a sleeping wizard alone, who by all accounts desperately needs sleep, or to wake them to keep an appointment that likely provides little more than reassurance to a needy student, who knows full well she would be forgiven either way? Shikya wondered if it was possible to teach yourself moral absolutism and answer such questions with some degree of authority. Well, I'd just be in a different quandary of whether or not moral absolutism is better than questioning everything. Sighing, she rapped on the door, inadvertently flaking off another bit of paint from the 's' of 'Medias.'

Snoring turned to a snort followed by a heavy thump and the squeak of a chair. In her mind's eye, she imagined Medias scrambling to pick up a thick tome while composing himself into a presentable state, glasses askew and gray hair disheveled. "Erm, yes! Do come in!" Another thump echoed as Shikya turned the knob and opened the door; slowly, so as to give Medias the extra moment to right himself. She smirked as she spotted him adjusting his glasses, not noticing a tuft of hair standing conspicuously aloft.

"Shikya! Excellent! I trust your week has gone well enough?" Sneaking in a quick wink, "Tales of history excepted..." They shared a certain exasperation with Harlick's historical perspective, which glorified the Aemark Kingdom in ways that bordered on the erotic.

"Nothing unusual if that's what you mean: muddling through on the practical, thoroughly enjoying the theoretical... and working myself into a state of perpetual dread, of course." Taking a seat opposite Medias and smiling, she continued, "End of the week remains the best part though," passing a light compliment to Medias on his class scheduled for the fifth day and showing appreciation for the sixth 'free' day, which included their weekly meeting. As though we have actual free time. The past three months contributed significantly to her personal dread, starting on the day of her 36th year. 'An auspicious occasion to prepare for your first summoning,' as Medias had said at the time. Human fascination about the number six (and its multiples) notwithstanding, Shikya couldn't argue with the timing, delayed as it was.

"Always the charmer; graced for class exemplar..." Medias raised an eyebrow and grinned expectantly.

Shikya scoffed quietly. "Like I want that responsibility. Besides, Alec does a fine job and, let's be honest: it's a popularity contest that... you know..." Medias sighed along with her. Elves would never win such contests, not here. I might have a chance if I clip my ears, but I'm more liable to disfigure myself than pass as a human.

"I suppose you're right. Warlocks do have to climb a few walls to make their mark." She appreciated Medias' deflection and tact even if it was contrived. "Speaking of: your first wall awaits shortly! A week from now, Hestra will fill; precisely three months and twelve from your 36th. The fates align!"

"You do realize that every day is three months and twelve from something, right?" Rehashing a debate they had been through many times before.

Medias waved his hand dismissively, but mirthfully. "Yes, yes... 'it's all nonsense' and such. Leave an old man to his faith. Besides, if it doesn't matter what day, why not the 12th? If you want to complain, then complain about the midnight hour."

"I do have a complaint about the midnight hour," Shikya chuckled.

"Too bad! There's demonstrable proof that midnight works well, faith be damned." Medias took a moment to hold his hand aloft and look towards the ceiling as if to say, 'you know I didn't really mean that.' The scripture and traditions of Rundic religion seemed so constricting to Shikya. Don't they ever get bored with the same thing year after year, decade after decade? 'Yes, I think yesterday went nicely. Let's see if turning my life into a repeat of yesterday will do as well.'

Shoving her internal snark aside, Shikya's thoughts turned to the matter at hand. Shit... just a week away. Why'd I end up a warlock... Her attunement had manifested years after Sheyla despite the biannual tests by the faculty of the Grand Arcane Academy. It wasn't until after she turned 19 that a little purple ball emerged above her hand, just as one had for Sheyla. Had she a choice, Shikya would've preferred to be attuned to one of the conjuration disciplines, like transmutation. Less opportunity to get yourself in trouble... and more opportunity to stay off the frontlines. The military service that would follow her graduation was not an appealing thought.

"If I had to guess, I'd say you were wallowing in self-pity again." Pulled from her musing, Shikya realized she was leaning forward and into the palm of her hand, the other dangling off her knee; all while ignoring Medias. "Someday, you're going to learn the art of confidence and figure out you're a talented wizard and a proper warlock."

She leaned back in the chair and to the side, propping her head up on a half-enclosed fist. "Not a warlock yet and I prefer finding the confidence before I have to engage in demonic negotiation. You know, there was an old wizard who said 'The mind is your greatest asset; not raw power.'" Shikya gave a knowing look to her mentor.

"While I'm pleased to see you've taken my lessons to heart, I'll be the one referring to myself as old, little fledgling. Now..." With gusto, Medias stood to give his customary speech on summoning. "Preparation is the hallmark of the skilled wizard." ...and how the inexperienced deal with their inadequacy. "All ritual magic must be taken with care." ...and a swig of liquor. "...with days and weeks if not months of planning the incantation, the movements, and gathering the necessary materials. Warlocks must prepare even more so for their rituals; for what other ritual involves a hostile entity bent on your destruction." Siege magic for one. Healers with unwilling patients for two. "Shikya, can you tell me the three keys to successful summoning?"

"'Preparation, preparation, and then once more: preparation.'" A smirk played at the edge of her mouth, both of them knowing she was overly familiar with the monologue.

With a pointed gesture for emphasis and walking over to one side of his office, "Correct! More accurately, and I admit, more usefully: preparation of the space, preparation of the spell, and preparation of the mind. It doesn't carry as much pith though." Medias prodded the blank wall, imbuing it with a drop of mana to activate a spell crafted over the past months. The diagram of the summoning circle and associated runes glowed an inch above the wall's surface. "This is your space. This will be what you command."

The structure was burned into Shikya's mind and quite literally set in stone within the chamber two floors beneath them (and a few dozen yards to the southeast, to be precise). Almost reading her thoughts, Medias continued while gesturing to select spots on the illusion, "There's nothing more to be done on this front. These runes have been cast in copper and inlaid into the floor and likewise with the circles, an idea for which you should be credited with I might add."

True, but shocking it's not standard practice. If you write them in salt or reagents, someone could sneeze themselves to literal death. Then again, blacksmiths can't forge a rune for life or money. The best smith Shikya found couldn't differentiate the one for 'bind' from another that loosely translated to 'stuff it with stones and throw it in a lake.' Why there was a specific rune for such a thing was an wholly different subject, but likely had something to do with angry mobs and pitchforks. Didn't it always? Shikya's thoughts wandered to ancient towns that routinely drowned wizards out of fear. 'Yar! Them be waving 'is hands an' makin' rocks float! Throw 'em in yonder pond!' She furrowed her brow, wondering why she assumed the townspeople were from northern Aemark.

Medias shifted uncomfortably, recalling an incident from the prior month. "Though... perhaps we should have alerted the janitorial staff ahead of time to that particular idea... Regardless, the runes of the first circle dictate the limitation of the summoning space, preventing the demon from taking overt action against you. Here, in the second circle, we've narrowed the focus to the lower echelons of demonkind, specifically an imp. Next, the third through sixth circles put the base structure of the contract in proper terms, outlining the actions and rules that will be applied by the spell."

Picking up where Medias left off, Shikya continued the speech with as much of his flair as she could emulate. "Thus, we move to the preparation of the spell, where wordplay and movement dictate the ebb and flow of mana throughout the structure and in so doing, define the contract itself!" She punctuated the final phrase with a finger in the air, just as Medias would.

Summoning contracts were essentially a list of rules and agreements between warlock and demon. The nature of creating one was easily leverageable in the legal field as well, which would explain why many warlocks, especially students, maintained a contract law side job. Shikya's personal belief was that the first warlocks once sat around a table, debated, and determined that 'warlock' was a far more imposing title than 'legal-mancer.'

"Exactly so, down to the position of the little finger! Together, we have carefully honed the language to focus on actions the demon may take. Importantly, we include aspects of non-action as well, which is overlooked by most warlocks, often to their demise. Nothing worse than a demon sitting a fight out because you forgot to require their participation in your defense." His joviality was contagious and Shikya found herself smiling. "As such, this past month has been valuable in honing your spellwork to near-perfection. The only remaining improvement would be in volume. You need to project more. It naturally leads to better elocution and fewer mistakes."

"But it doesn't actually improve it. You could whisper the words and the spell would work fine." Yelling into an empty room, even for a spell, felt odd and somehow indulgent. Plus the summoning chamber echoes madly. It's as though it were taken straight from that Al'Orphic region with the hills... Something-Something-The-Wind Hills. Sheyla would know.

Shikya already knew Medias' counterpoint. "Well, technically. However, I might add that a robust voice lends itself well to the third area of preparation..." Medias tapped his temple for emphasis. "The mind. You yourself have said, it's what you're most worried about." With a wave of his hand and a soft word, the illusion disappeared from the wall, and he returned to his seat. In a less practiced, more friendly, and almost concerned tone, he asked, "So tell me: how do you feel this week? Ready?"

"Oh, you know, same as usual: like I'll fu-... fail and end up with an angry demon gnawing on my shin while I try to crack its skull open with my spellbook. Yet another good reason to stick to an imp instead of something more deadly... and taller." Might have to invest in a heavier book too...

The Warlock's Registry and associated text in Introduction to Demons and Summonings defined imps a 'diminutive and physically weak demon rarely used in combat, but show uncommonly high intelligence.' Students remember the entry more succinctly: 'ugly little fucking bastards... but useful.' Typically no more than two feet in height, imps were grotesque. Long claws; hunched back; bulbous eyes and head; long ears; huge noses; and the classic 'impish grin.'

Medias responded with a warning, "Imps may not be the most powerful demons, but they can still be trouble when cornered. You should still consider them dangerous." She struggled to keep her eyes from rolling.

"I'm quite certain I consider everything about summoning dangerous. Personally, sticking to theory would be better. An imp is a compromise or, more aptly, a demon's bargain I'd rather not take. At least I decent have odds to beat an imp if it turned on me." I bet one good boot to the head would knock one of the grinning sons-of-bitches out cold. Probably would leave a nice goofy scar and a bent nose. She imagined how an imp would appear if its nose were punched in. Ugh, it's like a horrifying cross between a seahorse and a melted candle.

"I think you would do surprisingly well against more than just an imp, but you are free to ignore sage counsel from your venerable and experienced mentor." Medias shook himself briefly to return to proper 'sagely advisor' posture. "Power aside: you're smart and, better yet, you're not full of yourself like nine out of ten warlocks." To emphasize his point, he wagged a finger at Shikya. "They get killed because they think they're invincible and get complacent, not because they're weak. Should we run a mock negotiation one more time or do you feel prepared?"

While Shikya found a great deal of amusement in watching Medias adopt the role of 'tiny, grotesque asshat' with such aplomb, she opted for a more restful night. "Not now. I think the Spirit ritual would be a better use of my time tonight." The observance of the Rundic god Ayhlun was a tradition that most Aemark wizards practiced regardless of dedication to their faith or, as in Shikya's case, if they were Rundic at all. "My mind is traveling and I need to slow it." Shikya lifted herself out of the chair, moved her right hand across her stomach, and bowed slightly; as one did when leaving those of superior rank.

Medias sighed, but with a smile while standing up to leave. "Yes, yes, you can go, Shikya Col," and more softly, "...always so formal..." He began to rummage through the papers and books on his desk, stuffing a select few into a nearby satchel.

Shikya smirked. "Easier to do it every time than to remember who will be offended. See you in class, Medias Tel." She could hear the continuing rustle and the accompanying humbuggery as she closed to the door to his office. Before starting the walk back to the dorms on the east side of the Academy, Shikya wondered whether it would have been better to practice negotiation again. She couldn't deny it was entertaining to hear her mentor devolve into sexual innuendo and cursing the patronage of her mother or describing where various household objects could be stuck. The experience was so incongruous she couldn't help but break out in laughter.

Medias had chuckled with her and praised her for being able to laugh at the insults. "Good! Laughing at the demon means that you don't find them threatening!" It wasn't a bad point and strategically placed mockery was a legitimate negotiating tactic, though she doubted she could manage it organically. Shikya never had much ability to lie or deceive. In fact, her friends playfully preyed on her naivety. Yes... yet another enormously useful trait for a warlock. She silently chastised her mind's dry wit, wishing that she could silence the internal commentary.

Lost in thought, Shikya did not notice Jalind approaching, holding a container under one arm. "Shikya? Late-night errand for Medias Tel or finishing the preparations for next week?"

"Ahh!" Shikya abandoned her wits for a moment but recovered with a modicum of grace. "Jalind?! Um, Jalind Sen. I'm... yes; last meeting before the ritual." A unique aroma assaulted her senses, which she couldn't quite place. Whatever it is, it's medicinal... and not pleasant. Her nose scrunched. "What's that-"

"Just some alchemical ingredients for Medias." Jalind shuffled the box under his arm to secure it tightly and limit its exposure to the air. "Said he needed it for one of his lessons and the campus stocks weren't sufficient." Before she had a chance to voice a question, Jalind resumed, "Should I assume you'll be ready at dawn's light?"

Shikya thought his demeanor and curtness unusual but decided against prying further. His tone said enough and his eyes said it twice. Instead, she smiled as best as she could at the thought of an early morning run followed by grueling combat training. "I never do anything but. Not only could you chase me down from a league away, you wouldn't break a sweat doing it. Plus, I'm keenly aware of how fast you swing a sword..."

Jalind was a sort of experiment at the Grand Arcane Academy started four years ago. Formerly a military commander overseeing a mixed contingent of wizards and soldiers, he approached the Grandmaster about the 'quality' of the graduates. As he had put it, they were 'monumentally incapable of carrying so much as a twig up a stair.' Though an exaggeration, Jalind saw every type of wizard die during his career, most often due to lack of basic fitness and situational awareness. He aimed to correct that deficiency and the grandmaster graciously accommodated him.

Thus, we have our backs broken and legs shattered twice per week, every week. Shikya couldn't deny the effectiveness but strenuously denied the merits of running them ragged. Jalind may not have fully appreciated the difference between the average wizard and solider. Compared to previous graduates, her class could run circles around them and even deflect a few blows from a common soldier, but they were nowhere near as capable in martial combat as a well-trained recruit. Still, better than the last generation. Gods, that first year though... Her eyebrow twitched at the memory.

"Excellent. I may even be gracious enough to go easy on you." His warm smile made it almost believable. "For now, off you go. You'll be needing rest if you want to keep up tomorrow." Shikya adopted the customary posture for faring a superior well as Jalind entered Medias' office.

What was that smell...? I know it from somewhere... Her mind mulled the aroma over as she ambled her way towards the east campus. Eventually, she gave up, assumed it would come to her at an inopportune time, and enjoyed the moonlight of Hestra shining on the trees and pathway. Quiet enjoyment edged into rumination, a skill with which Shikya was highly experienced. Demons...

A demon's nature is to slither their way through the intricacies of a summoning contract and lead a warlock to their death. Warlocks defined and structured the contract to minimize the chance of outright murder, but demons were clever. When a warlock is killed, their demons persisted in the material world and released from contractual limitations, usually spending their newly found freedom pillaging and terrorizing. Stronger warlocks yielded stronger demons. Stronger demons yielded more carnage.

Well, at least my demon won't be too much trouble when it kills me. She was weak. Her inner monologue adopted a faux-wise format: Weakness is but a way to enhance technique. For what is weakness but a means to force imagination? Huh. That's not bad, but what would I rhyme with technique? 'Why bother with technique when one has a two-by-four of teak...?'

While she mused on how to pivot her profession into one of self-help poems and fortune-telling, Shikya passed by the line of statues to former Academy grandmasters. The magnitude of their accomplishments and proficiency of spellcasting was daunting to her. Of all the monuments to wizards great and old, there was but one with which Shikya identified with. Standing tall in front of her own dorm, the statue Garland Kenelnhaltol Cintiqain watched over the courtyard, arm reaching forth, trying to touch the very form of the gods themselves. It then leaned forward, stuck its tongue out at Shikya, and mimed a gesture associated with an undignified sexual act.

Ah, Garland... you never fail to disappoint. Garland was a genius illusionist and enchanter who insisted upon crafting his own statue after his years as grandmaster ended. The Academy council could hardly refuse a request from one such as Garland, but were horrified to find that his last contribution to the Grand was as lewd, offensive, and immodest as possible. The student population thought the illusion beyond hilarious and much of the faculty were similarly bemused. In the face of protests and backlash, the council allowed the monument to remain and the dormitory behind it colloquially became the Garland Dorm. Shikya idly mused if the alchemist Viscella, who donated considerable funds to construct the building, rolled in her grave whenever it was called the Garland Dorm or if her spirit flinched when the statue performed certain 'oral maneuvers.'

Inside, a number of students from earlier years laid about the common area. Shikya expected all her classmates were already asleep so as to live through the training tomorrow. Reminded of her upcoming trials, she quickened her pace to the levi. She pulled a card out from the holster next to an open shaft rising through the multi-floor building and flipped it into a slot at the top of an intricate wheel jutting an inch or two out from the wall. After turning the dial to 'five,' she pushed it in while imbuing some mana into the effort.

The 'express geo-levi-ascending shaft,' as its inventor, Murdock Ciarlum, called it, was a modern fixture. Well-adjusted wizards referred to the device as 'the levi' instead of 'the Ciarlum EGLAS.' Few wizards would lie quiet with how often we bastardize the names of their magic. A hiss emitted from the dial and she removed the card, now emblazoned with an arcane circle. Shikya stepped into the shaft, onto the rune-inlaid rock, and placed it on a pedestal on the center-back. A drop of mana activated the effect and the stone below her glowed with warmth as it accelerated upwards. As she waited to arrive at the appropriate floor, she wondered how much effort was put into the safety of the contraption. Like most magical inventions, it probably knocked a dozen wizards out cold before they started selling it.

The enchanted stone glided to a stop at the fifth floor and Shikya slipped out. After a step in the direction of her room, she turned to drop the card through another wheel, reversing the inscription process. She tapped a domed protrusion with a mana-tinged fingertip to send the levi back to ground level. Most wizards ignored this courtesy, which was frustrating on an older model without 'any-to-any' travel. Shikya turned and strode to her room, listening to the low grating of stone-on-stone behind her.

Inside her room, she murmured the command word for her protective transformations, flopped on the bed, sprawled out, and covered her eyes with her wrist and hand. One week... She sighed as she adjusted her head to watch the motes of dust hovering in the moonlight. They danced in loose patterns that soothed her. A few minutes of thoughtless dozing passed and she sat up abruptly, placing hands on knees, eyes closed.

"Aen Ayhlun..." Though Shikya was not Rundic, speaking the phrase helped focus her mind on the meditation. Mana flowed smoothly, gathering under the vectors on her torso, then her limbs, and finally to her hands and feet. To a commoner, she would appear as any other person performing the Rite of Spirit, but to a wizard using aether sight, Shikya would be clothed in a mist as mana emanated from her. Analyzing the feeling of it inside her, she narrowed one pathway, widened another, untwisted a kink, and relaxed tight vectors as needed.

"Ayhlun Aen." The simultaneous calm and alertness pushed the subconscious self-loathing deep beneath the surface of her thoughts; a welcome relief affording her mental faculties to rest. The lush bedding and cool pillow set her adrift into dreamless, if not entirely restful, sleep.

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