Despite approaching his forty-third birthday, the towering structure before him instilled an innocent awe in Rhodovus. A rush of pride made his heartbeat quicken: this ancient Academy was the last remnants of his ancestor’s, the Avish Empire’s, might. Here, he would decipher the secrets of rune magic and embark on his destiny as a great mage! Breaking out of his reverie, Rhodovus bowed toward the mage the Main Family had sent to guard him on their perilous journey through human lands.
Hanz Yulizer grunted. “Rhodovus, you’re a good kid. This is your first time in human lands, so keep your wits about you… It isn’t like the Summer Courts here. There are things that are not… allowed.”
Then, the man unwrapped a few pages from a protective leather cover and pressed his finger on them. The paper shimmered with an effusive glow that cocooned the elven man, signaling that his mana had activated the runes. The man rubbed his ears in farewell, and Rhodovus’s fingers traced his own tipped ears. When he next blinked, his guardian was already halfway down the street. Rhodovus walked up the stairs and knocked the gate embedded in the enchanted white walls that had withstood millenia.
A stout stone humanoid opened the door, greeting, “Welcome to the Academy, Student Rhodovus.” Controlling his surprise, Rhodovus mutely nodded at the creature, trying to figure out what it was. The thing quirked its head, eyeing the young elf. “Is something troubling you, Student Rhodovus?”
A tall human wearing golden robes strode through, wielding a gold scepter. The stone creature bowed toward the incoming male. “Welcome, Prec-”
“Shut it, Gronar. Get a move on, knife-ears! Never seen a golem before?” The boy brushed past Rhodovus who watched the boy in confusion. Without looking back, the boy with golden robes disappeared into a side hallway that diverged from the massive entrance chamber.
Dropping both his briefcases, one packed with forestry clothes, the other holding more ornate robes for magic and elegant company, Rhodovus felt his ears, fingering the sharp ends. “What in the?”
Gronar humbly bowed. “Please don’t mind Precept Lirel, Student Rhodovus. He likes to be a bit rough with new students.”
For some reason, Rhodovus felt a rush of anger, irritation, annoyance at the apparent insult despite his manners training at the Summer Courts. Why had the human denigrated his ears? He flushed and rushed into the hall, ignoring the golem’s plaintive cries behind.
To escape the golem, Rhodovus had wandered down the various halls lining the main chamber and now found himself lost. Sure, his memory was sufficient to retrace his steps, but he had no doubt that the golem would spot him from its perch by the door if he did so. With little else to do, he followed a gaggle of students wearing mage robes, employing the skills he had learned hunting in elven forests and cities to track targets without being noticed.
Finally, he entered a loud market that rivaled the earlier entrance’s size. He read the various bulletin boards surrounded by milling crowds.
“Buy your enchanted gear here! Discounts for students!” Intrigued, Rhodovus watched a group in commoner’s clothes rush toward that stall. Now that his ears had adjusted to the constant roar, he could hear countless voices selling wares, advertising missions, requesting aid, bartering… Figuring he might as well window shop, Rhodovus hefted his two briefcases, wondering what to do with them.
Helpfully, one of the larger signs identified an information desk operated by a golem, which Rhodovus had determined acted as administrators. “Ah, Hello, Student Rhodovus!” The short, clearly feminine golem greeted as he walked up.
“I’ve been meaning to ask, how do all of you golems know my name?”
The golem laughed like ringing bells. Thrusting a hand over the desk, she said, “The name’s Lily. I’m a gnome golem.” Rhodovus hesitantly shook her stony hand. In his experience, golems weren’t supposed to be so… real.
Lily continued, “If you haven’t noticed yet, the Academy’s golems are… different. Some of the real old ones are artifacts imported as guards from the Fyorin Towers, but others were made by rank seven mages.” She tapped her stone head. “While we’re all distinct, we can share information between ourselves.” She puffed up her chest. “Most older models are independent sentient beings and don’t share a network. Connection’s all the rage. Based off Dungeon magic or something, apparently.”
Rhodovus blinked. How could a golem seem so sentient… and so aware of the processes behind its own making? This golem seemed to have complete sentience, yet surely, in its mind, it was bound by countless absurd rules. All it took was a spark, and the golem would work around its bindings and either kill itself or everything around it if it ever recognized the pointlessness of its existence. For exactly that reason, elves strictly restricted the creation of sentient beings.
Fighting a frown, Rhodovus asked, “Well, I was just wondering whether you could help me find my rooms or some place to stow these.” He pointed toward the two briefcases. Tapping her lip, Lily frowned, startling Rhodovus once more by how alive she seemed. Reaching beneath the desk, she pulled out a small white disk with an arrow on it. “Could I have your hand? I need to take a droplet of blood.”
Yanking his hand back, Rhodovus yelped, “Why?”
“Oh, please. I don’t know why you elves have such a cultural phobia about this. It’s just to Imprint this locator for your dorm.”
Staring nervously at his hand, Rhodovus hesitated. “What do I need to do? Is there some other way?”
Throwing her hands in the air, Lily said, “Fine. I’ll just input your dorm’s position.” The gnomish-looking golem reached under her desk and dropped a thick tome in front of Rhodovus. Flicking through the pages, her face basked in the emitted red glow. Her roaming reading finger stopped. “Aha! Rhodovus: Room 32 Floor 5 House of Polinick.” She closed her eyes and held the disk before handing it to Rhodovus, its arrow now shifting whenever he moved.
She sighed. “This isn’t a proper navigation disk because it can only direct you to your dorm, but you just need to follow the arrow. Leave your bags here. Albert can take them to your room later.”
Handing his baggage to her, Rhodovus left when Lily yelled, “Wait!”
Turning, Rhodovus inquisitively looked at her.
“Here. Gronar was supposed to give all incoming students one. As usual, he probably got distracted chatting to some students.” Lily held out a light brown cloak made of fine cloth. The golem proudly announced, “This here is made from Spinnerian silk! Third rank enchantment. Guaranteed to enhance mana absorption by at least twenty percent!”
Rhodovus eyed the robes, realising that it mirrored the ones others wore throughout campus. Covering his travel wear with the silky cloak, Rhodovus grinned and flipped up the hood, hiding his ears. “Wow, you’re already on the path of becoming a mage! Cya around, Student Rhodovus!” With a wave, Rhodovus joined the throng of cloaked figures surging through the market.
Rhoduvus shuffled along with the crowd’s flow. While uncomfortable about so many strangers jostling him, Rhodovus also marveled at the experience. Here, there were so many people! Not even in the lower elven markets would the crowds get so bustling. The air felt hot, filled with people rushing to find their next deal or to secure their goods. Rhodovus stopped at a meat stand, taking out a silver coin for a beef skewer. Placing the coin in the dish at the ordering counter, Rhodovus waited as the vendor reached toward several meat sticks roasting over a charred grill.
A gong resounded, and the market’s furor silenced. Seeing the more lost-looking students gaping around themselves, Rhodovus refrained from peering toward the sound’s source; he didn’t want to mark himself as an amateur on his first day. A voice echoed, “Hark! Praise the Senior Prefect Olinth! He has retrieved a branch from the Sacred Tree of Hope!”
Rhodovus felt a bit confused. Turning toward the vendor, he asked, “What type of Quest did he do to receive a branch from the Spring Court?”
The vendor eyed him in disbelief. “Are you a treehugger? Pfft, as if the Courts would grant outsiders branches. He cut it down himself.”
“Why would the Spring Court allow someone to cut the sacred tree?”
Peering at Rhodovus’s face, the vendor’s gaze turned serious. “Pah! I knew it. You’re a knife-ear. I hope Olinth killed your kind when he stole that branch.” He threw the coin back at Rhodovus. “Take your trash, knifer.” The silver coin bounced off Rhodovus’s arm and rolled on the ground. Righteous fury surged across Rhodovus’s face. How dare this foolish human besmirch the Tree of Hope? Rhodovus reached for his rapier when a hand landed on his bicep without the slightest of warnings from his formidable hunting instincts. Wary, Rhodovus swirled around, ready to cast his magic.
A tall elf dressed in robes finer than any student’s released Rhodovus’s arm and grasped his hand in a firm handshake. He felt a cool sensation as a silver coin was pressed into his palm.
“At ease, Student Rhodovus. Call me, Lord Firenze. Hanz told me you’d come. He did not warn me you’d be so… difficult. To find, I mean.” Both Rhodovus’s and the vendor’s eyes focused on the man’s neck where an emblem swayed on a chain: Rhodovus’s because it looked rather fetching, and the vendor’s because what it signified. Paling, the vendor stammered, “Professor! I meant no harm.” He weakly justified, “We should celebrate heroes like Olinth.”
The professor arched a brow. “Oh really? And had I not taught him last year, I would’ve thought him a genocidal maniac. Two meat skewers.”
Hearing that this professor had personally taught the prefect, the vendor ashened. In silence, he handed over two sizzling skewers. As the professor reached into a small pouch, the vendor waved his hands. “Upper professor, I would never dream of making you pay.”
“I wasn’t going to. Follow me, Student Rhodovus.” Pulling out a glass shaker containing a white powder, the professor sprinkled his skewer before offering Rhodovus the bottle. “Salt?”
Rhodovus shook his head, inspecting the professor’s small pouch. He could have sworn that the professor’s hand had shrunk when approaching the pouch’s opening. Following Rhodovus’s eyes, the professor chuckled. “Ah, you noticed. It’s one of my favorite artifacts, a rank seven bag of holding, capable of distorting space. Well, Hanz already told me about you, so I’ll introduce myself. I am Professor Firenze, a rank 6 runemage here at Hewther Academy.” Tapping his chin, Professor Firenze reached into his pouch for a slip of glowing paper, the latent mana rolling off in waves. Pulling out a quill, the professor scrawled something on the sheet.
“I specialize in ink preparation and paper summons. Take the right hall. I had planned to meet you as soon as you officially set up your dorm sigil, but who would’ve expected you to escape Gronar? Your independent exploration seems to have led to a bit of culture shock.”
Nodding, Rhodovus walked behind Professor Firenze, intently watching the professor’s scribbling: observing a sixth rank papermage was a treat. Handing Rhodovus a white disk, the professor obliviously continued, “Well, I owe Hanz a favor, so see me if you need anything. Just say my name, and that locator will direct you. That’s how I found you: professor tracking privileges and all that.”
Stowing his quill, the professor surveyed the hall before opening a door into a small room equipped with a few tables and little else. He carefully examined his arcane runes. Gently pushing Rhodovus in, he furrowed his brows and tapped the rune, releasing a flash of violet mana that soon dissipated.
Rhodovus frowned. Violet mana was generally for fast-acting magic or things that required constant checking by a spell. His ears popped as the mana wave passed over him; his frown deepened. Firenze had just cast some type of ward.
“You may speak in confidence. Relax, by the Gods. I’m not going to murder you. It’s an anti-scrying ward.”
Rhodovus gritted his teeth. “How can you accept this? The very missions ordered by this Academy threaten our race. They dared to raid the sacred tree!”
Firenze rubbed the bridge of his nose. “First of all, you’re not a Spring Elf. Don’t act like a tree-hugger. Second, are you familiar with Archmage Niphlet?”
Rhodovus paused. “Yes… He was an elven Archmage of the Winter Court who believed the apex of any intelligent race was to create sentient beings… His mysterious disappearance four centuries ago resulted in the release of his golem creations, allowing them to annihilate life in three Kingdoms before the Fyorin Towers stepped in. After him, all the nations banned the creation of sentient beings.”
“Ignoring that the newly minted golems at the Academy are very much sentient, just not unbounded, there’s another thing about Niphlet that many forget about in light of his other effects on Cespes. Before he researched the creation of golems, he attempted to crack the secret to life by observing what he believed was the primordial origin of life, microorganisms that required powerful magics to be observed.”
Rhodovus subtly glanced around the room. This did not seem at all like an office. If anything, it looked more like some type of spartan classroom. Besides for a stack of cheap-looking runepaper sitting on a desk at the front, it was barren except for chairs and desks.
“Focus, Rhodovus. Well, Niphlet found that these organisms appeared to occasionally split into two cells in order to reproduce.” The professor pointedly stared at Rhodovus. “Now, why do you think the sacred tree is important to our race?”
Rhodovus obligingly recited Article 12 from the Court of Season’s Constitution, “In the second era after the sacking of the Tree of Life, the Primordial Goddess Laya sent down her prophecy:
In Four Seasons shall Cespes flow.
Elves and fae and creatures high and low
All around one tree grow.
Should from it you ever flee
Or try to find the endless sea,
Shall it in two cleave.
Then from this world must you leave.”
Firenze grinned. “And how does a world tree reproduce? Have we ever observed seeds?”
“Everyone knows they’re a divine gift from the Gods. They cannot form anew on this mortal plane.”
Stabbing a finger at Rhodovus’s chest, the professor smirked. “That’s what they want you to believe, but why does a divine tree have to reproduce with a seed? Who knows to what other places the Goddess will lead?”
Inwardly groaning both at the rhyme and the professor’s argument, Rhodovus asked, “Professor, Sir. Are you a member of the Leave Faction?”
The professor shrugged. “I am ambivalent. The primordial Gods have been silent for over five decades, and even if they were around, they have never wished to reveal their secrets in the millennia during which they walked this earth. Do not be so hasty to condemn those who do not follow your precepts. Besides, it’s not like you’re such a moral fellow either. Hanz stated in your recommendation that you’re an adult by Summer Court standards.”
Firenze measured Rhodovus. “I’ve gotta ask. Did you take the hunting path or the torture one? Or both? You don’t seem the type, but you never know.”
Aghast, Rhodovus scanned the room. How could he speak so openly about the secrets of their race? To do such was begging death.
Firenze waved a hand. “Stop worrying so much. I’ve warded this room with the most powerful artifacts I could buy, not to mention the runespell I just cast. Nothing short of a rank nine mage, who’d already no doubt know of this, could eavesdrop.”
Sullenly, Rhodovus said, “I took the hunting path. I hunted some criminals who had been raiding the countryside and sacrificed them to ignite my blood.”
“Good. We will be training here at the start and middle of each cycle until you can resist a more powerful blood mage.” Before Rhodovus could protest, he crumpled toward the ground as all his muscles violently spasmed.