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Chapter 3

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Snakes, Coffee, and Old Wizards

naga / ˈnɑːɡə / (n) 1: a muscular, snake-like demon 2: overdeveloped, grouchy jackass

Gods, it feels wonderful to be clean. The silky texture of fresh robes on her skin and the afternoon sunlight streaming onto her through the window soothed Shikya's mind, even more than the bath. At times like this, she could almost understand the people who looked forward to training days. Almost. They're still insane; no other word for it. She had the unusual urge to run that afternoon, on a rest day, as though exhausting the body would force her mind to focus on the ritual. Reality dawned on her once again. She flicked her wrist up to eye-level. '4:10.' Her heart pounded heavily. Kel would have something pithy to say about mental pacing and racing. Her head always seems more jumbled than my own.

With under seven hours left until Shikya needed to prepare the summoning chamber, she rested one hand on her hip and the other on her face, dragging it up through her hair. What to do... She stepped next to her dresser and in front of the wall, where a number of arcane symbols were arranged in a tall rectangle. Her forefinger trailed the border, smearing a bit of mana across the runes as it went, activating them in series.

An image of herself appeared, serving as a higher-quality, lower-cost alternative to an actual mirror. Wizards. We're all cheaters in the end. Nobles hardly have mirrors this nice. Her compatriot in the illusion stared at her with apprehension. The gold-trimmed robes of the Grand contrasted with her the dark letters of her name; the color chosen by her to blend in with the faux black leather upon which it was emblazoned. 'No attention that isn't good.' Old Man Aele was quite clear on that point; the Conclave depended on it. Shikya fought down the anxiety and dismissed the image before she became too annoyed with herself. Both Sheyla and Shikya had performed well, and the Old Man was satisfied. So far...

The worries brooding in her mind disrupted her concentration as she left her room for the levi, basking in troubles the way a nihilist might when debating their choice of breakfast. Or anything, I suppose. She reached for the levi's card, but pulled back and headed for the stairs, perhaps as a result of her subconscious' desire to delay as much as possible. As though it would do anything to avoid the ritual tonight. 'Oh, I'm so sorry, ser demon. The levi was inoperable and my room is on the fifth floor and the chamber is across campus and in the basement...'

Sighing, Shikya swallowed and chose grit as she landed at ground level. With a forced smile, she waved to her classmate Aethel (the aeromancer's head momentarily out of her books) and made for the cafeteria, avoiding another 'toric theory' conversation. She briefly heard "Hey, Shik-" as the door closed behind her with a tinge of guilt, then remembered the last time she indulged Aethel. I didn't know that kind of maths existed in the world...

The East Campus had been designed to provide easy access to the cafeteria, centrally located and optimally organized. Despite the number of students and faculty, the building never filled or ran out of food and drink. Whether it was due to size or clever class scheduling was a mystery to Shikya, but she was happy to reap the benefits of others' designs. Inside, she spied half a dozen of her classmates and presumed several others were seated behind the central partition. Coffee. Coffee first.

Within the Aemark wizarding community, it was a well-known fact the Grand Arcane Academy's chefs spared no expense in nourishing an exquisite, varied, and high-class palate using the best of both domestic and foreign foods. With this in mind, Shikya slowly poured a cup of the finest coffee the Grand had to offer. Ah, delicious. Soothing. Invigorating. 'Academy Coffee: Feed Your Addiction.' Shikya took a single sip, testing its dark and bitter depths.

Her internal monologue was, of course, sarcastic. The 'best' of the Grand's coffee was a barely-passable, miserable, and utterly horrifying substitute for eating the raw beans, tolerated for its convenience only. No student or professor had yet figured out how the Grand managed to procure such abject horror when all else was exceptional. Even the bland chit-bread, in its own way, was magnificent. Oh gods... wish I could afford imported coffee. Fucking stone-hands charge too much... Shikya, wincing from the vile liquid, proceeded to unload an unhealthy amount of sugar and cream into the receptacle, stirring it into a tanned soup bereft of as much flavor as she could muster. She sampled a bit to assess the quality, or lack thereof, as she turned for the other side of the wall, where she hoped Sheyla and Alvix were sharing a cup themselves.

Shikya found herself face-to-face with her least-favorite thing in the Academy: Adaylen. No one sane keeps their composure when finding a naga inches from them, much less one as menacing as Adaylen. Her surprised jump lurched coffee simultaneously down her throat and out her mouth, hacking a mouthful on his face as she recovered. Adding to the spectacle, a healthy amount sloshed out of her cup onto Adaylen’s torso.

Adaylen was a naga; a type of legless, reptililian demon which slithered across the ground. Besides missing legs, their chief characteristics were two extendable frills on the sides of their head behind their hardened, spiked crown followed by a set of crested spines proceeding from the rear of the head and down the back. They were a high-ranking class of demon gifted with physical prowess exceeding the well-trained soldiers of the Kingdom and often versed in hex magic and transformation. Most fought with a spear and preferred its reach to a shorter weapon.

But Adaylen was not a normal naga. Adaylen wielded a pair of scimitars with deadly malice. Any target who avoided those swords would have their face melted by pyromancy. A deadly combination for any combatant.

"Shit! You shouldn’t creep up on people! What’s wrong with you?!" Two mirthful laughs emanated from behind Adaylen, whose eyes narrowed as he growled hatred from his rotten heart; murderous intent offset by a sopping wet face, dripping torso, and a juxtaposed mug held loosely in his hand. Yeah, well, hot coffee in the face is what you get for being a sneaky git. Shikya cleared her throat, stifling a laugh of her own and asked, "Fetching some coffee for Sheyla? It's all yours." She moved to the side as she watched his eye twitch in rage and then around him to find both Sheyla and Alvix chuckling with wide grins.

Sheyla pushed a textbook to the side, brushed a bang out of her eyes, and leaned back against her chair. "Beautiful. Easily worth contracting the slithering bastard. Perfection."

Alvix nodded his assent and raised his mug in a mock toast. "Your timing could not have been better. Burned by his own flame as they say."

Shikya flopped into a seat opposite Sheyla and next to Alvix, worries temporarily abated by the kerfuffle. "I dunno. I doubt the burn hurt as much as the taste of the Grand's coffee." Summoned by the commentary and Sheyla's magical compulsion, Adaylen laid a newly-filled cup of the sugar- and cream-laden mixture in front of his master, staring daggers, if not claymores, at them all. Sheyla ordered him back towards the wall, willing the demon to stay at a distance lest he cast a pall over them. Shikya grinned cheerily at him as he departed.

"Sorry about that. I didn't see you coming when I made him fetch coffee. He doubtless wanted to scare you witless for his own amusement." Sheyla winked as she sipped at her coffee, though the expression soured momentarily as she drank. "He'll be punished appropriately later."

Swords, fires, illusions, and hexes. Perfect killer and coffee-fetcher. Shikya eyed Adaylen warily, receiving a hateful glare in return. Well, he's nothing if not predictable. The only naga I've known and I can tell he's a grouch among grouches.

Shikya shrugged. "He's just pouting. You can tell from the furrowed... scales and crossed arms and... general assholery."

"Demons are always plotting your downfall, murder, and/or dismemberment. 'Pouting' is poor way to put it."

"I'm still surprised you have him pour it. It's a good chance for him to poison you, pouting or not," Alvix interjected.

Sheyla dismissed the concern. "If I can't make a contract that stops an obvious, ill-conceived attempt at murder then I'd have bigger problems than a little poison in my coffee. Not to mention that this sorry excuse for a drink is already close enough to it." She shrugged. "I wouldn't notice."

Though a joking assertion, her comment reignited the worry inside Shikya. Dammit... I wonder if my contract would prevent it. Her attention mulled over the runes inlaid in the summoning chamber and the incantation, looking for loopholes the imp might use to poison her. She found none, but stronger and wiser warlocks than her had been undone.

A finger poked her in the forehead. "Hey. Keep your mind frontwards. I've seen that look before." Shikya was pulled from her reverie and found Sheyla and Alvix watching her. Sheyla continued, "Still worrying about the summoning?"

Shikya let her head flop to the table with a soft bang, hands mussing the hair on the back of her head. "Ugh...," she muffled. "I know I've prepped for months, but all it takes is a misspoken word or awry luck to ruin everything..."

Alvix, while not an expert on summoning, replied on Sheyla's behalf, eager to lend his own support. "You're going to do fine. You even inscribed the runes into the floor with copper-"

"A stroke of genius by the way," Sheyla interrupted.

"-and it's only an imp. You're casting a fireball to light a candle. You could kick one to death if you were so inclined."

They're right, as usual. Then again, a fireball is liable to melt the candle and harm the caster more than light it... "Yeah... It's just..." She hesitated. She didn't want to form the words; not here, not now. Guilt weighed on her. Whatever expectations the Old Man and the elders had for here were eclipsed by those they had for Sheyla. She's a walking miracle; staying sane and carrying ten times the weight I do. I shouldn't have the right to complain. The mental machinations at Sheyla's disposal felt out of reach for Shikya. Instead of voicing the combined sense of helplessness, marvel, and self-loathing, she sighed and adjusted to rest her head on crossed arms.

"Thinking about the Conclave?" Shikya's downcast eyes answered Sheyla's question for her. She quieted her voice for the moment. "Listen, the elders don't understand anything about what we're doing here and do not care; as long as the Kingdom gives doesn't give them trouble for it. Just being accepted at the Grand is another fifty years of citizenship and more when we graduate." Elven children were uncommon and elven wizards even less so. Have to get as much juice from the fruit as you can. 'Fresh-squeezed elf brains! Guaranteed to extend your citizenship by a decade!"

Alvix munched on chit-bread while listening to the hushed whispers. As a foreign student from Rundheart, the intricacies of Aemark treaties mattered to him only as far as it affected his friends. He swallowed a bite and added his thoughts. "I can't say I know what it's like to be an elf in Aemark, but they'd be hard-pressed to say you haven't done well. Elven wizards are highly valued and so are warlocks. I mean, the damned Grandmaster is an el-..." Alvix stopped short, realizing he was only adding to her burdens.

Shikya groaned at what seemed another example of how she wasn't good enough. Gotta study magical theory and discover things no wizard has ever seen before. Or, in my case, discover dead ends no wizard had ever thrown themselves at before. "The Old Man doesn't see it that way. Sheyla is the one paying the tax. Putting Adaylen on the warfront must be worth at least a dozen years, but he'll want a hundred from each of us." She glanced back to the naga and his legendary glare did not disappoint.

"Well...," Sheyla rubbed her chin as though in thought. "You might be surprised how much luck factored into it. You happen across a few names scrawled in some old spellbooks; interrogate a lesser demon or two; prepare for a couple months... Yes, you need some talent, but you have that as well and plenty to spare. You tighten your own collar, Shikya, not anyone else. We believe in you."

Shikya removed her head from the table and gulped down the rest of her coffee, thirsty for its rejuvenating effect instead of its taste. Rubbing the back of her neck as she stood, "Truth, but practice is more difficult than theory." She took a moment to think about the ritual, checking her timelet as she did so. "I should sleep before tonight; better to gather mana while I can."

Alvix gestured to one of the food stations. "Take some chit-bread with you then. Best eat it before you sleep. The coffee should wake you up in four or five hours. And Shikya..." She turned to see Alvix looking at her earnestly. "Good luck. And we mean it: you're better than you believe."

With an unconvincing smile, Shikya left her friends, snagged a slice of chit-bread, threw a smirk at Adaylen, and walked out of the cafeteria. Why does everyone say that... They mark the line further away each time. 'Well done! But I'll bet you can do more! Let me just set this line back a little. What? No, no, I'm sure you can pass this one too!'

The chit-bread's density made Shikya work for the nutrients and natural mana. She chewed through the paste-like center while passing monuments of famous wizards from centuries past, with individualized plaques ascribing them titles and detailing their achievements. Each was hand-sculpted from marble sourced from quarries in the Tirin Hills and polished to a fine luster. Shikya cared little for history; she could never remember who did what, where, and for what reason. To her own detriment in class, she ignored the plaques' descriptions and imagined her own version of their accomplishments based purely on the appearance of their statues.

Here is Grandmaster Crumply-Bum, the first transmuter to enchant shoes with air to ease back pain and improve posture; a critical feature for the local entrepreneur. And here is Lady Fervently-In-Love-With-Herself, who was the first to sell illusory cosmetics for the time-strapped wizard. Shikya knew she was insulting their memory and they had accomplished truly amazing feats: advancing magical knowledge, saving the Kingdom from an oncoming army, and more. Her mockery allowed her a small hope she might too be remembered. Even without all the heroics, someone might care. Seemingly small advancements left in the margins of a wizard's spellbook, given little thought by their creator, could manifest as a key component of complex and wondrously creative magic. Medias called such things 'unheralded epiphany.' Shikya was certain the phrase made no sense, but was somehow perfectly fitting.

Inside the Garland Dorm, Shikya pulled a levi card from its holster and began the process to imbue it with the appropriate arcane circle. Of course, there's the other possibility... Murdock Ciarlum invented a magical contraption widely used in institutions across the Kingdom and admired by commoner and wizard alike. And we call it the 'levi.' Not the Ciarlum levi. Not the Ciarlum EGLAS as he wanted. Just the 'levi.' Still alive and already a footnote in history. She ascended the shaft with this thought and exited worse for wear, slapping the return stone with a dismissive shove. The aether-lamps of the hallway glowed with unnatural light. She paused to admire the flickering in one of them. No one remembers who first made these either. So many facets of magic; so many possibilities. Shikya did not know how it felt to be inventive.

Closing the door to her room and re-activating its protections, Shikya collapsed face-first atop her bed, awash in mixed emotions of anxiety, fear, and the distinct constriction of being crestfallen. I shouldn't perform the summoning. Maybe I should change my discipline. She heaved a sigh. Not worth it. While all wizards retained enough flexibility to invoke basic cantrips from any discipline, it grew more challenging to cast non-aligned spells as one studied a specific type of magic.

Shikya flipped herself and held her hand high, focusing mana to her fingertips. She pushed the mana out into a rotating ball of heat. It tumbled end over end faster and faster as she whipped it into a small fury. As it reddened, she lost control of the spell, letting it burst in a rambunctious puff of fire and smoke. For all her training and instruction, Shikya could not will a sustainable pyromancy sphere into existence. I dunno how Sheyla does it...

Her hand collapsed to her side as she raised the other, twisting her wrist to activate the timelet. Shikya evoked a minor, delayed pyromancy cantrip that would issue a firework-like bang in three hours time, jokingly referred to as a fire alarm. That's probably the best pyromancy I'll ever cast: a clever spell turned into a joke. I don't know who first contrived it; no one does. Maybe it was Lady Fervently-In-Love-With-Herself...

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