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Hjolnai

Shades of Grey

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The Academy of Eisund was a bustling place as usual, filled with many of the cleverest and most powerful mages in the land... though rarely anyone who was both at once.

 

Sald Ardil watched the writhing courtyard from his small window. Uncharacteristic nerves gnawed at him, and focus eluded his grasp; he had picked up subtle signs that he might be tested soon, perhaps that day, and once called he would have one chance and no more.

 

He rose from his desk with a sigh.

“This is futile; I’ll never learn anything like this. I should go, exercise away some of my frustration.”

 

A familiar voice answered in a taunting tone;

“What’s the matter, too afraid to fail? If you know you’re not ready, why not give up now?”

 

“Lynna. I should have known you’d be around. Why don’t you just turn around and go away? I’ve had enough of your games and tricks!”

 

Sald almost flinched at his own harsh tone, but maintained his facade. It would only diminish him to appear indecisive, and weaken his position in the subtle politics of Eisund. To break into anger so easily was bad enough.

 

“Hmph, you’re no fun. Perhaps you just... never mind.”

 

Lynna left, and Sald felt yet more turmoil. Why could he not take these taunts calmly, like all the brightest did? Why did Lynna focus on him? Why did her teasing almost seem friendly at times?

He knew it must be his imagination. She was just too bright and cunning for him to understand fully. Her natural charms only strengthened her position and served to confuse him. Then another thought dawned, and he more confidently strode down the corridor.

“She dropped a sentence. I must have frightened her, just a bit. Looks like I built the image I needed...”

Edited by Hjolnai

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The Eis River flowed in from the North, and cut a path surrounding the Eastern half of Eisund. By the time it was South of the Academy, it flowed through a deep trench, carved by its own waters. The walls of this trench were pitted with caves.

 

It was to these caves that Sald’s feet eventually led him. He clambered down the rock face, eventually reaching one of the deeper caves; it had not been difficult to claim that cave for himself, some years back. On this day, however...

 

“Student Ardil.”

 

“Tutor Edris. What brings you here, sir?”

 

He knew it had to be trouble. Edris was rarely formal, and fairly bookish; furthermore, he was one of the more friendly and informal staff.

 

“You are to leave the rockface. You are temporarily banned from this location.”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

Sald immediately turned and began to climb back up the cliff. To hesitate or question would be a loss of face. He could not afford to seem an easier target. Still, he felt both loss and anger; the relative solitude of the cliff and the flow of the river were calming after the stress and machinations of each day.

 

Someone had taken this simple pleasure from him. He would have to find out who was behind it. He counted several students his rivals, though others would also gain from his loss. As he made his way back to Eisund’s structures, he whispered under his breath.

 

“Who’s behind this? It’s time to call in some favours, consult some...sources.”

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Sald was slow and measured in his tread as he stepped into the corridors, but his mind was racing. Someone had procured Edris’ assistance in banning him from the caves, and whether speech or writing was the mode of conversation, another would almost undoubtedly know. Who had regular contact with Edris?

 

Sald quickly made his way to the library, finding exactly who he sought.

 

“So, Worm, I thought I’d find you here.”

 

“Sald, you know that’s not my title. Bad manners to insult me when I know what you need to.”

 

“Fine, Bookworm, have it your way. Don’t let them catch you eating in here...”

 

In reality, Sald respected Bookworm’s approach. Withholding his real name held clear benefits, and his “title” built a persona which was difficult to pierce. What few vulnerabilities he had (like eating where he should not) were as likely feigned as intrinsic.

 

“I’ll tell you who’s after you if you forget me eating, forget the favour Aisen owes you, and owe me a future favour.”

 

“Don’t go too far... I have options beyond other sources.”

 

Bookworm clearly saw through Sald’s feigned anger, but Sald knew he could not point it out without sacrificing some of his own persona.

 

“Oh, fine. Forget food and Aisen. Now what you must understand is... Stop glaring at me like that! Um- Now, you want to know about Edris and caves, I assume. I “overheard” him talking with Lynna about your access to them. Come back in half an hour and I’ll have a list of all the details I can remember.”

 

“Thankyou. I’m sure we’ll have reason to talk again.”

 

As Sald walked away, he realized he had forgotten a crucial part of the bargain – Bookworm was free to tell others what he had been asking about. It did not matter; if Bookworm sold that information, it would only strengthen his position. Of much more concern was Lynna’s part in the events of the day. Was this only for her entertainment, or did she want him to spend more time in the main halls? Was it, perhaps, that she wished for more time in his company? He dismissed the thought. Lynna, being more reliant on cunning than power, was undoubtedly a step ahead of his predictions. In the short term, he should find some public revenge to maintain his persona... though the thought soured in considering his target.

Edited by Hjolnai

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The library of Eisund was in truth much larger than the single room in which Sald walked. Most of its books were stored underground, brought up in the hands of magical servants on request. Still, several rooms above ground were reserved for library use. Tomes were read in those rooms as often as borrowed, and the privacy and paranoia of readers demanded extensive areas to be devoted to that single purpose.

 

The room in which Sald had found Bookworm served as a gateway to the main library complex. It held the main entrance, and was one of the most public rooms in the library (with the exception of Bookworm's corner). Sald browsed through some of the display texts, considering both his possibly impending testing and his ever-present plotting.

 

Sald happened upon a title, Paranoia and plotting in Tarind. He almost laughed. The treatise would undoubtedly be filled with examples of heavy-handed and crude manipulation. The finesse and cunning needed to simply remain at Eisund was beyond anything he had heard of elsewhere. This he reconsidered. What he had heard was undoubtedly incomplete. Perhaps the city of Tarind truly held equal complexity in simple survival; he could not know for certain. He made a mental note to read the book when he could find the time, or at least the first few pages.

 

Sald looked up just in time to see Edris enter the library. Edris glanced up, and saw him in turn.

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As Edris approached, Sald considered the greeting he would give. What with Edris' part in banning Sald from the caves, to speak too warmly would either seem forced or reveal his capacity to suppress emotion; such knowledge in the hands of other students could prove harmful. To fall short would risk being deemed a failure by Edris, thus harming his chances of success in future tests. Sald made his choice, and called,

 

"Hello, Edris."

 

As soon as he had spoken he mentally cursed the mistake. He had spoken while Edris was still too distant, and must have seemed a little desperate. Edris took a few more steps before replying.

 

"Good day to you. I was wondering if you would be interested in a little chat about tactics. One of the library's discussion rooms should be just perfect."

 

Sald was already nodding, and moved to follow Edris immediately. This was undoubtedly a test of sorts. Once the door was closed, a whispered spell and brief gesture unleashed an electromagnetic pulse; magical scrying was very difficult within Eisund, but electronic bugs could be placed by almost anyone. Edris appeared not to notice, though Sald knew he had.

 

"Sald, I was just recently thinking about a hypothetical situation. A powerful country fifty kilometres to the South is on the brink of declaring war upon us. What would you suggest?"

 

"Well, er, we should send some agents to manipulate public opinion away from war. Using fear to suggest that we are invincible should work."

 

"Assume some Eisundar have defected to their side; they know their force is superior."

 

"In that case, more drastic action is required. We should assassinate their entire clear line of succession, leaving a leaderless country which can be easily turned to civil war."

 

Edris' expression was too blank to tell whether Sald was meeting success or failure in this test, undoubtedly key despite its casual appearance. Despite his swift replies, Sald felt more stress under Edris' gaze than in even the most difficult of magical tasks. It was this stress, from the constant uncertainty and merciless exploitation of weakness by other students, which had led to many students backing out to preserve their sanity, and more than one suicide in Sald's year.

 

"Five candidates for their throne are serving in the military. Three manage to evade their assassins through their positions. There is now a clear line of one ruler and two successors, all with reason to hate Eisund. Direct military conflict is inevitable. War is declared."

 

Clearly there was no intent to let the pressure off until defeat came; a test of endurance.

 

"Manipulate the weather to delay attackers and destroy the enemy crops."

 

"Enemy food is imported. They rely on mines for their wealth. Heavy snow gives you a month to act."

 

"Send messages to buy up food in the countries which supply them."

 

"They have enough stored for a year or more."

 

"Poison their troops."

 

"Even if you succeed, their missile operators and mages are most likely safe. They have more technological power but slightly less magic than us left."

 

"No choice is left. Rapidly construct nuclear weapons and blast the enemy into oblivion."

 

Edris nodded at Sald's final answer. Clearly some form of mass destruction had been the sought-for answer. Sald realized that he had erred, perhaps, both in delaying the inevitable and in choosing a technological approach over a magical plague. Still, the test was over, and once Edris was gone he could breathe a sigh of relief.

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Some hours passed. Sunset approached as Sald plotted in his room. Time away from study could cost him dearly, but Sald knew that he could not concentrate until this was resolved.

 

Finally, he was certain of his plan. The messages it would send would be complex; perhaps even Lynna's cunning could not decipher them... and Sald knew his intent was unclear even to himself.

 

He gathered the necessary equipment; it was not difficult to find all he needed. He made his way along the corridor to the shadows at the end. Cloaked in darkness, he would not be easily seen, and he wore spells only to defeat detecting magic. With a clear view of Lynna's door, he watched as the shade deepened, and the common dining hall approached opening time. The short corridor saw only a few passing through it, but Lynna was among them. When it seemed no stragglers would see him, Sald walked unobtrusively to her door and incanted briefly.

 

He produced three simple batteries, a mirror and a laptop, and with these and some complex spellcasting, he gained a full image of the wards protecting her room. With much greater simplicity but significant magical potency, he banished all the protections and observing spells in place. The batteries in his hand heated suddenly as he burnt their strength, forcing entropy. The magical reaction provided the power for his dispelling, and Sald felt ambient magic increase; an inevitable consequence of negating spells. He captured some of this for later use, and felt pride in his power; Lynna might not be alone in outweighing his cunning, but few students matched his capacity to shape magic.

 

Unlocking the door with a whisper, Sald entered the room. He glanced around briefly; as he knew, Lynna kept her room almost as it was provided to her. A simple table by the bed, three bookshelves, a chest and a cupboard. After a cursory glance at the bookshelves, he realized nothing there would suit his plan. On top of the cupboard, however, there was a tiny wooden box. It clearly held something of importance, but he did not open it. That would be going too far. Instead, he drew a small gold bar from his pocket.

 

Sald remained for only a short while longer, working magic. When he was done, he slipped out. He considered the next set of events, and imagined how they would play out.

 

Lynna would return to find her wards intact. She would enter, catch the gleam of gold from atop her cupboard. Looking closer, she would find her box, now plated with gold, atop a note - "You know what this is for." Then she would inspect her wards, find the inconsistencies from their destruction and restoration.

 

Sald was reminded once again that the politics of Eisund were entertainment as much as rivalry; this plot had been fun. It did not cross his mind that in other times and other places, his actions would have been seen as direly sinister; in Eisund, such subterfuge was the norm.

 

With his plotting for the day done, Sald ate in his room and went back to his studies.

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Magical combat was hard.

 

Sald might have compared it to playing speed chess while solving complex problems in order to make each move, and being punched if the move was bad. Had he had time, he might. The moment's inattention to half-form the thought let wind through his defenses; he fell to the ground. Lynna saw and incanted briefly; five darts of light flew from her hands to hover in front of them.

 

As Lynna cast her spell, their three opponents - Erean, Jasper and Anne, all much less experienced than Sald or Lynna - siezed their advantage. A dark-coloured globe, an invisible fist of air, and a flurry of ice shards came to meet the remaining defenses of the pair. Two light-darts neutralised the dark globe, and the other three flickered as they intercepted the air (Sald wondered how Lynna had known where to place them as he scrambled to his feet). The pair were struck by a half-dissipated gust, but Lynna's defense did nothing to counter the ice shards... which struck as rain. Sald recognised his earlier spell - a concentrated wall of heated air - which had countered fire as easily as ice, and lasted well, defying entropy as magic did. He looked up, saw Anne and Jasper casting defenses (he hoped, from what he could see and hear), and prepared to counter Erean's offensive. As his next spell conducted Erean's electrical attack to the ground, he wondered why Lynna had not taken the chance to gain the advantage in their personal plots, discarded the thought, saw Lynna's searing light spell reflected off a brief mirror (that had been Jasper's spell, though Anne's hovering earth shields might come into play soon) and prepared for the next move.

 

This time Jasper joined Erean in taking the offensive, the switch a tactic which had worked in the past, and Sald fell into his own casting.

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Sald completed his spell. Ice formed on the grass across the area, save the line of his heat wall - there, the grass flared and blackened, leaving nothing but ash. He felt the bite of cold through his thick robes almost instantly, and sensed also a weakening of local magic. His head ached; in grasping external power he had burnt much of his personal strength, for a while. Such was the price of large-scale spells.

 

Lynna's spell, whatever it had been, had failed as all the magical strength it relied on was pulled away. On the other side of the line, their opponents were faring little better; while their magic had not been drained as much due to the distance, they also lacked the experience of low magic environments. They were left struggling all the more as Anne's next defense spell was an attempt to emulate Sald's heat wall; it took more heat from the air around them, and they would risk frostbite soon. Either through panic or logic, Erean abandoned her spell, which Sald knew would likely have required energy and so lowered the temperature for the trio even further (it was typical to source the energy for chemical changes, motion or light spells from heat). Jasper's strike, a pulse through the ground, was reduced to triviality by the lack of magic to convert internal stresses to kinetic energy.

 

In such unfamiliar conditions, the trio hesitated and lost precious seconds in considering new approaches. While Sald was still unsteady and drained, Lynna was left in a perfect position to take advantage of their indecision. Her next spell drew the little remaining heat from a patch of air and sent it around the (now almost glowing) wall of heat to icily waft over first Anne, then Jasper, finishing with Erean. They shivered, and a horn sounded. A potentially dangerous attack had landed, and the battle was over.

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Hi, Hjolnai :). I was cruising for a little reading for my coffee this morning and happened on your story. If (as you indicate) you'd like some feedback , well, here's a little; but first of all, I enjoyed the story - you captured my interest, pleasantly forestalling some precious moments, the dreaded double-click on a story I'm struggling too hard to write for the Recruiter's Office. :lol:

 

Sald quickly found his way to the library, finding exactly who he sought.

Replace 'finding' with another verb in order to indicate a separate 'find' - Worm. As it reads one might interpret that Sald found the library which was exactly 'who he sought' (?). Another verb, such as 'discover' might better separate the 'what' from the 'who'. All I'm saying is I tripped a little on it and other readers might lightly trip as well.

 

Jasper's strike, a pulse through the ground, was reduced to triviality by the lack of magic to convert internal stresses to kinetic energy.

I know what you mean - kinetic, as in classical Newtonian energy as opposed to chemical or plasmic or whatever else energies are available. But your reader might appreciate a little reassurance on the matter, unless of course you've covered this distinction before and I just missed it. :)

 

Like I said, I'm just killing time and this feedback is 'picky' to say the least. Nice story.

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Hello, Eyeoneblack, thanks for your feedback.

 

Replace 'finding' with another verb in order to indicate a separate 'find' - Worm. As it reads one might interpret that Sald found the library which was exactly 'who he sought' (?). Another verb, such as 'discover' might better separate the 'what' from the 'who'. All I'm saying is I tripped a little on it and other readers might lightly trip as well.

Looking back over that sentence, I agree that it seems unwieldy. I'll think about how to revise it. To be honest, I haven't been going back over my work much.

 

I know what you mean - kinetic, as in classical Newtonian energy as opposed to chemical or plasmic or whatever else energies are available. But your reader might appreciate a little reassurance on the matter, unless of course you've covered this distinction before and I just missed it. :)

I hadn't actually considered the idea that talking about kinetic energy would be a problem... I guess it's more a part of my background and less a general language term than I thought. Perhaps I'll go on a tangent earlier in the story to cover similar terms.

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"Sald Ardil, you have made a mistake."

 

The name of this particularly stern tutor eluded him, but that was of no importance. He had to consider the tutor's further words.

 

"It is expected that such battles must be lost. You have taught three students false lessons, told them that numbers are meaningless, and all to demonstrate your pride."

 

Sald unleashed a convincing facsimile of controlled rebellion, though he kept his tone civil.

 

"By which you mean that I should not have shown my combat ability, of course. But I lost nothing; the top third of my peers could have managed it one time in two, and I have not hidden that I stand at least that high."

 

In two sentences, his confidence in the approach collapsed. He had allowed himself to delve too far into pride for the answer. Now he had to hope he had broken nothing.

 

"Your response indicates a lack of empathy. I am not pleased."

 

The tutor turned away, and Sald silently considered the implications.

Clearly, his prideful response would keep the administration guessing. It had not been such a weak approach after all. So long as he kept himself unknowable to them, he would continue to advance. Of course, the negativity of the conversation only meant that they wanted him to think of reasons for their apparent hostility, so he was still left uncertain...

 

Seeing no permanent positive or negative answer to his position, Sald turned to new matters. No one event could be allowed to trap him in uncertainty if he was to advance to his peak.

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