Nobody said a word; nobody laughed and nobody smiled. The main hall at the Selson Academy for the Arcane was silent as the Head Instructor made his way to the edge of the stage. His look of sombre was shared by the staff and students in the rows of seats before him. Not since her first day at the academy had Iona seen the hall so crowded. Those not lucky enough to find a seat were forced to stand along the back and sides. She and Boltan had been lucky. They sat in the third row from the front though Iona was far from comfortable. She was still a little dazed, with a nasty ache at the back of her head.
She’d awoken in the academy’s medical office which was filled practically to bursting point. Sahel had carried her there. He stayed briefly but then left despite her pleas not to. He said he had to go and make sure everyone else was alright but promised to return as soon as he could. Iona still had no idea what was happening. Someone told her the academy was under attack but she didn’t catch much more. It took a while to be seen to, the medical office swamped the way it was and with even more being brought in. She’d turned out to be one of the lucky ones, suffering only a mild concussion along with a minor head wound. Some hadn’t been so fortunate. It didn’t take long to patch her up. One of the nurses closed the wound and gave her some painkillers and an ice pack and then sent her on her way. She and a few others with similar injuries were escorted to the main hall where they were made to wait under the guard of some of the senior staff while the others searched the academy to make sure the attackers were gone. It was about an hour before they were told it was safe to return to their rooms, where they were instructed to stay until further notice. Going back to sleep was impossible. The meds barely made a dent in the pain pulsating through Iona’s head. It felt like there was a drummer sitting inside, beating incessantly at their instrument. She ended up sitting awake for the rest of the night, staring at the hole in her wall and contemplating what might have happened if Sahel hadn’t shown up when we did. It wasn’t long after sunrise that the door buzzer sounded. Iona answered to find one of the senior arcanists outside and was led once again to the main hall where she sat down with Boltan. He didn’t seem to be injured nor anywhere as shaken up as her. She asked him if he knew what was happening, but he didn’t. Then Iona noticed the Head Instructor approaching the edge of the stage and guessed she was about to get her answer.
“As I am sure you are all aware”. He sounded even more subdued than usual. “Last night our academy, for the first time in its history, came under attack from the Mahleeka, the indigenous inhabitants of Selson”. The hall was flooded by the dull murmur of hundreds of voices whispering at once. Mahleeka. Iona was certain she’d heard that word a few times from people trying to explain what was happening while in her concussed state. “Many were injured last night and I am deeply saddened to inform you that three students: Rea Trumack, Trava Mordel, and Marren Desett, and one member of staff: Pralia Gormon, lost their lives during the attack. In addition, over two dozen students and staff have been taken by the Mahleeka, to where we do not know”. More whispering followed. Most were just now learning exactly what had happened, having been asleep in their beds and, once the academy was put into lockdown, confined to their rooms for the duration of the attack.
Marren Desett. That name rang a bell. Then Iona realized; it had belonged to the young man she’d seen lying against the wall when she was being dragged along the corridor. She knew she recognized him but it was only after the Head Instructor said his name that Iona remembered where from. They met the day she arrived at the academy. He was new as well. She’d sat down next to him in the main hall and they made small talk about themselves and what they thought about the academy so far. He was from Valarayan too, from the north-eastern continent of Lehar. Iona had found him quite charming and attractive but they didn’t get to talk long before the Head Instructor began his introductory address and they were assigned to their respective tutors, after which they were whisked away for the academy induction. She never saw much of him after that.. Tears started forming again when she realized she would never get another chance to speak to him. She wished she could have gotten to know him better. They never discussed it but there was probably a family in Lehar that loved him, soon to be devastated by the news of what had become of him. Her thoughts were with them. She knew the pain of losing someone she loved. It was something no one should have to go through.
The Head Instructor opened his mouth as if to indicate there was more he had to say and the hall fell silent again. “I would like to commend the efforts of our senior and master arcanists who worked tirelessly and courageously to drive off the attackers as well as our medical staff without whom the result of last night would most likely have been far worse. At the moment, we are not sure how the Mahleeka were able to gain entrance to the academy, nor do we know their reasons for carrying out such a brutal and vicious attack. The Mahleeka have never been happy with Humanity’s presence on Selson but in the centuries we’ve been here there has never been any conflict between us and them and we have always kept our distance”. It always struck Iona as strange anyone would think it a good idea to open an arcane academy on a moon populated by hostile natives. Surely they could have found somewhere else to put it. “I also want to assure everyone that steps are being taken to ensure that this never happens again and that our friends and colleagues are returned to us safely. We have contacted the government on Valarayan who, as I speak, are dispatching military forces to protect the academy and rescue those who were taken”. The silence was broken again by another flurry of whispers.
“Soldiers? Here”? Boltan whispered.
“And finally, out of respect for those who we have lost…” The longer he continued, the more sorrowful the Head Instructor seemed to become. In the last few minutes, Iona had seen more emotion from him than in the rest of her three months at the academy. “There will be no teaching or training for the day. I repeat, all learning and training activities are suspended for the rest of the day. However you choose to spend the day, I ask you all to be respectful to those affected by this tragedy and remember those who lost their lives last night. Thank you”. Lorsek bowed his head and left the stage. He’d always struck Iona as a stern old man but now it was clear the Head Instructor very much cared for the people who trained and taught at the academy. No doubt he was under a great deal of pressure. A lot of people would be looking for someone to blame for this and he was certain to be the prime candidate. Once the news reached the rest of the galaxy, many were going to be outraged and the academy would doubtlessly suffer as a result.
With the address at an end, the students and faculty began vacating the hall. Iona tried to stick close to Boltan but they were quickly separated amid the sea of shocked and frightened trainee arcanists. As she fought her way through the near-impenetrable wall of people Iona was plagued by flashbacks to last night. The memory of being dragged along the floor chilled her in particular. She hadn’t thought about it at the time but, once she heard about those taken, it became clear. They were going to take her as well. Iona didn’t want to think what might have happened if Sahel hadn’t shown up. She shuddered at the thought of what could be happening to them right that moment, what could have been happening to her.
After squeezing through the doors at the end of the hall, Iona felt a hand take her by the arm. She turned to see Sahel and Boltan waiting. “Come with me”. Her mentor sounded unusually urgent. She knew better than to argue.
Sahel led them away from the meandering crowd to a part of the academy Iona had never been to before. He didn’t tell them where they were going or what they were doing, answering every question with, “You’ll find out when we get there”. Iona wasn’t sure what he had planned but, judging from his secretiveness, he probably didn’t want the other master arcanists to know about it.
A few deserted corridors later and through a set of doors and they were at their destination though Iona still had more questions than answers. Sahel had brought them to the academy’s sports hall which apart from them was empty. Iona knew the academy had a sports hall but this was her first time setting foot in it. She was never a sporty person. She had no idea what the coloured lines running along the laminate floor meant or which sport they belonged to. If Llannaeia was studying there, this was where Iona would have expected to find her in her downtime. She always was the more athletic out of them.
Sahel led them to the centre. “Since the forest is currently off limits, we shall be training here instead. It’s usually pretty quiet, and I doubt anyone will be coming in here today”. Iona wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disappointed. She was more than eager to continue her training but still reeling from last night’s ordeal. Her head still ached, and she was so tired. She’d been hoping for a long lie down before Sahel accosted her.
“Training”? Boltan exclaimed. “But the Head Instructor said there was to be none today”.
“Yes he did, and that’s why I’ve brought us here. I know what Lorsek said and that this is a trying time for all of us, especially you, Iona. But we are all in danger. The Mahleeka have never been happy with our presence here but they’ve never been violent towards us before. We thought as long as we kept our distance and left them alone, they would be happy to ignore us. Obviously, we were wrong”. No kidding, Iona thought. “With the lockdown in place and the soldiers coming, we are protected for the time being, but I think it would be very unwise of us to believe the Mahleeka won’t be back”. She started to see where he was going. “As such, I think it’s time we started training our students to defend themselves in case anything like this happens again”.
That was a surprise despite her suspicions. The academy was completely against teaching any form of Arcana that could be used to hurt another, even though just about every arcane technique had the potential to cause harm. Even in the wake of the attack she didn’t think Lorsek would allow such a thing, unless he didn’t know about it.
“I know we’re supposed to be mourning those we lost last night but there really is no time to lose. The Mahleeka could return at any time so we need all of you to be able to defend yourselves as soon as possible”.
“But what about the other instructors”? Boltan asked. “I thought this kind of thing wasn’t allowed”.
Sahel gave a reluctant nod. “Unfortunately, the other instructors do not agree with my viewpoint, so at present you two are the only ones learning to defend yourselves. I would appreciate it if you kept this only between us, at least for now. If the wrong people find out we could all be in a lot of trouble. Perhaps I can convince the others to see things my way, but that’s a matter for another day. Not many people use the sports hall these days so aside from the forest this seems to be the best place to train without being disturbed”.
Iona was delighted, ashamedly so. Finally, they were moving onto something more exciting than lifting rocks. Her mind was ablaze with possibilities though her heart fluttered at the possible ramifications. She was already in enough trouble as it was. If the instructors found out what they were doing, she’d be straight out the door, and not just her but perhaps Boltan, and even Sahel as well. It was his idea after all.
“Let us begin. What I’m going to teach you is a simple but useful technique. I’m going to teach you how to incapacitate living things. Nothing fancy but it could just save your lives. Mr Sleck, if you could please come and stand next to me”.
Boltan sighed. “Why me”? Iona smiled. She found it funny that Sahel enjoyed demonstrating abilities on her hapless friend. Perhaps if he wasn’t so whiny, he wouldn’t get picked on as much.
“Please, Mr Sleck. Time is of the essence”.
Boltan hesitated before dragging sorry hide to where Sahel pointed, grumbling all the way. “This isn’t going to hurt, is it”?
“On the contrary, Mr Sleck. I think you’ll find it quite pleasant. Now please face me”.
With another sigh, Boltan turned to Sahel who placed his hand upon the ridge at the centre of his face. Iona wanted to be amazed by what happened next but was instead underwhelmed. As soon as Sahel’s fingers met his face, Boltan’s eyes rolled back in his head and he toppled backwards though rather than crash to the ground like a felled tree, his body stopped in mid-air and descended slowly under his mentor’s control. Iona had been hoping for something a little more spectacular. She didn’t expect Sahel to do anything crazy to Boltan but she did wish for something a bit more.
Iona looked to Boltan, still and peaceful on the floor. Sahel knelt by his side. “Mr Sleck”? He tapped on his bulky shoulder but received no response. He repeated himself, tapping harder until the young Iringroat awoke from his slumber, eyes bulging as if waking from a terrible nightmare.
“Just like falling asleep, wasn’t it”? Sahel smiled though Boltan didn’t look anywhere near as impressed.
“That was horrible”. Iona was powerless not to snigger at his exaggerated anger.
“Oh come now, Mr Sleck. It wasn’t that bad”.
“It was too”, Boltan whined, propping himself on his elbows. He looked to Iona. “Why can’t you test your stupid spells on her for a change”?
“Because it’s much more fun demonstrating them on you”. Sahel’s answer drew a frustrated sigh. “Would it make you feel better to try it out on Iona”? Iona’s smile vanished and her stomach fluttered at the suggestion.
Her friend gave an evil smirk. “Yes”.
At her mentor’s behest, Iona, reluctantly, faced Boltan as he lay a three-fingered hand on her forehead. She tried not to smile awkwardly but it was no use. The whole position felt odd. Boltan avoided her eyes. Not long after meeting him, Iona realized Boltan Sleck didn’t possess much confidence with members of the opposite sex, even those of an entirely different species.
“Now I want you to place yourself into Iona’s shoes”, Sahel told him. “Imagine that you are looking at yourself through her eyes. Can you do that for me”?
“I’ll try”. Boltan’s voice contained not a shred of confidence. He stared past Iona with his big hand perched on her head.
“Are you doing it, Mr Sleck”?
Sahel circled them. “When you can picture yourself looking through her eyes, I want you to imagine that you are fading away, that you are losing consciousness”. Iona had noticed the majority of Arcana seemed to be in the imagining of the act rather than the act itself.
They faced each other for what seemed like forever but nothing happened. It quickly became mind-numbing. When Sahel said learning to defend themselves, Iona had something more exciting in mind. It didn’t even make sense. If she ever needed to defend herself, she was fairly confident her attacker wouldn’t be kind enough to stand still while she touched them on the head and imagined looking through their eyes.
“Nothing’s happening”, Boltan moaned. Iona didn’t blame him for being frustrated, feeling the same herself.
“You need to focus”. Sahel’s velvety voice was answered with another sigh.
“It isn’t working”. Boltan’s frustration got the better of him. He took his hand from Iona’s head and stormed off. He could be such a child, though she couldn’t talk.
Sahel followed. “Of course it’s not going to work straight away. You need to build the focus first. Arcana is all about focus. It won’t work without it. You try, Iona”.
Iona nodded despite not feeling all that enthusiastic. Boltan returned to her and she placed her hand on the ridge at the centre of his forehead. She’d never touched his skin before. It felt like very badly aged leather stretched over a misshapen skeleton.
“Now, just as I told Mr Sleck . . . imagine you are looking at yourself through his eyes”.
Iona tried to focus but it was weird trying to picture herself in Boltan’s shoes. He was taller than her. Did that mean she had to imagine looking down on herself or would looking at herself from the same height work just as well?
She finally managed to picture what she thought was similar to his view of her but the image was a lot harder to keep than she’d anticipated. She could only hold it for a couple seconds before it faded away. A few slow and awkward minutes passed but nothing happened. It came as no surprise though it was no less frustrating. She could lift rocks with her mind and shoot flames for her hands, but she couldn’t master this?
Every time Iona got the image in her head it went away again. Focusing on the task at hand was all but impossible. Her mind was too focused elsewhere. Since leaving her seat in the hall, the only thing she could think about was the people taken last night. Who knows what could be happening to them? They could be suffering and dying right that second and they were just sitting around waiting for the military to come and save them. How could they be sure they would even find them in time? Why were they waiting for the military at all? They were an academy full of arcanists, some of the most powerful in the galaxy. They shouldn’t be hiding away, waiting for someone else to save them. They should be out there rescuing them themselves.
She should have been focusing on what Sahel told her to do but all Iona could think about were the legends of the arcanists of ancient times, the unimaginably powerful men and women who walked the lands of Karasen many thousands of years ago. When something bad happened, they didn’t hide away and wait for someone else to take care of it. They were the ones people turned to when bad things happened. Erladein the Unbreakable didn’t hide away when the bandits of the Red Ridge sacked his village and carried off his sweetheart. He tracked them to their camp and, after rescuing his love, used his powers to open the earth and swallow up the bandits and their tents. The Nine Knights of Remesta didn’t hide away when the Armies of Ash came to burn their city. They joined the defence and, with the combined might of their powers, took control of the weather, raining lightning and hailstones the size of boulders upon the attackers who broke ranks and fled for their lives. Arcanists weren’t meant to hide away. They were meant to be revered warriors, brilliant generals and tacticians, healers of the sick and protectors of the weak. Now they were confined to academies and secluded from the galaxy, mistrusted everywhere they went. No one ever asked them for help. They learned to use their powers not to help others but to keep themselves from hurting anyone. That wasn’t what an arcanist was supposed to be.
“Iona”? Iona snapped back to the real world to find Sahel staring at her. “I think we had better stop now”. She had no idea how long she’d been standing there. Boltan gave her an odd look. She hadn’t even noticed the almost unbearable ache in her arm, relieved to be able to lower it.
“How is this ever supposed to work”? Iona tried not to sound too frustrated. “Are they really just gonna stand there and let us put them to sleep”?
“I doubt it”. Sahel gave a knowing smirk. “That’s why once you’ve mastered it up close, you’ll learn to do it from a distance. It’s all about building the focus at this stage”. Iona had heard all she could take about focus. It felt like they were playing at being arcanists. There were stories of people like them moving mountains with just their minds, bringing the sick back from the brink of death, and even raising the dead. All they’d learned was to lift rocks and put people to sleep.
“This is such bullshit”. Sahel and Bolten stared at her, shocked. Iona was shocked too. She’d meant to say it in her head.
“Excuse me”? Sahel didn’t sound very pleased. Why couldn’t she just keep her mouth shut?
“All of this”. She’d started so she might as well finish. “It’s all useless. Why can’t you teach us something useful”?
Sahel frowned. “And what exactly would you rather I teach you”? Iona’s heart sank. He sounded like how he was after her meeting with the other masters.
“That thing you did last night, when you saved me. That flash of light. I know it was you”. It was the most incredible thing she’d seen since arriving at the academy, the most incredible thing she’d ever seen.
“That was different. You were in danger”.
“I’m still in danger. We all are. You said it yourself. We’re always in danger here. You think this is gonna help us against what’s out there? We should be learning to fight. We should be going out there and rescuing our people. That’s what Arcana is for. Not hiding and waiting for someone else to come and do it for us”.
“You need to be learning how to control your abilities, and your emotions”. He didn’t raise his voice but Sahel sounded angrier than Iona had ever heard him. “If you can’t manage that then you can’t help anyone. Learning to use Arcana to inflict harm on others does not help people. It only helps yourself. Terrible things have become of arcanists who only wanted to help themselves”.
“I don’t want to help myself. I want to help those people”.
“Do you? Do you truly want to help those people? Or do you want to help yourself”?
Iona found it surprisingly hard to answer, all of a sudden unsure of her motivations. Truly, she wanted to help them, but was it their welfare or the glory that came with saving them that she was more interested in?
“If it is the latter, if you only want to help yourself, if it is only glory and power that you seek, then you will help no one. You spend too much time chasing myths and legends. Arcanists were once great warriors and healers, but those days are long passed, and their stories are mostly exaggerated to begin with. We live in the real world and we all must be content with being ordinary, or as ordinary as our abilities will permit. I don’t want to hear any more talk of this. Leave the heroics to those who are trained for it. And if you truly care about those people, you will stand aside. You couldn’t help them even if you wanted to. You’re nowhere near skilled enough to do what you propose. You would just make things worse for them and yourself. If you go out there, you will die. I think we’ve done enough for today. Clearly, this was a mistake. Go back to your rooms, the pair of you”.
Iona was troubled by what Sahel said. She’d never really considered the possibility the stories she’d pored so much over were exaggerated, or even completely false. Perhaps the arcanists spoken of in the legends were just that, legends. She’d dreamt of protecting the border worlds from slavers and pirates from the FPR and providing miraculous healing to the victims of disasters and plagues. But maybe’s that just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe’s her life as an arcanist was meant to be spent pretending to be ordinary, hiding from the rest of the galaxy and making sure never to cause a commotion. But even with that knowledge, she couldn’t stop thinking of those taken by the Mahleeka. The pain they could be in, the agony felt by their loved ones, and the glory that would surely fall upon whoever rescued them. Maybe Sahel was right. Maybe the arcanists in the stories were just legends. But what if something could be done to make the arcanists of real life into those of the legends? Nobody would bat an eye if the military rescued them. It’d be just another day for them. But if they did it, the galaxy would take notice. They could become the arcanists of legend, no longer shunned and forced to hide away but sought out in times of trouble and hailed as the heroes they deserved to be.
By the time she reached her room, Iona’s mind was aflame and no matter how many times she told herself to put such thoughts out of her head they refused to go away. So many ideas floated around inside she could do nothing but pace. The more she thought, the bolder she felt. Soon, she felt like she could do anything she set her mind to. The instructors weren’t going to do anything, except hide, and they certainly wouldn’t listen to her, especially considering all the trouble she’d caused for them already. Sahel wouldn’t listen either. That left only one option, the thing Iona knew she had to do.