Pasho Pyr groaned, looking ahead to the path between the mountains of Melnephina. The land surrounding her and Grokthnar was verdant, lush with green grass and wild brush. The path they walked was a yellow-tan hewn stone embedded in the ground. It split the ravine between the mountains that stood like guardians on either side. Heavy clouds roiled above each summit.
“I’m sorry, Grok…,” said Pasho, looking over at her giantkin companion. The Hob carried Eliden Theorycrafter in his arms like a babe. They swaddled him in a blanket Pasho had pulled from one of the pouches on his harness. The older wizard’s face was still white as the clouds overhead, and he had not roused during the hours of walking yet.
“If my skill at portals were better, we’d have come out right at the citadel’s doors,” Pasho lamented, trudging along beside the Hob. She hadn’t even bothered stopping to clean herself up after the battle at Erudane. It only furthered her frustration. Her robes were caked in dried gore. Eliden’s spell had healed her, or she’d be even more annoyed by the aches of battle.
Grok didn’t seem phased, plodding along at an even pace along the path. His resolve was unshakeable with Eliden in danger. Pasho admired that and drew her strength from it. Munchy, the sand rat, sat on Grok’s shoulder again. It seemed to keep watch with its beady eyes and twitching nose to the breeze that filtered through the vale.
They walked for hours, which only upset Pasho more. The daylight waned when the two finally spotted the citadel ahead. It was a white stone tower set against the last mountain in the vale’s ring. Its length reached high into the clouds, so much so that none could see the top amidst the puffy white weather. The Chroniclers citadel stood proud, bathed in light between the cloud forms. Pasho let out a sigh of relief.
“We’re almost there,” she said to Grok, who nodded down to her.
“Eliden gets better,” replied the Hob, happy to be home again. Chroniclers spent much of their lives out among the planes and times. It was rare to return to the citadel save to share their thoughts with the Mnesis Machine. Even the Hob could share his, which made Grokthnar feel like part of the team, and he was eager to do so. Almost as eager as he was to see his friend recover.
Pasho’s steps grew more lively as they drew closer to the tower. A palpable excitement overpowered her fatigue. Munchy didn’t seem to care either way. As they reached the courtyard and its silvered gates, they parted with a metallic groan all on their own. Pasho peered through the opening, expecting a welcome, and she was not disappointed.
“Hail!” called a voice belonging to Yaro Tai the Red, master of the citadel’s hearth. Yaro was charged with maintaining the citadel, and its grounds, both in comfort and in defense. Much like Eliden, he wore a spectrum color. The Red Wizard was a powerful Elementalist who often taught the combat spells Pasho used. His apprentices labored between classes to keep the tower well-stocked, pristine, and safe.
“Master Yaro!” Pasho called, beckoning despite the impropriety. “Master Theorycrafter needs aid!”
Yaro Tai’s tan face dropped its smile at the news. His eyes, shaped at a slant as a product of his race, squinted until they seemed almost closed. The red-robed Easterner hurried. He barked orders to the brown-robed apprentices sweeping and washing the courtyard clean. A flurry of activity buzzed about the man, as was to be expected.
“Grokthnar, bring him quickly.” Yaro Tai instructed, motioning past himself to the tower’s main door. “Up to the third floor directly, take him to Holnleigh, and brook no excuses from her minions. She must attend to Eliden; else I will have her blues for wash rags.”
Entering the tower was a sacred experience. The entrance gave only those among the ranks of the Chroniclers entry. All who passed the two large, white doors of chiseled stone were subject to its enchantment. Both halves carried the runes of spellcasting.
They were so infused with magic that no man, nor demon, could enter without their personalized sigil carved into its face. As such, the doors appeared to be an open tome filled with the text of the organization’s ranks. Even the Hob and those of his social caste were displayed, albeit with more crude marks. Grok smiled at his symbol near the bottom, a fist with his thumb raised. He liked his chosen signature most. Pasho’s sign was near the middle, a flower that grew only around her homeland of Baeliss. She remembered the swell of pride when she cast her mark on the day of her apprenticeship.
It migrated magically to the center of the left door, dictating her status in the order. Her gaze drifted upward, noting Yaro Tai’s swirling flame symbol in the first line. There, below his, was the bowl of steaming noodles she knew so well. A plain container with swirled lines of noodles curled at its top. Above those were the sigils of magic, knowledge, and peace carved like steam rising from the dish. Pasho smiled though sorrow laced her lips. Only one man would take something so simple and make it profound—Eliden Theorycrafter, her mentor.
The Academie Dimenssionae existed in ways most humanoids would find insane. Beyond the doors, Pasho and Grok hurried through the foyer. Much wider and longer than the stones that made up its exterior. Relative dimension meant nothing to mages. Inside the tall tower was the equivalent space of a grand palace.
The foyer sprawled before them. Its white marble floor was waxed. It shined in the light of mystickal motes that danced above their heads below the high ceiling. A stretch of massive red carpet lay between the curved staircases. In the center, a marble statue of the first Chronicler, known to Pasho only as The Arcanis Major, towered over all.
He was a resolute figure, a stoic elder possessing the longest of beards Pasho had ever seen. It hung to the belt of his robe. Only Master Porlo seemed capable of growing a prolific chin-sprout to rival it. The silver wizard prided himself on its length. Pasho wondered if she’d have time to visit with the Mathemagician. For now, she kept pace with Grokthnar as he took to the steps on the right. Tan-robed students made way for them. Their passing drew attention to the prone green wizard in the Hob’s arms.
Their ascension went undisturbed, cresting the second floor where Grok immediately banked left. He trundled through the white hall, passing by the banners of each wizarding class among the blue. Those dedicated to healing and medicine practiced their craft in classrooms and observatories. They reached the next staircase at the end of the long hall, bustling with students and staff.
It was a spiraled, bare, simple access from one floor to the next. Grok took half each short flight in a single bound while Pasho scampered up behind her as quick as she could. Upon reaching the third floor, the giantkin shouldered through the door. Pasho was right on his heels.
“HEEEEEEEEEEELP!” Bellowed the Hob, drawing the attention of every face, young and old, in the upper hallway. He thrust Eliden’s limp body in his arms for all to see.
Pasho burst from around her companion’s mass, arms flailing. “Summon Master Holnleigh! Quickly!”
The nearest blue-robed wizard motioned to one of the nearby rooms. A man with a clean-trimmed short beard and pince-nez perched on his nose, “In here…,” he instructed.
Grok wasted no time, ducking through the doorway that was big enough for his size to shimmy through. He was as careful with Eliden’s body as with an egg.
The room was small in comparison, meant for standard humanoids. It housed a single bed and a little more than a window to look outside. Grokthnar laid his friend on the bed as Pasho circled him to the other side. The giantkin backed his bulk out of the door into the hallway and stood watch beside it.
No sooner than when Pasho took Eliden’s cold hand in hers did Holnleigh Auberdeen sweep through the door. The rigid woman spared no thought to the Hob. She glided across the small room’s floor toward her newest patient.
“Explain,” the shrewd woman asked.
Pasho stared at Holnleigh, who was twice the girl’s age and possessed all the charm of an uptight schoolmarm. Holnleigh was rigid to the point of statuesque, willowy under tight-bound blue robes. Her hair was bound behind her in a simple yet elegant knot off her swan-like neck. Her eyes upset Pasho. They were cold and ambivalent.
Pasho cleared her throat. Unladylike. Holnleigh’s steely gaze narrowed at the impropriety. “Master Theorycrafter cast a Divina Praesentia during a time of great need. He then collapsed.”
Holnleigh’s lips tightened.
Pasho swallowed a growing lump of tension in her throat. “He has not roused for hours. He breathes but is cold to the touch. As you can see, his complexion is pale.”
The Blue Magus seemed to uncoil her internal spring, taking a slow step closer to the bed. She looked over Eliden, performing the same cursory examination as Pasho had. Her movements were slow with purpose and calm, whereas Pasho’s nerves danced madly. Pasho watched her peel back Eliden’s open frock. She reached under his tunic shirt.
“What components do we use to cast a Divina Praesentia, Miss Pyr?” Holnleigh asked in such a demeaning, concise tone.
Pasho twitched. “Erm…the casting requires linguistic cant, access to the matrix of divinity, and a-.” Her hand lept to her mouth, brown eyes going wide as moons behind her spectacles.
“Yes. A foci. In most cases, a physical symbol of the deity the caster requested,” Holnleigh answered. Her tone grew more biting as she lifted a rosary from Eliden’s neck. “All Divina Praesentia require a foci, which will continue to channel energy to the caster until taken. Off.”
Holnleigh lifted Eliden’s head with one hand. She worked the necklace from him with the other until it hung from her hand over his body. “He has been needlessly channeling energy for hours now. More than his physical body can sustain,” She said, turning her unflinching stare on Pasho.
The girl hung her head, wishing her mop of matted hair could somehow make her disappear. Her thoughts soured. How could she be so stupid?! Her eyes began to burn, swelling with tears again.
“I’ll need to tend to the damage done to his spirit. Man is not meant to bear such divine power. As pompous as Theorycrafter is, he is no god. Minor or Major.” Holnleigh went on, dismissing the shattered young mage with a wave of one boney, pale hand. Upon her ring finger, a golden ring shimmered in the light. The insignia upon it glimmered, too, a cross bathed in fire—the Order of the Cross and Crucible.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Pasho said, still trying to will herself to implode.
“I suggest you brush up on your casting rituals, Miss Pyr.”
“Take your Hob with you. You may return to see his progress no earlier than the first bell after supper," Holnleigh said again. She eased her vicious tone. Pasho still fled from her vicinity, fighting back sobs.
Grok caught her in the hallway with one bulky arm, drawing the pained young woman in to hug her. “Eliden okay now.”
Those who had gathered around the doorway pretended that Pasho did not ugly cry in front of them. The girl hid, wrapped up in Grok’s embrace. They soon dispersed to go about their own business. None could say that the echoing sorrow did not stir their hearts.
Pasho was so full of shame that her heart would not brighten. She broke from the Hob with a sniffle, finding enough strength to reel in her wild emotions.
“I’m going…to visit Master Porlo…Grok. I’ll see you at su-supper,” she stammered, wanting to look back at the open doorway to Eliden’s care room, yet not daring. Not after what she’d done.
Grok frowned. “Okay. Grok come with you.”
Pasho shook her head, putting a hand on the hob’s fat belly as if she could hold him there. “No. I-I want to be alone.”
The Hob’s face twisted with confusion. He could not understand how Pasho wanted to be alone but alone with Porlo. It didn’t make sense. Still, it was not his place or way to say anything about it.
Pasho left the Hob behind. Her shoulders hunched, and her body tried to squeeze itself inward. She wanted to somehow achieve invisibility or planar dislocation. She fled back down the hall and into the stairwell, hurrying down to the subfloors below as quick as she could. Torches lined the stairs once she reached the first under-level. They bathed the white stone in the yellow-orange, flickering light. She walked from the spiral staircase into the darkened halls of the lower levels.
Shadows played on the walls, fueled by dancing flames from sconces. Many felt the understudies were eerie or spooky, and they were. The darkness, the faint drip of water, and the sheer silence of the hallway unnerved her. Yet, she knew that the man she wanted to see was in the middle of the dark art investigatory wing.
Porlopherus Phloom was no student of darkness, a necromancer, or even a sanguinist like Master Jurian Gant. He was a Mathemagician and the only one of his kind. A position that relegated the strange, old man to the understudies with the rest of the oft-necessary but unpursued studies of magic.
As such, his sanctum was an Octahedron of chalkboards. No windows, only deep, thin vents between the boards that permitted fresh air into the room. Porlo’s personal effects were as simple as he was. Two large, cushioned chairs with high backs faced each other. A tea table sat between them. Upon this was a chess board and, beside it, a tea tray. The silver pane carried ivory cups, a kettle, and dispensers for sugar and milk.
Beside that sat a mount for his long-stemmed, churchwarden pipe and the bag of whatever he smoked. Surrounding the cozy seating were piles of tomes. They sat stacked to heights that varied based on whatever bizarre cataloging system Phloom dreamed up. A violin hung in the air off to the left, playing itself by its bow somehow. Its music was soothing if a bit melancholy. It suited the girl fine.
Porlo floated high above the tea table and chairs, angled sideways. He was writing across the length of a chalkboard at the top of the octahedron. That is to say; he was writing down its length rather than across. The old wizard’s beard draped off his chin and dangled like a long icicle off an awning, as did his silvered robe. Pasho thanked the Creator that he chose to wear pants underneath it today.
She hummed to announce herself. The elderly arithmetician’s scrawling ceased. He twirled around in the air to look down upon her.
“Ahhh! Well! If it isn’t Miss Pasho Pyr, back from her long sojourn amongst the multiplicity!”
Pasho smiled up at the old, squirrelly little man. “Hello! Temporarily. Master Theorycrafter is resting in the blue ward.”
“I heard! You forgot the Divina foci, eh?”
Pasho’s smile was replaced with humiliating shock. “How did you know?”
“Oh, I hear everything down here,” Phloom told her, which seemed improbable given his location. And yet, the odd old man had performed far more absurd miracles with his even odder magical skill.
“The Elders are informed,” He went on. “When one of our ilk is in dire straits, and though I am the misfit of the circle, I’m still on the list and thereby forewarned. Telepathic communique,” Porlo said, tapping his temple. “Lucky for us, Eliden’s a hearty soul and should recover. Do not fear.”
She watched the old man pirouette through the air down toward her. He muttered his ritual equations of inertia and mass and gravity. Soon, he righted himself and stepped onto the floor before her. A hand stroked through his beard, pulling its length until the weight did the work.
"Wonderful to see you, dear girl. Wonderful. Hail and hearty, though a bit skinny. A wonder indeed, given your companion."
Pasho huffed, her girlish sensibilities insulted by the old man's observations. "Oh, leave it."
Phloom shrugged. “It is a beautiful day in Melnephina. Care for a walk? These old legs could use some stretching. I spend far too much time defying gravity.”
A walk sounded pleasant enough. Porlo seemed unaffected by her mistake, so Pasho nodded twice. “That sounds lovely. The fresh air will do us both good.”
“Yes! Exactly. So!” Porlo began, linking his arm around hers. “If the constant is X, here and now. Then X could be, if so inclined, positioned at a latitude of 68.9 degrees and 84.871 degrees longitude from its original mathematical location of 68.3 degrees by 84.293, resulting in a variance of point six and point five one eight THEREBY! We would exit the gates right about….now.”
Pasho looked up from their arms to see the great mountain ranges of Melnephina before them. The golden stone path awaited at their feet. She looked back behind her to see the tower. Yaro’s attendants were hard at work scrubbing the courtyard stones. She smiled, but it was weighed by self-doubt.
“If only my portal spell were so accurate…”
“You, young lady, are the brightest pupil I never had the pleasure to instruct,” Porlo replied contently, reaching across to pat her arm coiled around his other. “Only time and practice will grant you success at your spell casting. Oh look, the Hobs are playing!”
Both stopped beyond the gates to witness Hob-play. Grok was amid the swarm of massive, fat mountain folk. He grappled with another giantkin whom he hoisted over him. His belly shook with laughter until two gripped up his arms to lock them. All three threw themselves back to the grass. The laughter of Hobgoblins boomed like a heavy drum line.
More of the large brutes dogpiled atop Grokthnar. Limbs, both arms, and legs, shot out from the roiling mass. Grok's torso struggled free as he sat up. The second Hob to do so was punched in the nose by him. More laughter echoed through the vale. Pasho giggled. Porlo urged her forward with a subtle tug of her arm.
“As I was saying. You are a gifted mind, dear girl. Do not be so hard on yourself.”
His words stole her joy and replaced it with frustration. “I could’ve killed him, Porlo.”
Phloom chuckled. “Yet, he lives! Huzzah! And so, no guilt rests upon your head. No harm done.”
The girl sighed, shaking her head. She remembered then how dirty and grimy she was. Pasho untangled her arm from the old man at her side, self-conscious of the dried gore.
“That doesn’t make any sense! How could it not be my fault? I forgot to free him from his rosary. I couldn’t cast the Portal to bring us directly to the tower. It’s MY fault he was ever in danger, to begin with! If I hadn’t…” Pasho stopped herself before incrimination, eyes wide.
“If you hadn’t what?” Porlo Phloom side-eyed her critically.
Pasho sighed, weary of it already. She was never one for lies or deception.
“We fought Balsephor on behalf of Erudane. Eliden said we shouldn’t get involved, and I…disobeyed him. He came to help me.”
“How pompous the young are,” Phloom lamented, clucking his tongue. Pasho frowned at him.
“Truth!” Porlo replied sternly. “I have never known Theorycrafter to do anything he does not want to do. You made your choice. He made his. By rights, he would have every reason to leave you to the Demon’s mercy.” The old man explained, unbothered by the news of her infraction against the Chronicler’s Oath. “You will face the consequences for your acts, as will he. As will Grokthnar.”
“But I caused it!!” Pasho cried out, whirling on the man to grab hold of his robes. “Please! It wasn’t their fault!”
Porlo wrapped his hands around hers, squeezing warmly. “We all must make choices—each of us. Neither you nor Eliden is the first to break the covenant of observation, nor shall you be the last. The council knows full well the toll of logic upon mortal man AND woman AND Hobkind. The greatest choice is always to do nothing. We are fallible creatures, my dear. Mistakes Happen. Your wisdom comes from what you do with those mistakes. Isn’t it?”
Pasho listened, though her turmoil fought his rationale. “I will never disobey him again…If he even keeps me as his companion.”
Porlo Phloom scoffed. “Silly. Eliden has disobeyed more direct orders and oaths of observance than I have fingers AND toes! And I can conjure more of them at will.”
She couldn’t help but smile at that, picturing the mad mathematician populating his hands with an infinite supply of phalanges. The fantasy lifted her spirits some.
“Everything is a binary choice, Pasho.” Porlo went on softly. “Yes or No. Stay or Go. Listen or Ignore. Right or Wrong. We get caught up in variance and little details that convince us the question is far greater than it is. However, Math never lies. Look around you.” He offered, sweeping a hand and wide-sleeve outward.
Pasho turned her gaze to the vale.
“Grass grows alike, seemingly at random yet not. Bushes grow toward the sun, a simple choice. Reach for sustenance or wither and die. Hobs fight, not because they hate. They enjoy conquest and strength. Mountains do not grow like grass. Rather they are forced together by the earth’s movement underneath us. They have no choice, for they are not alive. Barring a few exceptions, everything in this world and most worlds is a matter of simple math, and simple math is a product of twos. One or the other. Life or Death. Exceptions are born of chaos, the incapacity to choose.”
Pasho looked across the vale between the peaks. A hawk keened overhead and swooped through the sky. “So, I made the decision to help the Erudane people. Grok decided to help me. Eliden chose to save us.”
“Precisely.” Phloom agreed.
“Therefore,” she went on. “I should be held accountable for my involvement against the code. Grok, too. And Eliden…” Her resolve faltered, thinking of the great wizard lying in the blue ward bed.
“But that’s stupid!” She huffed. “If I had not made my choice, neither of them would have made theirs!”
Porlo laughed, throwing his head back. His long beard shook in rhythmic waves like a flag in the wind.
“Our hearts often convince us to take responsibility, to torture ourselves with probability. As the resident expert on that subject? No. The probable does not exist until it is proved. Did you not ever wonder why your Master is called Theorycrafter?”
The question caught Pasho off guard. She frowned. Her eyebrows lifted, then she frowned again. “You know, I never have.”
“Eliden believed in the one God, the creator. When all evidence of the multiplicity lay at his boots, he only saw it as further proof of the One. His thesis was: All realities exist at the behest of the singular divinity. A most absurd notion to the rest of his classmates. He sought to prove this throughout his Chronicling by sharing the simplest examples. Fixed points. Nature, Environment, Gravity, Time, and Mass. These concepts were too broad for him. He found fixed constants in the most minor details. Food. Every existence has a bread. Every existence has or had herbs. There are no such things as flavors beyond the sweet and the savory. The delicious and the disgusting. If only these basic taste concepts exist in all universes, the One must exist. Possibly the stupidest theory I have ever heard…and yet…”
“Everywhere we go…food is the same. Tasty…or not…” Pasho whispered as if struck by a revelation most profound. “I thought it was because he was so vastly knowledgable that he, you know, crafted theories.”
“Oh, he does. Now. Back then, the moniker was something of a…schoolyard insult.”
The girl’s mouth hung open.
Porlo Phloom smiled wide. “Fascinating, isn’t it? A simple decision to embrace the insult determined your perception of him. Has it changed? Knowing what you know now in contrast to who you know he is?”
“No,” Pasho breathed, shaking her head. “I think…I understand him more.”
Porlo motioned to the golden path through the vale, walking with her along it at a slow, steady pace. “We all find our Path our own way. Some of us choose to walk the path we’re shown. Some choose to walk the way their hearts guide them. Some choose not to walk at all. And yet, all of us must choose.”
She stopped there on the stones, seeing the valley beyond Melnephina with fresh eyes. Its golden path shined in the waning sunlight, marking the way to and from a destiny she devoted her life. The green grass seemed somehow lusher. The flowering bushes were more brilliant. The mountains to her left and right reached for the sky and the dark mystery behind its clouds. Ever striving to touch the infinite.
“I understand,” Pasho Pyr said.
“I knew you would,” Porlo Phloom replied, the soft warmth of a proud elder radiating from his smile. “The brightest pupil I never had the pleasure to instruct.”
“I have to submit myself to the council now, Porlo. I MEAN….Master….Phloom,” She said, turning to bow her head to the old silver robe.
“Hmph! Nonsense. Porlo will do fine. What will you do?”
“Accept the punishment for my actions, plead to remain with Eliden when he recovers.”
“Because…it’s where I belong,” She told Porlo firmly. “Because I walked my way, and he came to join me. I thought, at first, I had to walk the same way he did, and I loved…his journey once I understood it…or thought I understood it. But it’s bigger now. There’s more to it. It’s where I’m meant to be.”
“And if that changes? What then?”
“I’ll follow my road. I can’t ignore it.”
Porlo’s smile widened, “One plus one.” He said playfully, lifting a bony finger to tap the side of his nose and then pointing to her.
Pasho winked. “Plus one, you forgot Grok. PLUS ONE?! Munchy!” The girl devolved into cackling laughter. Porlo’s smile faltered, and he squinted at her.
“What is a Munchy?”
Pasho couldn’t stop herself from snorting, nor could she find the breath to answer him.