“Today’s spectacular spectacle will be beginning shortly. The judges are being briefed on exactly how things are going to be going down. So far, neither we nor the contestants are aware of the specifics. However, that does not mean we are not prepared to bring you any action that may take place.”
Stepping away from the camera, the announcer waved his microphone-less hand towards an array of small flying machines. Several of them bobbed in the air at his gesture.
“Twenty drones flown by our team of experts will be out recording everything. Each has multiple cameras, operated independently by professionals. There will be a slight delay before the footage reaches your televisions. That delay is to allow our editors to select the best angles of any particular scene for your viewing enjoyment.”
Standing out of frame just to the side and slightly behind the announcer, Zoe let a small frown cross her face. She had no doubts that the broadcast station would be using the delay to do just as he had said. However, the delay had been imposed by Anderson. Not for any editing purposes, but just in case something went wrong.
They weren’t broadcasting a snuff film, after all.
Both Anderson and Redford had given countless assurances both to the television station and to Zoe that any appearance of danger was just that, an appearance. A device to enhance the event.
Zoe had her doubts.
Eva on her own was potentially a danger to all the other contestants. Even if she wasn’t going to use her blood magic. Her claws made her incredibly dangerous in close quarters, the explosions she seemed to specialize in were a hazard at long range. However, neither was enough to really make her dangerous. Magically—thaumaturgically—Eva wasn’t that special. The older students would definitely have the advantage in that aspect.
The real danger came in Eva’s temperament. Zoe had seen time and time again just how ruthless Eva could be when she wanted to. The fight with the hunter and her descriptions of fighting Sawyer being the two most recent examples that came to mind.
Of course, Zoe didn’t believe that Eva would intentionally harm her opponents. Even if they were fighting. At least, she didn’t want to believe it.
The fact was that Eva had been… cagey in recent weeks. Since school started at the very least. Zoe had barely seen her for the most part. It seemed as if she was always disappearing. Always with Arachne, sometimes one or two of the demons would disappear as well. Juliana was even starting to disappear with her after school most days.
Of course, she had yet to see Arachne today. Considering the spider-demon hadn’t strayed far from Eva since her return, even going so far as to attend most classes with Eva, Zoe had a feeling that something was up. Arachne might already be snooping about within the designated boundaries of the Infinite Courtyard. Or perhaps she was attached to Eva, hidden beneath her clothes.
Whatever the case, Zoe hoped that Arachne wouldn’t be causing any problems with the night’s events.
Zoe hadn’t inquired about the students’ disappearances. The school hadn’t burned down yet, so they probably weren’t up to anything too terrible.
That and the fact that she had been busy with her own problems. While she would like to say that she had fully investigated and found a solution to the problem of Life and Void, she could not. Powers were not well researched. A great number of mages didn’t believe in them in the first place. Just looking into them was essentially inventing a whole new branch of magical science.
Unfortunately, even that research topic had been set on the back burner. A combination of lack of results and other responsibilities had taken over.
Namely, what she was doing at the moment.
“–our website. There, you can select which camera feeds you wish to view, all on your own. Of course, there will still be the delay. Can’t have some people knowing things before others. But unless you’re here in person, you won’t notice the delay in the slightest.”
He stepped backwards, moving a few steps over towards Zoe. As he moved, the guy behind the camera turned it to face the two of them.
“After a brief message from our sponsors, we’ll have an interview with the Magical theory professor here at Brakket Magical Academy. This has been Hank Hanson, don’t change that channel.”
Every time he said the word ‘magical’ was like the first time he had heard the word. It was amazing that he managed to refrain from winking at the camera.
He remained frozen with a smile on his face for a good ten seconds after talking before he finally dropped his arms to his sides. Taking in a deep breath, he let it out as a long sigh.
“Nervous?” Zoe asked with a quirk of her lips.
“You have no idea. Twice as many viewers as the moon landing and the number is still climbing, yet about ten thousand times more things that can go wrong. All the drones are still operational. We haven’t needed to dig into our backup supply. I’m amazed that the website hasn’t crashed yet.”
Zoe kept silent. Her thoughts had just been along the same lines. Though she was far less concerned about their infrastructure.
Of course, she should be. At least partially.
The cut from the advertising that Brakket Academy was getting was not insignificant. Almost to the point where this one event would justify the past and future ten years of free scholarships given to every student. Really, if Brakket Academy could strike such deals in the future, they could continue to give out scholarships for a long time to come.
Except for the impression she got from Anderson about the future of Brakket Academy. With the publicity from the event, their days of free scholarships were likely over. Especially if they won a good amount of the events, or possibly the entire contest. Hunting for new students wouldn’t be necessary if they started getting genuine applications.
“Advertisements will be ending in sixty seconds,” Hank said. “Let’s take our seats.”
Together, they moved to a wooden deck that had recently been constructed just inside the Infinite Courtyard. A large square of wood with no walls and no roof, lit by several standing columns of light. Magical lights, of course.
A good segment of the Infinite Courtyard had been lit up with larger versions of the lights just behind the deck, staving off the darkness of the soon to be setting sun while giving a lovely view of the forest. The television company had been somewhat upset that the first event would be occurring at night. At least until Anderson brought in an enchanter to touch up the camera lenses.
They now functioned about as well in the dark of night as they did during a sunny day.
Opposite the lit forest was a bank of cameras and monitors. At the moment, most of the monitors were blank. Two showed two different angles of Zoe and the set she stood on. The rest would be showing feed from the drones once they were out and in the air.
Currently, one had an advertisement of a soft drink playing. Not being a connoisseur of television, Zoe couldn’t be sure if the tagline ‘It’s just like magic!’ was normal or specifically designed for the event.
Hank took a seat on a large couch. More of a bench, really. While it had a back, it was so low that it might as well not be there at all.
At least the padding was decent.
Zoe took a seat on the angled bench opposite Hank, crossing her legs and resting her hands in her lap.
Between the two couches was a small table. A number of refreshments had been laid out along with two full pitchers of water, though Zoe—and presumably Hank—had been asked to avoid partaking of much of it before the event started as the cameras would be focused entirely on them.
“I suppose. Just try not to ask too many questions that aren’t on the script,” Zoe said with a slight smile.
“No promises.” His chuckle cut off part way as he pressed his hand to his ear.
“And welcome back to Brakket Magical Academy. To those of you just joining us, I’m here with Zoe Baxter, a professor of magical theory here at the academy. She will be joining me in commentary once the event gets underway, lending her knowledge and expertise in the ways of magic to enhance your enjoyment of the event.”
“Thank you Hank.”
“Now, I’m sure that many people have questions. Especially questions regarding just what it is you do here.”
“Brakket Magical Academy is, as the name suggests, a school for magic. Specifically thaumaturgy.”
“And for our viewers, just what is thaumaturgy?”
“The manipulation of what are commonly referred to as the classical elements. Air, earth, fire, and water. There are a number of other options one might pursue with thaumaturgy. However, the events of tonight will most likely only involve elemental thaumaturgy.”
At least as far as the humans go, Zoe thought. She had no idea who had been selected to participate from the Nod Complex. Eva was participating, but she would be using thaumaturgy. The only other non-human who Zoe knew was participating was Randal the half-elf. Which wouldn’t be anything to worry about except for him being one of those with a bound demon.
Then there were the two girls with Elysium Order magic, assuming Eva hadn’t been exaggerating. Though Zoe didn’t know if they had actually been selected as their school’s representatives for the first event.
“Is that dangerous?” Hank asked.
“Learning and using it? Not particularly. Like most everything in the world, it can be used for harm. Just as a hammer can be used for constructing a building or striking someone, magic can be used for good or ill.”
Reaching out to the short coffee table, Zoe picked up a plate after sliding the crumb cakes off onto one of the other plates. She was messing up the visual aesthetics of the set, but hopefully they wouldn’t mind. Something that she couldn’t help but notice were the monitors displaying back what was being recorded. They were carefully following her movements, obviously expecting some sort of show.
“By focusing air into a tight razor and propelling it forward,” she said as she drew her wand, “a cutting edge can be made.”
With a flick of her wrist, the plate split cleanly in two. One side fell down to her lap while the other remained held in her hand. She offered it to Hank who turned it over in his hands for a moment, staring with wide eyes for almost a full minute. He jerked slightly. Zoe caught a slight noise with her enhanced ears, someone over his ear piece was saying something.
“Ah,” Hank said, looking towards the cameras. “I should mention for the benefit of our viewers: there will be no camera tricks or editing special effects. Everything you see at home will be what we see here in person.”
“I apologize,” Zoe said. “My specialty is air magic, yet it isn’t the flashiest of the elements.”
Though she could fire lightning off, she was a little worried about ruining the recording equipment. Perhaps it was for the best. The event was for the students. Overshadowing them with dazzling displays of theatrical lightning would make her remiss in her duties as a teacher. It was their time to shine, not hers.
For that same reason, she wouldn’t be throwing around any fireballs despite her proficiency in that element.
“The students should be able to give a better show once the event begins,” Zoe said.
“I was under the impression that there would be some sparring among the students. Seeing what I just saw, I find myself somewhat worried for their safety.”
“This event is likely to include practical tests of their magical skills against one another, yes. However, most students should be at a point where they can employ a decent range of defensive spells. For the inevitable injuries, we have a fully staffed team of medical personnel ready and waiting. With potions, even severe injuries can be treated away by morning.”
Zoe paused, about to allow Hank to ask his next question. After a moment of hesitation, she interrupted him.
“Before we proceed, I feel it would be irresponsible towards your viewers to leave that statement without further context. While potions can be used to cure many ailments, they will not be effective on individuals without the ability to perform magic. The magic within mages fuels the effect of the potion. Without it, a potion designed to cure will be likely toxic.”
Zoe turned towards the camera, adopting a morose expression while keeping her voice as serious as possible.
“If you or a loved one is suffering from an illness or injury, please do not seek out magical cures. Whoever is selling you the potion is likely to be a swindler out for your money. Perhaps not even real mages, just those looking to profit on a confusing new idea.”
A brief moment of silence passed before Hank gave a deep nod of his head.
“Thank you, Zoe. You may have saved many families from grief and suffering at the hands of con artists.”
Zoe pursed her lips into a flat smile as she turned to him.
“Today, however, we are here for the more exciting aspects of your magical academy. I’ve just received word that the schools’ candidates will soon be ready to begin. We should have time enough to introduce the schools and their students after these messages from our sponsors.”
As before, he froze with a smile on his face for a few seconds before relaxing.
“Sorry to bring the mood down like that,” Zoe said with a wan smile. “I didn’t want people to feel hope where there was none.”
“Our viewer count is high. Absurdly high. I honestly don’t know if any other magical event along these lines would get as many viewers. The first time carries with it a novelty that will fade as time goes on.
“But a couple million people heard the message. It will spread. And, as I said, I’m sure a number of people will be grateful that they didn’t buy vials of snake oil. Or poison.”
“That’s what I was hoping for.”
“Is there a reason it works like that?”
Zoe paused, considering her words.
She had always been primarily a thaumaturgical theorist, only really branching out to diablery in the recent years. Potions were not technically thaumaturgy. Both worked well together, but there was a more important reason potioneering and alchemy were taught at the same time. Potions covered an aspect of magic that thaumaturgy lacked. Namely healing and other more esoteric effects.
It was never a subject that she had delved much into. She could brew adequate potions if the situation required. However, potions had always been Wayne’s domain.
Still, she had an answer for Hank’s question.
“Magic acts as a catalyst. An infusion of energy into the potion to force the components to react together, creating the intended effect. Theoretically, someone without magic could consume a potion and have it work so long as they could keep their body from breaking down and absorbing the potion. For how long, I can’t say. Potions can be stored in a stable state for long amounts of time in most cases. I imagine potions with a shorter shelf life would work better, but I would still advise against it.”
Her words left a silence in their wake. She half expected Hank to ask more questions. Questions of a personal interest to him. However, he remained silent for a full minute before placing his hand to his ear.
“Thirty seconds,” he said, shifting slightly in his seat.
Zoe remained where she was with her hands resting in her lap, counting down the seconds in her head.
The television switched from an advertisement to a live camera out in the plaza between the dormitories, performing a slow sweep of the buildings and fountain. It faded back into their little platform, prompting Hank to begin speaking.
“And welcome back. I’m here with Zoe Baxter, professor of magical theory here at Brakket Magical Academy. The contest of magical showmanship between academies is about to begin. First, why don’t we go over the event as a whole. Zoe?”
“Five schools are participating in this year’s event. It is a fairly standard tournament to pit the schools against one another and give the winner… well, bragging rights mostly. Winning is generally seen as a sign that your school has a high quality learning environment and professors. The event is essentially a practical test in the students’ usage of magic.
“Today, each of the five schools were asked to select three of their ten participants. These three will be unable to participate in the next event. They do not know what either event consists of, so putting all their best students in the first event could be a needless risk or an excellent tactical decision.
“The winners of today’s event will receive foreknowledge regarding the second event in addition to the victory itself, which will count towards being the overall winner of the tournament.”
The televisions displaying the live footage changed, turning into a view from an overhead drone as it slowly sweeped over a group of students. Their gray-blue uniforms instantly identified them to Zoe, even without needing the text that appeared at the bottom of the screen.
“Faultline School for the Magically Adept participated in last year’s tournament. Well known for being a highly disciplined academy, their students took the tournament by storm and won decisively.”
The camera panned over each of the three students walking out of the dueling hall. Each wore a large, high-peaked cap on their head. That combined with their sleek uniforms made them look like they were straight from a mundane military academy.
A name appeared along with each person, but Zoe decided not to comment on the individual level unless Hank made a motion to do so. She honestly didn’t know enough about the foreign students to speak on them for any length of time. Not to mention the fact that without names on the screen, it was doubtful that anyone besides their mothers would recognize them. Identical uniforms. Identical hats. Even identical hairstyles.
She could, however, speak generally.
“All ten of their students are in their sixth year of schooling, making them the oldest students able to participate.”
“The older they are, the more unique magic they can learn, right?”
“Indeed. Though only fielding three students at the moment, I expect to see all four elements of magic used between them. They may offer us some excellent uses of less common magic as well. Order shields and perhaps even short-range blinking.”
As she finished speaking, the drone flew off towards another group of students walking out of the dueling hall.
“Isomer Holy Academy,” Zoe said, identifying the pure white uniforms before the name could appear on the screen. “A school primarily operated by members of the Elysium Order, a group dedicated to hunting down undead such as zombies and animated skeletons.”
Hank made a slight choking noise but didn’t actually manage to get any real words out.
So Zoe just went on talking.
“I don’t imagine that they will be facing many challenges along those lines as raising the undead is typically grounds for having a bounty placed on your head. Not to mention that it is a fairly tasteless act.”
“I can imagine,” Hank said, looking a little green around the gills.
Speaking of undead, Zoe thought, pressing her lips together into a thin line as she saw who was leading out the next group of students.
“The Nod Complex for the Supernatural is one of the few magical academies to enroll non-human students, along with Brakket Academy. I should mention for your viewers’ sakes that the other academies are generally not racist against non-humans. Most non-humans have their own unique brand of magic they practice, leading to a lack of applicants. The Nod Complex has spent a great deal of money designing their facility with unique infrastructure required to support beings of other races.”
Hank stared at the screen for a moment before reading something off a smaller display hidden among the refreshments on the table.
“Caithe,” he said slowly. “The one in the middle. I don’t mean to be rude, but is she made of plants or merely wearing them as decoration?”
Zoe leaned forwards slightly, watching the larger camera. As it switched off the vampire and on to the pale-green skinned woman, she nodded her head. “A dryad,” she said. “The white leaves making up her hair are indeed part of her, though I’m not sure about the cattails. They may be purely for decoration.
“The one behind her,” Zoe continued, “is an elf. The pointed ears, narrow eyebrows, and thin chin are telltale signs.”
“And the one in front?”
“Possibly a human,” Zoe lied.
Serena had told her about how romanticized vampires were in modern mundane media. She did not want to set off a million teenagers on a quest through dark alleys in some attempt to become a vampire.
“Not all non-humans have obviously distinguishing characters,” she said after a moment of silence. “The Nod Complex does enroll humans as well as non-humans, so it shouldn’t be surprising.”
“Well,” he said as the camera shifted on to the next group of students, “I think the dryad is surprising enough at the moment.” He said the word unnaturally, though not necessarily in a disrespectful manner. Merely an unfamiliar one.
He definitely had questions. Zoe could see it in his eyes.
But she was already moving on to introduce the next school.
“Mount Hope Academy,” she said as three younger-looking students walked out of the dueling hall. “I believe all three of those students are fourth years. To be selected, they must be quite capable. I look forward to seeing them in action.”
She really didn’t have much more to say about the school or its students. None of the three were familiar to her, even when their names popped up on the screen. The school itself was… average. Though she thought for a few moments, she couldn’t think up a single interesting fact about them.
If she were honest with herself, she wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing them fight. It was highly doubtful that they would perform well. Mount Hope had two fifth years on the team with the rest being sixth years. Perhaps they had decided to send in their worst three students, hoping to gain an advantage in the second event with their best.
None of them looked all that confident either.
At the same time, she almost wished that the camera had lingered on them just a few moments longer before flying over to Brakket’s students.
“Brakket Magical Academy,” she said, trying to ignore Hank’s wide open jaw upon seeing Eva.
Despite repeatedly telling Zoe that she hadn’t wanted to participate, Eva was actually smiling at the camera.
A wide, tooth-filled smile.
Zoe had to resist pressing her hand to her forehead. Eva’s face would be the first student from Brakket that everyone in the world saw. And she was deliberately making herself look unnerving.
An idle part of her mind wondered how Anderson was reacting. Being press-ganged into the tournament was probably why Eva was acting how she was in the first place.
“You said that Brakket Academy accepted non-humans,” Hank said before Zoe could continue introducing the school. “I take it that the girl in the front is not.” His words came slow as if he were trying to pick them with extreme care.
Zoe decided to save him from trying to figure out a proper question.
“Believe it or not, Eva was born a human. Beyond that, it really isn’t my story to tell. Something fairly personal happened to her. If she wishes to divulge it, that will be her choice.”
“I see,” he said, unable to keep the dissatisfaction out of his voice.
“Brakket Academy is fielding the youngest students in this tournament. Two third years, though only one of them is participating in this event.”
Behind Eva, Randal Hemwick and Rachael Davis followed.
Together, with the candidates from the other schools, they lined up before a large wooden stage. The judges were seated atop on one side while the headmasters of each school were seated on the other. Wallace Redford, who had been sitting in the very center, stood and moved to the front podium.
All the cameras focused on him.
He ignored the hovering drones in favor of looking over the students.
“The event will soon begin. Lots will be drawn to determine your starting location,” he said, holding up a large colored marble. “There are seven starting locations with a maximum of three students per location. Each student will pick one marble. You may find yourself among friends from your own school, but you’ll likely find yourself with an opponent.”
He paused for a moment. The cameras switched to a wide shot of all the students.
Zoe watched their expressions. Specifically, Eva’s still-wide smile. She didn’t flinch in the slightest. Of course, if she had Arachne on her, she would have very little need to fear starting with even two opponents.
Her eyes flicked to Eva’s wrist, catching sight of a small snake wrapped around just behind her hand. Something she might have mistaken for a bracelet had she not known that Eva never wore jewelry. The two flasks at her hip were notable as well. If Eva really wasn’t using blood magic, the flasks likely lacked blood.
Zoe could imagine what potions were inside.
“And make no mistake, they will be your opponents. Only one school can be the victor in this event. Will you try to take them out at the start and brave the dangers of the forest on your own? Will you backstab them at a critical time? Or will you fight together, raising your chances of reaching your objective, and have an honorable fight to determine the true victor?”
He said the word with a slight sneer.
Zoe just rolled her eyes. To say that Wallace Redford had an issue regarding honorable fighting would be putting it lightly. Though she wanted to scoff, Zoe couldn’t quite bring herself to demean him that much. Wallace was the leader of the Guild. Before becoming the leader, he had been quite the adept mage-knight. It was entirely possible that something in his past had given him such a cynical view.
Still worth an eye roll, however.
“The starting locations are positioned around a ring. Once you enter, leaving will disqualify you. A ward has been set up along the perimeter that will cause a slight push against you if you try to leave. So do not fear becoming turned around in the forest and accidentally disqualifying yourself.
“Your goal is to reach the center of the arena. Once there, what you should do will become obvious.”
Wallace paused one more time, looking over the group of students.
Satisfied with whatever he was looking at, he drew his wand. Flicking out seven different colored orbs of light from his wand, he finished with a wide wave of his hand.
A large and fairly plain sack materialized before the podium.
The way it appeared with a brief tinge of white light had Zoe narrowing her eyes. Things she pulled from Between had a remarkably similar effect. She hadn’t been aware that he could use the Elysium Order’s magic. The people outside the Order who could were those who had stolen the knowledge. Wayne and herself, for example. While they could teach people, she hadn’t and highly doubted that Wayne had.
“Come,” Wallace said, unaware of Zoe’s thoughts. “Select your marble and stand by the associated light. Once ready, they will lead you to your starting position. As soon as everyone is in place, the lights will flash white three times before moving within the arena boundaries. When they disappear, the event will begin.
“Straying too far from the light or attacking anyone else before the light disappears will result in immediate disqualification.”
As he gave the final instructions, the students all broke their lines and moved up to the sack. One by one, they reached into the bag and pulled out colored marbles.
The television snapped back to herself and Hank, seated on their benches. Zoe, who had been leaning forward to get a better view of the students’ selection, casually stiffened her back to regain her proper posture.
“Exciting times,” Hank said with a broad smile towards the camera.
She could swear that his teeth actually sparkled.
“We’ll be back to go over the chosen teams after a word from our sponsors. Don’t change that channel. The event will be starting next.”
He finished with a finger pointing towards the camera, freezing for a moment until the commercials began.