“Alright. Start the clock.”
Forty individual targets, moving independantly around the field. Sometimes they were rings, gems, coins, and in one instance giant red fruit. The spell had been developed as a video game substitute, then added to the Volst Magi Emergent Ranking and Illumination Tests. Under the conditions, the subject had a limited time to hit every target either physically or with energy. The fewer targets remained, the more intelligently they evaded. Nick maintained a leaderboard in his notes. Only the first attempt counted, and no one had reached all forty in time. The last batch had barely broken twenty, although he privately wasn’t concerned. They had plenty of combat mages and not enough support, and the other tests had more optimistic results.
A whistle snapped him out of calculation.
“Whatever happened to the good old days? We never had to go through these hoops.” Tom leaned over the railing, looking down at the gymnasium floor and one of the trainees racing around to punch blocks with question marks glowing on them.
“Too many mages now, have to know who’s where in the order,” Nick answered idly. One of Tom’s lieutenants had famously ignored all forty targets in favor of attacking the mage powering the illusion. “The system will determine what’s best. The-”
“The system will determine the order,” Tom finished the quote in an exaggerated southern accent. “Yeah, I remember. You remember how that organization ended up?”
“Successful. I don’t plan on torturing an AI of my own brain, if that’s what’s worrying you.” Nick rolled his eyes, watching the field. Tom watched the rookie continue to attack, groaning.
“Leah’s running the game for you? Let’s try a team session.”
Tom strolled into the locker room, rolling his neck. The rules were pretty simple. Leah and a couple lower-tier mages would run the test with doubled targets, Tom could assist the three rookies in front of him but not hit any targets himself. His squad consisted of two guys and a girl, each testing low on their cohort’s board today. Clint was a short, blond teenager with an emerging talent for melee and a bad temper. Andrew had advanced illusion scores and a taste for traditional magic styles. The girl, Annabel, had sky-high ranks in half her MERITs, perfect zeros in the other half. Even now she was on her phone, pockets of electronic parts jangling in vest pockets. Tom took a deep breath, playing a bit formal at first.
“Rookies. Annabel, Andrew, and Clint. Nice to meet you. I’m Thomas, your tutor for this test. You all tried this test earlier today, didn’t do too well. The guy up top thinks you’re low grade at target practice, but I’ve got about fifteen minutes to prove him wrong. Read your files earlier. Andrew, good at ritualized magic and a flair for appearances. Clint, hear you’re good with knives. Annabel’s either a genius or mundane depending on what day it is. Am I right?” He got two grumbles and a nod. “There’s a trick I figure I ought to pass on to you newbies, and you three have style enough to pull it off. Once upon a time, I used to spend my energy coming up with flashy spells that looked cool. Here’s one I’ve held back on.”
“Rookies, numbers 425, 413, and 612. You have three minutes to hit eighty targets. Your group score will be taken into consideration for your individual scores earlier.” Leah stood with her hands behind her back, smiling. “Clock will start on Nick’s command. Good luck.” She threw up a shield around the three mages maintaining the game, and Nick typed on his laptop.
“Start the clock.”
The three teenagers stood back to back as the gym floor lit up, various-colored spheres spiralling and taking erratic paths around the room. Clint crouched and drew a pair of combat knives, teeth gritted. Andrew and Annabel focused, the former drawing sigils in the air with his fingers and the latter typing on an invisible keyboard.
“Fraymotif online. Can’t stop the signal,” Annabel announced. Purple data-lines lit up along her hands, similar lines crawling up the boys’ arms.
“Fraymotif lit. Night falls, and waves crash,” Andrew added. Glyphs of various sources spun around them, fluttering lightly.
“Fraymotif sharpened. Shut up and draw your sword!” Clint shouted, charging forward. Annabel shut her eyes and her fingers flew across the shadow of a keyboard, and Andrew started plucking glyphs from the air in pairs. Clint dodged forward and spun to cut through targets, kicking off the wall and launching towards another group. All three held a smooth rock on their person, boosting the Fraymotif spell resonance. Clint growled and surged from wall to wall, cutting across to hit a target or two each sweep. Annabel’s calculations were taking into account the targets’ movements and projected increases in speed, feeding straight into Clint’s instincts. Andrew maintained the link with a traditional sympathetic spell while blasting outlier targets with glyph-combination blasts.
Tom kicked back, sitting behind Nick and watching them go. Two minutes in, twenty targets left, and the team had already improvised. Andrew had started throwing up platforms in midair for Clint to ricochet off, chanting under his breath rapidly. The three had a marked increase in output and reaction time. The knife-wielding rookie launched from the ground past Nick’s position, leaving a trail of enraged swearing as he spun and slashed. The lawmage watched him rise and exhaled, looking back at Tom.
“Alright. I give. How?”
Tom just grinned, watching the counter floating overhead. Five more targets, then four. The remainders were hard to keep up with, shedding heat hazes and still being nearly clipped by the knifemage.
“Annabel!” Clint snarled, reaching to slice at a target and barely missing. The technomancer grunted and worked faster, eyes moving across invisible computer screens, using multiple keyboards. Andrew shut his eyes and lowered his arms, trying to focus.
“Got a crazy idea.” Andrew muttered, sitting back-to-back with Annabel, scrawling glyphs in midair. “How’s your physics?”
“Better than yours,” Annabel answered, barely registering as she kept calculating.
Andrew swiped a block of symbols around them, which the other flicked her eyes over. “You’re right. That is crazy.”
Clint sommersaulted off a wall, a flash of light under his feet as he spun towards where he thought a target would be next, swearing loudly as he cut through another heat haze.
“Heisenberg,” Andrew muttered, slamming a fist into the ground. Annabel pointed into the sky and ran her tongue across her teeth. “Speed is 104.8, five seconds.”
The gym blew up in a burst of noise and light. When the glare cleared, Clint was lying facedown on the gym floor, knives stabbed into the hardwood. Annabel had curled up into a ball on her side, several thin cuts bleeding on her arms. Andrew had a nasty knife wound to the forehead, laid out a foot away from his spot.
“Medical, hurry,” Nick and Tom called out simultaneously. The target counter read zero targets remaining, Leah’s team were dazed and luckily protected by the shield. Within seconds medical personnel were on the scene.
Tom wanted nothing more than to be down there to help, but didn’t quite know how. So he stood there watching as the on hand medical staff stabilized the injured trainees and wisked them away to the nearby hospital.
“Tom, my office 10 minutes.”
It had been a long ten minutes for Tom. At first he watched as Nick comfimed that Leah and her team were unharmed. Soon it had turned into Tom awkwardly standing there fidgeting as they recovered the data of what had happened. Tom didn’t like the feeling of being useless so he just slipped away to wait in Nick’s office.
That was 45 minutes ago. Tom felt his leg anxiously bounce up and down as he played solitaire on a floating projection in front of him. He knew Nick was a busy guy, but come on he had told him to be there. This is getting ridiculous. Tom thought as he heard the office door swing open. Tom turned his head to see a somewhat worse for wear Nick drag himself into the office with a satchel slung over his shoulder.
Wordlessly he walked around his desk and plopped down placing the bag in front of him. The law mage rubbed his eyes wearily. They sat in silence for several moments. Tom didn’t want to speak first given what had happened, but the silence was killing him. He was about to open his mouth when Nick finally spoke.
“What spell did you teach them Tom?”
“The spell Tom.” Nick stuck his hand into the bag sitting on his desk and pulled out a clipboard with a dozen different sheets of paper on it. The top most one having a list of spells cast by each of the trainees during the test with some kind of point value next to them. “Data shows they each cast unique yet suspiciously similar spells at the beginning of the exercise. Using a magical focus to amplify the effects of the spells.”
“And the spells each sit outside their normal area of expertise. Look here.” Nick flipped over to another page showing a line graph mapping something. It first started off of at a fairly unremarkable mid-level, then had a small spike, followed by a massive spike in the upper level platueing for the duration of the exam. “You see that small spike? That’s them casting the spells.”
“Doesn’t look that remarkable to me.” Tom muttered as he fiddled with a brass button on his jacket.
“How much power did you give them Tom?”
“Tom, I know you’re a real fan of technically following the rules, but bending them like crazy. So I know you didn’t directly contribute to casting any spells that would destroy the targets. But, even if you combine the power levels of all three of them they don’t even come close to the power levels shown.”
“Huh, that’s interesting.” Tom thought he saw a twitch in Nick’s eye as he talked. The Izzet mage wasn’t sure if he was in trouble or not so decided to stick with vague answers until his friend was done.
“So after searching their persons we found these.” Nick then pulled out a baggy with three smooth stones in it. They besides having a slightly glossy sheen they were fairly plain grey rocks. “Care to elaborate?”
“Alright, I’ll have to scrap the results of the last test, and have original test scores stand.”
“What!? That’s not fair!?” Tom exclaimed suddenly.
“Really? This isn’t a pass-fail sorta testing system. I don’t even post standings. What makes it unfair?” Nick responded holding back a grin after finally getting a rise out of Tom.
“You’d be telling them that all they worked for and and risked wouldn’t mean anything.” Tom shot back at his friend.
“And what good would the tests be if we can’t measure their actual ability?”
“Because they’re fun.” Tom said as a matter of fact.
He leaned back crossing his arms staring Nick in the eye. Nick had a severe expression after hearing Tom’s rebuttal. He waited for something else to be said by Tom, but the planeswalker declined to speak further. After what seemed like an eternity to Tom, Nick spoke again.
“Tom the purpose of the tests is to gauge the individual magical potential of mages. Breaking them down into categories of Power level, Control, and Creativity.” With a flick of his wrist an illusionary screen appeared to Nick’s left. It showed a list of mages with color codes for their magical specialization and numbers under columns labeled the three areas he had just said. Most of the mages listed didn’t have particularly high numbers in any area. “We give a numerical value on a 100 point scale. The total score from all three categories indicates where you stand in the rankings.”
“Okay and? I’m seeing a lot of 15’s or lower there.”
“Combat rated mages are required to have a B-Rank or higher. That’s a minimum MERITs score of 180.” Nick leaned back in his chair, placing his hands with his interlocked on top of his desk. “Now tell me Tom what does that mean if the baseline for a mage isn’t qualified, but they had their score artificially boosted to meet minimum requirements?”
“They get better?”
“No Tom, they get hurt.”
Tom understood the logic. It was very neat and tidy. Rationally speaking, by placing the bar so high for mages it prevented the unqualified from getting in the way during an attack. He understood it, but Nick was being kind of a dick about it.
“What can I do to keep you from scrapping the results?” Tom finally asked. Nick was being a dick, but he wasn’t immune to compromise.
Nick’s expression changed. He slipped into thought for a moment as he contemplated the question. It looked to Tom that he wasn’t expecting that question.
“Take the tests Tom. I don’t have MERITs from most of the original mages. With a proper reading I can distinguish you from them and adjust the results accordingly.”
“Is that all? Done.” Tom said automatically without thinking. If anything it would give him an excuse to not be in the office for a few more hours.
“You clearly don’t know what’s in those tests.”
Nick was in fact right. They didn’t waste much time in getting started. The very next day the law-mage had him come back to the testing grounds with dozens of lower ranking mages doing a variety of tasks.
At first Tom thought he just needed to cast a few spells and run the target game. He guessed maybe a couple hours and he’d be done in time for lunch. He was very wrong. He had run stress tests measuring his casting speed, tests to measure the strength of his spells, tests for the minimum power level of his most basic spells, tests for how quickly he could change the properties of a single spell before it finished casting, and a dozen other different tests he had lost track of. He had blown up four different test areas and had been whisked away before getting any time to rest.
By night fall he had been standing, running, or flying for almost the entire day. He had been allowed a short lunch break hours ago, and had been worked to the point of vomiting twice already.
“Okay Tom this is the final test.” Nick called out to him. “We had to wear you down a bit, but it looks like you’re ready.”
“A bit? Nick I can barely stand.” Tom replied breathing heavily. His clothes were soaked through with sweat making him feel uncomfortable and dirty. The muscles in his legs were tight and spasming making it hard for him to stand let alone walk. And he felt as if he hadn’t slept in about a week.
“Perfect! Those stress tests were designed to wear you down to the point of exhaustion. Normally we’d spread them out over several days but we had to compress the timeline since your mana reserves are so high.”
“You’re joking.” Tom said with a mix of agitation and accusation.
“Nope! Now get ready this is the last test. It’s nothing big, but we’re tripling the barriers, and I brought Jason in as an anchor.” Nick said happily and with an annoying amount of energy.
Tom looked over to his left to see many more mages than before casting spells and whispering words of power as they layer on spell after spell. Jason himself was even further back than them probably maintaining multiple shield spells holding the whole web together. Tom looked forward at Nick. The guy had been there since sunrise with him, while other mages had cycled in and out. He looked completely unphased by the day’s events. That annoyed him even more.
“What’s left?” Tom finally spat out after a moment of silence.
“Glad you asked!” Nick walked forward about thirty feet before stopping just short of Tom. “I need you to cast your strongest spell and maintain it. No fire and forget spells. You have to control the spell the entire time.”
“Oh I’ve got a spell for you.” Tom said with a bit a mischief in mind. He had to suppress a grin as he continued. “It’s definitely one of my best spells. I was saving it for a special occasion.”
“Uh huh.” Nick responded half listening.
“It’s got everything! It’s flashy, it inspires, and it will take care of any threat we could ever have to deal with!” Tom said sounding more excited than he was.
“That’s fine, we should have enough protection that you can go all out without harming anyone, but for safety please don’t aim it in a direction with people.” Nick finished sort of muddling through suddenly disinterested.
After he finished talking to Tom, Nick walked back to his previous spot behind the barriers. Tom could see him talking to a few aids next to him and wave a hand signal. Almost immediately there was a massive tension in the air. All the observers seemed to take some kind of cover while Nick alone stood in the open to watch Tom unveil his newest spell.
Tom quietly focused his mana. It was hard to focus after casting so much magic today, but he managed. When he felt he had enough he cast the spell he had prepared he let it release.
Soon a mildly annoying monotone noise like what could be heard on an emergency broadcast echoed through the area. It took a moment for people to understand it as they left covered with bewildered expressions on their faces. The spell wasn’t one Tom would call powerful, but he did have to maintain it. Which was a lot harder than he had expected since he usually cast much stronger magic than this.
Tom looked up to see the noise he made was starting to make people uncomfortable as some people began shifting from one foot to another. Others began to cover their ears and the noise increased in intensity.
That wasn’t right. The spell he cast shouldn’t be changing. He began to panic as he saw people had begun to scream in pain from the sound he emitted. He redoubled his efforts to control the spell, to bring it back down to a reasonable level.
It didn’t seem to work. He was so tired he found his normally tenuous focus in an even worse state as the pittance of mana he spent just kept building on itself. Soon he could see panes of glass wobble intensely before shattering. Several people were on the ground with blood dripping from their ears. People were scrambling to erect a barrier to negate the sound.
And Nick just stood there looking unconcerned. Maybe a little irritated, but oddly unaffected by the spell that seemed to alarm or harm everyone else. Tom couldn’t hear what people were saying not thirty feet away. Deciding the joke was going to far he began to kill the spell.
It wasn’t working for some reason. Which scared the Izzet mage even more. He tried multiple ways of canceling to spell but nothing worked. After the fourth attempt he looked up at the observers. More people were in the ground. That scared him even more.
Then he looked back at Nick for something. The administrator was looking at a magically generated display reading something. After a moment he realized Tom had been trying to get his attention. He shrugged and then waved his hand. With a single gesture everyone seemed to suddenly not hear the noise Tom was still making.
The concrete began to crack around him forming a ring spidering around him. Cracks turned into gravel which turned in sand. Soon even those small granules turned into dust billowing into the air making a smokescreen obscuring many of the people surrounding him. Then without a word Tom saw Nick gesture to a person hidden in the dust.
Within seconds it felt as if he had been hit with a dozen different hammers all over his body. What little control he had over the spell disappeared almost immediately. He could see the spell change to a different pitch to high to hear then dip low as if it were trying to hit the brown note. The noise was warped in a hundred different ways uncontrolled but largely ineffective before dissipating uselessly.
Tom had been largely shielded from his own spell. At least at first. But losing control like that had cause major feedback that made his ears ring. That combined with his exhaustion and injuries the world seemed to fade to black as he passed out.
Hours later Tom woke up confused. Above him he saw a fluorescent light flicker slightly as power from an unknown source fed it electricity to function. His muscles were sore and he thought he felt some swelling in his face with a black-eye forming. Other than the faint hum of the light above him he could hear the tap, tap, tap of a finger on glass near by.
Tom rolled over in the bed he had been place in fumbling for his glasses. He found them sitting next to him in a bedside table. Just the simple motion of finding and placing them in his head hurt, but it wasn’t exactly a new feeling for Tom after more than a few misfired spells.
“Are we ever really awake in our own personal dreams.”
“Really? philosophy? The doctor said you weren’t medicated.” Said a female voice at the other end of his banter.
Tom looked over to the source of the voice. He was surprised to find it in fact wasn’t one of his friends, but one of the rookies that had lead to his latest trip to the hospital.
“Annabel?” The teen was sitting in a chair typing on a smartphone. Every once in a while small purple lines would pulse into view off the top of the phone before fading into invisibility again. Her black hair that was cut into a bob was largely hidden under a purple beanie.
Her legs were tucked under her black hoodie, but he could see black and white striped socks poking out from underneath the bottom. She wasn’t looking at him as she continued to type away.
“That’s me. Not sure you’d remember since we met for maybe twenty minutes.” Annabel said as she tucked the device away.
“What are you doing here? Not gonna lie there’s a short list of people I’d expect to wake up too.” Tom asked with thoughts still fuzzy in his head.
“Nothing much, I needed a quiet place to work before I left, and the Doc needed to step out to yell at the boss man. So I volunteered to hangout while she was doing that.” His head still hurt from the repeated blows, but eventually after a painfully long moment Tom put together who she was talking about.
“…..Sandra? You know she’s not a real doctor right?”
“Sure, closest thing we got here though.” Tom wasn’t really in the mood to try and argue the point of medical degrees with someone who wasn’t even twenty and decided to change the subject before his head exploded.
“So what do you mean you’re leaving?”
“Got new orders from on-high. Go man Outpost Zero Two Four with five other teens with attitude.” Annabel said with a bad Shakespearean voice and probably a Power Rangers reference. Annabel waved her left arm outward while she placed her right hand on her chest.
“Oh yeah, you probably haven’t heard. My ranking came in while you were out.” That caught Tom’s attention as the techie changed the subject.
“Really? Wad’ja get?”
“B-rank with high marks in Control. I apparently qualify for field work as a support caster as long as I pair with a combat mage.”
“Thanks, oh that reminds me.” Annabel leaned over into a purple backpack sitting on the floor. It was fairly plain with the print of a small black cat sewn onto the top of the bag. Without much delay she produced a plain white envelope, sealed with his name on the front.
Without leaving her chair Annabel tossed the envelope into his lap before going back to her phone. Tom mildly curious opened the mail to produce a single piece of paper. He quickly scanned through it before cackling very loudly. The noise was so loud and jarring Annabel looked like she was about to fall from her chair after being startled.
“What?” She said with some badly hidden irritation.
“What?” She asked again more confused than annoyed.
“My scores came in. I’m S-rank with high marks in Power and Creativity.” Tom handed back the piece of paper coming just short of the girl sitting against the wall several feet out of reach. The paper gently glides to her as if by magic. Annabel caught and read it without much reaction before giving a snort in amusement as she tried to suppress a laugh. It didn’t last long as she broke out into a full throated laugh right in his face. “What’s so funny?”
“You clearly didn’t read all of it.”
“I mean I skimmed.” Annabel cleared her throat and began reading the letter in front of her.
“Due to the nature of Mage 002 Thomas Wisel being a planeswalker. He must be graded on a scale different from normal mages.” Annabel read out loud in a semi-professional voice the inched towards deadpan. “As such his score is reflective of the higher scale needed to measure beyond the normal 100 points for each category. It goes on like that for a bit longer.”
“Okay.” Tom replied in an actual deadpan voice.
“You scored a perfect two hundred in power, a one seventy five in creativity, and a seven in control.” As she read the scores the numbers appeared in bright purple above her. “I have literally never seen an individual score that low or high in a single category. Even my grades with zeros averaged out.”
The page floated back from her grasp into Tom’s hands. He reread the letter one last time. It wasn’t long before he placed it in his lap.
“Huh, what a dick.”