A cool wind slid around the campus as Marx made the ten minute trek to the dormitories. A routine Senferday afternoon discussion with a favorite professor dragged on a bit longer than usual. Then a lot longer. They had started with a few simple clarifications, devolved into a small debate, and then moved into a conversation on the finer points of large scale casting and the importance of maintaining precise right angles on globally-cast triangular rituals. Marx had left the office with a paper covered in scrawled reading recommendations and a dark sky overhead. He folded the paper carefully and tucked it into his cloak pocket alongside his paws.The cloaks here were something special. Enchanted to be warm in the cold and cool in the heat, hydrophobic, and best of all, eternally soft.
This weather made him thankful for it. The days were getting shorter again and birds were beginning to arrive from the south. Marx had lived here long enough to know that chattering in the trees meant winter was approaching.
But the chattering had been missing for a few minutes. The wind had stopped. A new heaviness weighed on the air around him, as if something had been added. Probably an illusion caused by the wind stopping. Warmth engulfed him, and his mind prickled with the sudden impression of being watched.
The sensation of a cold hand slid around the back of his head. Marx took off running immediately, a bust of blind panic sending him hurtling towards the door to his building. He had to get inside. As he ran the hand followed, seemingly stuck to him. The thought of being pursued only made him panic further. He fumbled desperately with door before yanking it open and slamming it behind him. The cold subsided immediately. He kept his pace up until he reached his room.
Once outside his own door, he stopped. He was being silly. Nothing was out there at all, and he sprinted away from nothing. What would Magolor think of him? He had to calm down and behave normally. He took a breath, relaxed his face, and opened the door.
“Hey Mags. What's up?” Magolor scratched away dutifully on assignments, but had looked up at the door when he heard the knob turning.
“Hey to you too. You're back late.”
“Eh, me 'n Professor Kranchet got into a discussion and lost track of time.” He brought his paws up in a shrug, but Magolor was too busy writing to see. A familiar sight peeked out over the paper. “Did you get a fountain pen?”
“I like the way yours felt, so I went and got one! Mine's in blue, though.”
“I can't believe it. You've stolen my gimmick. I thought we were friends, Magolor!”
“Is poor penmanship with a fancy pen and novelty ink really a gimmick? Seems more like a mistake to me.”
“Not all of us can have on-so-flawless cursive, bud. No wonder you write so much more slowly than me!
“Because I want to be able to read my work afterwards. What's the point of taking notes if you can't read them?”
“I can read them just fine, and they're for me, so it works!”
They chattered back and forth for a few hours, Marx telling Magolor about his conversation with the professor and Magolor telling a story about the person behaving strangely at the shop he been at earlier. They had been watching him from a corner and moving in a disjointed way, more like a marionette than a person. As they spoke they moved from sitting to lying down, eventually quietly conversing while tucked into their beds. Then their final sentences taped off. The pair fell asleep.
Awareness returned slowly. Marx was dimly aware of being comfortably warm, then of being in utter blackness. He could see himself faintly, but nothing else. It occurred to him that a dream in the dark should be scary, but he couldn't bring himself to feel any fear. After all, it was only a dream, even if knowing that was odd.
The blackness turned out to be somewhat boring, despite how comfortable it was. Perhaps he could do something about it? He tried to create something, anything. A small fire, a ball, some dirt. But nothing came. The idea pressed against the edge of materialization without passing through. He heard something laugh faintly in the distance.
A single star flickered to life above him. Then another, and another. They came alive faster and faster, dotting the new skies with a gentle glow. The stars were both above and below, some closer than others. A purple glow came from the space beneath him and the top lightened to a navy blue. Everything was wonderfully peaceful, and Marx began to float in circles to enjoy the celestial view.
He slowed to a halt against his own will. A large, star-spangled sphere appeared in front of him, spinning gently. It appeared to be a smaller version of the space around him. A pleasant laugh emitted from it.
“Hello there, Marx.”
Marx whirled around, looking for the voice. The sphere laughed. “Over here, friend. The star ball.”
Marx turned back. “You're a person?”
“What's your name?”
“You may call me whatever you like.”
“Okay then…..what are you?”
“I'm a magician of dreams. The only one, in fact, and I have chosen you as an apprentice. Out of every student in this academy, I have chosen only the most worthy to learn my skills and grow into a powerful mage. I know of abilities your teachers have never seen in their lives. Would you like to learn them?”
Marx floated, speechless. A powerful mage wanted to teach him. A powerful mage who thought he was the most worthy person here. “Of course…”
“I only ask that you keep my visits a secret. I worry the others may mock you or disbelieve you.”
“That's all they ever do.”
“Such is the price of talent.” The sphere made a sound like a throaty chuckle. “Still, it would not do to encourage them further. Annoyances will only distract you from your studies.”
“Can I tell Magolor? He's never treated me like the others.”
“You'll understand when you awaken again. For now, focus on here. Decide what to call me, so our visits may flow more smoothly.”
Bossy, isn't he? “Would boss work? You seem like the type.”
“It will work wonderfully.” Boss caught the jab hidden in the name, but elected to ignore it. The title would become sincere soon enough. “However, I shall take my leave for the night. You will need your rest, and I have one other visit to make. I will return to you tomorrow night. Make sure to be asleep before 10pm.”
“I will.” Marx seemed almost disappointed that the visit had been so short. Good, Boss thought to himself. An easy catch.
“Then I shall take my leave. Good night, Marx.”
“Good night, boss.”
The sphere faded out of existence and the stars began to blink out one by one as the light faded. Soon Marx found himself in the same blackness from before. He felt his consciousness slipping away and reawakened in dreams of his own making.
Marx woke up yet again, this time to the orange glow of dawn. He felt strangely invigorated, fully awake in a way he hadn't been since childhood. He didn't have to convince himself to leave his bed, and even half-made it before climbing down. Magolor had woken up as well, looking at the bars supporting the top bunk.
“You're up early.”
“Yeah. Had a really weird dream, though. Some weird space ball kept trying to get me to give them a name? And--”
“Purple and blue?”
Magolor sat up. “He was! And he said he wanted me as an apprentice.”
“Both of us? Why both of us?”
“You had the same dream?” Magolor's brow furrowed.
“I think so. He wanted me to give him a name, and told me he knew more than any of our professors.”
“If we both had the same dream…maybe it could be real? What are the odds of us having the same dream of the same random person? Unless it's part of a lesson, somehow? Maybe everyone got it.”
“Mind manipulation is forbidden here, Mags. You know that. It has to be someone else. Besides, I don't think any of the teachers here even know how to do that.”
“Guess we're going to bed at 10 tonight, then, to find out.” Magolor pulled back the covers and stood, hunting around his desk for his bow tie.
“He said before ten. Better make it nine so we have time to get to sleep. Maybe we could make a remedy potion, just to make sure?”
“The ones for insomnia? We'd be out cold in a few minutes. Only issue is finding the time to get out to town so we can buy the ingredients.” Technically it would be Magolor buying the ingredients, as Marx rarely had any money, but he preferred to say “we”. Marx didn't have the benefit of an allowance the way he did. They shared most things nowadays anyway.
“It's Frissaday, Mags. We can leave whenever.”
A brief glance at the wall calendar proved it. There would be no need for the bowtie after all. “Oh. So it is. Well, that's convenient. Maybe he knew we'd need the time and was polite enough to make sure he showed up before our day off! What a nice guy!”
“Well we'd better get up and make use of it, then. Get dressed already dude.” Marx, being a puff, didn't exactly need clothes, but he wore a red clip-on bow tie for fun.
“I'm trying! My cloak is missing again.”
“It's on the closet floor with your hood, right where you left it after laundry day. Probably all wrinkled up now.”
“Oh! Found it! Thanks. It doesn't wrinkle, though. It's too thick for that.” He changed as quickly as he could, tugging the collar of his cloak in place and closing the buckle. “All right, all ready. Let's go!”
The walk to town was uneventful. A quiet forest path lined with skinny trees led into a small, bustling area lined with boutiques and supply stores. Halsatz was a small town, and most of its economy came from the academy it bordered. Students had been making the trek for years to pick up supplies and snacks. They were often seen patronizing the family restaurants and cafes scattered around the main street as well. Marx, having previously been friendless and currently broke ( as his bi-weekly stipend almost always went towards his studies) only cared about two places in town. The bookstore was one of them, being the sort of shop that ended up being a library with a permanent checkout. It was large and maze-like, with a passive staff, meaning he could read for hours undisturbed. If he managed to find a particularly good book, he'd end up taking it home with him.
The other place was the apothecary. Though it had been originally built for medical purposes, it had expanded rapidly after the founding of the academy, selling more and more until it had essentially become a magical general store. This was where the pair would go to find their ingredients.
A small bell jingled as the door opened inwards, colliding softly with a thick burlap bag of yellow pellets. The heavy smell hit them first. A pungent odor permeated the place, the sort of scent that couldn't be described as anything other than “magic shop.” Magolor pulled his cloak more tightly over his mouth. Marx breathed in deeply, pulling the scent towards the roof of his mouth. “You learn to like it.” He gently took Magolor's hand and pulled him between the aisles of low shelves.
The entire store was dim, lit only by a few tallow candles. It didn't take the two long to find what they needed. Small sacks of powder and herbs in hand, they turned together towards the checkout--and were immediately knocked to the floor, sending a bag of dried bluish seeds to the ground.
“Oh! I am so sorry! I didn't see you there! Here, let me get that for you.” A tall, thin blue woman with long limbs and long fingers crouched to the ground, scooping the seeds back into the bag. Unbeknownst to the pair, she had also added a light powdering of something else. Refolding the bag, she straightened, turned back to them, and held it out. “Here you go! I got them all picked up for you. Sorry again for running into you. It's a bit hard to see in this store, what with the low light.”
Marx seemed quietly furious, but Magolor placed a hand on his side, cooling him down. “Thank you, ma'am. It's all right.” She smiled and nodded, leaving the store quickly. Once she had turned away from them, her smile became a smirk. Her job was done.
The pair went up to pay, Magolor slipping a large wad of bills from his wallet and handing the clerk exact change. They began to rush home the second they were outside. Nothing was more important to them in that moment than creating the potion and proving to themselves that what they had dreamt of existed.
Marx wriggled underneath the bunk beds the second they returned. He retrieved a small leather case. It contained basic equipment for potion brewing: a mortar and pestle, a few beakers, test tubes, tongs, measuring tools, and a magically-powered hot plate. He arranged the necessary items on his desk while Magolor measured out the proper ingredients.
The potion was very simple, taking only a half hour to complete. Their work resulted in a shimmering blue potion, thick and moving on its own only slightly. Marx took the beaker from the heat and poured the liquid evenly into two small cups. He then gave one cup to Magolor, who set it on the bedside table.
“Letting them sit isn't going to improve the flavor, unfortunately: but we need to wait until nine on the dot. It should begin working at the five minute mark.”
“Isn't that a bit early? He said ten. Maybe we should try for 9:30 instead.”
Marx thought about it for a moment. “All right, sure. 9:30. Got a while until then, though, so we should probably go eat or something.”
“It's that weird green-grey stuff again. We should've headed to the café while we were out.” Magolor made a face. “I still don't understand how you can eat it.”
“Eh. It's familiar. Kinda like chewing mint.”
“More like chewing cud that's already been through a couple times.”
“Is that what you're doing behind your collar all day?” Magolor responded with a sharp laugh before tipping back onto the bed and giggling. Marx set his own vial down before squashing himself towards the floor, wiggling slightly. A small moment of tension. Then he burst upwards, landing on his roommate with his full weight. Marx weighed very little, but it was still enough to force a small “Oof!” from Magolor. He grabbed the puff with both hands and rolled, squishing Marx beneath him. Marx wriggled and pushed, but Magolor didn't budge.
“Get off me!”
Magolor's face curled into a laugh. “No!”
Marx's eyes grew wider, gaining a new sparkle they hadn’t had previously. “Pretty please?”
“Are you really trying that? I'm immune to The Eyes.”
“No you aren't…” The saccharine voice continued.
“Oh yes I am!” Magolor changed his voice to match, mocking slightly. He dropped his face forward, forehead colliding gently with Marx's own. “Bonk!”
Marx took his chance and immediately stuck his tongue out. Magolor recoiled as soon as he spotted it, moving back into a standing position. “Don't lick me!”
The puff smirked. “Works every time.”
“That's not fair!”
“Neither is lying on top of someone smaller than you. Now come on Mags, we're going to be late!” He scooted off the bed, grabbed Magolor's hand, and began to lead him out the door. Magolor gripped right back.
After a quick breakfast, the two spent the rest of the day wandering around the campus and the nearby forest, chattering up a storm and occasionally breaking into a run. Lunchtime came and went, the pair choosing to snack and get back to running. By the time dinner approached, they were running low on steam.
“Maybe we won't need those potions after all. I think I'm going to pass out the second I hit the pillow.” Magolor pushed his collar back up, making a small effort to seem less disheveled. If he had feet, they would be dragging.
The pair of feet making soft prints in the dust beside him were definitely dragging. Marx plodded slowly beside his roommate. Even his bowtie seemed to be drooping. “We should still drink them,just in case. And we did go through all that trouble.”
“Mm. True, but food first.” The conversation ended as he pushed open the thick door that led to the dining hall. The two kept their dinner short, intentionally choosing warm, heavy foods that would make them feel drowsier.
By the time 8:30 rolled around, they were practically dragging themselves up the stairs. The pair weren't athletes by any means. Their decision to run around all day had given them muscle aches and an all-encompassing desire to lie down. They sat on Magolor's bed, slouched against the wall. Neither of them wanted to move, so they began slowly mumbling about mundane things to keep themselves awake. When the clock hit 9:30, Marx scooted lethargically across the sheets and pulled the two cups from the table.
“On the count of three.” They tossed the blue slime back in sync, then sat swaying for a matter of seconds before collapsing over each other in a pile.
The two awoke in a new place that was seemingly at odds with itself. The sky surrounded them, spangled richly with stars and painted with brightly colored blue nebulae. The remnants of a pale rose floor stretched beneath them. Tiles fell away endlessly, but the floor never seemed to grow smaller. Translucent, prismatic polyhedrons with hexagonal faces floated in the air, rotating slowly while changing color. There seemed to be something fluffy and indistinct in each one. Above and below them, opaque navy pyramids seemed to roll forward on nothing, moving face by face. A golden light seemed to be trying desperately to force itself through the seams of the pyramid, causing each one to vibrate and rumble. Dark blue-grey clouds rolled through the area, warm and inviting.
It was only after spending close to a minute staring at the scene before them that they realized they were both there. Silently, they floated nearer to each other. Sharing a dream didn't alarm them, nor did it confuse them. There would be no time for either. A familiar sphere floated into view.
“Your minds are beautiful together. So intricate. You shall make fine students. So punctual, even early. The potion was an act of commitment to your education, and to me, and I appreciate it greatly.” The voice was slow and warm, sourceless but bursting with pride. The ghost of a hand brushed across their heads, warm, soft, comfortable. It left pleasant tingles in its wake. Magolor stiffened slightly at the first touch. Marx started only slightly before relaxing again.
This place and their teacher were light and ethereal. Boss’ voice was gentle and smooth as he guided them through their first lesson, simple pointers on gathering of magical energy from the ambient power of the environment and then utilizing it efficiently. This was the first thing any magic student would learn, but Boss seemed to understand it more than the teachers in their waking world. Any apprehension between the three disappeared quickly, replaced with the joy of learning new skills.
Boss stayed near them the entire time, teaching them what to think about, how to position themselves, what areas were best for gathering, and what species held the most untapped power. Every success was quickly met with droplets of praise. Hard-won breakthroughs earned them a hearty pat to the back. Try as they might, neither of them could see the thing touching them, but every bit of praise made the centers of the polyhedrons swell and glow with pink light. The pyramids responded with stillness and an intense glow.
The three worked for a while, practicing until both students could pull enormous volumes of simulated magic from the environment. They were permitted to take a break, moving off to investigate their surroundings as Boss watched. Each of them had taken one of the other's constructs. They sat near each other, comparing their shapes and trying to pry them open.
Both constructs flew upwards and out of reach. “That would be inadvisable. We can attempt that later, during another lesson. For now I am going to have to take my leave, as are you.”
“Already? It feels like we just got here….” Marx seemed to droop bit, still staring longingly after his confiscated piece of Magolor's mind.
“We have to wake up at some point, Marx.” Magolor had simply turned his attention to making swirls in piles of magic he had collected and turned into fluff. If he wasn't supposed to open the shapes yet, he'd be able to later.
“Correct. Though I am flattered that you wish to stay for more than a night, you must awaken so you may sleep again. Come here.” The impression of a hand gently nudged them both towards the starry orb. They floated over without much fear.
To their surprise, they were both pushed flush with the orb and held there tightly. It gave way softly and seemed to almost purr. “I'm so glad.” It said simply. The hands hugging them began to lift instead, cupping them each in an invisible palm before nestling them next to each other in a dark cloud. They heard a faint goodbye, then felt a warm nothing.
Warm nothing became a warm something. A slight weight rested on Magolor's abdomen, breathing quietly. Early morning had come once again, grey and heavy. He felt as if he hadn't left the cloud he fell awake in, and he had no desire to get up. Every bit of bedding had contoured perfectly to him, his roommate had curled up to him peacefully, and they had nothing at all to do today. Magolor's fate was sealed.
He spent the next hour in absolute peace. No one moved, not even as rain began to pat gently on the window. Thunder rumbled calmly in the distance and lulled Magolor into a drifting warmth, hovering on the edge of sleep. His thoughts slipped from place to place, nonsensical and easy.
When Marx came to, he saw Magolor above him, eyes closed and serene. He shut his eyes and drifted back downwards. In the end, the only thing that convinced them to get up was hunger. Magolor gently nudged Marx, who reluctantly moved. The rest of the day passed in quiet excitement. Bedtime had become more interesting than anything else the day had to offer them.
"Good evening. How were your classes?" Boss already knew, of course. His students' faces were subdued, a far cry from their usual bursting enthusiasm.
"It was fine." The pair spoke simultaneously, their tones a bit strained and nearly the same. Interesting. Boss tucked that detail away for later.
"I can tell something's happened. Not sharing is acceptable, but please do not lie." He kept his tone gentle but inquisitive. "Did someone do something to you?"
Magolor chose to speak up. "There's this girl in some of our classes who keeps using her own straw to jab us in the back when we're not looking. She even does it in the hall."
"Her straw? A Broom Hatter, I presume?"
Even the mention of her had Marx fuming. "Yeah. She's terrible! She pops her gum and never shuts up about whatever stupid thing she did yesterday!"
"Hmm…" Boss pretended to ponder something for a few moments, then spoke. "I may be able to assist you. Would you like to learn about false-fire?"
Green flames tore across the girl's straw as she screamed in terror and pain. The two watched from the opposite side of their table as her edges blackened, smoke rising from her left arm. Everyone near her had backed away, the professor pulling the fire extinguisher from the wall.
The flames disappeared on their own before the teacher pulled the nozzle free. The broom hatter girl stared in disbelief at her own arm, perfect and golden. Nothing remained, not even a trace of smoke. In the following days, the girl would become a model pupil, staying as still and quiet as possible in class and treating the lab equipment with the utmost care.
"Fear, you see, is a useful tool. The occasional illusion or display of power can be enough to drive enemies back or to even avoid a fight altogether. You did very well today. May I assume that no one else has interfered with your schooling?"
"No one at all! We're actually faster now so we can get to bed on time."
"Strange, then, that you've been late to bed the last few sessions. Are you losing interest?"
Marx's eyes widened. "N-no, not at all! We just have trouble sleeping sometimes when there's a lot of noise next door. We're trying really hard, we promise!"
"I understand, but punctuality is a virtue. It is impolite to expect a meeting and leave someone waiting." A subtle displeasure crept into Boss's voice.
"We can fix it, can't we Marx? We can make more sleeping potions! That way nothing can keep us awake!"
Boss laughed internally.
The last day of each week became shopping day. A time normally used for relaxing became a time for brewing a week's worth of sleeping potions. The employees of the apothecary came to know them by name. They were never late again.
Every night brought new information. It took them mere days to learn techniques that would typically take weeks to master. Boss showered them with praise and encouragement. The top bunk gathered dust.
Their sudden, rapid advancement wasn't always met positively. Rumors grew amongst those who knew the pair. They were abusing potions or creating illusions. A few students declared that they were secret warlocks. They were putting out too much energy, sometimes even to the point of generating an area effect. They were louder now and strode through the halls with a confidence they had lacked before. One classmate claimed he saw Marx leaning against nonexistent surfaces and pushing himself upwards for no reason at all.