The gods have agreed to a divine contest and prepared the Grand Arena. Now each god must choose a champion from among their mortal followers. The champions have one thing in common: all of them were extraordinary, well before they gained a god’s attention. We have already met the Champion of Light and Death.
Today we meet Pallas, who will become the Champion of Magic.
Chapter 4: Pallas’ Origin — All Is Magic
by Kelly Digges (with contributions by Andrea Davis)
Pallas stands beneath the ancient statue of Elyrian, looking up at it in wonder. They always pause beneath that statue, just for a moment, to remember why they’re here.
Students stream around them, jostling and pushing, all on their own paths through the Academy’s central plaza. This week is Evaluation, when students who have reached the end of the standard curriculum make their argument for continued sponsorship in one of the school’s departments, and many of the other students have a glassy-eyed look.
Pallas stands alone, clutching a large scroll case. At the base of the statue is an inscription that reads ALL IS MAGIC. The Academy of Mystic Arts teaches many subjects, only some of them magical. But the philosophers teach that all things spring from magic.
A hundred years ago this place was a temple, where pilgrims came to worship at the statue of Elyrian and consult the oracles. Now, like Pallas, they come to learn. Pallas is not the first to note that the statue is still a place of prayer: students rushing by pray to get to their lessons on time, to get good marks, to get the best teachers and placements.
“Hey!” says a voice behind them.
Pallas turns, smiling, to see their friend Demetrios running up.
Demetrios pushes through the throng and claps a hand on Pallas’ shoulder.
“What’s that?” he asks, nodding to the scroll case. “You can’t bring notes into the Evaluation.”
“It’s not notes,” says Pallas, still smiling. “Call it… supplementary material.”
Demetrios sighs theatrically.
“You are impossible.”
“So I keep hearing,” says Pallas. “Come on. We don’t want to be late.”
“Here they come,” says Demetrios.
The Head Sophists of the Academy know how to make an entrance–even their harshest critics must grant them that. They’re dressed in academic finery, each with their own honors and cultural flourishes, and the mass of students pushes to either side of the hall to watch the spectacle.
The Grand Sophist comes first, a stern old woman with a bent back and a simple black robe. She uses the scepter of her office as a walking stick. Newcomers to the Academy often underestimate her. Few do so twice.
Behind her come the rest of them, the greatest thinkers and mages from all over the world. So they say, anyway. There is Sennuwy, the Head Sophist of Artistry, a white-haired Anubian of regal bearing. She has made it quite clear that she would be delighted to sponsor Pallas’ ongoing education in her department, which encompasses both magical fabrication and more mundane arts. Behind her is Valerius, now promoted to Head Sophist of Applied Philosophy. He’s the youngest of the bunch at a hair under fifty, and has made it equally clear that he would be delighted to see Pallas expelled.
“Ohh, Leucothia looks grumpy today,” whispers Demetrios, of the notoriously fickle Head Sophist of Thaumatics. “Glad I’m not going up against her.”
Demetrios looks sidelong at Pallas, searching for any hint of a reaction. He wrinkles his nose.
“C’mon,” says Demetrios. “You’ve heard my whole presentation–”
“Twice,” says Pallas.
“–At least give me a hint what department you’re trying for. Is it Artistry?”
“No,” says Pallas. “And to save you some time, I’m going to say no to all of them.”
“Just to be difficult,” says Demetrios.
“No,” says Pallas with a smile. “Not just that.”
The last of the Head Sophists file into the audience chamber. The assembled students shake themselves from their stupor and resume their various rituals, preparations, and nervous habits.
Pallas sets the scroll case next to a bench and sits down next to it. After watching Demetrios for a few minutes, they pat the bench on their other side.
“Come on,” says Pallas. “Sit with me.”
“I’m fine standing,” says Demetrios.
“You’re not standing, you’re pacing,” says Pallas. “Sit.”
Demetrios smiles sheepishly and sits. Pallas puts a steadying hand on his back.
“You’re really nervous about this,” says Pallas. “For the last month all you could talk about it is wanting to get it over with.”
“Yeah, well,” says Demetrios. “It’s not over with, is it?”
“Fair point. But soon.”
“Yeah,” says Demetrios. “I guess so.”
“You know you’re ready,” says Pallas. “What’s getting to you?”
“I have to get into Artistry,” says Demetrios. “I want to study with the masters. I want to write something that will last forever. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”
“And here you are,” says Pallas gently. “On the threshold. You’re ready.”
“Right,” says Demetrios. “But I have to win over nine old windbags before I can do it.”
“No,” says Pallas, with enough venom in their voice that Demetrios shies back.
“Sorry,” says Pallas. “Just… Listen. Our esteemed windbags get to decide whether you do one thing: study here, with them, at this Academy.”
“But that’s everything,” says Demetrios.
“No,” says Pallas again. “That’s one thing. I’ve read your plays. I’ve seen them performed. They’re really good. I… I never told you this, but after I saw The Excavation… I snuck into an empty audience chamber and cried for half an hour.”
“Like a child,” says Pallas. “It’s a beautiful story. To be a ghost, trapped between past and present, belonging nowhere… It hit me really hard.”
“That’s wonderful!” says Demetrios. “I mean, contextually.”
“Here’s my point,” says Pallas. “If the wind in those bags blows the wrong way today, that only tells you something about them. It doesn’t change anything about you. You’ll still have your plays, the mind that made them, the tears I wept for Kephissa as she stood alone in the ruins. They’ll see it or they won’t, but you’ll have it no matter what.”
Demetrios nods slowly and blinks, as though there’s something in his eye.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Demetrios’s grips Pallas’ arm.
“Demetrios of Hellekon,” calls the bailiff.
“Thanks,” he says, and walks toward the door.
Pallas tucks the last few bites of a chickpea gyro into their mouth. Very advantageous, knowing exactly how long Demetrios’s presentation would be. Pallas even shaved off a tenth of an hour to account for nerves. Demetrios always talks too fast when he’s nervous.
By the time the door opens, Pallas is refreshed and ready.
Demetrios emerges, wearing a grin that seems to escape the bounds of his face.
“I got in!” he says, as quietly as he can manage.
Pallas hugs him tight.
“Congratulations,” they say.
“Good luck,” says Demetrios. “I really hope you’re not going for Thaumatics, though. She is in a mood.”
“Pallas,” says the bailiff. Just Pallas.
“I’ll be fine.”
Pallas adjusts their grip on the scroll case, takes a deep breath, and walks into the Amphitheater. They walk to the center of the stage, set down the scroll case, and stand.
The Head Sophists are arrayed around the stage, staring down at Pallas from the third row of benches. Pallas can already hear Applied Philosophy and Thaumatics muttering about the scroll case. Good.
“The Head Sophists call Pallas for Evaluation,” says the Grand Sophist formally. A pen scratches somewhere off to the side as a scribe records the proceedings.
Pallas bows, deeply but with a flourish. Out of the corner of their eye they see someone leaning against the wall of the chamber, an unfamiliar figure clad in simple robes. Odd. Pallas wishes Demetrios had thought to mention them, whoever they are.
“I come before you to present my continuing education proposal for evaluation.”
“Get on with it,” grumbles Thaumatics, just barely audible, even though Pallas is only going through the proper forms.
“My esteemed instructors,” begins Pallas, and pauses. Deep breath.
“Overdramatic,” mutters someone. Pallas cannot deny a certain affinity for the extravagant, but this particular pause is not for effect. This is genuinely nerve-wracking.
“I wish to pursue a course of independent study–”
Several Head Sophists begin to speak at once, but Pallas continues.
“–consulting with the Head Sophists as appropriate and subject to their joint approval in their various fields.”
“There is no such course,” says the Grand Sophist, cutting through the chatter.
“I realize that,” says Pallas, with a bow that they hope looks deferential and apologetic. “That’s why I’ve taken the liberty of creating one.”
Pallas bends down, opens the scroll case, and presents a thin roll of parchment. The Grand Sophist gestures for the bailiff to take it as the other Head Sophists all begin to talk at once.
“—certainly hope you didn’t waste any of the Academy’s parchment on that—”
“—should at least read it before we—”
“—practically asking us to make them a Head Sophist in their own right–”
“—but if anyone can do it—”
Pallas lets it all wash over them. Half a year ago they’d brainstormed every possible argument and counterargument they could think of, and all of these were on the list.
“Order!” calls the Grand Sophist. She bangs her scepter on the stone floor, and a clap of thunder reverberates through the audience chamber. The other Head Sophists lapse into stunned silence.
The Grand Sophist holds out a hand, and the bailiff hands her Pallas’ scroll.
“The board will consider the matter,” she says.
“Should I remain on hand to defend my proposal?” asks Pallas.
“I think you’ve done enough damage for one day,” says the Grand Sophist. “Go get some rest. Gods know I’m not going to.”
“May the gods watch over your deliberations,” says Pallas, and sweeps out of the chamber.
In the purple-blue glow of flickering magelights, Pallas reads the same page for the third time in a row, then leans back in their chair and sighs. They ought to be in bed, but they’re too wound up.
Pallas had expected to cause trouble, of course. They’d just told nine aging dispensaries of outdated wisdom to upend their own authority and ignore how they’d arbitrarily sorted that knowledge into buckets for centuries. But no ruling, yes or no, even at the end of the day?
Telling Demetrios about it had been gratifying, at least. Now he’s off with his Artistry friends celebrating. Well deserved, but not the kind of distraction Pallas needs. They resume reading, without much enthusiasm.
“Well, you certainly have a gift,” says a voice. Pallas hadn’t heard anyone walk up, but the voice is just a few feet away.
“Mm,” says Pallas, not looking up. “So I’ve been told. Quite the magical prodigy.”
“That you are,” says the stranger. “But I meant your gift for, ah, challenging assumptions.”
Someone sits down across from them, and Pallas realizes that it’s the person who was off to one side of the chamber earlier. Interesting. The stranger is unremarkable in look and dress, but there’s something about them Pallas can’t quite place. Something calm and boundless.
“What do you mean?”
“Most people build walls between categories,” says the stranger. “Divide things into groups that they can compress and generalize about, from animals to elements to academics. Yes?”
“Yes,” says Pallas sullenly.
“You have a unity of vision,” the stranger continues. “It’s a very rare gift, in my experience. And when you demonstrate to people that the binaries they cherish—up or down, wet or dry—are really matters of perspective and degree… Well, you’d think they’d be thankful for the insight. But they never are. Are they?”
Pallas stares at the stranger, who stares back.
“Who are you?” asks Pallas.
“Who are you?” asks the stranger.
“Oh, no no no,” says Pallas. “I’m not falling for answering questions with questions. Are you a sophist? Why haven’t I seen you before?”
“Haven’t you?” asks the stranger.
Then he–and now Pallas is sure that it is he–seems to grow bigger and more distant at once, even as he sits in front of Pallas. His face takes on a stony aspect.
“All Is Magic,” intones the statue.
“Elyrian!” says Pallas, stumbling to their feet.
Then Elyrian is just a man again, holding up a calming hand.
“Shhhh,” says the God of Magic, eyes literally twinkling. “Don’t tell anyone, or they’ll want me to teach a class.”
Pallas blinks, then bursts out laughing.
“To… to what do I owe this blessing, Lord Elyrian?” they say at last. Then their eyes narrow. “Am I dead? I’m not dead, am I?”
“No,” says Elyrian. “That would be my sister’s domain. Even if you died in a library.”
“There is to be a contest among the gods,” says Elyrian. “I require a mortal champion. I believe you may be up to the task.”
“May be? Were you watching all the Evaluations?”
“No,” says Elyrian. “I do not need a sculptor or a poet. I came to watch you. And while that was an impressive display of confidence, it was not the spectacle I’d hoped for. I need to see your magic in action.”
“Ah,” says Pallas, standing. “I’m ready. Just let me, ah, reshelve this first–”
Elyrian waves a hand, and the book on the table vanishes.
“Reshelved,” he says. “Properly, of course.”
Then the God of Magic pauses, and his eyes fill with stars as he seems to look through the nearby stacks.
“Someone,” he says distantly, “has organized the biographies by author instead of subject.”
“I know,” growls Pallas. “Isn’t it awful? They’re all out of order. We have two different annotations of The Life of Ptelemon the Elder, and they’re practically on opposite ends of the library! I’ve petitioned to have it reorganized, but there’s this insufferable librarian who insists—”
“So fix it,” says Elyrian.
Elyrian nods, chuckling to himself.
“Yes. Fix it.”
“Uhhh,” says Pallas. “Even if you waved a hand and turned my bibliographic nemesis into a cactus, that would take… days at least, if I had the full staff to help me. Months, if I had to do it on my own.”
“You have one hour,” says Elyrian. “Starting now.”
An hourglass appears on the table, and glowing grains of sand begin to fall like stars.
“You’d better get started,” says Elyrian.
“Are there rules?” asks Pallas.
“None,” says Elyrian. “Reorganize that section of the library to your own satisfaction in one hour using any and all available means. That is the test.”
“So I could decide I’m happy with it as it is?”
“You could claim to be,” says Elyrian. “But you’d be lying. One hour, Pallas.”
Pallas paces, one shelf away from the hourglass and its relentless dwindling sand.
“Time magic? No, there’s no way I could keep a relativity field stable for that long. Besides, I don’t want to spend months doing this, not even if I can fit those months in an hour. Acceleration, same problem, plus I’d set the library on fire with the friction.”
Step. Step. Step.
“Telekinesis, teleportation, portals…” says Pallas. “But moving the books isn’t the problem! That’s the easy part! It’s sorting them that’s giving me headaches. I need something with a mind, something that can follow orders. Summon some nethers? Too mischievous. Aethers? Maybe, but they don’t take kindly to idle tasks. Hmmm.”
“I notice a distinct lack of spellcasting,” says Elyrian, from right behind Pallas. Now that is an obnoxious habit.
“Hush,” says Pallas, turning around. “I’m thinking.”
“If this were a test of your ability to think, you’d already have passed it,” says Elyrian.
“Every test,” says Pallas, “is a test of one’s ability to think. Now, my lord, Shining Elyrian, God of Magic, etcetera… stop bothering me while I’m trying to think.”
Elyrian nods and vanishes.
“Start over,” says Pallas. “First principles. I want the books to be in a certain order. I don’t know the order, in the sense that I couldn’t rattle it off right now. But if I had a complete list of books and a lot of time I could make that order, because I know how I want the ordering to happen.”
Step. Step. Step.
“I’m not bringing about the end state, then,” says Pallas, “because I don’t know it. If I knew the end state, I could make it happen right now. What I actually know is… a process. An algorithm.”
Step. Step. Step.
“And I could teach that algorithm, but I don’t have anything to teach it to. I want that order, but nothing else does, and I’m running out of time, and the books just want to sit there, because they’re books–”
“The books just want to sit there,” they repeat. “Objects at rest and all that. Iphigenia teaches us that motion is the result of will, and will is the result of consciousness, and the gods willed movement at the beginning of time, and everything that moves does so ultimately because of those six prime movers… except mortals. People. We move under our own will.”
They clap their hands.
“People!” they shout. “Books don’t want anything, but people do, and if I can make them remember…”
Pallas closes their eyes.
“Oh, this is going to be complicated. Algorithmatics, to encode the sorting. Telekinetics, that’s self-explanatory. And for the minds, the will, I’ll need… infomancy, telepathy, and juuuuust a dash of necromancy.”
The Academy disallows necromancy, but presumably the God of Magic is more open-minded.
Five magical disciplines to braid together into a single spell. More than ten thousand targets, all fragile and valuable, spread across a massive room. One last deep breath.
Pallas holds out a hand, and their wand appears in it. They speak two words, and the spell begins, reaching out to the books and the scrolls and the unbound sheets. Magelights flash and flare around Pallas, drawn to the energy.
Elyrian appears beside Pallas, one eyebrow raised. For a moment, nothing happens.
Then there’s a rustling of pages a few shelves over, and more, and more, and suddenly there are books soaring through the library like birds, scrolls slithering like snakes across the floor and along the shelves, and looseleaf sheets of vellum and parchment flittering like butterflies, all lit by the gentle glow of Pallas’ magic.
For a few moments, the library is a fantastical bibliographic menagerie. Pallas stands, arms extended, watching it all in wonder.
There’s a bit of jostling at the end, as the last volumes fight for space and shove their fellows to adjacent shelves. Pallas has to gently break up a fight between two apparently identical biographies of Xenogon. But that is the end of it. The spell fades, and there is quiet in the library once more. The whole thing takes perhaps a tenth of an hour.
Elyrian looks at Pallas.
“I am immortal, from the time before time,” says the God of Magic. “I have seen things you could not perceive nor comprehend nor imagine. But I have never witnessed anything quite like that.”
Pallas takes a deep bow.
“You saw what I did, I assume?”
“I can see the warp and weave of Magic itself,” says Elyrian. “I saw what you did. I am curious as to why.”
“I knew what I wanted,” says Pallas. “But because what I wanted was a process instead of an end state, I couldn’t just impose it on the universe by brute force, the way simple magic works. That issue, process versus product, was the heart of the problem.”
“Obviously,” says Elyrian. “Algorithmatics, to assert the process. Telekinetics, to enact it. This is straightforward. Indeed, it’s all that’s required. Why the other disciplines?”
“Simple,” says Pallas. “There are over twelve thousand volumes in the bibliography section. The sorting I wanted is a fairly simple algorithmatic, but that’s a lot of information for one spell to process, and there are limits–well, you know the formulas, obviously. I didn’t actually do all the math, but I did enough to work out that it would definitely take longer than an hour.
“That’s why I spent so much time thinking. The ‘straightforward’ solution was a trap. Even if I’d started it running right when you said go, I’d have realized about half an hour later that it wasn’t going to be done in time. I’d have failed.”
“Correct,” he says. “Go on.”
“If I didn’t have enough time for an algorithmatic to sort the books,” says Pallas, “then I needed the books to sort themselves. So. Infomancy, to create a model of the information in each book. Telepathy, to imprint the algorithmatic on that model. But I still needed a source of will. I needed the books to want to sort themselves.”
“And you decided on necromancy?”
“Biographies,” says Pallas with a smile. “You told me to sort the biographies. If it had been literature or geometry or everything together, I’d have had to think of something else. But it was the biographies. I needed the biographies, and only the biographies, to develop a sense of will, while all the other books stayed where they were.
“Every biography has a connection, however tenuous, to the person who inspired it, and almost all those people are dead, so I… haunted the books. A little. Imbued them with the memory of a ghost, that’s all. Just enough to make them want things, so the rest of my spell could tell them what to want.”
“Impressive,” says Elyrian.
“Was that the right answer?” asks Pallas.
“Oh, I had no idea how you were going to do it,” says the God of Magic. “It’s not a case of right or wrong. Like most things outside of academia, the important thing is whether it works or doesn’t work. Your way worked. You pass.”
Pallas bows again.
“I feel silly asking this, under the circumstances, but what about my Evaluation?”
“The Head Sophists will no doubt take their time rendering a verdict. Your absence will be accounted for. Whatever they decide, it will be waiting for you when you return. If you return.”
“Ominous,” says Pallas.
“Attend, my champion,” says Elyrian. “We have a great deal to discuss.”
The God of Magic reaches out a hand. Pallas takes it, and they leave the library behind.
Kelly Digges is a narrative designer and creative consultant for games, with 90 credits across more than 50 products for Magic: The Gathering and other games. Find him on Twitter at @kellydigges.