Stranger in the Stacks

Previously: Odd One Out

"It is easy to confuse Illusion and Alteration. Both schools of magic attempt to create what is not there. The difference is in the rules of nature. Illusion is not bound by them, while Alteration is. This may seem to indicate that Alteration is the weaker of the two, but this is not true. Alteration creates a reality that is recognized by everyone. Illusion's reality is only in the mind of the caster and the target.

"To master Alteration, first accept that reality is a falsehood. There is no such thing. Our reality is a perception of greater forces impressed upon us for their amusement. Some say that these forces are the gods, other that they are something beyond the gods. For the wizard, it doesn't really matter. What matters is the appeal couched in a manner that cannot be denied. It must be insistent without being insulting.

"To cast Alteration spells is to convince a greater power that it will be easier to change reality as requested than to leave it alone. Do not assume that these forces are sentient. Our best guess is that they are like wind and water. Persistent but not thoughtful. Just like directing the wind or water, diversions are easier than outright resistance. Express the spell as a subtle change and it is more likely to be successful."

Fairuz looked up from the well-worn copy of Reality & Other Falsehoods. She'd been slacking on the reading prescribed to her weeks ago, despite the library assistant Eleanor--and basically everyone--explicitly telling her not to. She'd tried to be a bookworm, but truth be told, magical texts were often dry and boring and best for putting the reader to sleep.

She looked around herself. There were always people in the Arcanaeum. In fact, for a school that claimed to have only a handful of students and being in desperate need of money, the College of Winterhold had a lot of people.

In addition to students and faculty, there were mages who patrolled the grounds, and staff who tended the grounds, cleaned the buildings, and even did the laundry. But even after taking all of them into account, there still always seemed to be extra people milling about the library. Who were they?

"Reality & Other Falsehoods, one of my favorite books."

Fairuz turned to see an Altmer she didn't recognize. The Elf was blond, as so many of them were, with olive skin and amber eyes. And like so many Altmers, he was quite tall.

But unlike the other Altmeri mages, this one wasn't wearing mage robes. In fact, he was dressed like a nobleman.

"Excuse me?" Fairuz asked, wondering why he was bothering her. With the exception of classes, people generally didn't speak in the Arcanaeum.

"I know," he said with a small smile, his voice richly deep and low. "Chatting it up in the Arcanaeum--such a taboo. I never would have dared before."

Fairuz raised an eyebrow. "You're a student?"

"I'm an alumnus," he told her.

"So you graduated."

"Over two years ago," he nodded. He looked around himself. "I've missed this place. I dream about it almost every night."

"I'm thinking about dropping out," she shrugged.

He was predictably shocked. "Surely, you jest."

"I'm not talented enough to be here." As numb as she felt and as dead as she sounded, it felt refreshing to finally say out loud was really on her mind.

"If you've been blessed with the gift of magic, then you most definitely belong here," he said firmly. "Such a gift shouldn't nurtured out in the wild."

"Gift?" she sneered. "I can make pretty lights. Put up a semi-decent ward. Even heal a minor injury. Weeks of study and thousands of my parents' septims later, that's all I have to show, though...someday, if I'm lucky, I might be able to turn myself invisible."
"How much do you study?" he asked. "How often do you practice your skills?"

Fairuz rolled her eyes. "Gods, not this again."

"Any mage can be a great mage if they simply apply themselves," he reiterated. "Let me let you in on a secret: Destruction magic is quite common; anyone can set a fire. But Alteration? Bends reality. Illusion lets you fight off an enemy with your mind. And restoration can save a life. Surely, there is no nobler cause that, no?"

"But who will hire me?" she threw her hands in the air. "That Breton girl over there graduated, and now she spends her days stacking books and sweeping floors because all the available court mage positions are already filled."

The Altmeri stranger was visibly disturbed. "Is that you what think Skyrim needs? Mages comfortably tucked away in palaces? This country has been ravaged by war. The people need healers in their temples and defenders to protect their villages. After graduating, I myself went home to work in my family's tailor shop. And my sisters sleep soundly, knowing I will keep them safe."

Fairuz faltered for a moment, but then found her mental footing and countered, "I...I'm not even from Skyrim. I'm from Hammerfell where, as you may know, we famously value the sword over sorcery."

The stranger smirked. "I'd take a trained sorcerer over a swordsman any day."

She didn't like how those amber eyes met hers, or how that posh accent and wry smirk made her feel...things. And she especially didn't like the fact he was so tall.

I'm not going down this road again. And by the way, why is everyone at this school so attractive? Are all these mages casting glamours or something?

"I'm Norion, by the way," he introduced, when the silence dragged on too long.

"Fairuz," she bit out, ready to get away from him.

"So let's talk about what's really bothering you, Fairuz," he mused. "You came all the way from Hammerfell to not study and not practice. Could it be your ire is about really about the school itself?" He titled his head. "You came here to party, didn't you?"

Fairuz sighed. "Not you too."

"Yes, me too," he laughed. "You want to know what mages think about, dream about? Unraveling the mysteries of Aetherius. There are so many of them. A mage could dedicate their entire life to the mystical arts and only taste a drop of the true power of the Immortal Plane."

"Then what's the point?" Fairuz asked bluntly.

"The point is the journey," he raised an eyebrow, "not the destination. You don't just learn about magic, you know. You also learn about yourself."


When classes resumed, Fairuz didn't bother trying to stand or sit next to Onmund anymore. She didn't make an effort to stand or sit next to anyone; she just took the first spot she could and simply went through the motions.

And of course, her classmates were too obsessed with their studies to notice or care.

"....The existence of so-called "Doomstones" throughout Skyrim has been repeatedly verified. The meaning of these stones has not. The prevailing opinion of Skyrim natives is that the stones are indeed magical in nature. While there is no direct evidence of this, it does seem likely."

Professor Drevis Neloren was giving the lecture in the Arcanaeum today and as always, Fairuz could barely stay awake.

"References to similar stones appear in lore throughout the various Tamrielic cultures. None, however, exactly match the markings or distribution of Skyrim's stones. At present, there is no confirmation of any of the various theories surrounding the nature of these stones. Their relative positions do not indicate that any individual stone is part of a larger, unobserved pattern. Also, their placement throughout Skyrim does not correspond to any known magical phenomenon."

Fairuz had never heard about Doomstones in Hammerfell. Sometimes she wondered if her parents only moved in really limited circles, because despite living in a harbor city, she rarely crossed paths with mages, or scholars in general.

"The age of the stones themselves has yet to be officially determined. It has been widely assumed that they were placed during the Merethic Era. Writings from that period, including those of Ysgramor himself, do not mention the stones and thus this idea cannot be verified. Nonetheless, many are drawn to these stones based on the local stories describing them as a source of significant power. The College will continue to research these intriguing objects, and of course any findings will be relayed with all possible haste.

"That's all for today," the white-haired Dunmer concluded. "Class dismissed."

Fairuz would've been the first one out if Norion hadn't decided to show up just then. He entered the Arcanaeum just as the lectured ended, spied her, and came over.

She snorted. Was he actually waiting to get in here? What is it with this place?

"Off to the Hall of Elements to practice then?" he asked.

She actually wasn't, but figured she should go. "Guess so. Need something to wake up me after all that droning about Doomstones. What is a Doomstone anyway?"

He raised an eyebrow. "It's a Standing Stone, Fairuz.* There's one northeast of here, on Serpentstone Isle."

Fairuz blinked. "Onmund actually took me there." It suddenly occurred to that if she'd been having this conversation with him instead of Norion, he'd be staring at her as though she were some sort of idiot...which she was.

"Fairuz, how do you not know what a Doomstone is when you just sat through an entire lecture on them?"

She shrugged, and replied dully, "Not absorbing knowledge is kinda sorta my specialty."

"Do you know how many people would kill to be on your place?" he asked, incredulous now. "Not everyone has parents who just pay their tuition and fees in full. My family had to start saving up when I was about nine years old."

She snickered. "Oh, yeah? That's about the same time Onmund realized he could do magic."

"Is he your paramour, this Onmund fellow?"

That threw her for a loop. " Why do you ask?"

"Because you keep talking about him," he mused. Norion tilted his head. "Is he the reason you're not so thrilled about school?"

Fairuz twitched. "It's complicated."

The High Elf was visibly amused. "Just not that into you, eh?" She scowled, to which he laughingly said, "I told you. The people here aren't thinking about that."

"What are you doing here?" she demanded suddenly. "You graduated. You have a job. You're living the dream."

He looked about himself. "The Arcanaeum of Winterhold has no rival. And as I said before, I miss this place. These were the best years of my life and they could be yours too, if you'd just focus on the magic."

"I'll do that," she nodded stiffly, pushing past him and heading down into the Hall of Elements. "I'll go make my pretty lights while the others cast some real spells," she grumbled.

And casting they were. Fairuz had long grown to ignore the senior students. They practiced nonstop, sometimes even in the hallways and courtyard, just as Eleanor said. They practiced some fairly advanced spells, most of which she didn't even recognize.

She preferred to observe her fellow first years, even though every single one of them was ahead of her. J'zargo, for example, was a Khajiit student on scholarship. He was a highly competitive mage who never spoke of anything outside magic--not friends, not family, not home. Onmund found him tiresome because he constantly boasted about besting his classmates, yet the two mages always practiced together. Despite their mutual dislike, they kept each other on their toes.

"Good job with the Frostbite spell," Fairuz blinked, surprised at how far Onmund had progressed. "You really do have a talent for Destruction."

"Thanks," he beamed. "I'm gonna make it my specialty. Though, I find the colder destruction spells a little harder to cast the warmer ones for some reason. Like, Flames was a no-brainer. That came naturally. But Sparks took way less time than I expected."

She raised a curious brow. "Sparks?"

"Yeah, like this," he said before, sending a brilliant bolt of energy against the wall. It was fortunate that all the College walls were enchanted, because a burst like this should've scorched the stone and shattered the windows.

Fairuz gawked, wide-eyed and unable to breathe. "Was that...lightning?"

*I'm with Fairuz here. I clicked the Doomstones link only to find out they're really Standing Stones, and want to smack my own face. At least it gave me this scene to write.


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