Volok the Timeless closed the portal as soon as everyone was through, leaving the cleanliness of the college behind in favor of the warm, damp swamp he and his pupils found themselves in.
Volok looked up at the giant mossy tree that stood in the center of the clearing, frowning as he inspected it. It was the largest one here, roughly as high as the main hall of the university. This was the right place, he was sure of it. It was just so… mundane. It didn’t have any of the burn marks or slashes he had been expecting. The tree same as always, really. Sad. The new skeletons were a nice touch, though. Most of them had sunk into the mud already, and the ones that hadn’t were covered in moss. There was little chance they would be recognized for what they were, but you never know.
He straightened the collar of his robes before spinning around to address the dozen students he had brought here. Little more than children ill prepared for the arcane arts. It must have been only weeks since they had shed their baby fat. Or maybe years. After a while it was hard to tell, and it made no difference besides. Magic was a fickle thing, and these kids were not ready, but Volok had little else to do with his spare time.
Being immortal had strained his patience with the world after a few thousand years.
“I suppose you’re probably wondering why I’ve escorted you to this dreary place,” he said. He threw his hands out in a gesture halfway between exuberance and indifference.
The toddlers looked not about the green bog that surrounded him, but remained fixated on him, notepads in hand as they prepared to write down what would undoubtedly be a riveting lesson from Volok the Timeless. Not a peep was heard from the bunch.
“Well, I’m half wondering that myself,” Volok stated. “You see there’s nothing interesting about this place. It’s far from any civilization. It has no arcane significance whatsoever, and supports only the most rudimentary of ecosystems. Can any of you lot hazard a guess as to what may make this place interesting?” He had no prepared answer to that. It was a genuine question.
The place was silent for a time, and Volok frowned again. After what may have been seconds or minutes, one of the girls raised a hand.
“Is it perhaps to teach us the importance of simplicity? To show how magic, though complex at first glance, has a simple core that lies in the heart of nature?”
Volok sneered in disgust. “What on earth are you blathering about? The interlocking of how the arcane arts flows through all living and nonliving this is the single most complex natural phenomenon ever to exist. There’s nothing simple about it. It takes centuries to truly master it. Most of you won’t live that long, and you’ll be the lucky ones.” He sniffed and smoothed his eyebrows with both hands. Lucky indeed. Nobody really wants to understand magic, they just want to blow other people up with it.
“Then what was your purpose in bringing us here, great master?” another of the students asked.
“Well, for somebody as aged and wise as I, everything I do and say is for a good number of reasons,” he nodded. Yes, that sounded smart. “Perhaps my primary purpose in bringing you lot here is to define the history of magic. A good starting lesson, I think.”
Several of the children began scribbling on their notes. Heavens above, did they even know how to write yet? Oh, yes, they were just atrocious at it. Volok made a mental note not to look at their scribbling. He would go mad.
“All the other masters of the arcane may teach you that magic began with the interweaving of the life force that connects man from nature. The ability to pull heat out of the air, or bend time to move from one place to another by spiritually communing with the world around you.
“It’s all nonsense, of course. Nobody knows how magic started. I know I don’t need to tell you how many thousands of years I’ve been using it, but it is a practice that has been in use for far longer than that. I think it all started with a man. A god, one might say. Living right in the breadth of nature in a place much like this. This man was the lifeblood of all magic, all knowledge of the universe, you see. Can anyone guess his name?”
The infants scratched their heads and looked about as if deep in thought. They actually believed this stupid little fable. Idiots. Volok hid the grin from his face as he watched them. He tried his best to be the wise master everyone seemed to think he was. More fun that way.
One of the students spoke, probably uncomfortable by the silence. “Was it Unasi?” One of the names for God in the Old Tongue. A dull but expected answer.
“Of course not!” Volok said. “There’s a reason we don’t use the Old Tongue anymore. It’s people died. If they were right about everything the people that spoke it would still be around today, hmm?”
The children nodded as if he had preached some ancient wisdom. None of them pointed out that the statement was riddled with flawed logic. In fact it hardly even made sense to begin with.
He was already bored.
Volok the Timeless sighed. “You know what? Lecture is over.”
Several of the students breathed in relief. They seemed to think he intended to cast a portal to send them all back to the university. He smoothed his eyebrows. No, he had something far more… active in mind.
“Tell you what,” Volok explained. He pointed behind him with a thumb. “You all fight that tree over there, and if any of you survive and make it all the way back to the university in one piece, I’ll graduate you on the spot, got it?”
The children looked at the tree, then at each other. Now he couldn’t keep the smile from his face.
Volok turned to look at the tree as if he was seeing it for the first time. “Hmm. Only problem is, that tree doesn’t look very threatening, does it? Let’s fix that.”
He snapped his fingers and the earth began to shudder. Only it wasn’t the earth. It was the tree uprooting itself as its limbs stretched and breached the surface. Large chunks of bark and branches snapped and folded over, bending into the shape of arms as it shaped into a vague humanoid form.
“Better watch out,” Volok instructed to his crowd of now very alarmed students. “Magic isn’t terribly effective against it. Since this place is so damp fireballs won’t really work. But I wish you all the best of luck, and if any of you manage to make it back alive, do wash up before you come into my office. I don’t want you tracking mud everywhere.”
Volok the Timeless looked back to the bones half buried in the mire. He probably wouldn’t have to worry about that last bit, but you never know. He snapped his fingers again, opening a portal back to the university and leaving the kids to their own devices.