Mouthy Upstart by Israel Reyes

The circular lecture hall shone with the rays of midday that came through the tall, clear gothic windows and into the polished marble floor of the hall’s bottom, where an elderly man in the black and gold robes proper of the Wise Council paced back and forth behind his podium, addressing his audience with the tone of someone who has done this same thing for decades.

“Skeletons and zombies are evil, even though they are mindless. This is because undeath itself is a naturally evil force, just as fire is naturally hot.”

His audience, in turn, listened in silence and, at least most of them, with great interest. Enchantments in the room reduced both glare from the sun as well as excess heat to comfortable levels. Proximity with the podium also enhanced the voice of the speaker to be clearly heard anywhere in the room, reducing the possible causes of a listener not to dedicate his full attention to a lecture to personal causes. This was the case with a young, short-haired woman listening from one of the back rows.

“…Some argue that magic is just a tool, and how a tool is used determines whether the act is good or evil, but a counterargument holds that some tools are specifically designed to be used for evil, like implements of torture…”

Astrid groaned as the lecture given by the First Speaker Tor continued, the redhead’s chin resting on her left hand as her right hand’s index tapped the dark wood of her desk. Her short hair styled in a side bang flip haircut that highlighted her neck and bared shoulders.

“…Worse, some tools are inherently evil, and want to be used for evil. If fire always burned the innocent and spared the guilty, fire would be evil…”

The young lady wizard had spent most of the night working the final details for what would soon be her familiar’s mechanical body. While sleep deprivation had never been something that interfered with Astrid’s productivity or attention capacity, it could make her cranky, and this old scholar’s religiously biased lecture wasn’t making things any easier for her.

“…There are exceptional, intelligent undead that are not evil, just as there are extremely rare demons and devils who become good, but evil is the norm because their essence is evil. Now, are there any questions?”

“Just one!” the redhead’s hand was already above her head, slowly standing up. “First Speaker Tor, have you been inhaling pesh?”

The silence in the circular lecture hall felt as if the room’s temperature had dropped six degrees then and there. While maven Astrid Volta was known for her way with words, and while she knew by heart the manners and protocols to make herself worthy of Lord Gyr himself, she also had a reputation for being extremely outspoken when something really bothered her. Prejudice bothered her, ignorance bothered her, and a prejudiced ignorant was double the blight in her eyes. This only became worse coming from someone cultured, someone that ought to know better. As First Speaker of the Wise Council of the Arcanamirium, however, Dhauken Tor wasn’t used to have his points of view questioned.

“Maven Volta” while the First Speaker was trying hard to regain his composure and patience, his face still portrayed shock as if the young maven had just slapped him. “Your question is highly inappropriate and, even when you’re the daughter of one of the Spell Lords, I’m sure you’re aware that here you’re still just a docent.”

“No, really, my question was entirely serious because I need to know.” Astrid primped her beige and gold maven robes as she spoken. “I need to know whether to recriminate you on a most delusional point of view or if you’re just under the influence of a substance.” Standing at one of the back rows of the hall, most of the audience had to look up as they turned heads in the maven’s direction.

“So, it’s that easy, right? Spellcasters don’t need to worry their pretty little heads in complicated things like thinking, because all moral choices have already been made for them. I mean… great, under your same argument, all chirurgeons should be sent to the gallows. Half of their tools are likewise used by torturers, right?”

“Maven Volta…” First Speaker Tor interrupted, the skin of his bald head shifting slightly in his frown. He knew the reputation of this gifted maiden, and he also knew that the only reason why she still wasn’t allowed to present the test for Arcanscentus was that having two Arcanscenti within the same noble house could offset the power balance of Absalom’s nobility, especially when one of those two was a Spell Lord of the city. Contrary to most of her colleagues (including one of the Arch-lords of Nex), however, he didn’t like her one bit. Where others saw all the ingenuity and willingness to press boundaries the Arcanamirium stands for, he only saw a mouthy upstart; a non-conformist he’d have expelled from this fine magic college already if she wasn’t Faustus’ daughter.

“Still not finished, thank you very much.” the redhead interrupted back.

“Your speech is eloquent First Speaker, and would be perfect during a sermon at the church of Sarenrae or Iomedae but come on, this is the Arcanamirium! We are the top learning house of the arcane in the inner sea, if not the whole of Golarion. We can’t afford to delude ourselves into associating moral principles to primal forces that don’t even have a use for the definitions of good or evil as we know them.”

“Let an undead creature loose…” the old Speaker added. “…and the first, no, the only thing it will do, is attempting to destroy the living.”

“So now you tell me that bases are evil because they spare other chemicals while only turning poor acids into water?”

“Bases are not sentient!”

“Get over yourself! Harpies are animated by positive energy, same as humans, and harpies and minotaurs are just as destructive to us as the undead at the Precipice Quarter! Positive energy doesn’t make good, as negative energy doesn’t make evil! Visiting the positive energy plane is as lethal for everyone as visiting the negative energy one, even for the gods! It’s basic physics, don’t you even remember how negative energy wards work? It’s only natural that a creature animated by negative energy will seek and try to destroy beings made from positive, it’s basic instinct. Us and them are polar opposites, but that doesn’t make them “evil”, just dangerous. They’re compelled to try and destroy us on sight, it’s easy as that, they can’t help it.”

“If fire always burned the innocent and spared the guilty…”

“Well, let’s take an innocent and a guilty to the Precipice and see how both are eaten by ghouls just as fast! Evil comes from motivations and personal choice, not mere actions. Blaming a ghoul for trying to eat you is the same as blaming a hurricane for sinking a ship. Or what, are you going to accuse wolves of being evil if they chase you down while hunting? If you insist that much on antagonizing the undead, then at least treat them as a plague, not an adversary. If you contract a disease, you eradicate it, you don’t hold a grudge against it or accuse it of being a work of evil.”

“Maven Volta…” the frown on the brow of the elderly man became more profound, the tone in his voice denoting he was starting to lose his patience.

“Yes, I know, this talk is taking too long already, and I’m starting to repeat myself, something I hate. Don’t worry First Speaker, I’m concluding just now. Your argument has no legs to stand on other than dogma. Dogma has no place in arcane science. Now, if you excuse me…” the redhead waved her hand above her desk, her writing implements going back to her extra-dimensional storage before she made her way to the hall’s door.

“… I read your godawful dissertation On The Nature of Evil, and knew you’d be repeating it here. I just needed to give you a piece of my mind in person. By the way, it’s the higher and lower planes which are aligned to sentient values and ideals, not the energy planes. Have a nice day.”

The door closed behind the redhead, leaving the audience staring both at the door as well as at each other. First Speaker Dhauken Tor stared for a moment at the closed door in disgust, part of him cursing at the insolent upstart while the rational side of his mind gradually calmed him down. The old scholar took a deep breath, assured in the knowledge that, once all is said and done, he is the First Speaker of the Wise Council, while the mouthy upstart is but a docent. His word outweighs hers, his position made his words truth.

“So, is that all for questions?”

(Featured in Wayfinder, Vol. 3)