Putt! Putt! Putt!
The training dummy split in twain with a resounding 'crack!' as several stone-tipped Magic Missiles cracked its wooden surface, sending up a cloud of fragments.
The area around the dummy next shimmered; a mana Shield made opaque by dust, rock, and assorted sediments materialised.
Thunk! Thunk! Thunk!
The mana shield remained immovable as the missile shattered against it, but a section of it became chipped where a projectile had struck, penetrating some of its exterior and sending spiralling shards to bounce off its interior.
The instructors announced.
"Would you like another attempt?"
"No sir, I believe this is my current limit," the earthen Abjurer announced sadly. He had already surpassed the expectant ten consecutive incantations but could do nothing more about the lacklustre power. That was a problem of both School and affinity.
"Very well, you may go."
The exam took place, much to Gwen's dismay, in public and before the assembly of Spellcraft students deemed eligible for the Field Trip. There was at least a hundred of the gathered cohort. Gwen sighed. It wasn't so much that she resented presentations or speeches - she loved those - she disliked being judged for the sake of being judged.
Half the day had passed, and half the students remained, waiting the drawing of their lots. So far, neither Gwen or Yue had been chosen. Yue suspected with a confident smirk that the other students were just the opening act and that the inspectors were saving the best for last.
Though Gwen was sceptical, she could see that Yue's hypothesis had some merit. None of the other students with highly attuned affinity had presented themselves yet.
They watched as an Air Mage cut down half a dozen dummies, marvelling at the speed of her smooth, acrobatic movements through the obstacle course. Each element had their distinct advantages; the Air Mage's defence proved woeful, her mana Shield barely holding against two of the instructor's missiles.
Then a familiar face appeared: Debora, Gwen's old childhood friend who had bickered with them on the day of the Awakening, took to the stage. Since their spiteful rendezvous, Gwen had kept herself from Debora's presence.
Debora had grown taller somehow, more alluring; her signature long legs appeared more muscular and sculpted than before. Gwen knew that Earthen Mages all possessed exceptional stamina, constitution and strength- that those with high affinity eventually possessed rock solid, chiselled bodies akin to marble statues.
The once-heavy mass of Debora's auburn hair had been bundled up into a knotted ponytail, giving her the air of a track athlete. Cries of audacious exhalation went up from the crowd as Debora entered. Though Debora had always been a queen-bee type as a junior, she worked hard as well. During their training, Gwen and Yue had heard nothing but praise for the 'genius' of Class 3 from the Instructors.
Debora began with a classic, offensive Transmutation spell, launching a fifty-odd kilogram projectile in the shape of a spiked ball towards the target. 'Catapult' was the Transmuter's version of Magic Missile. There was no auto-guidance, but the spell packed a far stronger wallop. Debora's wrecking ball arched gracefully through the air, meeting the wooden dummy in violent matrimony. The mannequin shattered spectacularly, sending up a spray of splinters. The stone rolled on for another dozen metres, taking out several back-up dummies.
"Catapult!... Catapult!... Catapult!..."
She incanted in quick succession, and a barrage of boulders devastated the field.
The crowd cheered and clapped, Debora wasn't even breaking a sweat.
"I think she's at least tier 3 affinity now." An instructor observed. "Wonderfully smooth mana conversion, almost no lag or wasted potential."
"I concur." Gwen heard another Instructor speak before feeling an acidic twang.
Debora then walked into the field. As she sauntered, her skin turned a deep bronze, becoming coarse and rigid.
Bronze Skin? Bark Skin? That was a tier 2 Transmutation spell! Gwen blinked. Were they doing Tier 2 spells already?
"Are you certain about this?" An instructor asked.
"Yessir, you have my consent," Debora replied, smiling bravely. “Though not my hair, Sir. I will have it styled more appropriately for the Field Trip."
The instructors nodded as one, then began.
A barrage of three missiles flew towards Debora and struck her on the chest, the arm and the leg. She barely flinched as a few motes of stones fell. Her Earthen armour remained impenetrable.
"Very good!" one of the Instructors announced. More barrages followed; it was only on the tenth strike that finally a chunk of the armour chipped off, and Debora fell to one knee.
She walked back towards the demonstration platform, dramatically turning to unleash one more spell.
A simmering glow appeared beneath a dummy before the pavement suddenly sprouted half a dozen spikes, piercing blonde wood and sending the torso flying a good ten meters.
Another Tier 2 Transmutation spell! Gwen's delicate brows knitted apprehensively. Debora was kicking ass.
"Debora sure is special!" Someone behind Gwen remarked appreciatively.
The grading was unanimous.
"Geez, first High Distinction and we're sixty people down already!"
Gwen saw Debora turn to look through the crowd. She felt Yue tensing beside her.
From across the assembly, their eyes locked.
You think you have talent? What I have is what hard work gets you, Debora's eyes seemed to taunt them. I am every bit as good as you think you are.
"I am going to enjoy this." Yue spat beside Gwen. "Looks like Debby need a good spanking."
Gwen felt caught between two colliding forces. She felt respect for Debora. After all, had Debora being a company colleague, Gwen herself would have felt nothing but praise for someone so driven and dedicated to their craft.
But Yue was never one to leave a slight unmolested.
A few more students came and went.
“You’re going to show them ‘that’ already?” Gwen whispered, watching Yue rubbing her hands together.
"Her holier than thou purist attitude pisses me off," Yue snarled, baring her teeth. “Watch me rock her world. I wonder what she'll think after she gets her ass ripped by an Asian half-NoM."
"Yue Bai. No. 14002. Yue Bai."
"I am up!" Yue's presence drew envious glances and wanton stares. "See you on the other side!"
"Miss Bai." The Instructor nodded when Yue made her way up the platform to the sound of applause. Gwen could swear that the crowd was chanting 'Yue! Yue! Yue!'
"I am ready." Yue turned to the field and watched the Dummies conjured into place. "I shall begin."
A dazzling arc of fire flew through the air like a falling star and struck the dummy. The force of it splintered the wood cinematically, before engulfing the target in an explosion that left nothing but a smoking stump.
The crowd collectively took in a breath.
That was a Tier 1 spell?! How did she make Magic Missile explode? Were there two stages to the Evocation spell?
"Astounding display Miss Bai," the Instructor's praise was full of approval.
"To think you could place an unstable mote within the frame of the missile particle.”
"Yessir, but the missile is no longer self-guiding," Yue answered honestly. That was beyond the girls' knowledge of rudimentary Spellcraft.
"A distance to go before you perfect it then, do you intend to craft a Signature spell?"
A Signature Spell was a spell that solely belonged to a single Mage, not taught in the general curriculum. It was the hallmark of a skilled mage to create unique incantations, and almost all the noted Magus had their unique incantations.
"I would advise patience then." The instructor advised warmly, "There are far more resources when you arrive at university and have access to senior instructors who are more attuned to elemental Fire."
"Thank you, Sir."
“You may continue.”
Yue gathered her wits once again, and the air around her became scorchingly hot.
With a burst of fiery mana, Yue conjured a dozen fire bolts and fired them off at different angles in a vertical line.
A line of explosions shook the field, sending dummies flying every way, cutting a deep channel in the splintered bedrock. The pyrotechnic fireworks shook the ground and forced students to conjure Mana Shields to intercept the flying debris.
“By the Magus!”
“Holy hell!” someone screamed over the cacophony.
“Are we really in a high school division?”
“Nothing's surviving that…”
The air cleared. All the dummies were gone.
“Incredible,” an instructor marvelled.
“Indeed, marvellous,” another concurred.
Despite their high praise, the Instructors still offered essential criticisms. Her incomplete-signature spell took too much mana; it lacked focus each explosion was inconsistent, and so on.
“Are you able to continue?” The third inquired.
“Yes,” Yue's chest rose and fell. “One last spell.”
Yue invoked her Mana Shield.
Fire Mages had offensive shields that worked wonders on melee opponents but had severe limitations against ranged attacks. As Yue manifested, a shimmering, glowing Shield surrounded her in a half-dome.
“Another Signature Spell!”
Three missiles shrieked towards Yue. As the projectiles struck the Fire Mage's Shield, a volatile reaction spat forth gouts of orange flame.
The first missile exploded.
The second skimmed the Shield.
The third, however, penetrated her shield and struck Yue on the shoulder. The force of the impact drove her toward the ground.
“Yue!” Gwen cried out.
“I am fine.” Yue waved back, nursing her collarbone.
“Looks like that modified spell still needs work,” one of the Instructors commented.
“Yessir,” Yue admitted. “It's far from ready.”
“Good concept though, if you can somehow accelerate your reaction…”
“I believe there's a Magus at the Sydney Tower who has designed a similar spell. Perhaps, if you are interested, I can ask the faculty to put you in contact with the Magus.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“I'll be honest with you.” Another instructor's criticism was sterner. “You are waste too much time on creating these spells, Yue. The basics are the foundation of Spellcrafting, and you need to have a solid foundation before venturing into new things. These spells are as dangerous for your enemies as your allies if you cannot control them well. My recommendation is to forgo these fancies, at least for now.”
Yue nodded solemnly.
“After the Field Test,” The instructor added. “You will have team and survival training; please focus on that to the best of your abilities. No distractions.”
“Yessir, I'll try my best,” Yue answered seriously,
S stood for supersede. An achievement beyond what could be measured by the Senior performance metric.
The first mark was for effective damage.
The second was for speed and or stamina.
The third was for defence and utility.
The Fire element was a naturally offensive element, though Yue’s attempt at innovation by using offence to offset defence was commendable.
Yue returned to Gwen surrounded by the cheers of their peers. Not, however, before she found Debora in the crowd and gave her the bird.
“You had me worried when that missile went through.” Gwen took her friend by the shoulder and gave her arm a soft prod.
"Eee Yarh!” Yue hissed. “Yep, it's gonna swell for sure.”
"If only Elvia were here..." Gwen lamented.
"She's got a whole other thing going. Much more difficult than us grunts, ha!"
A dozen more students had their turns, some failing, some succeeding, but none matched the rating given to Debora and Yue.
Gwen awaited her turn with bated breath.
Eventually, it came.
"Gwen Song. No. 14026."
The gathered assembly had no cheers nor applause for Gwen. Gwen reached the platform and met the benevolent gaze of three Instructors.
"We have heard good things from Principle Bartlett," one of them spoke benevolently. "It is rare to see a Quasi-elementalist in action, and an offensive caster at that."
An array of target dummies moved into position.
Deep breath! Focus. Do it like you always do, Gwen assured herself.
She turned to face her wooden opponents and tapped into the Sigil, sensing it burst into brilliance within her mind. She pointed rather flamboyantly towards one of the wooden figures and spoke the incantation that she had practised a thousand times before.
The smell of hot ozone filled the air, mixing with the unstable Positive Energy. A shunt of electricity split the air.
A flash, followed by a thunderous 'crack' filled the field with light and sound.
Lightning! The crowd gasped. The power of the Gods themselves! The purest form of absolute destruction.
A cloud of dust rose into the air, obscuring all sight.
WHO COULD SURVIVE THE FIST OF HEAVEN ITSELF? The crowd cooed. SUCH POWER.
The moment of awe passed.
The dust settled.
The assembly stared dumbfounded at an intact dummy.
The faceless Dummy stared at Gwen, dumbfounded.
She missed. Gwen Song missed the target.
Oh. My. God. Gwen's mind turned as brilliantly white as her bolt of plasma.
I MISSED THE FUCKING TARGET! She screamed internally.
"Did she miss?" Someone asked.
People began to laugh out loud.
"She missed the dummy!"
"Oh my God, this is too good!"
"What the hell!"
"Ha! What an idiot!"
"I knew she was just a vase!"
The laughter spread like the tide, some of the students were so overcome that they doubled over trying to breathe.
"SILENCE!" An enhanced auditory spell blasted across the assembly.
"Continue," said one of the instructors. "Don't be so nervous. That was a wonderful manifest."
Gwen nodded, trying to block out the stifled mockery filling the space between her ears.
Show them what you can do. Gwen thought to herself. Show the world what you can do.
Her Evocation Sigil flared, sending a torrent of lightning-charged mana into her conduits. Gwen raised her hand, a finger extended towards the heavens, then swiftly pointed downwards.
The roar of her incantation rang out through the field. Those close to her instantaneously felt their hair rose to a stand-still. A vacuum formed above the dummies.
A blue-purple shriek of lightning cut through the air and struck the closest scarecrow. The wood grew bright before exploding into ten-thousand pieces, sundered into motes of ash and dust. The obliteration was so complete that not even the stump remained, leaving only a half metre crate.
Before the first arc faded, another arc cut through the air, obliterating another dummy.
Then another, and another.
Shards of lightning filled the air, indiscriminately ravaging the world within the radius of the spell, increasing in frequency.
Gwen felt her mana pool drain like snowmelt at springtime, pouring into the white-hot Sigil.
More! The exhilaration thrilled her to the core. I can do more!
A final bolt of lightning struck the ground, a beam of solid light, blinding all within sight. A shockwave expanded from the epicentre, send out a concentric ring of dust. As the particles settled, there remained only decimated stumps amidst a criss-cross of molten sand-turned-glass.
Gwen felt her knees give out as mana drain came on. Pulling herself up by the hair, she stood through force of will.
"Can we even do that as a Senior Mage?” One of the instructors quipped.
"Sure, but I am fifty, and she's fifteen..."
The instructors observed the devastation.
That was the same chained signature spell that Yue was using but elementally charged with lightning; a multi-cast of Fire Bolt given a new form. Though it was not well known, it was an observed phenomenon that an area charged with positive energy gave rise to greater lightning manifests. It meant that for each subsequent bolt striking the same location, the following strike was substantially stronger.
The question, of course, was how was Gwen controlling the direction of the blasts so accurately as to converge?
The assembly of students picked their jaws off the floor.
"Are we still at a high school level?"
"Surely military mages are only about this powerful?"
The crowd went wild with speculation.
Gwen regarded her handiwork with a feeling of satisfaction. For someone schooled in the scientific method, it wasn’ that difficult. One time, she fumbled a spell and left excessive motes of positive energy at the location. She subsequently found that all her other strikes kept becoming redirected to this particular spot. Testing and experimentation ensured, and she found herself a little knack for directing lightning bolts. Since then, she had named her first attack as the 'Guiding Bolt'.
"Can you continue?"
Gwen nodded, summoning a second wind.
She made the gesture of the circle, forming within her mind the Shield spell, and channelled into it whatever mana she had remaining.
"Please, I can't hold this for much longer. Sir," Gwen replied between clenched teeth.
The choice was as much tactical as it was necessary.
Only Abjurers could hold Shields indefinitely, and only Abjurers could generate a shield for others. For all other schools of Mages, a Shield was the last resort of self-preservation. During duels or in competitions, getting past the enemy Abjurer to force enemy Mages into 'Shield-Break' was the victory condition. Once a Mage lost their Shield, they were just flesh and blood humans.
Gwen's mana shield was pale blue, with the occasional spark leaping off its sides. Like all Lightning shields, it was an offensive barrier.
"Ready yourself," the Instructors forewarned.
Three missiles shrieked through the air and struck Gwen's Shield.
The first missile burst into a brilliant ball of light upon contact, consumed by the triggering of the Shield's capacitative energy. The second cut through the electrical barrier, missing her torso. The third pierced the Shield with a sound of breaking glass and struck Gwen squarely in the chest, sending her stumbling backwards and onto her buttocks.
"Gwen!" Now it was Yue's turn to worry.
The instructors breathed out. Much of Spellcraft operated on a balance of power. Abjuration was tough and impenetrable but weak in the offence department. Transmutation was versatile but unexceptional in defence or offence. Evocation Mages had incredible aggression, but tend to be glass cannons.
The verdict was out - Gwen passed with flying colours.
All the tension drained from her body. She had not disappointed Yue, and she had not disappointed herself. Half a year of nothing but hard work, working through Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year, had paid off.
The instructors then offered advice on tuning Gwen's spells for stamina and endurance, discussing possible scenarios and weaknesses. Gwen listened attentively and noted each of their concerns for the future.
The crowd was finally warming up to her.
Gwen wanted to hail back, but she was dizzy with exhaustion. Her whole body felt drained of energy, wanting collapse somewhere and rest.
I need to work on this mana conservation business, Gwen cautioned herself. The last thing Gwen recalled was getting back to Yue before falling into her friend.
"Woa there, hold it steady!" Gwen heard Yue cry out. "Miss! I am taking Gwen to the infirmary!"