A brave new world was opening in front of Yue's eyes.
This was Spellcraft?! REAL Spellcraft? She couldn't help but wonder what two-bit charlatan magic she'd been learning this whole time.
Alesia’s Fireball was too abnormal, her control too refined. Watching her shaping blasts and comparing it to the Yue's proud Firebolts was like watching a pyromaniac dousing a house against a demolition crew strategically performing a controlled burn.
“That… that was amazing, Ma’am,” Yue muttered bewilderingly, reeling with wonder.
Gwen felt taken back as well. To control an explosion so precisely that it could identify friend or foe? That’s an insane ability! How is it even possible? Alesia's mastery defied Gwen's understanding of physics.
She felt as though they were bumpkins marvelling at pickups all their life seeing a drive-by Tesla. Or worse still, a flat earth loyalist suddenly seeing the curvature of the earth.
More than that though, they were speaking to an actual Magus, someone who had attained their second School of Magic. For the mundane Mage, there was only one way of attaining a Secondary school. One had to relentlessly practice in order to produce a mnemonic-Sigil.
That or one could possess a natural affinity for more than one School. Principally, 'young' Maguses were either blessed by generations of fine breeding, or by the genetic lottery.
Elvia offered a good example, by her account, her mother's side of the family produced healers. As such, her predisposition for the unique blend of Evocation, Conjuration and Positive Energy made her a perfect candidate for a Cleric.
As Alesia was far too youthful to be someone with a mnemonically-forged glyph; she must, therefore, be one blessed by fate.
Across from Gwen and her stunned companions, Alesia regarded her cohort of moon-eyed teens with smugness. Her Master was right in telling her that the younglings responded best to demonstrations of absolute power.
“I’ll be taking you on for the next month or so; all your training time will be with me,” she said, lowering her octave a little to emphasise her solemnity. “I hope we can get along for the duration, and that you will benefit from my guidance.”
“Yes, Ma’am!” The five made a show of sloppy salutes. None of them had experienced Military Service yet.
“Ma’am.” Yue was already breathless with anticipation. “Could you- could you explain what you did?”
Alesia gave them all a dazzling smile, her teeth white and gleaming.
“It’s okay if you’re busy-” Yue hastily added.
“It’s fine.” Alesia turned her palm over. The familiar sight of a dancing flame appeared. Yue had also performed this rite to practice her flame control.
“Put your hand over my flame," Alesia commanded.
“…” The gathering waited for Yue to oblige.
The rest of the party saw the dancing sprite of flame as a magical phenomenon, but Gwen saw oxidising ions burning at well over 600 degrees Celsius.
To Gwen's teeth-gritting terror, Yue obliged. The spunky Asian girl lifted her hand and placed it within the scarlet-orange flame.
“It…” her eyes widened. “It feels like cotton candy! How is that possible? Is this an illusion?”
Emboldened by Yue, the others had a go as well, feeling the flame wrap around their hands harmlessly. The sensation was akin to putting one’s half over wool or cotton.
“Make me some ice,” Alesia ordered.
Jun created an icicle on his palm.
Jun placed his iced palm into the flame and instantly yelped.
“Arrgg!” He jumped back, noting that his hand was unharmed, but his icicle had melted and that the evaporating water had reddened a finger. “That's a scorching-hot flame!”
Indeed, Gwen acknowledged. To overcome its oppositional element and utterly eradicate the phenomena would imply that Alesia's flame was several magnitudes that of Jun’s Elemental Ice. As observed, the laws of physics in her old world possessed only a precarious hold on her new one.
Alesia withdrew her hand, but the flame continued to float in mid-air. The phenomenon was more shocking than Alesia's absurd control. They watched the fire gently flicker until it took on the silhouette of a Caracal - an orange, flaming tabby yawning at them disinterestedly.
“A flame Spirit!” Yue was on the verge of asphyxiation. "Ma'am, just who are you?"
Gwen and the others were no less shocked than their companion.
An Elemental Spirit was incredibly rare.
As Jun would readily inform them, one in a thousand kills may yield a complete Creature Core. One in a thousand Cores may yield an intact spirit capable of being utilised by a Mage, an act akin to digging for hen's teeth.
Then there was the fact that Magical Beasts also came in different shapes, sizes and degrees of strength; from the weak spell fodder Swarmlings to Titans, to Mythics. One could, therefore, imagine the rarity of an Elemental Spirit, especially a powerful one.
Something clicked within Yue’s head.
“Y-you’re…” The girl was stuttering now. “You’re A-Alesia of the Scarlet Flame! The Coral Sea Witch! The Scarlet Sorceress!”
Alesia’s face took on a vibrant red glow. 'Scarlet Flame' was the name the Tower had used to propagandise victories over the Mermen during the Coral Sea conflict. It was like having one's old laundry aired in public.
“Um…” Gwen and Elvia’s face was blank, but Jun and Henley became equally breathless.
“She’s a tier FIVE Evoker with tier SIX Fire element, Gwennie!” Yue spat in Gwen’s face, her passionate spittle kissing Gwen's cheeks. “Ma’am… I never knew you were also a Transmuter!”
“I am working on it,” Alesia replied, a little less comfortable now that Yue was jumping up and down. She was far more used to the careful respect of military folk than a gushing teenage girl. "My official stats are a decade old."
At least one mystery was solved then - the reason why Alesia could IFF her flames was because she possessed a sapient flame-Sprite. Whenever her flames were affected by the Spirit's innate affinity boost, Alesia's Fire spells took on a bright scarlet hue.
“I need to go report to Principal Bartlett, but I’ll leave you with something to ponder.”
Alesia gesticulated her dominant hand toward the field once again.
A torrent of scarlet flames poured over the field in a sixty-degree arc like a flamethrower.
A three-pronged talon of flame left from her hand and struck several targets, but missing others.
A single torrent of flames, thicker and more potent than the last, not only shot forward but arched across the field like fire from a liquid-fuel flamethrower.
The five watched the spectacle wordlessly.
“It is possible to manipulate the final manifestation through visualisation and mental cues. Even if you are not a Magus, you can still work with other Sigils, all it takes is practice.” Alesia informed them, turning to Gwen. “No need to obsess over Signature spells, instead, focus on the basics. Once you're capable of holding your own, find a Master and learn to craft their Signature Spells before making your own. There's an order to learning Spellcraft which one should not overlap.”
Watching the sorceress, both Gwen and Yue acknowledged that there was something to Alesia’s words. The girls should focus on foundations rather than dream of flying.
“See you tomorrow, upper practice field.” Alesia stretched out her shoulders, her red stilettos clicking musically on the pavement as she stalked away.
“That was amazing,” Yue reiterated after finally managing to close her mouth. “She is amazing.”
“So, who is she?”
“You need to read more, Gwen,” Jun said, “At least listen to the news or something.”
Gwen put her hands up in a gesture of helplessness.
Jun cleared his throat; he was a man who loved expositions.
“Alesia De Botton, the youngest Ordained Senior Mage to participate in the Great Cleansing of the Barrier Reef a decade ago. Possessing the rank of Major, she is a Wing-Commander of a Strike Wing under her Majesty’s Aerial Assault Mages. She made her mark by soloing a General class Lizardman, preserving an entire platoon on the Brisbane Line. She spent the last year of her military service touring the country, setting up safe zones for new migrants."
"She was popular in Vid-Casts back when I was in primary school. You can see why. Alesia is both beautiful and badass," Yue added.
“Then what happened? What's someone like her doing here?”
“Don’t know.” Jun shrugged, “She left the military after her mandatory service, but no one knows after that.”
“She's sooo hot.” Henley closed his eyes in remembrance of those childhood propaganda shows, his nose sniffing the air for her perfume. “Maybe she’s doing Military recruitment? I know I would join if she asked. ”
The others shrugged.
“Guess we’ll find out what she’s got in store for us tomorrow,” Yue proposed.
Gwen gazed over to where their Instructor's envious figure stood next to the Principal. Could the old man have something to do with this?
The training that Alesia had in store could be divided into three core components.
Physical training to ‘fortify their bodies’.
Mental image training where they practised modifying their manifests in subtle ways.
Finess training for Yue and Gwen, who had to learn to ‘adjust’ the output of their spell’s power.
During their training, Yue attempted to pry a little into the life story of her idol, receiving nought but mum on the matter of Alesia's private life.
As a part of her teaching, Alesia aided each of them in modifying their existing spells by altering the way they conceived Major and Minor invocations, the verbal and somatic part of spell casting, opening their eyes to new pathways of Meta Magic. Ther lower the tier of the spell, the more malleable it was to the Mage's creative intent, as for higher tiers of magic, the danger of mana burn increased exponentially with each haphazard modification.
The girls and boys were rapt with expectation.
The next month and a half seemed to blitz by now that each day the boys and girls returned to their dorms exhausted and drained. Daily life consisted of nothing but classes, training, eating and sleeping.
When finally, with less than a week to go until the Field Trip, the group was called up to be assessed by the academic board. Though the Field Trip was merely a training camp in the Green Zone, Blackwattle took meticulous care to ensure that students possessed the competency to come home in one piece.
The test took place within a replicated section from the Royal National's infamous Coastal Track. Simulating a trek that led deep into the Wildlands, where unguarded travellers were almost guaranteed to be harassed by quasi-magical beasts greedy for mana crystals or curious for the bric-a-brac of human civilisation.
The team's new formation had Gwen taking the rear guard, with Yue at the spear point. Alesia had the girls systematically measure the range of their spells, finding that Gwen could cover Yue’s range even from the rear. Likewise, until Gwen gained access to Line-based AOEs such as the tier 3 Lighting Bolt, she had no friendly-fire issues with her spatial casting.
Henley opened with his signature spell. In the real Wild Lands, he would have to alternate between different forms of Detection to scry for various threats.
Jun made the circular gesture familiar to all Abjurers. A ring of ice appeared over Elvia, floating like a halo. It was a trigger-buff that made Elvia less conspicuous to enemies' hostility. If attacked, the spell would trigger a Frost Barrier.
The Examiners nodded discerningly. They saw good use of fundamentals.
“Bless.” Elvia buffed the party, though as her uses were in field triage, it was unlikely the healer would distinguish herself in practice.
The group silently moved into the illusory woods.
“Twelve O Clock, two targets, small and medium. Yue takes the first strike,” Henley reported through his mind’s eye. “Incoming!”
Henley had been trained by Alesia to recognise distortions in the mana-field. There were minute but traceable patterns to creatures that differentiated them from the ambient magic of the Wildlands.
The Ice Shields were up before the barbed missiles from the golem-creatures even reached the party. Both pinged off the icy domes Jun conjured with articulate gestures, fading immediately as their purpose waned, further conserving mana.
Now bereft of the element of surprise, the dummies leapt from hiding and made for the edge of the field, using trees as partial cover.
A bolt of fire shot from Yue’s fingertips, forming a parabola not upwards but sideways, curving around the trunk of a tree to strike the larger target square in the back. Her missile erupted, delivering its cargo of unstable energy, sending the thing against an adjacent trunk, dashing it to pieces.
The lesser of the two creatures used this opportunity to reposition.
“Blast Bolt!” Gwen incanted with somatic flair, trying to orientate an abstract point of origin in space. Her gestures reminded her audience of a madwoman conducting an orchestra with invisible cats.
Thirty meters away, a blast of electricity tore the dummy apart.
“Hostiles cleared. We're proceeding to next area.”
The party continued without delay, obliterating each scenario. After thirty-odd minutes, the party remained twenty for twenty, coming nigh to the closing part of the examination.
“Releasing large Golem,” a voice announced above them.
Gwen's party felt the bone throbbing thrum of a large scale Conjuration circle activate, and knew that this was their final test.
The imitated voice of an Orc Warrior resounded through the field, amplified by whatever magic or mechanism installed within.
As if for full cinematic effect, the group observed several trees blasting apart as the enormous creature balled through the bush, saliva flying every which way. Though the party knew that this was an illusion and that beneath it all was yet another dummy made to soak damage, it remained a terrifying encounter.
“Steady!” Jun shouted.
“True Strike!” Henley incanted, managing to fit one debuff before the creature was almost within melee range. “Bane!”
“Shield Stack!” Jun managed to place three layers of icy shields in an instant. Using reactive, displacing Shields was Alesia's solution to counter the brittleness of Ice Shields.
“Shield of Faith!” Elvia’s clear, near transparent shield covered Jun, giving him full visibility and an additional layer of protection.
“Here goes…” Yue breathed in, incanting rapidly as her Evocation manifested. “Barrage!”
A chain of five Firebolts lit up a pathway of explosions, sending the creature tumbling, dramatically diminishing its momentum. The weight of it, however, maintained its trajectory.
With a crash, a bulbous arm covered with rocky barnacles struck the first ice shield, obliterating it.
“Guided Bolt!” Gwen intoned. A shard of positively-charged Lightning struck the creature, sending a crackle of purple electricity down the massive dummy's illusory face.
The golem raised its fists in an insane pose of anger.
“Lighting Blast!” Gwen's infamous chain-spell began in earnest.
She poured every ounce of her remaining mana into the channel, knowing that this was the last enemy. The exercises Alesia had them perform were well worth their weight. Who would have thought that endurance training could manage mana exhaustion? The textbooks had been sceptical of the fact, but Alesia had proven her hypothesis with tangible results.
The Examiners smiled to themselves satisfactorily. There she goes, they thought to themselves, having seen Gwen perform the very same spell at practice. What a light show! There were few elements as spectacular as Lightning.
Gwen managed to keep her electric-disco active for ten seconds, but it was enough; the dummy had been reduced to a smouldering jumble of clinking metal.
Absolute destructive power.
Perfect scouting and defence.
Sound teamwork and impeccable awareness of one another’s abilities.
"Bravo!" Principal Bartlett's voice called out from the judges' platform.
The Examiners could hardly wait to see what else could be accomplished by Blackwattle's A-Team.
The illusion faded and a sound of applause inundated the athletic field. Gwen searched the crowd and found Alesia loudly clapping with the rest of the Instructors. Their eyes met, and she flashed them a brilliant, dazzling smile.
That woman IS amazing. Gwen couldn't help but be impressed all over again. Just a month ago, Yue almost blew Jun seven ways to hell.
What they could do now was astounding, even by semi-professional standards. The Examination had no metric for endurance, but Gwen knew that Alesia had ensured that with alternating casting and conservative mana usage, the group's expertise was encroaching on the proficiency of first-year military students.
“Congratulations, Students. You have done very well.” One of the Senior Mages stated proudly.
"Well done, Gwen! Yue, all of you!" Principal Bartlett flushed a shade of scarlet.
The party bowed in front of the elevated platform of the Examiners before leaving the field to speak to their Instructor, whose striking profile was even now drawing attention from the onlookers.
“Thank you so much, Ma’am.” Yue tilted her head respectfully.
“The credit is yours,” Alesia replied modestly.
“No Ma’am,” Gwen said earnestly. “We could not have done it without you.”
“Aww~, you’re all embarrassing me.” Alesia’s smile was blindingly attractive, more thanks to the children's intense feelings of gratefulness. “You should have more confidence in your abilities.”
She gave them each a hug, the girls more tightly and intimately, the boys more stiffly for their nervousness. When she reached Elvia, Alesia could not resist but playfully ruffled the healer's hair.
“I am going to miss this,” Alesia commented jovially, pampering Elvia was a treat in itself.
“You’re not leaving already, Miss?” Elvia inquired dejectedly.
“Not immediately. I'll be looking after you guys at the camp!”
"Another fortnight..." Elvia's lips pursed sadly, "Will you be staying on?"
"Unfortunately, no." Alesia gave them all an appreciative smile, "I am sure we'll meet in some other capacity in the future, perhaps at the Tower."
"The Tower?" Yue's eyes were once again aglow with expectation, "Do you work there Miss?"
Alesia's ocean blue eyes fluttered before she gave Yue a quick pat on the shoulder that neither confirmed nor denied her profession. The five stood awkwardly, feeling a lack of closure.
“We will set a new record for you Miss," Jun said finally with a tone of commitment.
The rest agreed readily.
Alesia said nothing but told them to stay and watch the other teams. The Path was long and arduous; every experience could unexpectedly open up new detours.
And so, taking their Instructor's advice, Gwen's party remained, receiving congratulations from others who came and went. One by one, they saw how the others faired with their unique team makeups and skill sets.
Of particular note was Debora’s team, utilising an entirely unexpected composition. Extraordinarily, her team had an actual Enchanter in their midst, whose buffs of Bless, Fortify and Endurance provided the team with unmatched fortitude. Likewise, the inclusion of an illusionist scout with access to the Chameleon optic spell provided the team with an excellent spotter. The remaining three members where shockingly, all Transmuters. They utilised a system of mass-buffs to empower themselves an almost ridiculous manner. Debora’s signature version of Bark Skin had now become Bronze Skin, presumably an heirloom spell, providing a nigh-indestructible armour for the caster. Combined with Long Stride and Enhanced Ability, her team excelled in mobility and defence.
In front of a cheering audience, the Transmuter-trio became a team of living battering rams. Debora especially was like a dreadnaught of destruction, punching, kicking, and throwing fifty odd kilograms of catapulted stones wherever they went.
The efficiency of their team was such that they demolished all twenty obstacles in half the time Gwen had taken. It was only against the Ogre dummy that the two lesser Transmuters, whose elements were tier 1 Water and Earth, were stopped in their tracks. It was then up to Debora to combat the creature alone, but with the others supplying snares, illusions, and endless entanglements, she was eventually able to beat it into submission just before the forty-minute deadline.
The examiners gave Debora's team a sterling commendation but also warned her also that there were limitations to close combat. Until she could rise to a tier high enough to possess much-lauded Polymorphic spells, the Acolytes would put themselves in unnecessary danger.
Only two more teams managed to down the Ogre dummy, with the further incident of a group suffering the ‘loss’ of a team member due to a poorly timed Shielding spell.
By the day’s end, only nine teams and a total of forty-five student Mages were eligible for the Field Trip taking place in a six-days time. The students returned to their dorms to rest their weary bodies which had undergone near two months of continuous training, some taking time off to meet with family and friends before they embark for the first time into the Wildlands.
It was only a Green Zone, but the fact remained the Royal National was a place away from the city’s Barrier Shields, devoid of the footfalls of human civilisation, a place of nought but flora and fauna.