Neleh and Kanako were standing in the academy arena joined by the rest of their brother and sister A-class students. They were waiting for their teacher, Maylin, for the last lesson before their rank-up test. Apparently Maylin was planning on giving some last minute instructions concerning both the test and the upcoming qualifiers. Neleh and Kanako weren’t the only newbies that had decided to take part in the tournament.
Neleh was recollecting on the event few days before. Lucian’s declaration of intent had been fairly public, and he was correct in assuming that he now had a proper excuse to have that duel with Neleh he had wanted to have for a while. In normal circumstances Neleh could simply brush the guy off, but now she would be accused of cowardice if she tried to avoid it. She had wanted to avoid it because she had no desire to crush Lucian, and there really wasn’t anything to gain for her. The only result would be the humiliation of Lucian.
Perhaps she should go the opposite way, now that there was no avoiding the fight? Maybe she should simply crush Lucian just to make a point? The guy had been annoying enough to warrant such treatment. That might surprisingly save some face for him as well. If she made sure to crush him badly and flashy enough to show that he wasn’t losing because he was bad, but because he chose the wrong opponent, then his reputation might actually suffer less. That might also discourage anyone else from bothering her in the future. There was that one trick that would really make the point. She had avoided using it so far simply because it drew too much attention, and because the effect was reduced against real opponents, but seeing as she was already drawing attention in spades and the opponent was juvenile and in need of a proper lesson…
Neleh’s thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of Maylin.
“Greetings to everyone. Tomorrow is a big day for all the new students, where you have the chance to leave the stigma of a newbie behind. All the new students have decided to take part in the rank-up test, as happens every semester. No student wants to stand on the same footing as the new students that will be enrolling in the academy after you. This is understandable, and luckily for you the first test in not a dangerous one, unlike those you will take part in the future. The first test is simply a test of knowledge and handling of magic, where you will show that you have been able to learn the necessary basics to get on with the real lessons. I expect each and every one of you A-class students to pass, and will be sorely disappointed if you don’t.” Maylin finished her little speech with a small smile, and her words brought a small chuckle from the gathered students. After all, how could they be in the advanced-class if they could not handle the basics?
“Don’t be fooled by the first test, though. This test is designed with the idea that any half decent magician will be able to pass. The other rank-up tests are significantly harder, and most of them are actually dangerous. If you let the ease of the first test go to your head, you will be very sorry when the time for the other tests comes. Now that that’s over, we can move on to more pressing matters. It has come to our attention that many of you will intend to take part in the upcoming qualifiers. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing depending on your expectations.
If you go into the qualifiers with the expectation of doing well, or maybe even qualifying, then you will in for a rude awakening. The older students have studied for several years longer than you, and those taking part in the qualifiers are also the most skilled students. You might consider yourself to be great and special. You are after all in the A-class of the best academy in the empire, and perhaps the world. Well those that you are supposed to face are just as special and great, since they are the best students of the same academy, except they have years of experience and understanding over you. You will lose, make no mistake. So if you go in expecting victory, then you confidence might be destroyed, and really good mages have a healthy amount of confidence in their abilities.
On the other hand, if you take the qualifiers as a learning experience, then there are many things you can gain from this. First is real experience fighting against those that are stronger than you. You can take this chance to learn from those that have already developed their styles and abilities. Study them, and learn the strengths and weaknesses of their styles, so you can use that information to develop your own style in the future. Learn from those that came before you and improve on their power and knowledge. That is how magic develops. And just like confidence is an important quality for a mage, so is humility. We are not omnipotent with our magic, and the lack of humility will lead to mistakes with disastrous consequences.” This time no one was laughing at her words. Neleh once again had to admit, that Maylin really was a good as a teacher, certainly much better than Neleh herself.
“Now, to allow you mavericks to gain the most from your experience in the qualifiers, I have a special treat for you. For the first time, you have been given the chance to experience one of the greatest magical discoveries of the elven empire, the spell known as ‘Training room’.” Maylin suddenly declared with a small grin, bringing an excited murmur from the crowd. Apparently this was one of the things Neleh had not heard about due to her extended trips and missed classes.
Maylin activated a pre-prepared spell that covered the whole arena. Seeing the spell in action, and feeling the spell pull her along with the other students into an unknown place, Neleh quickly recognized the basic structure of the spell. ‘Well, this is a surprise. I didn’t expect they knew how to use ‘Training space’. And the spell is pretty well built too. There aren’t that many improvements I could make to it.’ Neleh thought. This was a spell she was very familiar with. This was one of the most useful spells for realistic training, and one she intended to use extensively while training Asheara. She didn’t expect the people of this world to be this skilled with dimensional spells, though. She had seen some storage rings, but this was the first time she saw anyone on this world create a separate dimensional space capable of holding live people.
They found themselves on a large courtyard, surrounded by a tall wall. In front of them was a large building that resembled a dojo. “Welcome to ‘Training room’.” Maylin declared loudly, silencing the students that had suddenly gotten fairly loud due to excitement. “Within this space, certain rules of nature work a little different. This spell is designed to allow you to train in more realistic conditions, without the need to hold back in order to avoid hurting your opponent. The qualifiers and the competition between academies will be held within a space similar to this.
The main difference between training within a spell such as this, and training normally, is that no damage incurred within is carried over back to the real space. If you get killed within, you will simply go into what we call the ‘observer mode’ where you act like a ghost, unable to interact with anyone else. The person controlling the space, in this case me, can return you back into your current state. A word of warning, the pain experienced within the ‘Training room’ is normal. If someone burns you alive, it will hurt just as much as it would in reality. This is so that our students will learn the consequences of their actions, and so that you can train in a situation as realistically as possible. Pain is part of combat, and you need to learn to deal with it. Pain brings the fear of death, and if you’re frozen in fear you’re useless. In case of spells that affect the mind or the soul, those are completely banned, because those effects will also carry over to reality. So be careful. Some mages have lost their mind due to pain within the ‘Training room’.” Maylin finished with a serious face.
‘Oh, so they have not figured out a way to cover mind and soul attacks. Makes sense, I suppose. The people of this world don’t really have much expertise with those, so it’s hard to counter something you have only a vague idea of.’ Neleh thought slightly impressed.
“Before I set you all loose to traumatize each other, we will have a small lesson on dueling, so as to allow you to get the best out of the upcoming qualifiers. You have all learned some basic offensive and defensive spells, and you already know that the basic principle of magical dueling is that defending against an attack takes much more power than making that attack in the first place. The more advanced techniques to help against this are partial defense, unraveling and countering.
Partial defense mainly refers to using a shield that only covers a small part of you, in order to reduce the magical power used. It should be immediately obvious that it takes less power to have a shield that only covers your front, than a shield that covers you completely. It’s especially common to leave out the shield below your feet, because making the shield go through the earth, or worse stone or even harder materials, takes a lot of power. This of course leaves you vulnerable against attacks from directions that your shield does not cover. In the case of the ground, this is less important, because the attack also needs to be able to penetrate the ground, and in case of using the earth element to attack, the attacker needs to be able to either overwrite your magical territory below your feet, in which case you’re boned anyway, or reach their attack from all the way outside your territory, in which case you should be able to sense it before it becomes a problem.
The second part of partial defense is defending only against the element you are facing. If the opponent is doing nothing but chucking fireballs at you, then it is much more effective to have your shield to only defend against fire and heat, instead of a generalist shield against everything. Countering works in a similar way. Instead of making a shield to defend with, you can counter the oncoming spell with an offensive spell of your own. Of course this assumes you can use an element that works well against your opponent. Some elements are also more suited for countering than others. Using a fireball to try and block an earth spear doesn’t really work, unless the fire is hot enough to melt the earth, in which case you’re using more power anyway and might as well use a shield. Earth on the other hand is very effective for countering, able to be used against most other elements. Earth in general is considered a great element for defense. That said, all elements are capable of both powerful offense and defense, some elements simply require more imagination to use properly. Defensive spells like ‘Earthen shield’ and ‘Light armor’ are generally also considered to be part of countering.
The last and most complex way to defend yourself is called unraveling. Once the opponent’s spell leaves their magic territory, you can try to use your own magic to control, or more often unravel the spell. You use raw mana to attack the spell where it is weak. To use this technique, you must have enough knowledge of the spell you want to unravel, to know where to attack it. If you don’t know how to do it, you’re just wasting power, and might as well just use a shield. In general, the higher level the spell, the harder it is to unravel. So unraveling is best used against lower level spells that you know well. On the other hand, if the enemy is throwing a hundred fire arrows at you, no matter how easy they are to unravel, it takes a lot of concentration to do effectively. In general, unraveling is the most effective way to defend, but also the most difficult to use properly.” Maylin finished with a sigh.
“Now go on and pair up. You are now officially allowed to do your best and try to kill each other. After the test tomorrow, we’ll spend next week going over tactics that can be used in fights between warriors and mages.” Maylin finished with a wave of her hand, and allowed the students to start picking out their opponents.
Neleh was just about to grab Kanako when she heard Maylin speak. “Not you Neleh. You’re not taking part today. There’s no point in having the exercise today, if you just butcher everyone. Besides, you can destroy their confidence worse than the upperclassmen. It’s one thing to lose badly to someone more trained and older than you, but it’s completely another to get mauled by someone in your own class. You’ll get your chance to go wild in the qualifiers.” Maylin said with a grin.
“What a cruel teacher, taking away the last joys of class.” Neleh said with a feigned sigh, posing with the back of her hand against her forehead.
“Eh, I didn’t know you liked picking on those weaker than you.” Maylin replied with feigned reproach.
“Hey, hey, if I’m not allowed to pick on those weaker than me, then who am I allowed to pick on? It’s a bit cruel to delegate me as the only person not allowed to pick on anyone.” Neleh fired back with amusement. She might not have been the most powerful being on the planet yet, but that was only a matter of time. As such her question might have been meant as a joke, but did carry a seed on truth.
Unsurprisingly the rank-up test on the following day was easy for both Neleh and Kanako. It had only consisted of questions and a show that you could cast the basic spells without trouble. The only moment of interest had been when Neleh had cast all the required spells voicelessly and at the same time, while the testers wanted her to use the full chants. Luckily she had considered the possibility of small-minded testers that might want to buff their own egos by giving trouble to the young Chosen, and had learned the chants just in case. She did have an excellent memory after all. Just for good measure, she had also mentioned that if any tester wanted to be petty and try to dock points from her, because she had had to perform the spells twice, then she might also get petty with her authority as an Inquisitor. The teachers took the hint.
Kanako had asked if what Neleh had done might be considered abuse of authority, more out of curiosity than any moral qualms. Neleh had simply replied that authority was meant to be used and abused. If someone had a problem with that, then they should get enough power to oppose that authority. The world didn’t owe anyone anything. Righteousness without the power to back it up is just a joke.
Neleh was met at the door of their house by a smiling Azrael. “The girl is awake.” The celestial said before Neleh had time to ask anything. They went towards the room they had prepared for the girl, and found Asheara giving a concise explanation about the situation to the confused girl.
Neleh sat on the side of the bed. “How are you feeling?” She asked gently.
The girl scrunched her face in an adorable way. “I don’t know. I have trouble remembering.” She said in a sad and feeble voice.
“Take your time. You’re safe now, and there’s no rush anywhere. I assume Asheara explained a little about who we are and where we are?” Neleh asked rhetorically while waving towards her mother.
“You saved me. You’re the Chosen and she is your mother. The celestial with pretty blue wings is called Azrael. I think there was a naga girl mentioned too, but I forgot her name. I’m sorry. We’re in the capital, in your house.” The girl replied slowly.
“Close enough. The naga girl is called Kanako, but don’t mind if you have trouble remembering.” Neleh said with a small smile. “We’re currently within the grounds of the academy of Rhi’a’non. We found you hurt badly, and healed you. It doesn’t really matter if you can’t, but can you remember anything that happened?” She tried asking gently, trying to find out if the girl had family alive somewhere, worried about her.
“I remember some bad people attacked. They hurt me…the pain…mother…father…auntie…they’re all gone!” The girl started crying without any control.
Neleh hugged the girl to her chest and let her grieve. The girl gripped Neleh like the last thing keeping her from drowning. Neleh had seen a lot of death and grief in her time, but the unbridled cries of the little girl brought tears even to her eyes. She started so sing a gentle little dirge, mourning the passing of lives taken before their time.
The song and the little girl’s grief brought tears to Azrael and Asheara as well. “It’s a terrible day for rain.” Azrael said with tears on her cheeks.
“You’re right.” Asheara said as well, catching the hint and not pointing out that they were indoors.
Unsurprisingly the girl had cried herself back to sleep. It took a few hours before she woke up again, and after they had managed to get the girl eat a little, they could approach the subject again.
“We need to know. Do you have family waiting somewhere? They might be worried so we can send a word.” Neleh tried to ask gently.
The girl gave a small sob. “No. Daddy had come to this land from the beastman continent. He had left his clan behind. He never really spoke about them, or what happened. I think mommy had to leave with her sister before I was born. I heard their family used to be some important people, but apparently they are all gone. Mommy seemed relieved when she told me. Apparently something happened after the new empress was selected.” The girl seemed an odd mix of a teenager that was well versed in the current events, and not mourning her grandparents and a child not really understanding what was going on.
The girl paused for a while. “So what happens to me now?” She asked finally.
“Well, for now you should focus on getting better. There is no need to hurry with anything further. You can stay with us as long as necessary.” Neleh said in a calming voice.
“No, I want to know. I don’t think anyone would want to take me in. Mommy and daddy said I have no power or magic. There’s something wrong with me.” The girl sobbed again. “Even if someone would take me in, I might just lose them again, because I can’t protect them.”
Neleh pondered for a moment. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You have a kind of power, people just don’t know about it.”
The girl looked up suddenly. “I do? I always kind of felt something inside me. You are the only one to see it, or know about it. Can you show me how to use it?”
“What would you do with that power if I did teach you?” Neleh asked carefully.
“I would find the people who hurt me and my family. I would want to make sure they don’t hurt others.” The girl said with certain fierceness and power in her voice.
“I can understand vengeance better than most, and that’s a good enough reason to me. However, while I was healing you, Asheara and Azrael found the people who hurt you and dealt with them. The is no one to take revenge on.” Neleh said carefully. She wanted to teach the girl, but only if it was her own choice. Her training would be hard, and the little girl would not be able to do it, if she didn’t have a proper reason.
The girl shook her head. “There are always people like them. If it had not been that group of bad people, then it might have been another group. Another group that is right now hurting someone else. Besides, if you teach me, I might be able to find a new family, and if I do I want to be able to protect them. I don’t want to lose my family again. And even if I don’t find a family, I want to make sure no one can hurt me again like they did before. I don’t want anyone to be able to hurt me.”
Neleh gave a small sigh. The girl had a reason, but did she have the will? “Alright, I can teach you. But learning from me will be painful. Are you sure you want to do it? The world is full of dangerous and powerful people. If you want to really be able to protect yourself and others from then, then you must be stronger. You might think you know pain after what happened, but if you want me to really make you strong, you will feel worse. I will have to break you and rebuild you again several times. There can’t be real power with no pain.” Neleh said with a grim voice.
“Please. I don’t ever want to be that helpless again. They hurt me and made my parent watch. Then they made me watch as they killed my parents, and then hurt me again. Never again! Make me strong whatever it takes, please!” There was an iron will and the fire of the sun behind those eyes.
“Alright. Let’s see if you have the heart to do it. I will train you for a year, and if you can’t handle it, you can quit. If you do, we will find you a nice family that will take care of you, and you can go on to become normal. If you still want to become strong after a year, then we can move on to real training. And that training we finish until the end.” Neleh answered with a small sigh. The girl would not quit. There was something in the girl’s eyes that she recognized. Something she had seen before. She would make the girl, and the girl would only want to train harder. The girl had a goal, and the will to do anything to achieve it.
Neleh suddenly remembered. “Oh right, I forgot to ask. What’s your name?”
With steel in her eyes, the girl replied. “My name is…”