The two of them stood in the center of Clark’s burgeoning village, a stand of enormous dead trees that had no earthly right being in a desert, their unnaturally long limbs woven together to provide relief from the sun above. The dirt under Garth’s feet was earthy and soft, somehow transformed from the hard-packed desert sand. Clark had some good taste.
There was a fountain where a cactus shaped like a spout poured water down into a trough, its long roots finding water deep under the ground and bringing it to the surface. There were a few problems, sure. The facilities being entirely made out of plants meant pest problems had a somewhat different connotation to them, and Garth spotted several small birds take bites of the fountain before a kid could rush up and scare them off.
In the distance was a field where kids were being taught how to roll blunts, and ex-SEAL Paul watched his daughter grow a pot plant from seed in a matter of seconds with a horrifying grimace. Jamal and Jess had disappeared, shirking their morning chores. Presumably to bone in an empty tree. Okay, maybe not everything was great, but they were getting along.
Garth stretched the kink out of his back, it was getting close to evening, and Cass wanted to ‘train’ him, whatever that meant.
“Alright, here should be good enough,” Cass said, glancing around the empty square. Well, empty except for Sandi, who was devouring a Banta from the outpost.
“What’s up?” she asked, her Lure disheveled and covered in blood.
“I’m going to teach Garth how to fight with magic properly.”
“Ooh, that sounds fun, I’ll go tell everyone!”
“Sandi, you don’t have-“ She was already gone. Garth clenched his fist and took a deep breath.
“Now you get to humiliate me in front of everyone,” Garth said with a shrug. “I guess this is happening.”
“I don’t really care one way or the other,” Cass said, before sliding one foot in front of the other, drawing his left hand tight against his solar plexus and holding his other loosely in front of him.
“We’ll start with the basics: Your stance.”
“Stance?” Garth asked, “for magic?”
“I mean, if it’s all in our heads, what do we need a-“
All the mana in the square vanished in an instant, disappearing into the fist clutched against Cass’s torso. In that instant Garth realized he couldn’t cast a spell even if he wanted to. Several bolts of compressed air came from Cass’s right hand and hit Garth in the face, right leg, and shoulder, sending him spinning to the ground.
“Lucky you. They haven’t got here yet.”
“Hah,” Garth said, pushing himself to his feet.
“The martial art that I’m about to teach you, other people would kill to be standing where you are right now. So please, take a stance.”
“This part of that mysterious bet?” Garth said, trying to copy the old man’s posture.
“No questions. You see this?” Cass opened his left hand, revealing a solid ball of brightly glowing mana, condensed to a ridiculous amount. “This is my lantern.”
“This,” he said, fluttering the fingers of his right hand, “is my spool.”
Cass relaxed his hand, and the ball of mana in it dissolved back into the environment. Garth hadn’t noticed it before, but the sound and color around them seemed to creep back into the world. Had the old man really tugged the strings of reality so hard it became black and white? Garth blinked.
“In a battle between two archmagi, the radius of your lantern is always in direct contention with the other’s, unless you are throwing spells at each other from across the room, and nobody’s gonna get killed like that.”
“Pull all the mana from your surroundings into your lantern, within a foot or two of yourself. Don’t try to make radius as wide as mine, start with a tiny, controlled patch of earth small enough that you can make it completely devoid of mana. If you tried to start as wide as mine, you’d just clumsily scrape up a bit of mana, and that would be that.”
Cass stepped in and fixed Garth’s posture. “Hold your lantern in front of your vital organs, close to your chest. It can be a last ditch shield or used to repair your organs should they be torn out in the heat of battle.”
This was starting to sound pretty intense.
“Take all the mana you drew in and store it in your lantern.” He tilted Garth’s hand so the back of his hand stood between his lantern and the rest of the world, torqueing Garth’s wrist a little bit. At this point Garth figured it was better to shut up and roll with it.
“Now do it.” Cass said, and Garth attempted to compress the mana under his feet into his hand.
“A tighter circle. Actively deny yourself mana beyond the radius you have decided on.”
Garth relaxed the mana back into the environment, then pulled it back in, pushing away any mana from beyond a foot around him.
“Pull harder. Nobody said it was easy, or that you could half-ass it.”
Garth gritted his teeth and clenched his fist, his temples aching as he pushed to draw every single scrap of mana into his left hand.
“By Kolath, you’re weaker than I thought. Put everything you have into it!”
Garth couldn’t hold back a wordless scream as the pain in his head began to lance out into the rest of his body, making his tendons feel as if they were carrying some great, nonexistent weight that was tearing his body apart.
Garth closed his eyes and kept pushing. I swear to Beladia, if this gets me killed, I’ll haunt the bastard.
A second later, the pain was replaced by a strange thrumming in his heart and lungs. No it wasn’t in his lungs, it was in the hand pressed against his lungs.
Garth opened his left hand, and saw a tiny mote of bright light, like a miniature star. It was so small he could barely see its form, but its light made his eyes water.
“Only a foot across? Not a very ambitious fellow are you? I expect this to be ten feet across at least by the end of the week. In the meantime, keep holding the lantern. Walk around, see what happens.”
Garth took some experimental steps, and watched as the radius of mana-void environment followed him, stretching only a foot from his feet, but definitely there. The lantern was less like a reservoir as he’d thought, and more like the point where he plugged into reality itself. Weird.
“This is boring, Throw some fireballs of something!” Garth heard Jamal say. Sitting around the two of them were no less than forty men, women, and children, watching the show and eating the popcorn that Clark seemed to be able to conjure from thin air.
Garth ignored them, looking back at Cass.
“There, you’ve just learned the most basic technique that every clan teaches their students, let me show you why.”
Cass raised a hand, and mana was drawn from the environment around Garth as he shot fireworks into the sky, detonating into sparks of colorful light just beneath the woven canopy, to the applause of the crowd. Showoff. No matter what he did, though, the thrumming sensation of the Lantern held against his chest remained steady.
“The infantile flailing that you and others were doing until now can’t disturb the area of a properly made Lantern.”
“Nobody bumping my elbow, got it.”
“Well, it’s harder, not impossible. Nothing is impossible. Once your Lantern is a bit bigger, we can start the real training, but for now, try to attack me.”
“With a spell, I mean,” Cass hastily clarified, adopting a stance. That gave Garth pause. Why would he need to clarify? Wasn’t it obvious he was supposed to attack him with a spell? Garth’s intelligence and memory put the pieces together.
Your little Attaaack…
Garth must have won the mysterious bet by attacking Cass with something other than a spell, and it had made him gun-shy. Interesting.
Mana in a ten foot circle snapped into Cass’s hand, creating a circle of muted color and sound around him. Garth could make out the strong glow of the lantern emanating from between the wizard’s fingers.
He glanced down at his own paltry circle that didn’t even pull sound and light out of the environment. It had felt like he was going to die just making this tiny circle. Here was tangible proof that Garth had a long way to go.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Attack me. With a spell.”
Garth drew a little mana off the sun in his fist, pulling it to his right hand, then fired a firebolt at Cass. The dart of flame hissed through the air between them, straight toward Cass’s face. The wizard didn’t move to dodge or block the speeding missile, but without any motion on his part, the firebolt dissolved back into mana and was drawn into the man’s Lantern, maybe making it six inches into the radius of the man’s circle before it disappeared.
“Okay, that’s all I needed to see.” Cassius said, dismissing the Lantern.
“I have a couple notes. First. You need to flow your mana through your body, It’ll be difficult and uncomfortable at first, but it’s infinitely harder to predict what you’re going to send at me, or disrupt the spell if your mana is hidden inside your own flesh. Go from the lantern in your left hand, up your arm, down to the center of mass around your navel, then back up and out your spool. Don’t send the mana through your heart unless you have a death wish.”
“Second, you should focus on using plants more in combat. You’ve got the Phytomage class and the blessing of Beladia. A double specialization like that is one in a billion. Plants will always be your strongest suit, so master them.”
“But there’s gotta be some kind of plateau, where plants can’t get any better. I imagine I’d lose to any fire specialized person wouldn’t I? Or someone with a chainsaw.”
“Let me put your fears to rest. When you reach the apex of magic,” Cass said, “The physical becomes immaterial. For example.” He motioned to a stalk of grass laden with seed, and a single kernel flew up to his hand. An instant later a sword of grass emerged from his hand. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a brick of some silvery metal.
“This is Adamantite, the rarest and strongest metal in existence. Stronger than a plant, yes?”
“Just get on with proving me wrong.” Garth said, crossing his arms. He could already see where this demonstration was going.
“Insolent boy.” Cassius said before putting the edge of the grass sword against the metal and pushing with a grunt of effort. In front of everyone’s eyes a thick curl of metal began to peel away as the green blade carved through the priceless mineral like a Christmas ham.
When the blade came out the other side, the Adamantite flew away with a harsh twang, burying itself in the sparse grass, leaving a smoking crater.
“And to further put you at ease.” Cass said, summoning a ball of white hot fire. The heat was so great Garth had to shield his face from twenty feet away. Standing in front of the ball of fire without a care in the world, Cass plunged the grass sword into the fire and let go of the handle, watching the grass blade suspended in the molten plasma.
Cass whistled as he waited, giving Garth a wink and rocking back and forth on his heels until the fire finally dissipated and died out, letting the plant drop back to the ground. The blade was completely unsinged, not a single mar on its green surface. The wizard bent down and picked it up, holding it straight up in front of him.
The leaf that comprised the blade split in two, opening to form a portal, which Cass dropped on himself, making his head and shoulders disappear, then his torso and left hand, and finally his legs, leaving only one hand floating in midair, holding the handle at an awkward angle, until finally he let go and slipped his hand through the portal, disappearing entirely. The blade clattered to the ground, the portal in its center closing, leaving nothing but a green sword once again.
“Still think there’s a limit to what you can do with plants?” Cass asked from directly behind him, nearly making Garth jump. He turned to look at the smug face of the old man.
“I think…maybe not.”
“It’s a good start. That’s all for today.” Cassius smothered a yawn. “Don’t cast any more spells without making a Lantern first. Remember, ten feet wide by the end of the week.” He poked Garth’s hand, stomach and other hand. “Channel your mana from here, to here, to here. That’s all you need to practice before the next lesson.”