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Not having much important business to attend to, I stopped at a few stores on my way back to the docks. I continued to marvel at the versatility of the adventurer’s bag. Why, imagine if just one man on every crew had something like this! Imagine a crew where everyone had such a bag! But no, even among adventurer circles, they had one person among the team designated as the bag-carrier. The magic was impressive, but cost prohibitive, apparently.

I added a number of miscellaneous and sundry items to the bag, mostly things I hadn’t had to acquire for myself by being part of a crew.

The rest of my time I spent relaxing at the bottom of the harbor, refilling my land-timer. I looked over my attribute points and decided the best excuse for how I allocated them was the truth – that could be accredited to my perk, after all. Nothing fishy indicating a cursed sailor there, huh?

I also considered what I’d do if the wizard spotted my cursed status. He gave no indication that he’d seen through my stats earlier, but he might not have tried. I needed contingencies in case I was outed.

I seriously considered not returning. I’d planned to train myself with whatever books I could. I hadn’t planned on a tutor. What were the odds someone like this guy had a high analyze skill?

I decided to chance it. Risky or not, I didn’t have any good options for learning magic, and magic was supposed to be my ace-in-the-hole when it came to a fight, right?

Still, I took a different route to the wizards’ house and checked for any signs of an ambush. The only thing that ambushed me was the crowd of children leaving the wizards house as I arrived.

I looked over the motley group of kids, my brow arced in amusement. They ranged across several social classes, and their age varied from those who looked little older than toddlers to that kind of proto adult that developed when kids spent all their time imitating their elders instead of developing their own talents and facing their own challenges. A few of these barely-teenagers noticed me and pointed. They whispered amongst themselves; then – I assume – tried to conjure some sort of magic on me. I gathered it failed, because the attention went from me to one of their own group, and they jeered him as they walked down the street. They were the proverbial kings of these calm, residential avenues. They’d take to scampering and talking quiet as soon as they crossed a street where they’d once seen a footpad.

I turned to find Renshaw standing in his door, watching the departing youngsters with a smile so fake it seemed plastered on. I suppose the mirth on my face as his obvious discomfort was obvious, because he shook his head ruefully.

“The brats are all kids of people who want them to be great and powerful wizards who make their parents lots of money. I feel like a cup of tea, how about you?”

“Sounds nice, thanks.” I made an effort not to ask any questions as I followed him into his home and looked about the room the kids had so recently vacated. It bore the signs of their recent departure, parts of it neatly organized and other parts not so much. I felt I understood his spartan interior much better now.

He seemed to expect me to ask questions and answered them despite my restraint. “I put on a class of sorts for kids, charge their parents a reduced rate for group time. It’s my most profitable venture, but the least productive and most trying.”

“Can kids learn magic in a group setting?”

“Oh yes, the trouble is it depends so much on their own discipline. In most cases, the thought of discipline is a joke. And do I really blame them? Even magic is boring when it’s all study and you’re dreaming of adventure!” I followed him into a small kitchen where he pulled down two glasses and a tall jar of tea steeping in the windowsill.

“Of course, few of them have even shown magical proclivities, and I could tally the number of spells learned between all of them on one hand!” He waggled three fingers as a more accurate figure. Then his other hand spun, and he procured an ice dagger which he promptly deposited in the tea jar. He met my eyes to see if I’d been paying attention.

“Anyway,” he continued, gesturing for me to grab the glasses and follow him into his backyard. “Most all of what they can do is manipulate mana for small effects, which is what we will be starting with.”

His tone of voice seemed disappointed to be moving on to business, so I indulged my curiosity of his business by asking, “why do parents send their kids to a group setting if there’s so little promise?”

“Ah, but there’s great promise!” Renshaw said, animated again. Was it possible the old wizard was lonely for company? “The earlier a child is indoctrinated in magic and the more time they spend in it, the more likely they are to discover and unlock their affinities. You said earlier you had unlocked your air and water affinities, but that was after – what? Twenty years of being a sailor?”

I waved my hand to let him know he was close enough as we sat at a small table. That also told me that Renshaw hadn’t seen my age from my stats, so he hadn’t analyzed me yet …

“Nearly everyone has something that they could identify with to utilize magic, but they never unlock it. Kids who spend more time learning about magic early on have an advantage!”

“And if people can get their kids to see a great wizard for a reduced group rate where progress is expected to be slow …”

Renshaw smiled as he sipped his tea. “Gotta pay the bills.”

I liked this guy! “So tell me about the mana manipulation the kids were doing.”

“First, let me see your stats.”

“Let me see yours.”

He seemed surprised that I’d demand that of him, but gave a half laugh and acquiesced. “I suppose that’s fair, showing that I am capable of teaching.”

Name

Marcus Renshaw

Age

65

Race

Human

Profession

Mage

Level

36

XP

9,650

Health

200

Mana

300

Stamina

300

Strength

20

Agility

22

Dexterity

24

Constitution

20

Endurance

20

Intelligence

30

Wisdom

30

Charisma

26

Luck

24

Magic

Mental (deeper magic)

Spiritual (deeper magic)

Air magic

Earth magic

Water magic

Renshaw was exactly what you’d expect a wizard to be: high Intelligence and Wisdom with the required point investments to keep his other stats from falling out of balance and dragging him down. He knew many different types of magic, including two deeper magics and what I assumed were the half-dozen basic magics. He had truly devoted himself to a lifetime of magical pursuits and the leveling required to be powerful enough to back them up.

And most importantly, I saw that he had an analyze skill of 8. My secret was safe.

I nodded to him in appreciation, then showed him my stats. He read over them, his eyes widening a bit. Probably because of the 25 I had in both Wisdom and Intelligence.

“How did you get these stats up so high?”

Yep, called it. I gave him a mostly true version of events: I’d been saving attribute points for years, ran into some trouble about the same time I unlocked my magical abilities, and decided that it was worth investing points into magical attributes.

He shook his head. “Most mages wish they could do that, but we’re under lots of pressure to expand our mana pool as fast as possible. Nevertheless, I once studied with a man who successfully pulled off exactly what you did: He saved for 13 levels before investing his points.”

“What happened to him?”

“For all his discipline, he thought Luck was a bogus attribute and let it fall behind. He fell down some stairs and paralyzed himself from the waist down. Last I heard he was researching magical prosthetics.”

I coughed out something that was half apology, half bark of laughter. Renshaw smiled and accepted that his friend had become just another cautionary tale.

“Do I have to worry about losing points because of artificial inflation? That was a big jump, after all.”

“Not yet, though I’m glad you came to me when you did. So long as you utilize your attribute potential, you won’t backslide on the numbers. At an attribute level of 25, you could probably go 3-4 weeks from the rank-up before losing a point. The higher you go the less time you’d have. With the practice I’ll have you doing with mana your mana pool you’ll have nothing to worry about.”

That was relieving news. The administrator had said something similar, about artificial inflation being a good warning but not a common issue. I’d still been worried. I’d hoarded those points for a long time, I didn’t want to lose them.

“So, I understand I have a decent mana pool and regen rate, but I didn’t learn any spells with it.”

“That’s not uncommon. Learning a basic spell unlocks that field of magic, but that person must be capable of learning that field to understand the spell at all. It’s a bit of a quandary we mages refer to as ‘did the bird or the egg come first’ but the discussion is just as irrelevant to you.”

I thought a bird had to exist before an egg, but I wasn’t paying for that kind of discussion.

“In your case,” he continued, “You unlocked the potential for two types of magic. Now, with proper study, you can learn spells in both fields.”

“How do I learn spells? I tried picking up on tricks my whole life, but never had the knack until now.”

“I imagine the ‘tricks’ you tried to pick up on were parlor tricks such as making a drop of water rise from a bowl or something like that?”

“Yes …”

“What was most likely happening was mana was being manipulated directly, not any actual spell work occurring. You’d have to be a gifted prodigy to pick up on magic from examples like that.”

“So … I don’t think I understand the difference between spells and … what you’re talking about.”

“Of course not,” Renshaw said with a smile. “How would mages exist as their own sect if magic was knowledge belonging to the masses?”

“That didn’t answer my question.”

“Mmm. Mana can be used as a simple fuel cost for spells, nearly everybody understands this. But they don’t understand that magic can be used outside of the structure of spells. How do you think spells are discovered? Some mage was playing around with mana and found a way to achieve a practiced result.”

“So you don’t need spells to use magic?” I asked, amazed.

“Now don’t get ahead of yourself,” Renshaw cautioned. “Imagine a spell to shoot an ice spike …” he demonstrated, a lance of ice shooting from his hand into the ground nearby, outside of where we sat in the shade. “That spell cost me 20 mana points. If I was to try and use mana to summon water or pull it from the air, freeze it, and then propel it … well, I don’t have the mana pool it would take to blunt force my way through that issue. It’s like having a sliver in your foot; a spell is like a pair of tweezers to pull it out with the most effectiveness. Using mana manipulation would be like taking a hammer to the other side of your foot to try and knock it free.”

“So, mana manipulation is the most versatile, but the least efficient?”

Renshaw hemmed and hawed over agreeing with that statement. “Mana manipulation isn’t confined to a field of magic, so technically yes. However, ‘inefficient’ doesn’t cover it. Some argue mana manipulation is its own branch of magic, somewhere between the basic and deeper magics. There are things you can do with it that spells just don’t exist for. However, there are also things simple spells can do that no level of mana manipulation could achieve.”

“So how do I learn spells?”

He grinned. “By practicing mana manipulation, of course!”

I groaned. “Here I was hoping I could just ignore that tangle of convolutedness.”

“Oh, come on!” he said, standing. “Are you one of my brats who come here because their parents sent them or are you here to learn?”

“You don’t leave a fellow a lot of wiggle room with those options,” I said, standing.

He chuckled. “You spend the afternoon with kids, and you learn quickly not to leave much wiggle room in choices. Come on, this is the fun part!”

I followed him to where he had a large, cracked wooden bowl set up on a table. He placed his hand inside of it, and a moment later it started to fill with water. My jaw dropped.

“Is that pure water?”

“It’s potable, yes. It tastes rather flat, though. There’s many things in water that this summoning spell doesn’t include.”

Oh, for sailors to be able to summon drinkable water at sea! We often found ourselves sailing into storms just to collect the rainwater.

Renshaw didn’t seem to realize how impressed I was by his simple spell. “Now, I suspect you’ve the strongest knack for water magic. Have you used it before?”

I thought back to when I raised my cursed ship. That had cost mana, but was that normal water magic? “I don’t think so.”

“Okay, then we’re going to start off by teaching you what mana feels like. I want you to visualize it, and without even realizing it, you’re going to find yourself tapping into your mana pool.”

“Wait, I’ve used magic runes before. I’ve felt the mana in those. Is it the same?”

He was surprised. “Where did you find yourself using runes?”

“Uh, joined up with a military ship. We were repelling boarders.”

“Well … yes, yes, it is the same! The type of rune affects how the mana would feel to you, but it would be a good first step!”

I thought of pulling mana from some deep, internal source into a heat like I’d felt when I’d broken the fire rune. I couldn’t remember what the lightning rune had felt like, I’d been pretty much manic with energy and stress by that point of the battle. The fireball had felt like heat, though …

“Don’t try and forcibly draw your mana. Imagine how it feels, you’ll tap into your mana without even realizing it.”

I stopped trying to pull something from within myself and relaxed. Picture the heat flowing up my arm … it had been soothing. Soothing, like the way the sun overhead basted my muscles in its warmth. That night had lacked the muggy heat I felt here, but most of my body had been in the sea, as I was taking the fight to the pirates who’d boarded my ship … pirates who would capture me, inflict me with stacking fear debuffs …

No, I was thinking about soothing feelings, not the fear and stress. Soothing, like the way the ocean had played against my knees and made my fear disappear. The way I’d radiated in the comfort the sea had given me …

“Oh my!” Renshaw gasped.

I opened my eyes, still luxuriating in the memory of that blessing from the sea. Renshaw was staring, looking me up and down. I looked at my arm, where I had my hand extended like I was going to manifest mana. Then I also looked all over me, my heart dropping.

Covering my hand, arm, my clothes, my entire body, was a swirling body of seawater. Only not actual seawater, it was mana. It swirled about me and clung to me. Renshaw traced a pattern in my arm that looked like a whirlpool moving towards my shoulder. I hugged my arm closer to my chest, and where the waves of mana met, they collided like great waves crashing together.

This has got to be because of my curse! I’m showing this wizard my cursed status as surely as if he’d analyzed me!

The mana stopped flowing. I felt some of it return, but most dropped to the ground around me like a bucket of actual seawater. A commensurate amount of my mana pool dropped just as fast – most of my pool.

I stood there, dripping wet, looking at Renshaw and wondering if he was going to demand answers or just start launching fireballs at me.

“That was exquisite!” Renshaw exclaimed. “Not only did you manifest your mana over your entire body, but the artwork! No, artwork is wrong, you weren’t trying to do that. It must be your sea perk. Yes, that’s right. You have a very strong water affinity, and your perk manifested in a unique way.”

When I realized Renshaw was handing a safe excuse to me, I started to wonder. It didn’t have to be caused by my curse, but maybe Renshaw’s guess didn’t have all the facts. Was it possible to manifest a deeper magic? My Hide True Nature ability also hid my ocean magic. I’d been thinking of the sea’s comfort, and while that was just as likely to mean water magic, I don’t think Renshaw would have freaked out that way over normal water mana.

“So … like that? That’s not how I felt when I used the fireball rune.”

“Fireball? Oh no, fire magic would feel different than water. It doesn’t matter, you only need to know how to access your mana to start. Though, I wouldn’t expect you to learn your own fireball spell. There’s a lot of overlap in capabilities. For instance, a skilled air mage can utilize lightning just like a fire mage, though they go about it differently. Someone like you, with an affinity for the opposite spectrum from fire, isn’t likely to discover the spell for a simple fireball.”

I was too surprised to hear that lightning was an air magic spell to be disappointed over not having fire magic. I’d only thought of air pushing things, maybe finding a way to fill my sails better. But lightning?

“I’m guessing that’s a spell that takes a lot of practice?”

He chuckled. “Of course. You seem to have a good start on getting the basics, but I’d still give it a few years before studying that one.”

We talked spells and magic theory for a few minutes, and I thought that Renshaw was giving my mana a chance to replenish naturally. Only when I realized that I had calmed down did I realize he’d handled me. I’d been seriously unnerved by my first mana manifestation. He probably thought I was just jittery, while in actuality I was sure I would somehow out my secret to him.

Oh, the webs we weave when we practice to deceive.

After we’d tarried long enough, we moved to what Renshaw wanted to show me in the first place: mana manipulation. The short of it was I would manifest the mana from my pool, then use it to complete an action and (hopefully) learn the spell. In this case, I was using my mana to push the water in the bowl. Ideally, it would click in my head and I would learn the spell water push.

Don’t knock the beginner spells. Baby steps.

Even baby steps proved difficult. My mana pool and regen rates were much higher than the average student, but I wasted huge amounts of it with every attempt. Extending my mana past my body was the first challenge. I wasn’t covering myself with every manifestation now, but my mind couldn’t get used to the picture of seawater extending from my hands. I’d lose control of it and it would splash to the ground like real water, only disappearing much faster.

“Would it be better if I tried to manifest air magic instead?”

“No,” Renshaw said, shaking his head. “This is what came to you first, so it’s the best. Besides, do you think you’d have an easier time visualizing air doing what you’re trying to do?”

I grumbled something even I couldn’t decipher. I wasn’t sure the old man wasn’t just leading me on and running up our lesson time. We were already into the second hour, and hadn’t he spent the first quarter hour explaining how he was essentially scamming his classes?

Given more time, practice, and advice from Renshaw, I eventually extended my mana into the bowl. Then I had to get over the mental idea that my seawater was going to mix with it. This happened faster, as Renshaw had me learning to not see it as seawater, but truly as mana.

Extend the mana into the bowl – don’t knock the bowl over – and push the water. No, I wasn’t thinking about how hard, sorry I splashed you Mr. Renshaw. There! I did it! Why didn’t I learn the spell?

Oh yes, practice and repetition. And this was a simple water push! Yes, those fantasies in the back of my head about wielding lightning were disappearing.

To expedite the process, Renshaw had me practice pull water too. With enough dexterity, I could push and pull the water in the bowl without splashing it all over or having to repeatedly re-summon my mana. I still burned through my mana at a ridiculous rate, and it made me think of more questions.

“If I’m having trouble with this, how did someone ever learn to follow lightning with their mana?”

“How did people learn what foods were delicious and which would kill them? Probably a lot of trial and error where people died. I’m sure there were natural inspirations or examples they emulated, but unfortunately the earliest unlocking of spells is an undocumented period for even the longest-lived races. But mana manipulation is not the only way to learn; I have spells that will zap my entire reservoir in one go. You think I could experiment with mana to discover something with a cost like that?”

“You’re asking the questions I’m thinking. It’s poor form to parrot you, so would you answer them as you go?”

He laughed. “The two ways you – as an uninitiated mage – can expect to learn your spells are through mana manipulation and skill books. If you want to learn anything a different way, you’d have to choose a magery profession.”

“What’s that about skill books? Don’t they teach you a spell by reading them?”

“They help you understand the spell. Skill books are infused with mana by someone with an understanding of the spell they’re writing. The mana-infused words help the reader retain and comprehend the material, but it’s not a simple ‘congratulations, you finished the book and therefore unlocked the secrets of the universe!’”

“Darn, those secrets have really been bugging me.”

He paused for a moment, then laughed again. “Take a break, you’re nearly spent.”

I felt spent. My head felt stuffy, and my ears were ringing a bit like I’d been in a fight and had my ears boxed.

We sat at the table and he poured us both some more tea, which I drank gratefully. “I take it there’s no skill book for water push?”

“Oh, I’ve got the primers for a lot of entry level spells. Trust me, this is the better use of your time. Besides being easier it’s more engaging – those books are dry, and you must be paying attention to every word. No knowledge gained for skimming. You are comfortable with reading, I take it?”

“My mother wouldn’t let me join a ships’ crew until I’d mastered it. You bet I learned my letters quick!”

He chuckled politely, though he couldn’t understand the boyish agony I’d just surmised. At the time, I’d chaffed under the stipulation, seeing it as just an excuse my mother had made to keep me home. It had been that, but it had still been wise. I’d learned quickly as a young boy when I climbed aboard a new ship that knowledge wasn’t something to be spurned just because higher social classes had it. Ignorance was dangerous. You could get through life well enough with some carefully allotted ignorance, but it was the knowledgeable people that knew what was going on and where they were going.

My mother … I hadn’t been much of a burden to her. I was only around for a few years before I pretty much disappeared from her life – popping in and out of sight like a tamed mimic. I’d gotten into my share of trouble in those early years, but being gone for the years that children most troubled their parents was a blessing to her, wasn’t it? I’d tried to give her money, provide for her like the father I might have had should’ve.

It had never seemed like the right thing. I was glad she was getting a second chance at a true family.

I realized I was staring off into space, and my grip around my tea was nearly hard enough to crack the glass. Whoops. I smiled apologetically at Renshaw, who was examining me politely. It was hard to think of anyone being polite in an examination, but he pulled it off. He was curious, interested in what was going through my head and trying to puzzle it out in his own. He didn’t descend into prying, though. Either he knew it would be bad for his business or he was a decent human being.

“Tell me,” I asked, returning to magic. “When I learn the spell, will I only be able to push puddles? Will I have to relearn the spell to be able to push ships away from the dock?”

“Good question! After you experiment a little, you will recognize the applications for functions that require greater exertions and be able to supply the mana cost for those as well.”

“Would you say that again? Slower?”

“When you learn water push, you will have the capability to push small amounts of water a little bit for a small mana cost. By practicing on larger scales, you will develop the spell. What once moved puddles will now move creeks. The cost of the spell will change too, dependent on which function of it you are using.

“Some sticklers like to differentiate these spells as ‘weak water push’ and ‘strong water push’ but I think splitting hairs like that is nonsense. Your affinity for the field of magic affects how easily you can learn these changes and implement them. For example, I had to work very hard to unlock my death magic, as I had a very low affinity for it. I learned the spell to summon a zombie, but even now can only reanimate low-level animals. Whereas a person with a high affinity for death magic could jump from cats to humans to monsters without much more than a bit of practice.”

“I saw you had a long list of known magics. Why is that?”

Renshaw waved the question away. “I studied with the intention of being a pure scholar, but that doesn’t earn XP for growth. I became something of a war mage without truly specializing in war. There’s a lesson for a lot of mages in that. Because I was a scholar instead of a typical war mage, I brought unique features to the fight. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t that kind of specialist, that didn’t stop me from unleashing hell.”

“Where did you fight? If I may ask …”

“You may ask. I won’t answer. I fought for a lot of people against a lot of others. Sometimes it was about principle. Mostly it was about farming XP. You can go your whole life and only advance a few levels. Start killing people though … you suddenly understand why wars happen so frequently. I wonder what a world without the need for XP would be like? What if we only got XP for quests? What would the world be like?”

Renshaw could have easily passed off his XP gains as being a monster hunter. He didn’t try to, he admitted to killing people. Maybe it had been for Andros, and this teaching position was his little rebellion against the structured magic society. I doubted it. Andros didn’t seem like it would let its mages be as mercenary as he claimed to be. Was it possible he really had trained in an area where they called themselves wizards?

“I think I owe you for two hours of training.”

Renshaw abruptly snapped out of his musings. “Of course. Practice on your own as much as you wish. If you’ve learned the spell when you come back, we’ll move on to another one.” He tapped his chin lightly. “Probably an air one next. Get your basics down and you can experiment more on your own.

I handed him the coin I owed him and thanked him.

“Shall I expect you tomorrow?”

“Not tomorrow. I’m working. Should be later this week.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What will you be doing that gives you such a schedule?”

I gave him my most winning smile. “Making money to pay you with, of course!”

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