Three hours of digging left me only with the nagging feeling of time wasted.
"Having trouble?" a voice said, and I looked up to find Master Julian standing over me.
A dozen books sat on the desk beside me, and I gestured at them as a reply, closing the one in front of me.
"Is there a reason why we are allergic to writing down information on the Founders?" I asked, sighing and rubbing my eyes.
"Well, in their defense, we had bigger concerns than writing down everything a thousand years ago. Monsters lay around every corner, which was a bit more pressing, I think."
"Still. They are the seven strongest mages of their era, and we do not even know their names. It's..." I trailed off, unsure how best to describe it.
It was beyond strange. It should be impossible. The seven Founders were the most influential figures in our entire history, yet all we had were nicknames and vague descriptions of their abilities. All I managed to learn was that The Mystic was suspected of being an Aether mage due to his unmatched raw power, but even that was inconclusive.
Julian shrugged, responding, "Honestly, I've always wondered if they were as strong as the stories say. We've come a long way since those days, and I doubt that they could keep up with someone like Elden. And a few historians wonder if they even existed or if they are fabrications crafted by latter figures. The idea of heavenly blessed mages does help lend credence to your right to rule, after all."
He had a point, and I wondered how possible it was that the information was purposefully omitted for that exact reason. It did not matter much, I decided and replied, "In that case, do you know anything about a man named Cortos? Master Barlow mentioned him, and I have found a few brief references, but nothing more."
Master Julian blinked, tilting his head at me. His face turned stony, and he responded in an even tone, "I'll say this and only this about Cortos, Vayne. Don't dig into his life. He is many things, but a good person is not one of them."
"Well, I do not plan to turn into the man, but a little help would be-" I cut off my rising voice, taking a few long breaths before continuing, "We are two days into classes, and I have more mediocre performances than I care to count. Barlow went out of her way to single me out, several other masters showed veiled distaste, and the only classes I showed promise in are yours and Forging."
"And clearly, the only rational response is to whine like a child," Julian remarked with a thin smile, sighing and shaking his head at me. "I thought you'd be better than that."
I closed my eyes, considering what to say before responding, "You are right, master. You have caught me in an...undignified moment. Please forgive me."
"Of course. Now, what are you going to do to fix this?" Julian asked, leaning on the table and staring at me.
"Well, I do not suppose you have another bounty for me? Maybe something a bit less dangerous?"
"Sorry, Vayne, but no such luck today." he laughed, and I smiled ruefully before standing up.
"Where are you going?"
"To sleep. I want my rest if I am going to start 'fixing' anything." I responded, glancing over my shoulder before walking away.
Well, at least Master Barlow had spoken true, which was not great but better than nothing. I was on my own, or at least damn close to it.
As I walked to my room, I debated the viability of just admitting the truth of my potential to Duke Estton. If he thought I could prove valuable, maybe...
No. It was too risky, and in all likelihood, the Duke would turn me over to King Lyos. A craftier noble might keep me hidden and try to wield me as a weapon against the crown. Not great, but it kept me out of the public eye, and I could turn that to my advantage if I was smart.
But Rufus Estton was too loyal of a man. He could barely stomach the thought of a coup and would never dream of betrayal. Leveraging advantages to help his family was one thing, but never to the detriment of Ferris.
As with most problems, no easy answer came, and the following day arrived with little fanfare and even less development. In Magic Theory, Master Clemons reviewed useless information, repeating things I had already learned about Origin Breathing, with one notable exception.
Sophia had asked, "Should we still practice Origin Breathing if we have a better option available? I was under the impression that not all are created equal, and it seems a waste of time to learn two."
"Yes, I'm sure most of you face a similar dilemma. The short answer is yes, with a but attached. It would be best if you practiced Origin Breathing with the intent to use it as a foundational tool. Its simplicity makes it perfect to learn the movements of mana. The ebbs and flows, and how to control them. After you've reached that point, consider using a more advanced method."
When class ended, I decided to risk possibly drawing too much attention and approached Master Clemons. He turned to me, a smile on his broad face as he said, "Yes, Apprentice Vayne?"
Again, I could not help the brief twinge I felt that he knew me by face. Until my position was more secure, anonymity might be better, but establishing some positive relationships with the masters might be worth the risk.
"Well, I had a follow-up question, master. About Origin Breathing, but also mana gathering in general. Are there ways to improve or alter the technique enough to keep up with superior methods?"
Master Clemons raised an eyebrow, responding, "You are skipping a few steps, apprentice. Most eventually modify their techniques to suit personal preferences, but not within the first month of training. Rarely within the first few years, in fact. I would recommend the same as I did to your young lord. Progress with Origin Breathing for now, and consider changes later."
"I-well, sir, does that not threaten to leave me behind the others?"
"Yes and no. As your skill grows, gathering speed and efficacy will increase. In fact, because it is so quick to master, you might progress more rapidly than most through into Haze. Once you reach Mist, the limitations will appear, but you have time to acquire a superior technique."
"I understand. Thank you, sir." I said, bowing my head.
My disappointment must have shown, and he smiled sympathetically before saying, "I cannot tell you much else, and not for the reasons you might think. Mastery of magic cannot be given but earned. I...well, let us leave it at that for now."
Master Clemons seemed a genuinely kind man, and I nodded before walking away. His words were not much help, but at least I could practice Origin Breathing without it feeling like too much of a waste of time. I had not abandoned plans to alter the technique to my purposes, but that should wait until I knew more. Or until I could convince Leon or Sophia to share details about their methods.
Spell Casting, War Theory, and History came and went without incident, though the last of the three stood out as the worst. The master continued his streak of thinly veiled contempt, outright ignoring my raised hand three when I went to answer questions. I might be a poor hand with most magic, but my memory was better than most.
That only made it more frustrating when the master ignored me in favor of other apprentices. I had to content myself with Forging, where Master Laila noted my progress with her provided mana control exercises.
When the day had finished up, I once more was alone, deep under the Academy in a training room. Master Clemons had cautioned not to experiment with my gathering techniques, but Master Merton gave fewer restrictions. In her eyes, as long as we did not endanger other apprentices, she did not care much about what we did.
I faced one of the targets and raised my left hand, pulling mana into my grasp. The process was faster and easier than ever, and in two seconds, I had a Mana Bolt gathered. The attack flew, slamming into my target with a dull thud. As with previous attempts, the projectile left behind a notable dent, even in the reinforced material.
A typical Mana Bolt was concussive, using blunt force trauma to injure or kill. In my case, this equated to a two-handed strike from a heavy weapon, such as a war hammer. This attack could prove deadly against unarmored foes, but against plate armor, it might have shortcomings. And when faced with creatures such as dragons, whose scales made metal look flimsy, it would be next to useless.
I could practice increasing the speed and number of projectiles and approach it as a 'death by a thousand cuts' situation, but why waste the energy? Master Julian had said during his class that we should work with our natural inclinations, not against them, and that felt apt advice for Aether mana. If it was so powerful, why not exploit that for all it was worth?
Again, I readied the spell, but this time I did not launch it right away. Instead, I held it in place, pushing and prodding to try and force it smaller. The orb, around the size of my fist, barely shrunk by a half-inch before my control began to waver. Rather than fight it, I released the energy and let the mana dissipate harmlessly.
Was it too much mana at once, or was my control insufficient? Likely both, but only one was immediately fixable. On my second attempt, I used half the energy as before, and this time, I found it much easier to compress. The orb shrunk down, shrinking by the second until it hit a 'wall' at around an inch across.
When I was sure it would go no farther, I aimed and released the energy. There was a flash, the bolt crossing the gap in a blur of green. It was fast enough to appear more like a solid beam, though I knew it remained a singular projectile.
Unfortunately, I had little chance to focus on the results on the target, thanks to the effects on my flesh. The center of my palm burned, and in the center of my flesh was a red mark. It felt like pins and needles digging into my skin, and I shook out the hand with a hiss.
It looked like a burn, but I knew it was not really. Aether did not have any heat, but what it did do was break down objects, almost like acids used to clean steel. Evidently, my body was not quite as durable, or my control not honed enough to make full use of my mana.
"At least that solves one problem," I murmured, remembering Leon's offer to help my progress if possible. I had given it some thought and hoped to exploit that for something a bit more creative, but necessity trumped all else. An explanation of my mana and its shortcomings should be enough to earn his sympathies and a resource to strengthen my channels.
"Make that two problems," I corrected myself as I walked up to the target.
The Mana Bolt, or Mana Beam as might be more appropriate, had worked better than expected. Rather than a dent, there was a deep hole burrowed right into the reinforced wood. An extended finger sunk three inches, and I had to suppress a shudder at the thought of how this would fare against flesh. Maybe that same property was why it had seared my skin? Impossible to say without further testing.
Mixed results aside, it was an overall positive outcome. With some rest, careful use, and maybe a healing potion, my skin should heal just fine, and I could possibly use the new spell a few more times without risking permanent damage. Considering the original form could kill with a single, well-placed projectile, this one should be even more effective.
A few minutes later, I knocked on a door, folding my arms behind my back to hide the still-red mark on my palm. Leon answered it within seconds, eyes blinking as he said, "Vayne? I did not expect to see you tonight."
"Apologies, sir, but would you care to get dinner with me? I have had little chance to fulfill my duty as an advisor or as a friend. Please, allow me to rectify that mistake." I responded with a smile.
It felt a little uncomfortable to consider, but Leon had often told me to regard him as a friend and not just a lord. Truth be told, I preferred it on some level. I still felt a confusing mixture of feelings on Duke Estton and his children, but friendship and a bit of trust would work until they become more apparent.
And if our friendship happened to earn me some assistance for my magic, all the better. Kindness and pragmatism were not mutually exclusive, and I could not afford to lose the latter to preserve the former.