“Oh!” Alex stood up quickly in respect. “Hello professor…”
The goatman waved him back into his seat. His fingers were almost as big as Selina’s wrists. “Don’t bother with all that, I’m not one for formality. And the name is Baelin.”
“Alex Roth, First Year, and whatever you say, professor, you’re literally the boss here.” Alex sat down casually. “So, you think I should take it, Professor Baelin?”
“If I had my way, it would be compulsory,” Baelin said, and his voice was like quiet thunder. “Proper Wizards deal with forces that can—and have—annihilated entire civilizations: it’s madness to not teach one to defend themselves.”
“Um, forgive me if I sound like I just crawled in from the countryside —because I did—but I thought that’s what the battle-magic course was for, professor. Same with the course on weapons taught by The Watchers.”
“Both fine courses that I highly recommend.” Baelin pulled out the chair opposite the young spellcaster and sat down again. He placed his book on the table, but Alex couldn’t read the writing on its spine. His heavy robes rustled as he settled himself. “But what is a wizard to do when their mana runs dry? What is a wizard to do when their staff breaks? When a sword is dull or cannot pierce the enemy?”
Alex thought back to the recent fights he’d experienced.
Against the Silence Spider in Coille, he’d used his forceball to destroy its insides, but Brutus and Theresa had done much of the work in pinning it down. It had been the cerberus who had torn its throat out. His magic was useless against the hive-queen; only the fire-gems’ explosion and The Traveller’s portals had saved their lives. Then there was the mana vampire: a mop and two spears had brought it down, not a spell.
“Then you need to adapt,” Alex found himself saying. “You have to think of what you have available and use that to defeat your enemy or survive.”
Baelin paused in surprise. “Well said, not many students come with that attitude. Most trust in optimal magics too much. I suppose I can’t blame them, though: much of the world seems a little less dangerous when you can conjure storms with a few careful words of power. Of course, that belief is how the world kills so many who think themselves invincible.”
There was a casualness in the way Baelin talked about death, like if he were discussing the market price of fish. “Hmmmm…you’re from Thameland, judging by your accent?”
“Yes.” Alex nodded. “You’ve heard of The Ravener?”
“Oh yes, I know of The Ravener,” Baelin said. “It is one of many great threats in the world, and threats must be fortified against. That’s why I implore you to take my course: wizardry is dangerous.”
“Isn’t the course dangerous, professor?”
“It is, and that is the point.” The hulking beastman spread his hands. “What is better? One can learn combat in a safe classroom or a gymnasium, flinging spells at targets or having nonlethal duels against fellow classmates—with all the rules and fairness of a chess tournament—only to be destroyed when true danger raises its ugly head. Bandits and mercenaries play by no rules. Monsters do not attack you in a classroom, and if they do, you would not expect it: things that seek your life attack you from surprise, from the dark and in rough terrain. They do not seek fairness, they seek your life. I cannot count how many of those trained in ‘fair conditions’ have died to decidedly unfair circumstances they had not prepared for.”
He pointed to the course entry. “So, one trains and fights in more dangerous scenarios under my careful supervision, against opponents who seek to maim or kill. You learn of yourself and your resources while under supervision. You face your fears. You strangle your hesitation. When you emerge, you know how to fight as only a Proper Wizard can fight: with everything you have.”
Alex looked to the course entry again. He had misgivings about it: Lucia’s injury was fresh in his mind. Then again, wouldn’t gaining experience in defending himself be exactly what he’d need to avoid her fate? A lot of what the professor had said made sense to him. The mana vampire had tried to ambush him, and the hive-queen had terrorized them, trying to corral them into a death trap.
He looked to the hulking beastman whose eyes seemed to burrow through him, almost as if he was peering through his shirt and flesh. Unconsciously, Alex shifted his right shoulder away from his gaze.
“Professor, I’m honoured, but why me?” Alex asked. “I’m just a normal first year, and the only spell I know is forceball. Aren’t there other more skilled students you’d want to recruit?”
Baelin snorted. “The course does not attract much interest—for reasons you can guess—which keeps the class size small, if one puts it charitably. To put it uncharitably, the course has very little enrollees. I cringe to see students walking from the doors of the university—into a great, dangerous universe that has opened up to them thanks to our teachings—without the proper defences in place. So, if there is a student—even if that student wants to go off and brew toe-rot cures for villages—who shows any interest, then am I to let the opportunity pass? Am I to let them pass unprepared?”
Alex paused for a moment, looking at the course again. There would be risk to this. A strong risk. Of course, judging by the explosion that just took place, this entire school presented risks. Magic always did. He thought back to his early experiments learning the forceball. Nearly blowing his face off in the forest. Nearly causing a mana reversal.
Better to be prepared now and alive later, than safe now and dead forever.
Decisively, Alex wrote in COMB-1000 as his final course choice.
Baelin gave a low rumble of approval as he rose from his chair. “Welcome To the Art of the Wizard in Combat, Mr. Roth. Along the way, you’ll curse yourself and me for bringing you into the course. Later, I guarantee you’ll think of it as one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.”
He extended a hand toward Alex.
Without hesitation, Alex shook it.
Maybe he’d found his first ally at Generasi. Time would tell.
For now, he had a month and a half to prepare.
Training Day 1
Three Sets of Push-Ups: BEGAN. 9,8,7. DONE. TOTAL=24
Alex finished scrawling the note into his book—shining his forceball onto the page—and quietly closed it. It was still dark. He could hear Brutus snoring by the balcony while Theresa and Selina hadn’t moved from their room yet.
Filled with anticipation and energy, he’d woken up just before sunrise, earlier than both of them, and decided to get things started. With only a limited amount of time before courses began, he needed to make as much progress as possible.
He stretched after the push-ups as Theresa had instructed him to do, then slid the borrowed spell-guides from the bookshelf and slipped them into his bag. He got dressed, cut the mana to the forceball, and quietly left the room, concentrating on The Mark to focus on his stealth.
He’d been doing a lot of sneaking lately, and memories for The Mark to draw on were a lot more numerous than when he’d started. He noticed his steps were making less noise than they had in the Cave of the Traveller, and the movement—placing his weight carefully and quietly with each step—was becoming more natural.
He silently entered the third floor lav for a quick wash, then headed out.
Across the grounds were clashes of light and sound: other students diligently practicing utility spells for their summer courses. According to the course guide, the school had a stadium for combat practice, duels, and other games. It was only there--where they wouldn’t blast or burn up parts of the campus’ greenery--that students were allowed to practice combat spells.
Exploring it could wait until later.
This morning would be for preliminary baseline tests.
He laid out the five 1st-tier spell-guides he’d borrowed from the library, ordering them from left to right. Leftmost spells were those he thought would be easiest for him to work with. Rightmost were those he guessed would be more difficult.
On the left was ‘Forcedisk’: a spell very similar to his forceball, which created a floating plate. Next, was ‘Wizard’s Hand’, a spell that created a floating hand of force that was weaker than his forceball, but had the advantage of dexterous fingers. It had a more complex spell array.
The middle spell was outside of the school of force: ‘Orb of Air’, which created a sphere of compressed air that could be used underwater to surround one’s head with a bubble of air, or to create a small, harmless blast of wind if one burst it.
The second to last was ‘Lesser Heat’, which simply heated an object, such as warming up a cold cup of tea, or one’s hands on a winter day. It was a simple elemental spell, and it would be his first entry into Fire-Magic. If he learned more about the subject, then one day he might be able to use the stone goddess’ fire-gems properly. He smiled at the thought.
Finally, there was ‘Summon Stone’, one of the simplest summoning spells one could practice: it conjured a small rock from the elemental planes. It had little practical use—unless one was at a lake and had no rocks to skip—but it was good practice for asprising summoners, according to the spell guide. It was completely unrelated to anything he’d studied.
He cracked his knuckles, and opened ‘Forcedisk’.
Alex studied the spell, noting the similarities in its spell array, and the spell array of his forceball.
This would be a good starting point.
He’d need to warm up first, though, and take a careful account of how his forceball functioned. Concentrating, he began to cast a forceball, going through the familiar motions while The Mark bombarded him with failures. He carefully and slowly constructed the spell array, guiding his thoughts through the invasive images. He felt his heartbeats and counted them.
The forceball winked to life. He grimaced as he finished counting, then cut the flow to the magic circuit and waited, counting the beats until the forceball winked out.
His eyebrows rose as he recorded the results:
Spell Formation: Ten heartbeats
Dissipation: Six heartbeats
He flipped back to his last entry before he’d been branded with The Mark of the Fool.
Spell Formation: Oneish heartbeats.
Dissipation: Three and a half heartbeats.
Spell formation speed was a tenth of what it used to be: he could have conjured forceballs in his sleep before he’d received The Mark. Still, dissipation had nearly doubled, which meant that the spell was packed far more efficiently with mana. The modification he’d done to the spell array when he’d been branded had continued to show results.
He looked at the spell-guide for the ‘forcedisk’, rethinking his plan.
If he was going to start learning spells similar to the one he already knew, wouldn’t it make sense to truly explore what he already knew first? One didn’t build the second floor of a house if the first floor didn’t have all of its supporting walls. If The Fool was going to use his memories of failed spellcasting to hinder him, then better he observe those failures with a spell that he knew well.
“I’ll analyze the problems first,” he noted, scrawling another note into his book.
Explore failures, use every failure possible that is presented. Analyze them. Use that to generate improved forceball. Could impress professor for FORC-1550.
Use experience with tweaking spell array to serve as a basis for learning new magics.
Explore forceball first.
What had the librarian said? Something about students getting into trouble because they tried to run before they could crawl? He wouldn’t make the same mistake.
He closed the book on ‘forcedisk’ after copying the incantation, spell array and diagram for the magic circuit into his book. He would compare the two spells and analyze their similarities.
Falling into himself, Alex began casting the forceball again, noting any failures that The Fool showed him. His mind drank in their details like a mana vampire would drain a wizard, then he ended the spell before the magic circuit would complete.
He wrote down the details of those failures: the exact misalignment of mana circuitry, the exact orientation of the spell-array and anything else that stood out. He recorded the results of those failures as well.
Over and over, he cast his forceball, observing the failures The Fool presented and filled pages with them. Each time he took a note, he used The Mark to continue improving his handwriting, focusing on increasing both its neatness and speed.
Through repetition, his writing transformed, growing smaller and neater, allowing him to fill more notes into each page.
By the time the sun had fully risen, he’d filled three pages with tiny observations of his failures. It wasn’t even a comprehensive list yet. The Mark seemed dead set on calling up every single mistake he’d made in spellcraft since he’d first heard the term ‘forceball’.
Well, that was alright by him.
Failure could be just as excellent a teacher as success, if not even better.