The fraternity leader’s smile faded as Alex and Khalik roared with laughter.
“Why-why are you laughing?” Alex wheezed.
Khalik was nearly coughing as he tried to catch his breath. “He does not know what he says! In…in my country calling someone a coward is insult enough to trigger an honour duel! But look at him! He is no warrior! It is like a young child trying to give insult! Rarely, have I seen anything so ridiculous! Why do you laugh?”
Alex was laughing because of how ridiculously stupid trying to join a fraternity of battle-mages would have been for him. The Art of the Wizard in Combat was one thing—Baelin had said it was about using all of one’s resources to conduct oneself in battle—but a fraternity for battle-magic?
The Mark would be screaming at him just for thinking of going down that path.
“I just wouldn’t fit in!” was all he said. “Sorry man, all respect to your brotherhood, but I don’t think it’s for us.”
“You’ve got a funny way of showing respect,” one of the other boys said. “Last I checked, laughing at someone’s brotherhood was an insult.”
“It’s fine,” the leader said. “It’s clear these two aren’t warriors. Let them have their little laugh party.”
“We are not warriors?” Khalik raised an eyebrow. “Look at the way you walk: I am no master of weapons, but you do not move with any grace of one used to the battlefield.”
Alex looked at the three young men closely. With a thought, he focused on standing in the way a warrior would. The Mark showed him enough details in his own movements and that in others to recognize what Khalik was talking about. Cedric had moved with an easy grace that hinted at explosive, deadly movement at any time. Captain Fan-Dor and his brother Gel-Dor had perfect balance on the rolling ship and were quick, despite their bulk.
Theresa moved with the graceful silence of a predator on the hunt.
These three had slouches in their backs and a lack of balance in their posture. If it weren’t for The Mark’s memories and details on his own posture, he likely wouldn’t have noticed.
The three boys looked at each other, and then they burst out laughing.
“You hear that, Gregori? He says we don’t ‘move’ like warriors,” the leader turned to one of his ‘brothers’.
Gregori stepped forward, his long blonde hair blowing in the low wind. “In my country that’s a deadly insult.”
Alex looked between the two long-haired men, feeling the tension rise.
“Well, I guess everyone’s even?” he shrugged, trying to keep his voice light.
“Maybe.” Gregori’s eyes narrowed, then scanned the stadium. Many students had lost interest in the exchange, but others were still watching. Something changed in the young man’s eyes. “Say, are you two the betting type?”
“Nooope,” Alex said. The last thing he needed was to gamble away part of their savings on whatever this was going to be.
Gregori continued. “Well, a bet would have made it more interesting, but fact is, we both insulted each other. We could let bad feelings stand-”
“I literally have no bad feelings,” Alex said a little loudly.
“-or we could have a little game to settle things. Like wizards.”
Khalik cocked his head to the side. “What sort of game is this?”
“Spell jousting,” Gregori said. “We each pick spells we’re good with. Same ones, if each of us know them, and we crash them together. Fire bolt against fire bolt. Frost spray against frost spray. Loser’s the one whose spell gives out or gets crushed by the other. What tier of magic can you both cast?”
“Interesting,” Khalik crossed his arms. “I have just reached the second tier last month.”
Alex blinked at him and then he crossed his arms too. “I’m almost at the second tier myself.”
That was probably true. Probably.
“Well then, I’m at the first, and my two friends are at the second. Let’s settle this by way of competition. Come on, or was our ‘coward’ comment from earlier less ‘insult’ and more ‘fact’?”
Khalik’s smile had faded. “I know I’ll accept your challenge.”
Alex looked at Gregori carefully. The young man had definitely been exercising, judging from his build, but that wouldn’t matter in a contest of spells. As for if he could beat him…
Alex wasn’t sure if that mattered either.
There was nothing on the line for him, except pride and showing that he knew his way around spellcraft. Then again, this might be a way to test the limits of The Mark. How would it react if he targeted others’ spells? Also, it’d be a chance to practice against someone else before he took whatever test the chancellor had waiting for them.
“Hey.” He pointed at Gregori. “Can you cast forceball?”
“Alright, I’m in. Let’s do this.”
The brotherhood had booked a large section of the stadium’s training grounds for their ‘welcoming tests’: a section that was clear stone with no targets.
“So, let me get this right.” Alex called his forceball over. “We smash our forceballs together like two deer in mating season, and the first that goes ‘pop’ loses.”
“Y-yeah…” Gregori was eyeing Alex’s forceball. “Say uh, that’s your forceball?”
“The first tier spell forceball?”
“The spell that’s supposed to be able to carry things, be a child’s toy and shed light?”
“It’s bigger than your head.”
“Uh-huh. Are you going to start casting now, or what?”
Gregori’s eyes narrowed. “How long have you been practicing with that spell?”
A pause. “I’m a battle-mage,” Gregori said quickly. “We should be using battle-magic to battle with. This utility spell is not worthy of jousting. You should cast-”
“This is the only spell I know.”
Gregori grimaced. “I see.” He sighed. “Well, then-”
He spoke an incantation and after three seconds his own forceball winked into being. It was maybe half the size of Alex’s and its blue glow was much less bright. His own version of the spell had once looked like that…about a year ago.
Gregori’s ball slowly floated up beside him while Alex’s zipped to float above his shoulder.
Alex tried to make that same easy grin as Cedric and Captain Fan-Dor. “Ready when you are.”
Gregori sighed. “This is beneath me. Like fighting with a mop.”
“Hey don’t knock it ‘til you try it.”
“What was that?”
The battle-mage shot his spell forward.
Alex’s eyes narrowed and he willed his forceball at Gregori’s at full speed, tensing in case of-
The Mark began to flood his mind with failur-
‘Oh shut up,’ he thought.
It was time for ‘operation mana vampire smashes face’.
Anticipating The Mark’s interference, he stopped the forceball dead in its tracks, letting its protests fade. Gregori’s forceball slammed into his with a hollow thud.
His didn’t budge.
Gregori’s eyes narrowed.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Again and again Gregori smashed his forceball into Alex’s spell and it vibrated from the force of it. Alex simply waited at first, watching. Then he began to try different movements. While Gregori’s forceball simply drifted through the air, Alex’s shot around like an arrow, completely under his control.
He circled Gregori’s, made figure-eights, whirled around it, and then always stopped right in its path. The other mage was starting to grow redder in the face. “Why won’t you attack?”
“I am. Very, very gently.”
“You’re not funny.”
“I strongly disagree.”
After an agonizingly long time, Gregori’s forceball took one too many impacts and popped out of existence. Alex’s hadn’t even flickered.
He shrugged. “Well, I guess that means I-”
Gregori spat out another incantation, then raised his finger toward the forceball. A beam of blue light shot from his palm and blasted deep into the crimson orb. For a few seconds, Alex’s spell held firmly before he pulled it away; any longer and it would have been extinguished.
“You were right,” Gregori dusted himself off. “You are no battle-mage. If I’d known you would not be taking the challenge seriously, I never would have spoken about you coming to the brotherhood.”
“Okay, look, I don’t care about your brotherhood.” Alex gave him a look. “I don’t know what your problem is, but me and my only friend on campus were having a good time—practicing hard—when you all waltz up like you’re some chosen heroes-”
‘Like me,’ he added dryly in his head.
“-acting like if anyone joins you it’s some great honour. I was thinking that I was soooo unsuited, and had a gooood old laugh about that. But you all made assumptions and took my laughing as some personal insult, then you insulted myfriend and then it was all ‘spell-jousting makes hard feelings go away’—and, well, that was a lie because I’m pretty sure you’ve only got hard feelings, and I’m getting them myself—and then you complain about the spell choice, and I dick around because I’m not a battle-mage and I never said that I was,and now you’re acting like your wounded pride is somehow my fault?”
“You were to take the spell-joust seriously! Not act like you were my superior just because you practiced one utility spell for a deranged amount of time!”
“Look, if ‘practicing a utility spell for a deranged amount of time’ is good enough to get into the greatest university for wizards in the world, then I think it’s good enough for anyone.”
Gregori made an irritated noise. “Why are you even in the combat stadium? If you have no interest in battle-magic then why are you here?”
“Because I’m enrolled in COMB-1000. Are you?”
Gregori’s next retort died in his mouth.
“Well,” Alex pushed. “Are you?”
“...hm,” was all Gregori said before turning and leaving the field.
Alex stepped over to where Khalik was waiting for his turn.
“Good job,” Khalik laughed. “Do me a favour though, please don’t act as such a fool when the actual class starts?”
Still laughing, he stepped forward to begin his own battle.
Alex sighed as he watched him go.
He would have if he could have. Maybe through their class, he’d learn more about how to do that.
Training Day 31
Push-ups: 20, 19, 16 TOTAL= 55
Spell Formation: Seven Heartbeats
Dissipation: Seven Heartbeats
Amount of times casting forceball: Ten
Amount of times casting super forceball (extra large with a side of potatoes): Five
Skills: Reading - COMPLETE, Writing - COMPLETE, Spear-And-Oar Dance (18th day of practice ) - COMPLETE, Breathing (still can’t believe this) - COMPLETE, Running -
Alex, Khalik and Theresa tore through the beastarium, running around the field while Brutus bounded along with them. Selina watched them from one of the benches with her general studies book in front of her. She’d reached a chapter on Generasi which had lots of pictures of its oldest buildings. The girl had been lost in the book ever since.
Alex’s form had improved tremendously in the last month, and his stamina was starting to rise sharply since he’d altered his diet following Khalik’s advice and The Mark’s suggestions. Now, he could almost keep up with both his oldest friend and his newest, through their daily running practices. His breath had become much steadier since he’d started to use The Mark to practice controlled breathing, which increased his endurance even more.
His forceball was nearing as close to ‘perfection’ as he’d likely get it before combat class started. He’d figured out how to make it smaller in addition to super-sizing it, though he hadn’t found any practical applications for the smaller version yet. He’d gone through just about every string of ‘failures’ The Mark had generated, and mixed and matched them. Some proved to be dead ends, some proved they might be promising when he had more mana.
The spell’s efficiency going up had been a nice surprise, and it felt like his mana was increasing too. Very productive month. He was glad that he’d actually had the downtime to practice. He laughed to himself as a thought occurred of trying to build up while racing from fight to fight and dungeon to dungeon.
That led him to think about Thameland and wonder what was going on there.
They hadn’t heard anything on campus recently, and he was still too afraid to go into the city and ask around: not with all the priests out there. Still, Alex knew he had to do it sooner or later. Theresa had sent a message to the Lu’s to let them know they’d arrived safely, and left a note at the docks for Captain Fan-Dor so he could find them.
But, there was still the matter of looking into more permanent housing, and some sort of income to settle.
‘Maybe I could see if the sky-gondola company is hiring,’ he thought glumly as they finished their final lap and slowed to a stop.
“You’re getting better.” Theresa stretched, taking a deep breath as she grabbed the waterskin from their table and drank deeply.
“You are, it is impressive,” Khalik watched him with curiosity. “Your technique especially.”
“Thank…you…” Alex panted. “Think I’m almost ready for the horrible death course?”
“Time will tell.” Khalik shrugged, then looked to Theresa. “What of you? How goes your preparation?”
“Yeah,” Alex jumped in. “You steal any secret techniques from the Watchers of Roal?”
The huntress held out a flattened hand and teetered it up and down. “I’ve been practicing what I see, but sword-arts aren’t like what you do: I can’t exactly just read a book a bunch and pick it up.” She sighed. “And I don’t even know how to prepare for Lifeforce. It’s like…affinity test day 1 and if it doesn’t work, that’s it. I’m almost glad it starts early like your course does. I think I’d go crazy if I had to wait anymore.”
“You’ll be fine,” Alex assured her. “I mean, I believe in you. Seriously. You got what it takes.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“If it’s something that you're interested in, you’ve got what it takes,” Alex said firmly.
“Thanks.” She smiled at him. “I’ll…I’ll try to remember that.”
Alex had to ignore Khalik giving him a thumbs up from behind her.
Training Day 34
‘Forcedisk Experimentation Day’.
Alex took a deep breath as he laid his book in front of him. Across two pages were multiple diagrams: most of them were various alterations of his forceball’s spell array with little—very bolded—notes on which parts were the same as those of ‘forcedisk’.
On the right was the spell array diagram for ‘forcedisk’.
Beside it was a long list of instructions: parts of the spell that were identical to forceball’s casting. These he could concentrate on and trust his practice to see him through. Then there were the new parts.
He’d written up safety procedures: when to end the spell, how far to push it, and what dangers he might need to be careful of. He sighed, glancing down at his shoulder and then up to The Cells. He’d picked a secluded area near the back of the building for this.
Taking a deep breath, he started spellcasting.
The Mark came at him hard.
The trouble with doing so much experimentation lately was that it gave him even more failures for it to throw at him, and now he didn’t even have the complete familiarity with the spell to guide him along. The parts that he knew well were easy enough, but the new parts were dangerously hard.
Again and again he had to stop the spell as The Mark broke his concentration and threatened him with disaster. Each failure was written down, as well as what had caused it. Things to avoid for next time.
Then he’d go at it again.
Hours passed. Then even more.
Training Day 35
‘Forcedisk Experimentation Day II’.
He’d failed more than fifty times now.
But he’d also made progress.
Aspects of the spell array were starting to go more ‘right’ than ‘wrong’. Its structure was becoming more familiar. Each failure had generated a potential outcome for success and he recorded it and what to do differently.
He just needed to keep trying.
Training Day 36
‘Forcedisk Experimentation Day III’.
Mental fatigue was setting in, but progress kept him pushing forward.
The last two nights he’d dreamt continuously about ‘forcedisks’ and ‘spell arrays’ and ‘failures’. There were a lot of them now. But he was getting closer. The magic circuit was starting to form.
He was getting closer.
Training Day 37
‘Forcedisk Experimentation Day IV’.
The last words of the incantation left Alex’s lips.
The spell array completed in the midst of The Fool’s flood of failures.
The magic circuit formed.
A crimson glow winked into being, but not from Alex’s forceball.
A new spell hovered in front of him. It was flickering. It was unsteady. But his disbelieving eyes couldn’t mistake it:
It was a flat glowing crimson disk, about as wide as a dinner plate.
Alex was so elated he could have cried.
Despite The Mark of the Fool and all of the barriers it had put in front of him, he at last had learned a second spell.
He was on his way to becoming a proper wizard.
Whether or not his new knowledge would help him in Baelin’s class?
He’d know that in just a few short days.