The box that professor Val’Rok had assigned in Mana Manipulation didn’t prove to be a very worthy adversary.
Alex concentrated on it, guiding his mana through the specific pathways built into its inner structure. It was a puzzle in a way: a magical object that ran on mana combined with a child’s toy maze.
The glyphs on the side required one to guide one’s mana through the specific pathways—in the correct order—and ‘touch’ the underside of each glyph with mana in different ways. Some would require a sort of ‘twist’ with mana in order to activate, others needed a sort of ‘slight impact’ or ‘bop’, while others had little energy clasps to wrap one’s mana around and pull it in order to activate the glyph.
While the first glyph that his class was expected to empower had its ‘activator’ right at the edge of the mana pathway leading into the box, the rest were behind increasingly complex pathways within the ‘maze’. To make things worse, if one touched the ‘side’ of a pathway with their mana, or engaged with an activator incorrectly, the box was designed to eject the student’s mana. Then, it would scramble the pathways within the box so that the inner maze would change slightly after each failure.
In the end, students would have to weave their mana—contorting it like an acrobat—in increasingly complex patterns to reach subsequent glyphs’ activators, all of which would require different motions with one’s mana to activate successfully.
It started off easy, but became incredibly difficult as the task continued.
To Alex, the entire device proved to be a fun diversion which also happened to train his mana manipulation. He liked puzzles.
His years of experience controlling his forceball with his mana had left him very capable of making it flow in different ways according to his wishes. Then, his experience pitting himself against the dungeon core in The Cave of The Traveller, had taught him how to manipulate his mana against a weakened, but active opponent trying to stop him from performing a task.
The professor had only required the class to activate one glyph.
He’d managed two—almost three—on his first try.
Then The Mark began to work with him.
Images of all the correct choices he’d made during previous runs flooded his mind, with it focusing less on solving the puzzle in particular, and more on how he had contorted his mana to reach further into the maze. It meant that—each time—the act of manipulating grew a little easier. His mana grew more controlled and ‘shook’ less the further he pushed and contorted it through the maze. Each time he ran into a dead end, it grew easier to simply pull his mana back along the path without losing focus or the ‘feel’ of his energy, and avoid touching one of the sides.
It also helped him become more proficient with the particular ‘motions’ required to activate each glyph. Again and again he reached into the box, guiding his mana through its different pathways and touching the different activators. As successes piled up, he was soon able to activate the third glyph, then a fourth and then a fifth in the space of an afternoon.
As it became easier, he decided to add in extra challenges when he realized he would likely solve the entire box in a day or so. The first challenge he threw in was trying to maintain the forcedisk spell at the same time.
Forcedisk had also shown massive improvements in recent days.
He had used the same process as he had to perfect the forceball spell while The Mark, naturally, had tried to ruin his concentration with failures. He’d been able to quickly identify his mistakes, repeat the process with modifications, and build the spell array.
It was getting easier, and the forcedisk was growing rapidly in speed and power as both his skill with the spell increased, and his mana manipulation started to spike.
Today, he would try to combine both forcedisk and glyph box mana manipulation exercises.
First, he conjured the forcedisk, then he placed the box on the disk while manipulating his mana through the maze and the spell at the same time. When he found that to be easy, he began slowly drifting the forcedisk back and forth in front of him, which meant he had to push his mana in two directions at once: toward the spell and toward the magic box simultaneously.
That proved to be mind-bendingly difficult at first. It was like trying to write two different things with each hand—one needed to split their concentration into two directions and keep two different sets of movements coordinated while trying to reach two different goals.
The Mark was very helpful here and it aided him in a way that took him off guard.
It began by showing him images of itself helping him in unrelated circumstances, and it took him a few tries to figure out what it was trying to show him. He began to see that each time The Mark had presented him with images of successes or failures, it had actually been helping him learn how to split his concentration to take in different information, examine it, and build on it while focusing on whatever task he was performing at the time.
It brought up the times when he had directed his forceball while performing the Spear-and-Oar Dance; he had been sending his concentration in two different directions then.
It all came together in his mind and something clicked.
He lit up five glyphs in the training box while making his forcedisk circle his body like a vulture circling a corpse in The Barrens.
“Ugh,” he said at the thought.
His concentration abruptly slipped, and all the glyphs winked out.
“Ah, shit,” he swore. “Oh, sorry! Didn’t mean to disturb you, Theresa.”
He paused, hearing no response.
“Theresa?” he glanced over his shoulder at the balcony.
While he’d been practicing at the dining room table, Theresa was engaged in her Life Enforcement exercises on the balcony. Sitting cross-legged, her eyes were closed and her hands pressed to her knees while her chest and stomach rose in deep belly-breaths.
The rest of her body was so still that—if it weren’t for her breathing—Alex could have mistaken her for a life-like statue. Though her expression had naturally fallen into ‘deathstalker face’, there was a serenity coming from her entire body that made Alex’s breath catch.
Her bucket lay close by, but she hadn’t needed it that afternoon. She was coughing up that foul smelling stuff a lot less lately, and getting rid of it seemed to be having a pronounced effect on her.
An inner glow shone from her these days—even after fatiguing training—and her movements had become more graceful and fluid than before. On their long morning runs, she, Alex, Khalik—and now Thundar—used to start off running hard neck and neck until they tired and then, one by one, slow to a jog, then a walk. Alex would normally be the first to slow his pace.
In the weeks since Theresa had started her training, her stamina had grown by leaps and bounds. Where before she would keep up with Khalik, now she was regularly outpacing him, leaving the athletic man behind to catch his breath. Even Thundar—the most physically powerful of the group by a wide margin—started to have to push himself to keep up with her.
Alex quietly continued working on the puzzle box distractedly: he also watched his oldest friend while she continued her meditation until at last, she slowly opened her eyes. She stretched like a she-wolf rising from her den.
“Was it that interesting to watch?” she asked without looking at him.
He jumped suddenly. “Huh, wha-? I, uh, wasn’t watching.”
A sly smile crept across her lips and her eyes had a dreamy look to them. “Your eyes were boring into me like a mole trying to find its home. Was it that interesting?” She cocked her head, her face a mask of innocence while her eyes were downright predatory.
Alex blinked, his heartbeat quickening. Something about that look did things to him.
He did not have issues, he assured himself.
…or maybe he did, but he liked those issues.
“Alright, guilty as charged, but how did you know?” he said. “It looked like you were deep in your own pleasant little world. I was making noise and stuff and you didn’t budge. I could see that Brutus was completely in another world, I mean…”
He glanced over to Brutus.
The cerberus had inhaled a massive meal earlier and had immediately gone into a food coma. Even now—laying on his side—his legs scrambled at the air while his three snouts snarled and snapped at nothing in the room. It looked like he was running and dreaming. Well, that or horribly mauling something to death in his dreams.
Alex chose to think that it was the former.
“...yeah, I think Isolde could drop a lightning bolt beside him and he wouldn’t wake up, but you? I thought you could hear me and would’ve asked me to be quieter by now.”
“Ah, that is…” She paused.
Her eyes grew very, very wide. “Uldar’s beard! I must be the dumbest person who’s ever lived!”
She shot to her feet so quickly and smoothly, that the movement looked unnatural then she rushed inside, closing the door silently behind her.
“Theresa? What’s wrong?” Alex asked.
“Nothing’s wrong, but something might be really right.” She sat down beside him at the table, looking so excited that she was nearly jumping out of her skin. She glanced around before leaning in close.
“What do you know about meditation?” she asked.
“Uh,” he said. “It’s part of your Life Enforcement course.”
“It’s more than that, Alex. It’s a calming exercise and it’s one that can help you focus. Remember you told me how…The Mark,” she whispered. “Basically just smashes your mind with all kinds of stuff? Well, here’s the thing…”
She pressed her fingers to the side of her head. “Professor Kabbot-Xin taught us meditation to help us focus our life energy. We don’t tune out the world, we learn how to notice outside things without getting pulled into them. We learn how to manage our thoughts. We let them and outside influences pass as we focus on a single thing. Sometimes it’s the voice of whoever is guiding us. Sometimes it’s our own breath. Sometimes it’s life circulation. But its purpose is to help us focus without getting distracted and falling into outside thoughts.”
Alex’s eyes grew wider and wider with each passing word.
The skill she talked about sounded a lot like what he did to get through The Mark’s brutal onslaught of failures. It was something he’d figured out on his own as a way to help himself deal with his grief and sorrow when his parents died. It had helped him learn how to get through it.
But if this was a formalized skill for it…
“Theresa…do you know what you’re telling me?” he murmured, vibrating in excitement. “If it isn’t considered a Divinity and it helps with letting different thoughts pass…I might be able to use The Mark to learn how to defeatThe Mark.
She held up her hands. “Now it isn’t a magic arrow,” she said quickly. “It might not work at all, and even if it does, meditation isn’t perfect. Apparently one of the reasons some cultivation practitioners make temples in remote places is to eliminate as many distractions as possible. If meditation could work against all distractions all the time, they probably wouldn’t have to do that. But…I think it could help.”
“Like…I’m sure it will, it’s already similar to what I’ve been doing to get through stuff. And—even if it’s got limits—finding ways to build my concentration will definitely help with mana manipulation.” He paused. “Only thing, though…is it a Divinity or not?”
She frowned. “I don’t think so. I think only the parts of qigong that directly affect the lifeforce are the ‘Divinity’ part. Like, when a bunch of students couldn’t do the ten minute meditation, our professor said that a meditation club might help them, and she didn’t talk about it like it was a dangerous thing. I’d love to teach it to you, if you think it’d help.”
Alex thought about the idea. As long as it wasn’t a Divinity, trying it was a no-brainer: it would likely help him in mana manipulation, spellcraft, combat, general concentration…if it wasn’t a Divinity.
If it was…
Then it was still worth a try. As long as it didn’t interfere with his lifeforce, then the worst that could happen would be having The Mark scream at him. And he was getting pretty used to that.
“I want to try it,” he said enthusiastically. “I absolutely do.”
Theresa smiled, and made a motion like she was adjusting imaginary spectacles. “Then, my student, I expect you to follow everything I say.”
“Yes, Professor Lu.”
She giggled, and then her smile faded. “Alright, let’s hope this works. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”