Alex opened his notebook to a new page, then—using meditation techniques to navigate The Mark’s interference—he cast forceball, counting his heartbeats to time the completion of the spell. It winked into existence like an old friend and he immediately cut the flow of mana to its magic circuit. Next, it was time to record how long it took before the forceball faded:
Forceball Spell Formation: Five Heartbeats
Dissipation: Ten Heartbeats
He’d gotten even faster at casting the spell thanks to Theresa’s meditation techniques. Yet, as pleased as he was with his progress, he was also getting a little frustrated.
He still hadn’t gotten anywhere close to his speed before he’d received The Mark, and—looking around at his classmates—he noticed that most of them were casting it faster than he could. Some of them had only started learning the spell on the first day of class, and seeing their forceballs appear after only two or three heartbeats was a little annoying.
He took a deep breath, acknowledged his feelings, and then let them go. Frustration was narrowing his focus, causing him to only see part of what was really going on. That wasn’t helpful, so he decided to mentally step back and examine their forceballs compared to his own.
Looking around, he noticed that none of their spells were as large or as strong as his. Some weren’t very stable and flickered, and even some cast by students who’d started the class already knowing the spell, were slower and tended to fluctuate at times.
Their forceballs might have been cast quicker, but his won in power and precision; and it was thanks to his constant practice and analysing The Mark’s interference. The Mark did have its downsides, but it also had its benefits.
He turned his focus back to his work, and this time, he cast forcedisk.
The spell took longer than his forceball before it appeared before him. But, while he wasn’t as fast at casting it as he would’ve liked, it was still appearing faster, and showing major improvements in power, precision and stability.
‘It’d better be getting better,’ he mused, flipping through his notebook. There were a huge number of failures that he’d jotted down and analyzed. It almost hurt to look at the pages.
Unfortunately, he was still hitting a wall with how much he could improve the spell at the moment; he wondered if he would have another breakthrough when he learned more force spells and more about force magic in general. Also, when his mana pool increased, he’d have more room for bigger magic circuits: he could try expanding the circuits for forcedisk and forceball and constructing them in new ways. He wondered what improvements he could make then.
He dismissed those thoughts along with forcedisk.
Those were plans for later. For now, warm ups were complete.
Now, it was time for the really painful part.
He opened up the spell-guide for Wizard’s Hand and—taking a deep breath and readying himself for The Mark—began to cast the spell. Previous failures bombarded his mind like a hailstorm.
He considered one in particular using his meditation techniques: an image from yesterday where The Mark’s distraction had caused another unique mis-alignment in the magic circuit.
He winced as he cut off the flow of mana and ended the spell.
Flipping open the notebook for Wizard’s Hand to his previously recorded failures, he recorded the specifics of the misalignment, frowning as his eyes scanned the pages. Despite being a brand new notebook, it was already half-filled with failures. He’d already generated far more mistakes for this spell than he had for forceball or forcedisk.
Alex sighed. Even though it was also a first-tier spell, it was more complex than the other two. Wizard’s Hand wasn’t a simple shape like a sphere or flat circle: it was a force construction that mimicked the complex shapes and movements of a human hand. In the same way, its spell array was far more intricate than the others. Its magic circuit had lots of smaller ‘moving parts and details’ and lots of places for The Mark to interfere and make things go wrong.
Still, repeatedly practicing it had generated some progress: he’d gotten a little farther into constructing the magic circuit each time.
He glanced around at the other students.
In truth, he was still ahead of many of them in some ways, yet in other ways, some were quickly exceeding him.
Some were already casting fairly solid looking Wizard’s Hand spells. One had even progressed to the point of starting to work on casting Force Shield, and Alex noticed Professor Ram’s deep-set eyes watching thatstudent very carefully. There was an interest there that he’d seen in both Val’Rok and Jules when they interacted with him.
He stifled a chuckle and a little twinge of jealousy. Professor Ram had been very impressed with Alex’s forceball in the early weeks, but—while the instructor was still supportive and helpful to all his students—he showed a keener interest in those that were continually excelling in the class.
And right now, that wasn’t Alex. He was only doing well enough.
‘Oh well,’ he thought. ‘Shouldn’t be greedy. You’re already getting opportunities.’
He promised himself that even if he had to try until he went cross-eyed, he’d excel in force magic eventually—and not for favoritism, but for his own benefit. All he needed was effort and time. He looked down at his notebook. Well, time, effort and the willpower to not go mad from having all his failures thrown in his face. With resolve, he began to re-cast Wizard’s Hand.
By the time Professor Ram called their floating desks down, Alex had gone from frustrated, to pleased with his work for the period. He’d still only made a snail’s progress moving forward with the spell, but there was still time left to work on it before its corresponding assignment was due, and he recognized that not everything in life went smoothly.
He understood that better than many.
Conjuring his forceball, he gathered his class materials, placed them in the hanging basket and stepped out of the classroom only to run into a waiting Theresa.
“Alex!” She was waving at him excitedly from the wall she’d been leaning on. In each hand she clutched a letter. “My parents wrote back!”
“So from what the mail office said, there was a big problem with delivery in the Rhinean Empire, which is why it took so long to get here,” Theresa said as they sat down for lunch at a picnic table on campus. “Some kind of monster was prowling one of the highways: black scaled, but humanoid with big claws. Some travellers first saw it, and then it was seen near a town. Apparently, a group of elemental knights were sent to the area to patrol and they stopped all travel around there while they looked for this thing. Anyway, they never found it, so they finally opened things back up. That’s why the mail was held up.”
She placed a second letter on the table and laughed. “And this one’s from Captain Fan-Dor. Would you believe he addressed it to all of us, including Brutus? He’s so funny. Anyway, it seems you’re in luck, he says he’ll have time to teach you more Mop-and-Oar-”
“Spear-and-Oar Dance,” Alex insisted as he broke off a piece of olive bread and handed it to her. “And that’s great! But first, tell me how your parents are. How is everyone?”
“Well, they’re fine, though father was pretty upset when he found one of his grandfather’s swords was missing,” she said. “Mother wrote the letter, and she said he calmed down after a bit. She also said I should have asked permission.”
“Maybe you should have?” Alex offered. “I don’t think your parents would have been mad if you wanted to take it for protection. I mean, it’s not like you were running off to go sell it for loose change at the market or something.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right. Either way: I’ll get a chance to apologize soon. They want to come and visit.”
“Oh man, when?” Alex asked. “For Sigmus?”
“No, they didn’t say anything specific yet. They asked where they could stay, though.”
“Hrm.” He tapped his chin. “There’s no room at our place in the insula…and we don’t know how much the inns in the city charge.”
“Yeah,” Theresa said. “I’m going to look into that this weekend.”
“Good idea,” Alex said. “Maybe I can talk to Hobb. He might know of some place on campus…but, with the prices the university charges, maybe the city’ll be better. Anyway, we’ll find something for them. Now, what’d they say about you following your great-grandfather in qigong?”
“Uh, well.” She frowned. “Mother didn’t really say much about that. Just a ‘he would be happy, I think’. …I kind of thought they’d react a little more.”
“Huh, how do you feel about that?”
“A little disappointed, I guess.” She shrugged. “Though it could have been worse. They could have disowned me for stealing great-grandfather’s sword.”
“Hey, maybe they’re saving that for when they get here: just a full magistrate-supervised disownment.”
“Oh, Uldar, don’t even joke about that.”
“Well, I’m only half-joking. They could be waiting to have a discussion with you face to face, instead of trying to send what they’re thinking in a letter, you know?”
She thought about it. “That’s probably true. Ugh, now I’m going to be excited and nervous waiting for their visit.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine, in the end.”
“I hope so…so about Fan-Dor. He wants you to name a time to meet him at the docks. Apparently, they’ll be in port for a few weeks. So, do you want to do it this weekend? We could make a day of it with Selina.”
“Ugh, I’d love to, but this weekend I’ll be helping out Professor Jules for the first time. I can’t miss that.”
“Ah, that’s too bad.” She sighed, then looked at him worriedly. “Are you…are you doing okay, Alex?”
“Hm, what do you mean?”
“I mean ‘are you okay’. You’ve been pushing really, really hard lately. Exercise. Practice. Classes. Studying. You just don’t stop. Then you’ve been cooking too…and if it’s this busy now, what’s going to happen during exam time?”
“Hey, one of the reasons I’m pushing so hard now is so that I don’t have to push so hard when it’s exam time.” He smiled. “Pay it now, instead of paying it later. Besides, I think your meditation’s been helping me relax, rest and cope with the schedule. The exercise helps too: I sleep even better than I did back home and I’ve got more energy these days. I’m doing okay.”
“Hm, and what about this job at Shale’s?” she asked. “If you get it, it's going to take up even more time in the evenings.”
He shrugged. “I’ll figure something out. For now, I’m okay.”
She frowned. “You promise you’ll tell me if you’re not?”
“Yeah, I promise, I promise,” he said. “What about you? You work on Life Enforcement stuff all the time, and then it’s exercise, and then it’s learning things from the Watchers of Roal. And you’re taking care of Brutus and watching out for Selina as much as I am. You’re busy too.”
“I guess, ...it's all just so much fun, though,” she giggled. “It doesn’t feel like ‘being busy’…and besides, I think I might be able to get a job if I keep at it.”
“Oh?” Alex cocked his head.
“So.” She leaned in. “There’s this Watcher that I’m starting to get to know, and she’s friends with the wardens at the Beastarium. When she heard how much experience I have with animals, she said she’d ask if they needed any help. I know it’s not anything really…solid yet, but it’s something.”
“Well I think it’s great.” Alex smiled. “You get to earn some coin doing what you like and what you’re good at: that’s about as good as it gets, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I just hope it works out,” she said. “It’d be kind of nice to have a job by the time my parents get here.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. But, hey, hopefully this work with Professor Jules is going to help me with Shale’s.”
“At least you’re in school,” she gave an uncharacteristically cute pout. “I’m the one that’s just auditing courses, meditating and training. I kind of feel like I’m getting lazy.”
“I don’t know, from what I’ve seen, all that cultivation stuff is hard,” he said.
“Yeah, but it’s fun, so it doesn’t feel hard. Ach, it’s like I’m just hanging around.”
“Hey, what do you call people that don’t work for their coin and just hang around?”
She paused, cocking her head. “What?”
“Nobility, Lady Theresa of Thameland.”
She burst out laughing.
The mana within The Cell hit Alex like a club.
He paused, taken aback. Mana-powered apparatuses filled the room ahead, surrounding a cauldron that was bigger than a noble’s carriage. A giant mana vacuum hung over it, connected to a mana waste container the size of a farmer’s cart which sat in a corner of the massive room.
Hundreds of complex ingredients had been set out on multiple tables beside tools of alchemy, some he easily recognized, but most were new to him.
A staircase built beside the cauldron led to a catwalk surrounding the cauldron’s broad, glyph-etched lip.
Professor Jules—completely suited up except for her mask—was talking with two others. She paused when she saw him enter.
“Ah, Mr. Roth, you’re early! Good, good.” She pointed to a series of hooks on the side of the room. “Hang your things, wash up, and gear up. We’ll be doing some good work today, and there’s a lot for you to learn.”
“Oh? What are we doing, professor?”
Her smile was a little unsettling. “Chaos Essence to craft mutagens and the potions that can animate the inanimate. Today, you’ll see how the building blocks of matter can be a harness. And today, we are harnessing the harness.”