Alex Roth stood in front of the small mirror in his room—with the windows firmly shuttered and door latched—staring at himself half in disbelief. His belly grumbled in hunger—as it always seemed to these days, no matter how much he fed it—but the shape of that belly had changed.
The shape of his whole body had changed.
“Hooooly shit,” he said, turning in the mirror and flexing his right arm. A surprising amount of muscle swelled on his bicep and deltoid under the grinning jester’s face that was The Mark of the Fool. If he didn’t know what it actually was, it could almost look like a badass sailor’s tattoo.
When he’d first arrived in Generasi, he was a tall, thin, gangly eighteen year old. His limbs had been skinny, his stomach had been soft, and his shoulders narrow.
Then he’d gotten to work on changing all that with nearly two months of solid physical training with The Mark correcting his form. He’d also learned how eating habits affected his body and he’d used The Mark to eat strategically, while getting stronger, building up his stamina, and improving his overall health. Now, he could actually run somewhere without feeling like his chest was going to explode after only a few minutes.
He was making regular use of the strengthening equipment in the gym and using meditation during his routine to rest, as well as help himself sleep better and deeper at night. He’d made a plan, and he’d stuck to it.
Mr. Lu had said that a common phrase his brother used was that: ‘young people are like steel: if they forge themselves right, then they’ll harden up in no time’.
He evidently had been right.
Alex hadn’t exactly become a walking marble statue like Khalik, or a hulking bruiser like Thundar, but most of the traces of his gangliness were almost gone. His limbs had some serious muscle on them, and his belly had flattened—even if he had thrown in a few sweets to satisfy his sweet tooth now and then. With more muscle on his shoulders, they’d broadened. His energy levels had soared so much that now he could run countless laps around the Beastarium without collapsing into an exhausted mess like he used to.
When he first started? He had trouble doing five push ups in a row.
He flipped open his notebook and looked at what he had done just this morning.
Push-ups: 50, 47, 45 TOTAL= 142
His chest and arms burned, but he recognised the soreness as progress.
He glanced at the glowing Mark on his shoulder.
Overtime, his feelings toward it had been growing more and more mixed.
On one hand, if it weren’t for The Mark hindering him from learning Wizard’s Hand, he possibly might have come to love it by now—stupid destiny and history or not. On the other hand, if it hadn’t hindered his magic, would he have even bothered to learn so many other skills as well or develop himself physically?
He doubted that he would have: he hadn’t been interested in exercise his entire life. He doubted that would have changed just because he’d come to the greatest school of wizardry in the world without something forcing him to try other paths and ways to grow himself.
Thmp. Thmp. Thmp.
“Alex, are you ready yet?” Theresa asked through the door.
“Just about,” he said, turning and appraising his other side before putting on a shirt and getting ready to head down to the baths.
He grabbed the glyph boxes from his dresser, his notebook and pen before picking up his mana manipulation textbook. Taking a deep breath, he stepped toward his door.
Today was a big day.
Today he would learn a mana regeneration technique in MANA-1900. It was one of the last things he’d need to know before he could Challenge the Exam for Credit.
“Mana Regeneration is one of the most important things that I’m ever going to teach you,” Val’Rok said from the front of the class. “You’ll learn a less complex version of this technique in magic theory since mana regeneration is a key skill for any wizard, but here is where we’ll get into the advanced stuff.”
He grinned. “Look at it this way. If the mana regeneration technique is an average beer, then this is a fine wine. As we go through later parts of the course, you’ll find even more advanced techniques.” He made a strange hissing sound. “Those are like century-aged dwarven moonshine.”
Several members of the class laughed and Alex rose up in his seat, leaning forward slightly to pay close attention.
He’d been waiting for this.
“To many more advanced wizards, a basic mana regeneration technique is enough: with enough practice, the average wizard can regenerate fifty percent of their mana pool in a day. But it becomes less important the more powerful you become.”
The lizard man paced back and forth in the front of the class. He paused, eyeing a spider that had crawled its way from some quiet hiding place and was perched on the wall close to him. His eyes grew intense for a moment, then he shook away the distraction.
“Beginning wizards are only going to be able to cast a few spells in a day before they exhaust their mana pool and begin to draw on their life force, so mana regeneration is absolutely key. But, the more you advance your skill in spellcraft, the more your mana pool grows naturally: that means more or larger magic circuits can fit within it and it means more mana to draw from for spells. In other words, more spells per day.”
He paused. “It will get to the point where most wizards will have difficulty exhausting their mana pool unless they’re drawing on their most powerful spells, so most wizards will learn a simple mana regeneration technique and then focus on growing their pool as much as possible. There’s a good reason for this, of course.”
Val’Rok turned to the obsidian board and began to draw a diagram of a humanoid that was partially coloured in. “Your mana pool will naturally regenerate in twenty four hours, even if you run it all the way down to dry. That’s fairly quick, already. When your mana pool is only big enough to cast one first-tier spell once in a day, that will seem like forever, but let’s look at a more experienced wizard.”
He turned back to the class. “When you graduate from Generasi, at minimum, you will be able to cast fifth-tier spells. That is the bareminimum for receiving a degree from Generasi. Let’s talk about what that means: this might be a review from magic theory, but that’s alright. This is important.”
He drew a rising line graph on the chalkboard. “At minimum, a wizard who can cast fifth-tier spells will have a mana pool large enough to cast them about seven times before their mana runs dry. Now, that might not seem like much to you, but you have to understand: a fifth-tier spell packs a lot of punch.”
Val’Rok drew a symbol for a spell on the board. “Teleport—a fifth-tier spell—will let you transport yourself and three others roughly nine hundred miles when you first learn it. Nine hundred miles. That’s a four day journey by fast ship, sailing constantly with the wind. Done in an instant. And that’s without taking any time to explore or master the spell at all. And you can do that seven times in a day.”
He drew a symbol for another spell. “Crush Mind will let you…well, crush a mind and leave a full grown person with the intelligence of an average earthworm. And you can do that seven times at minimum.”
“And guess what? Fourth-tier spells take up half as much room in a mana pool and roughly half as much mana. That’s fourteen times at minimum.”
Alex blinked. The fire-gems were the equivalent to a fourth-tier spell, that means the worst graduates of Generasi would be able to blast those out fourteen times in a day before they ran out of mana. If they used a simple mana regeneration technique, they could do it an additional seven times.
“Third-tier spells take up half as much as that,” Val’Rok said. “That’s twenty-eight! Third-tier spells include the beloved fireball, by the way. You could blow up a small group of adversaries twenty-eight times a day. You could then use a basic mana regeneration technique to do it all over again fourteen times. Then, if you throw in potions that can refill one’s mana…”
He chuckled. “Aren’t we disgustingly unbalanced in the natural order? And that is literally the worst graduates of our university. We pack a punch, and that’s why advanced mana techniques usually aren’t practiced by all but the most dedicated wizards until late in their careers. Most prefer to spend their time learning and perfecting more spells or brewing potions or…you know, using their skills to make good, good, good coin.”
Val’Rok glanced at that spider on the wall with a hungry gleam before pulling himself back. “But, the most advanced mana techniques let you pretty much never run out of mana unless you’re constantly pushing yourself to the limit. You’ll be regenerating mana while you walk. While you breathe. While you eat. While you’re actively casting spells.”
He tapped his desk. “The great wizard duelist Ianus Ruby-Eye beat his opponents not by being the fastest spellcaster or the most powerful spellcaster, but by being the most enduring. In the end, once most wizards’ mana is used up, they’re just a great big hunk of meat ready to be butchered.”
He grinned. “Now let’s make sure you’re not the one that’s butchered.”
With that, Val’Rok began to explain how mana regeneration techniques worked.
The basic fundamental skill involved stimulating one’s internal pool with their own mana.
“If you make a cow comfortable and milk her often—from what I understand—she’ll produce more milk. It’s the same with your mana pathways: using up your mana stresses your pool, and weakens the barrier between it and your lifeforce. By massaging the edges of your mana pool internally, you’ll get them to relax and begin generating mana again before they have rested for the twenty four hour period.”
He slapped at the air as though there was some unruly youngster that needed disciplining before him. “The basic mana technique created for general consumption by wizards is the same as a massage technique that’s like slapping a tight muscle until it loosens up: it’ll do the job, but it won’t be comfortable, or efficient and you won’t be able to do it all the time.”
Next, he made a clutching gesture where he mimed precisely grasping and massaging the air with his fingers. “More advanced techniques require more control over your mana—that’s why we’ve been training your level of control using the boxes—but they can relax and stimulate your mana pool much more efficiently and safely.”
He drew a diagram of the average wizard’s mana pool, breaking it up into specific areas that worked together to contain and regenerate mana. Alex had seen such a diagram in his textbook, but hadn’t tried the technique on his own yet: the text had mentioned something about ‘applying too much pressure to the edge of one’s mana pool could puncture it like paper’ so he’d decided to wait for supervised instruction.
Once Val’Rok had gone over each of the different areas and their purposes, he began to describe how each was stimulated in order to produce mana. Alex nearly burst out laughing as he realized what the professor was instructing: they were the same ‘bopping’, ‘twisting’ and ‘pulling’ motions that they’d practiced through the glyph boxes.
“We’ll start off with simply getting the feel of moving one’s mana internally.” He tapped a stack of reports that were on top of his desk. “Since all of you have been able to light at least one glyph on the box, this shouldn’t be too hard for you now.”
He then described turning one’s senses inward to feel the contours and shape of one’s own mana, and then directed the class to shift it back and forth across their mana pools.
Alex turned his senses inward and felt his own mana pool. Using meditation, he tuned out all outside noise and slipped deep into himself. He quickly felt the warmth of his own mana pool full of power and nestled deep in his spirit.
He easily took hold of it, passing his mana from side to side in his pool.
Professor Val’Rok watched the class engage in the exercise, moving over to aid anyone who raised their hand to ask a question or request help. Some students didn’t raise their hands at all, but continued struggling judging from the looks of frustration on their faces.
Others were clearly distracted, or doing things completely unrelated to class. To these, Val’Rok didn’t even spare a second glance.
Alex winced. At the church school, such distraction would have been met with a stern lecture or even harsher punishment.
Here? They were left to their own devices, whether they swam or sank.
Come exam time Alex was sure they’d be regretting it or offering up a host of excuses for being unprepared.
Focusing back on himself, he followed the professor’s instruction as he guided them through manipulating their own mana to touch the relevant parts of their mana pool. Alex activated The Mark while doing so, but found it was almost unnecessary: after so much practice with mana manipulation and the glyph boxes, he found that it was remarkably easy to sense the targeted areas of his mana pool and make contact with them.
He began to grow more excited.
Finally, Val’Rok held up a hand. “Stop, stop for a moment. I want you all to cast a spell now. Any spell you want.” He paused. “But nothing that would blow up the classroom.”
Soon the room filled with forceballs, flares of light, illusions of animals dancing through the air, puffs of mist, and bursts of song. One student even summoned a tiny air elemental and sent it shooting around the room.
While everyone watched and clapped, Alex noticed Professor Val’Rok’s eyes darting back and forth. He edged nonchalantly toward the wall with the spider on it.
His tongue shot out in a blur, scooping the eight-legged snack and bringing it back into his mouth before most caught on.
“Excellent,” he said with all the dignity that wasn’t there a moment before. “Now that you’ve put a dent in your mana, I want you to reach into-” He tapped the obsidian board with one clawed hand pointing to the top area of the mana pool diagram. “-here, then ‘bop’ that area. You’ll feel the edge protrude inward in response, then you take that protrusion and lightly twist it. Just as you did with the box.”
Alex followed the direction, gently contacting the top of his mana pool, then seizing the raised area that followed. He made a twisting gesture with his mana and felt a shudder go through his spirit. A sigh escaped his lips as a spiritual tension left that he hadn’t even noticed before. He heard the same coming from his other classmates, and some of them looked at each other and giggled.
“Relaxing, isn’t it?” Val’Rok said. “I’ll give you free time to practice now. Welcome to a path I guarantee you will never regret. Of course…the…relaxation that one feels when properly massaging one’s mana, can be a little, well, addictive, I’d say, and there are some accounts that say that doing it too much leaves one mentally unbalanced.”
Val’Rok gave a high-pitched, hysterical laugh. “Complete dragonshit, I tell you! None of that is true.”
He licked his lips, and Alex could have sworn he was licking away an errant spider leg. At this distance, he told himself that he was imagining it.