As it turned out, swallowing one’s pride had some serious benefits.
Going from sculpting alone or in the same area as his little sister, to working together with her had vastly improved his sculpting ability. By working as a duo, he not only got a close look at how she worked, but he also got to try some of her techniques with her guidance. This gave him more successes and in turn, gave The Mark more to use and feed on.
What he hadn’t anticipated was how in sync their learning had become. The Mark’s power to correct helped him, while Selina’s natural skill, experience, and her own quick mind saw her expand her own ability as well as adopt techniques he’d come up with using The Mark. As he refined his methods, she watched him and refined hers, and vice versa.
They were growing together…and Alex began to consider that perhaps—when the time came—they could sculpt some of the golem’s body together. Being able to shape a piece of clay that big would probably thrill her to bits. For right now, though, there was something that definitely did have her thrilled and excited; her upcoming mana testing.
He still wasn’t sure how he felt about the whole thing, but he’d gone ahead and submitted the permission form anyway.
In time, they’d find out if it would amount to nothing, or if it would amount to a lot.
For now, though, he’d been putting a lot of focus into mana regeneration. The assignment from professor Val’Rok’s class would probably be difficult for students new to mana manipulation since it was so complex. Whereas the technique from his compulsory magical theory class was basic and simple—far better suited to beginners. As professor Val’Rok had said, the basic mana regeneration technique was easily available to be used by wizards at all levels of their training and practice.
To compare the two, he had tried the more simple technique described in the magic theory textbook: simply slapping the edges of his mana pool to get it to begin producing mana more quickly. It was easy to do, relatively safe and yielded results.
By spreading out his own mana and contacting the edge of his mana pool as a light ‘slap’, the force of the ‘contact’ was dispersed. So, he could apply a fair amount of force to the edge of his pool while being in no danger of doing any harm to it.
Val’Rok’s method showed results far more quickly—also producing that wonderful spiritual relaxation—but was more difficult and risky. In using the more intricate movements, the force was concentrated to the edge of one’s mana pool. So greater risk—one couldn’t be clumsy at moving their mana—but also greater reward.
A sharp ‘twist’ to the mana pool’s edge might have torn it like an overstuffed sausage.
Since he already had a high degree of affinity for the skill—with The Mark’s help—he’d been able to make progress even faster. He took to adding mana regeneration practice to his meditation routine. He would sit in his room or on the balcony in his favourite position, then split his concentration, focusing both on his breath and on shifting his mana around his pool.
The first day he’d tried it, the results he’d gotten hadn’t exactly been what he’d been looking for. The physical relaxation from meditation had combined with the spiritual relaxation from his mana regeneration practice until…
“Alex. Alex, wake up.” Theresa’s voice had whispered softly from above him.
“Huh, wha?” He had blinked awake in surprise. The sky had turned from the fiery orange of late evening, to the dead blackness of midnight. “What happened?”
“You fell asleep, it’s the middle of the night.”
“O-oh,” he’d said embarrassedly.
After that, he’d made sure to keep his thoughts active and awake while combining meditation and regeneration practice. The results were considerable.
In a matter of days, he’d mastered the technique as well as he had the glyph boxes. Val’Rok’s assignment had been for the class to stimulate one of the sections of their mana pool to regenerate mana, but Alex was quickly able to stimulate all of his at once, guaranteeing a nice mark on the assignment.
Being able to progress so quickly had other benefits.
A growing mana pool allowed him to cast more spells in a day, and his improving skill in mana regeneration increased the amount of magic he could perform in a day by nearly twice the amount.
And that meant he could practice more.
Which was a good thing.
Because he needed it when it came to Wizard’s Hand.
“Oh come on!” Alex growled as the spell array fell apart and he cancelled it. Muttering, he scrawled another failure in his notebook, then flipped to the final blank pages in disgust.
There were about three pages left before he needed a new notebook.
The rest of the pages were completely filled with detailed notes of his failures at casting Wizard’s Hand. He hadn’t gotten this frustrated with magic since his early days trying to learn forceball with nothing but an old spell-guide to learn from.
He glanced around his surroundings and took deep breaths to calm himself.
For a change of pace Alex had decided to spend the afternoon studying on one of the castle’s many high balconies. The balcony he was on—more of a floating terrace, really—was broad enough to fit at least half a dozen stone tables where students could study, practice magic or have a meal in peace. When folks finished using them, the tables and seats would skitter out of the way to wait beside the railings. Floating orbs of air would emerge from openings carved into the castle wall—the mouth of each sculpted to resemble an eagle’s head with its beak open—and suck up any trash or mess left on the tables. Once they were filled, they would float back through the opened beaks to discard their messy bounty into the trash holders.
Alex paused for a moment and let his imagination run free, imagining Minervus stuck in a sopping wet trash container with some sort of monster with long eye stalks slithering after him. Reluctantly, he shook away both the image and the smile growing from it. Break time was over.
When anyone entered the balcony, the tables and seats would skitter back to the centre of the space, and wait to be used.
For now, Alex was alone, though Khalik, Thundar, Theresa—bringing Selina—Isolde and Shishi were supposed to meet him later that afternoon.
In the meantime, he had to keep trying to push through.
He pulled his attention back to his notebook and wrote down a number, something he’d only recently started doing.
It was the exact percentage of the spell array that he’d been able to consistently cast, even with The Mark’s interference. Before, he hadn’t bothered writing down the exact percentage of his progress with a spell, but Wizard’s Hand had become so utterly frustrating, that he’d needed some solid number to show himself where he actually was. It was helping to keep him motivated.
The issue with recording specific numbers was that it made him painfully aware that he’d been stuck at ‘87%’ for about three days.
There was a final part of the spell array that was really complex: it was a ‘hand problem’. When he’d learned about art from Mrs. Lu—back when they were painting the mural on the inn wall—he’d learned of a colloquial term used by artists for any problem that was common, finicky and made other parts of their task more difficult: ‘A hand problem’.
The term came from the nightmarish difficulty many artists had when it came to drawing humanoid hands. Mrs. Lu was very good at painting realistic faces, and proportions of the human body—she’d painted most of the figures in The Heroes and Ravener mural.
But, one of the rare times he’d ever heard her curse in front of her children was when it came time to sketch or paint hands.
The fingers would end up out of proportion to the rest of the hand, or their shape would be slightly off. The position of the hand would be oddly curved or too straight. Sometimes they’d look more like paws than hands. Sometimes, she just simply couldn’t pinpoint exactly what the problem was.
At the time Alex had thought it was just her, until he’d tried outlining a hand himself.
One of the few times he’d ever heard cursed in front of his sister was when he’d had to outline that hand. Even feet were like that for some artists: Mrs. Lu had told him of a painter named Robert Liefell who refused to paint feet; he’d always have his subjects standing behind something.
For Alex, the part of the spell array he was working on was a ‘hand problem’: it was finicky, complicated and definitely not easy to build when one had a magical Mark screaming in their head. Theresa’s meditative techniques were helping—he would have made less progress if it weren’t for those—but they weren’t helping enough to overcome this final hill.
He was growing more frustrated. He really wanted to learn force shield as soon as possible, and all the extra time spent throwing himself against Wizard’s Hand took time away from practicing other things.
He sighed, letting those thoughts and worries pass.
If anything, all the extra pressure was only getting in the way.
Taking a deep breath, he relaxed his mind.
It wasn’t helpful just sitting there frustrated and doing nothing. That wouldn't help him move forward.
Mana regeneration had helped him practice more spells in a day. Meditation helped stave off mental fatigue. Now, it was time to use both and keep grinding away.
Drawing deep into himself, he started to cast Wizard’s Hand again.
He wrote that number down as his hand trembled in excitement.
Days had passed. He’d been practicing Wizard’s Hand every moment he wasn’t practicing something else.
Now, late at night in his room—with crickets chirping outside and candlelight flickering—he’d gotten close. So. Close.
Again, he cast Wizard’s Hand.
Again it failed in the same place.
He took a deep breath. Observed his frustration. Observed and acknowledged his worry. Then let it go.
He fell back into his spell again, guiding his mind through all the failures.
He acknowledged the noise and dismissed it. He did the same for the new notebook of failures he’d had to start. He acknowledged that frustrating final 2% of the spell array that he just…couldn’t…
He’d done something right. He could tell. The Mark was getting especially active, which it was very fond of doing when he did something right in spellcraft.
“I’ve got you now,” he whispered.
He wrote down: ‘99%.’
Diving into the spell another time, he pushed against the block. Through his shutters, the light changed as the moon rose higher in the sky. The candle burned down. He felt sleepiness tugging at the edges of his mind, begging him to take a break.
But he couldn’t stop. Not now. Not while he was so close.
He closed his eyes.
Again he tried the spell.
The magic circuit completed.
A crimson light came alive in his room.
He felt an unfamiliar connection with his mana.
Floating in front of him was a hand—a little bigger than one of his own—made entirely of the glowing force magic that made up his other spells. His breath caught. There was a reason why the spell array was so complex: Wizard’s Hand gave him much more control through mana manipulation than forceball or forcedisk.
It was designed so a wizard could do precise movements with it without being an expert at mana manipulation. It was very, very well designed. It was like giving two walking sticks to someone with weak legs to aid them with the movements of walking.
Alex suppressed giddiness as he made the hand ‘walk’ through the air on two fingers, wave at him, give a thumbs up and make a certain rude gesture. He even high fived it. He flipped back to the spell array diagram and made some final notes on the different sections:
‘Complex sections of spell array likely to help control spell. Maybe only for those unskilled in mana manipulation. Should attempt to simplify those sections, since I need less support for manipulating spells through mana.’
This was a very, very interesting revelation.
The sections of the spell array that were responsible for helping the caster control the spell after it had been cast, weren’t necessary for him because of his advanced skill with mana manipulation. It was like carrying walking sticks when one was perfectly capable of walking.
Once he isolated those sections of the spell, he could simplify it, which would make the spell easier and faster to cast. He might be able to apply the same logic to other troublesome spells in the future.
That would be his first attempt at starting to master the spell.
He grinned, pulling out the spell-guides for force shield and orb of air.
These two spells would be big ones: the first would be his first truly defensive spell, while orb of air would be his first attempt at trying a spell outside of the school of force. He’d try them both while he worked to master Wizard’s Hand.
An urge to try them tugged at him…but he resisted.
It was late, and he was tired.
He took a deep breath, looking at a date circled on his scheduler:
‘Selina’s mana test’.
The date circled was tomorrow.