Selina had barely spoken a word for days.
Now, at the breakfast table, she, Theresa and Alex ate with a heavy silence over them. Even Brutus—eating nearby—seemed to be in a poor mood; his ears and heads drooped low.
The little girl ate her porridge slowly, as though she were in a haze. Her eyes—puffy and red—barely looked up from her spoon. Selina hadn’t been sleeping well, waking often and crying softly in her bed, though she tried to remain quiet. It was happening almost every night now.
Theresa often heard her distress and would try to calm her by talking gently and comforting her enough to fall back to sleep.
Alex glanced at the little clay constructions they had set on the windowsill.
The last one Selina had made—a clay version of a snowman she had shaped after they’d come home from her mana test—sat at the end of the row. She had done it quietly and quickly, and hadn’t touched clay since, even when Alex had tried to coax her into working together.
He was going a little crazy with worry.
‘Fire. Of all damned things, why’d it have to be fire,” he cursed their luck.
There was a sick sort of shared experience between them now. Against all odds, he’d received a Hero's Mark: a rare thing that he’d never wanted. And now, it turned out that she had an affinity for fire magic: a rare thing that she’dnever wanted.
Siblings with “gifts” neither of them had ever asked for.
According to Mr. Powell, her fire affinity was very strong too; he had said as much to Alex when they’d discussed what it all meant for Selina after her mana test.
He shook his head: that was a question that still had to be answered.
“So, what’re you learning in school today, Selina?” he asked, forcing as much cheer into his voice as he could.
Her eyes didn’t budge from the table.
“Selina?” he pushed.
“Multiplying,” she said. Her mouth barely moved and her voice was a low whisper. Her tone made it clear she didn’t want to talk.
He and Theresa exchanged a glance.
“That sounds fun,” he continued.
She didn’t respond.
“Would you like-”
“I’m done now,” she said, sliding her bowl away.
Alex looked down at the porridge bowl. A good part of it still contained food.
“You should, uh, finish, Selina,” he said.
“No good’s going to come of starving yourself, finish your porridge,” he insisted.
“I said I’m done.” A sullen stubbornness had entered her voice.
“Selina, you’re not leaving this table until you finish,” he said. He remembered his mother and father saying that to them when they didn’t want to eat their vegetables. “We’ll just sit here and wait for you, and you’re going to be late for school and so will Theresa and me, and you won’t be very happy about that, will you?”
Her face turned red, then she angrily lifted the spoon and started to shove the rest of the porridge into her little mouth.
Theresa gasped. “Selina, slow down! You’ll burn yoursel-” She caught herself, her eyes went wide.
Selina didn’t break pace until it was all gone.
“Done,” she said sharply, then pushed her chair away from the table. She paused, and glared at the bowl and then at Theresa. “Maybe it should burn me.”
She stomped into their shared room while the young man and woman could only stare after her.
Dismayed, he realized he had no idea what to do.
He was her brother.
He wasn’t her parent. He had no experience to draw from to help her.
And their parents nor Theresa’s were around to help sooth her.
He felt…vulnerable in a way he hadn’t since they’d arrived in Generasi. If only he had an older person to talk to. In Alric, one could go to the priests if they needed help with problems of the mind, spirit, or heart.
But even that wasn’t an option anymore thanks to his Mark.
“Today’s class will be a new challenge for all of you,” Baelin said. “Today you will each be entering The Barrens alone.”
Alex’s breath caught. Theresa, Khalik and Isolde all froze.
Thundar only nodded his readiness, thumbing his mace.
Svenia and Hogarth sputtered in their seats and the class murmured to each other. Eyvinder looked like he might actively protest.
Baelin held up a hand.
“This might make some of you nervous: particularly if you are auditing this course to aid and protect those you’ve accompanied, but this is a vital step. With our first test, we determined which class members have the basic skills to apply the strategies and tactics taught in this course. We also tested your ability to work as a team. The second outing was to allow you practice with capturing foes, as opposed to killing them, to deal with foes with a terrain advantage, and to learn how to operate in a team with non wizards. However, you will not always be in a combat situation with the luxury of companions. Sometimes, they or you will be attacked when alone, surprised, and in enemy terrain. Today, you will have an opportunity to adapt to such circumstances.”
Alex glanced at Theresa, his nerves rising. After what was happening with Selina, the last thing he wanted was to be alone, travelling on foot through The Barrens.
Then there was The Mark to consider. Until now, he’d been using tactics, evasion, terrain and trickery to disrupt his opponents, and then setting up others to deliver the final blow. The only times that he’d ever finished off opponents himself were when he’d burned the worker spider swarm, and when he’d smashed the inside of the bonedrinker’s skull.
For a fleeting moment, he thought about asking to be excused.
He shook away the thought.
That would only serve to deny him an opportunity to practice with Baelin there as a safety net. Sooner or later a time would come when he’d have to finish an opponent by himself, and if he was frozen in indecision with The Mark all too ready to intrude, then what would he do?
He tried to shake away his thoughts and distractions. Acknowledge them and let them go. Unfortunately, they were very insistent on sticking around today.
“Today, the part of The Barrens we’ll be going to will be the crevices toward the southern reach. This is one of the hottest parts of The Barrens. Keep that in mind as you manage your resources.”
Baelin snapped his fingers, materializing small wooden orbs—one for each student and their companions auditing the course—in mid-air. “These will be your goal for today’s lesson. You will each receive a map. That map will have a number on it: each of you must find the orb that has the number which corresponds to your map.”
He waved a hand; a number of maps shimmered into the air above the group and gently floated down into laps or waiting hands.
Alex blinked at his: the number ‘11’ was scrawled at the top in neat script. The map itself displayed a massive network of crevices covering a vast area: a veritable maze with more than enough room for everyone present to hunt for their targets without crossing paths. Two sections of the crevices were circled.
“Because of the heat, there are not many monsters in this region. Even the rather abundant muupkaras avoid this place. The most common threats you will experience are bright-spitters—their prey, and the occasional small earth elemental. You should be able to handle or avoid most of these. If you encounter something…unexpected that you cannot handle—bright-spitters can grow very large—call for me through the spells I cast upon you. I will watch from above, but I will not interfere unless it is clear that you cannot turn the situation to your advantage.”
Alex looked down at the symbol of Baelin’s magic: the same one that he’d cast on them during the test.
“Do note that this experience will be taking things to the next level. Do not rely simply on the magic’s automatic ability to bring you to my side if you are in danger. It will call you to me if you are greatly injured, but an instantly fatal blow, is well…” he let the statement hang, unfinished. “Oh, and-”
He held up one finger.
“-until you each find your orbs, you are not permitted to aid one another: even should you encounter each other during your search. After each of you has found your goal, and should you then encounter a classmate, you will be permitted to band together to help each other reach an extraction point.”
Nua-Oge raised her hand. “Since we’ll be on our own, may I cast a spell on Grimloch before we go? Just to protect him from the excessive heat: his people and mine cannot tolerate it well.”
“Hrm,” Baelin paused. “Normally, I prefer that no spells be cast until you are at the assigned task. But you are right, both of your peoples would have far more difficulty with this than others in the class. Very well, you may armour him in the Shield of Darkwater, but you may engage in no other preparations. Steel yourselves and get ready.”
After the now very familiar feel of Baelin’s teleportation, Alex materialized at the bottom of a crevice, all alone. The crevice rose high over him, with the walls ending perhaps thirty feet above. The path he stood on at the bottom was fairly narrow, perhaps only fifteen feet wide, with rocks and shattered stones scattered among the dust.
The heat hit him like a blacksmith’s forge fire.
He’d only been standing in The Barrens for a heartbeat and sweat had already sprung up on his skin. He reached into his bag, quickly drawing out some of the potions he’d made in Professor Jules’ class.
There was a Potion of Sense Enhancement, two Potions of Body Enhancement—one for strength and one for stamina, and The Potion of Running Enhancement he’d made during the lab where the student had poisoned himself. Alex hadn’t seen the young man since, and wondered what had happened to him.
He then removed the final potion from his bag and turned it, the sunlight catching on the glass and rust-coloured substance within. It was his Potion of Heat and Fire Tolerance. It was a less potent version, and would only last a couple of hours, but that should be more than enough time to finish what he had to do.
Alex whirled around, his eyes searching the walls of the crevice. The stone was sun-baked and craggy, and would provide plenty of hiding places for smaller monsters.
The hair on the back of his neck began to rise.
He felt naked—a mere baker’s assistant about to head into danger, with only a few potions and some utility spells to help him. And it was during a time when his sister was going through something awful and he didn’t know how to help her. Now, he was supposed to keep himself safe as well.
He steeled his nerves like Baelin had advised, acknowledging that dangers could lie ahead of him on the path of wizardry, no matter where that road took him. This was necessary.
‘But what if some monster comes out too fast for Baelin to help you?’ his treacherous mind asked. ‘What if-’
‘Quiet,’ he told himself. ‘Not going to help right now.’
He popped the cork on the Potion of Heat Resistance and chugged it back, making a face. It tasted like…well, like a bunch of strange herbs and alchemical substances, but the magic that coursed through him felt good. Immediately, his body underwent a cooling sensation as if the sun had slipped behind a cloud.
The heat was still there and he felt it, but it didn’t bother him.
He conjured his forceball and hung his bag over it to conserve his energy then looked at the map. Frowning, he realized he’d already encountered his first hurdle. While the map indicated his extraction point and where he would find the orb, it didn’t indicate exactly where he’d been teleported to for his starting point, and the crevice he was in didn’t provide any landmarks to use to figure it out.
He looked to the wall and rotated his shoulder.
“Alright, let’s go.”
Concentrating, he conjured forcedisk and approached the craggy wall, slowly beginning to scale it. Aside from doing pullups on a horizontal steel hanging ladder setup at the university’s gymnasium, Alex was definitely a novice when it came to climbing. Luckily, he was much stronger now, so he took it slowly—allowing The Mark to correct his form as he ascended—and kept both forceball and forcedisk close at hand.
Neither were strong enough to bear his full weight yet, but with his improvements to them, they were now strong enough to support some of his weight as he scaled the crevice wall. He could feel his muscles tense as he pulled his way closer to his objective.
When he reached the top, he grabbed the edge and hauled himself up, exhaling in relief. A little more than two months ago, he wouldn’t have been able to even begin trying to scale the crevice wall. Now, he’d accomplished it with his own body strength and two spells. Normally, he’d be jumping for joy, but today, he really wasn’t in the mood to celebrate, his mind was more on his little sister.
Looking around, he spotted the distant crevices, noting two shapes flying through the sky: likely Rayne and Najyah. He also saw other outlines standing near the crevices, but he couldn’t tell who they were from his distance. He glanced up toward the clouds—there floated the horned silhouette of Baelin, gazing down on all of them like some sort of god.
Alex’s teeth clenched.
Had it been Uldar who’d granted Selina her mana—the very thing that had killed their family? Was that it? Or was it some sort of sick, random chance? Was it the same chance that had seen him get The Mark? Or had that been Uldar’s doing?
“Shit,” he muttered to himself.
At least he could make the best of The Mark; it wasn’t the very thing that had traumatized them four years ago. …but for Selina, not only did she get this awful “gift,” but she was only ten years old. How was she supposed to cope with this?
“Damn you,” he cursed at no one in particular.
He shook his head again, trying to use his meditation techniques to acknowledge how angry he was and let it pass, but it was challenging.
Focusing his attention on the map, and noting the layout of the crevices, he found his location.
“Good.” He tapped the map.
Where he needed to go wasn’t that far, and he could get there even faster if he went overland instead of going along the bottom of the crevice.
Shouts suddenly reached him from a distance.
He looked up to see Najyah and Rayne’s silhouettes flying down into the crevices. Other forms were scrambling down into them as well.
What was going on?
He glanced up at the sky again and his eyes went wide.
Scores of long, sinewy forms were launching into the air from a far distant crevice—they looked like snakes with bird’s wings. Bright flashes of fire and light gushed in front of them.
They must be the bright-spitters the chancellor had mentioned.
Some of them surged into the sky toward Baelin, while the others swept over the crevices at frightening speed.
“Oh, hell,” Alex said, running back to his crevice.