Baelin’s magic returned the class to the stadium and Alex spotted Shiani, Malcolm, and Rhea. He took a deep breath and was heading toward them when a hand touched his shoulder.
“You have an injury, I see,” Isolde said, her sharp blue eyes focused on him.
Alex glanced at the bright-spitter bite.
“‘Tis but a scratch.” He shrugged.
“Well, done, then.” She paused. “How do you do it, exactly, Alex? I…” an edge entered her voice. “…struggled today. And yet somehow you did not. How do you do it?’
“Uh, what do you mean?” he asked distractedly.
The class had begun to gather their supplies and get ready to leave the stadium, and he didn’t want Shiani to go without asking her for advice. She might say no, but he had to try.
“You’re a first year student.” Isolde watched him closely. “You know no combat spells and yet you’re performing incredibly well here. I am taking second year mana manipulation and potions courses, yet word has been spreading about your performance even in them. And it is not often that one does so well that professors talk about them to upper year classes.”
Alex snorted, still watching Shiani. “Tell that to my force magic prof. He barely talks to me, let alone about me.”
“Still,” Isolde said. “I pride myself on performance as I did in the first year levels for those subjects but-”
Shiani started to move.
“Isolde, could you hold that thought,” Alex said quickly.
She paused and a shadow passed across her face. “...sure.”
“I’ll be right back.” He glanced at his other friends. “I’ll be back. I have to talk to Shiani for a minute.”
He jogged across the stadium. “Excuse me! Excuse me!” He waved at the three second years.
They slowly turned as he approached. “Shiani, right?” he asked, his eyes locking on the young, dark-haired woman. Her seashell necklace rattled against Baelin’s charm-necklace as she moved. “Can I ask you something?”
She froze up for a moment. “Um, yes?”
Malcolm grinned beside her and gave a knowing laugh, elbowing her in the side. Rhea chuckled, and Shiani shot both of them a quick glare.
“Listen, can I ask you about fire?” he asked.
Malcolm and Rhea froze; their amusement quickly faded into disappointment, while Shiani looked relieved. “Pardon? Fire?”
“Yeah, look I know we hardly know each other, and this is kind of a strange thing to ask but…” he paused, trying to find his words. “I’ve seen you use fire spells in class a lot—as much as Rhea—but like…” Again, he stopped trying to find the right words. “…you’ve been gentle in class and…okay, look. It’s my sister.”
He launched into an explanation—only quickly touching on the darker parts of the situation—and then moved onto explaining how his sister had received a fire affinity. Shiani’s eyes grew wider as his story continued.
“...so yeah,” he said. “I know it’s a long shot, but I thought I’d ask. Like, I don’t think fire has to be a bad thing, but I don’t know how to really talk about that with her…but like, you’re kind and you use it. Maybe if I could tell her about you, or you could give me some ideas on what to say, or something. I know, this is very, very random.”
Shiani paused when his torrent of words finally stopped. “I…I’m not sure what to say.” She frowned. “That poor girl. My people actually worship fire, like they do in the Rhinean Empire—as they also do with the other elements. …but, we actually do have some that fear it. Our priests usually talk to them: would a priest of your god be able to speak with her, I mean…I could tell you what I think, but I’m not sure if it will help…”
He fought to keep his face neutral when she mentioned talking to his own priests. “Uh, our god Uldar really doesn’t have much to do with fire…and the priests aren’t wizards. So, they could give like general help, but I was thinking…look if this is too much pressure, I understand: I kind of did just ambush you with this. I gotta admit, I’m a bit desperate.”
“Hmmmm,” she thought carefully. “If…if you bring her to class one day, I could talk to her a little bit about…” she paused. “How would you call it in this language… ‘The Fire that Nurtures’. It’s what we call the divine we find in flame. Or I could tell you about it, and then tell her.”
He let out a sigh of relief. “Anything can help. I’d like to hear about it from you, and if I can get her to come one day, maybe you could talk to her? I won’t take too much of your time.”
She paused. “Alright, but I can’t promise anything.”
“Anything works.” He smiled brightly. “And seriously. Thank you for this. If there’s anything I can do for you, just ask.”
Shiani gave him a nod and quick smile, and then they parted ways.
He turned and jogged back to where his friends were waiting for him.
Well, most of them.
“Where’s Isolde?” Alex asked.
“Baelin was teleporting the injured to the infirmary,” Khalik said. “She went with him.”
“Ah, okay,” Alex said, wondering what she’d wanted to say to him.
He had another thought.
Maybe he could talk to the chancellor about Selina. He must have seen so much in his long life that he’d likely seen something like this happen before. He might also be able to offer some advice, if he wasn’t too busy.
That was another avenue to consider. In the meantime, he’d just have to do what he could to support his little sister. At the same time, he’d need to do some experimentation with The Mark.
Life would continue ticking on. As it always did.
Life had continued ticking on surprisingly quickly. The next few days passed by in a blink and the deadline to apply to Shale’s Workshop was approaching.
Selina’s mood was improving over time, and—since he hadn’t talked to Shiani or Baelin yet, both had been very busy—he’d simply resolved to spend as much time with her as he could.
He didn’t push or insist—in some misguided attempt to help her—that she talk about it. He still had no idea what wisdom he could use to help her through what she was going through.
He did, however, know what had helped both of them after their parents died: time with people they cared about, showing them that they were loved. And he did just that. She was still clearly very sad, but she cried less as the days went on and she made less comments about disliking herself.
Whether that meant her opinion about herself was changing, or if she was simply not voicing it to make sure he wasn’t upset, he didn’t know.
He did know that he’d be there for her when she needed him.
In the meantime, he’d progressed in other areas.
His mastery of Wizard’s Hand had started to grow at a pleasing rate, considering how much trouble it had given him before. He was starting to get fairly adept at modifying spell arrays, especially as he gained more experience with them, even in spite of The Mark interfering.
Studying Wizard’s Hand was even giving him greater insight into forcedisk and forceball, and he’d been modifying them to make them even stronger. Using the two spells to support part of his weight while he’d climbed the crevice wall had inspired him to try and take that a step further.
He’d seen forcedisks—or spells similar to forcedisk—that were able to carry someone’s full weight, and so he made having them be able to do that one of his next goals.
Another goal had been starting on the next spell in FORC-1550’s curriculum: force shield.
That had proved to be…
…not all that challenging. The structure of its spell array was much less complex than Wizard’s Hand’s and—after struggling with Wizard’s Hand for so long—he’d found it fairly easy by comparison.
He’d managed to conjure a crimson force shield—a concave force construct that floated around him and swung automatically to block incoming threats—in the dark of his room.
He had actually woken up his apartment mates with his loud triumphant cheering in the dead of the night.
It was his first truly defensive spell, and one that would keep him far safer in The Barrens, or when he had to deal with threats in the future.
His lab work for Professor Jules was progressing well too. The grad students found—to their surprise—that he often had the proper tools ready to hand them for the next step of the brewing process before they even asked.
Professor Jules was involving him more and more in the direct processes as well, and had finally handed him his letter of reference for Shale’s workshop.
And that left mana manipulation.
He’d devoured the textbook back to front and front to back several times, and had learned how to activate all the glyphs on three boxes at once while maintaining Force Shield, Wizard’s Hand, andperforming the mana regeneration technique on himself.
He knew he was getting ahead of himself—he was still a first year student with only a handful of spells under his belt after all—but he was feeling more powerful. Especially physically.
At the gymnasium he’d begun to add exercises to train himself in climbing and sharpen his agility on his feet. There was an obstacle course—usually used by The Watchers of Roal—that he’d been using to teach himself how to move past obstacles and rough terrain at speed. To train strength and balance—and, he had to admit ego boost a little—he’d begun doing ‘handstand pushups’ using a wall for support.
He and Khalik would compete, and while the prince could perform more repetitions, he lost balance more often than Alex, who continued to use The Mark to correct his form. Thundar was content to simply watch them competing.
“Listen, my people are like bulls, not squirrels,” he snorted. “Flip around and do all that fancy stuff without me.”
Of course, he never admitted that his reluctance might have had something to do with the fact that he’d tried it once, lost balance and nearly broke a horn by tumbling onto his head.
Alex wasn’t stupid enough to suggest to him that this might have been the real reason.
After them teaming up in The Barrens, Alex had extended an invite to Grimloch to join their group workouts, and though the shark man didn’t always come along, he pretty much obliterated them—and everyone else—each time he did.
‘There’s no accounting for natural talent,’ Alex had thought. ‘Or being a shark man that’s nearly ten feet tall.’
Still, despite the successes he’d been enjoying, a spectre of terror loomed over all of them. One that threatened to steal the courage from even the mightiest heart.
“You know,” Thundar grumbled. “I think maybe choking the life out of my professor would be easier than studying from his lectures.”
He closed his notebook for battle magic with a loud clack.
Alex and Khalik startled.
“Shhhhh!” a student hissed from nearby, pointing to the ‘Be Quiet’ sign close by.
“Sorry,” Thundar muttered, looking around to see every student’s bloodshot eyes in the room glaring at him.
They had come to the first level of the school library and had been lucky enough to grab a table before the entire floor had become packed to the brim. First years filled every seat—most of them looking like they’d hardly slept in days—and their clothes absolutely reeked of tea, coffee and stress.
“Ach, I should’ve taken potions instead,” Thundar whispered.
Khalik glanced at him. “Do you even have any interest in potions? I’ve heard it’s quite difficult.”
“Yeah, but at least I’d have big-brain over here to teach me.” He nodded to Alex.
Alex extended his hand toward the minotaur and tapped his empty palm. “You want the material conveyed? Then I got to be paid.”
“We went through life and death together.” Thundar held up his charm-necklace. “That makes us bonded.”
“We are bonded.” Alex smiled. “But bonds can be strengthened for the low, low price of-”
“You’re a terrible friend.”
“But I’d be a rich friend.”
He snorted. “Hey, maybe that Shiani or her friends could teach me. They're in second year, so they’d know more. Come on, Alex put in a word for me.”
Alex tapped his palm again. “Want a message to be conveyed? Then I got to be-”
“I’m gonna kill you.”
“Oooo, did you hear that, Khalik?” Alex drew away as though horrified. “He threatened my life. He’s an evilwizard: you must help me, oh mighty hero, or he might turn me into a newt.”
“I swear I would have gotten more studying done outside of the library,” Khalik grumbled.
“But then you’d be abandoning your good, good friends.” Alex smirked. “Hey, speaking of the library.”
Alex jerked his head toward the sign near the front entrance—the one warning students not to bring open flame into the library. “What’s with that sign anyway? Who’d be dumb enough to bring fire into a place full of books, especially when there’s magic to light the place?”
Khalik glanced at the sign. “From the way my brother told it, when he was here, some nasty senior duped a naive first year into bringing a candle into the library as part of a cruel joke.”
Alex blinked in surprise. That seemed to be so…juvenile for a school of wizardry. Then, again, he’d witnessed a student nearly kill himself by drinking quicksilver on a dare. All kinds, including bullies, were in all places he supposed.
After all, bullies weren’t only named ‘McHarris’.
“Oooo.” Thundar winced. “What happened? Senior get in trouble?”
“Well,” Khalik said, placing his book down. “The senior was nobility in his kingdom—the same kingdom that the junior was from—so he assumed no one would reprimand him. But Generasi…though it respects those of rulership, does not bow to foreign kings. Threats were made, of course, but in the end, both students were placed on academic probation and fined by the registrar.”
Alex gulped. The last person he would ever want to owe money to was a literal devil.
Then again, in his unique situation, a devil would be more healthy for him to be around than priests or gods.
“Alex!” He heard someone whisper loudly from the front of the library.
Alex froze. He knew that voice.
Like a rusty gate creaking, he turned toward the voice and saw the short, bouncy form of Carey London waving a hand at him enthusiastically while the other clutched a sheaf of papers.
And beside her—also carrying sheafs of papers—with a friendly, open smile was…
His eyes widened.
He could only stare as the unlikely duo approached his table.
“I was hoping I’d find a friendly face here, it’s so good to see you,” she whispered, though some students outright glared at her. “Here.”
She handed him a sheet of paper. “Try and make it out, we could really use the support.”
“Support?” he asked, his eyes darting back and forth between her and Derek. “Support for-”
His eyes fell on the paper. “...Oh.”
There, at the top of the sheet, in big bold letters:
Campus for Uldar Rally: Ending the Ban on Priests from Campus!