“Uuuuuh,” Alex said unintelligently, as he continued to stare—slack-jawed—down at the paper, noting the details. It looked like the rally was being organized by Carey’s group, but there were other groups listed as contributors to the event: representative societies and organizations serving other deities. He hadn’t heard of many of them.
The date was set for three weeks from the current day. It was also set to take place at the school’s front gates.
“Is…is this sanctioned by the school?” Alex asked as Khalik and Thundar leaned over to see what he was reading.
“Of course not,” Carey whispered. “Which is why it’s sooo delightfully rebellious.”
“I-I see,” Alex murmured. “Huh.”
“Oh come now, show a little more enthusiasm.” Carey chided. “If this works, we can end the separation between wizards and the divine. Think of it: how much could our people benefit if we had a union between our clergy and the brilliant minds and mighty powers here? And we need it. We need it.”
There was an insistence in Carey’s voice that gave Alex pause. “Why…did something happen?”
She nodded. “I’ve been talking to the priests, and…they’re grim. The Heroes fight against The Ravener everyday, but it’s growing more and more aggressive. For every dungeon core they break, it seems it makes two more to take that one’s place. Every lord has mustered their bannermen, the king has called the court wizards to take part, and the church is calling back every priest for support. Many who tend the temple of Uldar in the city are already packing to go home.” She shook her head in distress. “Which leaves only a few to tend to the needs of an entire city and fundraise here. It’s terrible.”
Alex gulped. “And…what about casualties?”
“Not many yet, thank Uldar,” she said. “We have to thank Alric’s Patron Saint for that: if it weren’t for her sanctum evacuating the people so quickly…but things will grow worse. The Ravener’s spawn are destroying the fields and villages: the harvest will be poor this year, and there will be many hungry mouths to feed during the fighting. And what if this gets drawn out? Our people are taking refuge in allied realms, but what if this goes on, and on, and on? Will they be still welcome in two years? Five? Ten?”
She bit her lip. “This could be awful, Alex.” She paused. “And there’s still no trace of The Fool. Many think they might have already been killed.”
A stab of irrational guilt went through Alex, which he suppressed with prejudice. Everything Carey said sounded…awful, and it had the potential to get worse. But what was he going to do about it?
He’d only just figured out he could move things without The Mark suppressing him. Even if he wanted to go back, he would literally be less useful than a regular wizard right now. He thought about the dungeon core’s remains. He was making great progress with Professor Jules and he was sure—sooner rather than later—he’d get more freedom with his own projects.
Then he could contribute in his own way like he planned to. Besides, his sister came first and she needed him more than ever now. Even if he was slightly tempted to leave Generasi in some half-baked notion to join The Heroes right now, that would involve abandoning her at one of the most vulnerable times of her young life.
He couldn’t even imagine doing that.
For now, the information that there’d be less priests in the city was good news. Very good news. And if some did think that The Fool might have been killed was also very good news. But the idea of students pushing for priests to be allowed on campus was…well, it wasn’t likely to go anywhere. But, it would bring their attention to campus. Maybe make them bolder.
He’d need to watch for that.
“Well, hopefully The Fool’s alright,” he said with a straight face, then looked up at Derek. “Um-”
“Why am I doing this?” Derek finished for him with a wide smile. “Why supporting a friend, of course. We of the Rhinean Empire have been long allied with Thameland, and we know tribulation too. When the elemental mountain of water erupted three centuries ago, our elemental knights had to fight water elementals within a cloud of mist that enveloped half the country. Your kingdom’s Chosen and Champion of that time came to our aid with a contingent of knights. We may not worship the same god, but I am a member of the aristocracy. It’s my duty to do what I can.”
It was incredible.
Despite keeping his voice at a whisper, Derek’s words were so sincere and his tone so unwavering that Alex could almost believe he was telling the truth. Almost.
“Derek and I have been talking after potions, and he said he wanted to help.” She looked up at the young nobleman seriously, as though she were a priestess looking upon her flock.
Derek nodded. “I’ve made some mistakes in the past, but I’m taking what lessons I can, whether it be through divine intervention or through wisdom of others. Like Carey, or maybe you, friend. Anyone that I-”
He paused, his eyes rising and looking over Alex’s head.
Isolde had emerged from the doorway to the lower floors. Her eyes had dark circles under them and her hair was dishevelled, barely kept in line by a tight ponytail. She carried a book bag that was filled to bursting and she had a forceball—one that glowed an electric blue—suspending a small basket beneath, big enough to carry one book.
Her eyes had focused on Derek, then fell to Alex, Thundar and Khalik and then moved back to the young Rhinean nobleman. Then her eyes went wide and her face washed red.
Alex glanced back to Derek just in time to see his facial expression growing neutral. If he had mouthed something or had given her a particular look, Alex had no idea.
Whatever the young man had done though, it’d obviously pissed Isolde right off.
Her shoes thudded across the library floor—drawing eyes from the surrounding students—as she pushed through the library. Her forceball slowly lost ground beside her until she had to stop and wait for it to catch up. The entire time, she refused to look in Derek’s direction, then abruptly left the library
Carey let out a sigh. “Hoooo, awwwwkward. Well that soured the mood a tad, didn’t it? Here.” She drew out sheets of paper and handed them to both Khalik and Thundar. “Do stop by, we’d love to have all three of you. Well, I’ll catch up with you later, Alex. Ta-ta.”
With Derek in tow, she puttered off to harass the other students.
Alex watched them go, looking between the exit, Derek and Carey.
The star pupil, the devout student and the avid cheater: a strange trio to be caught up in…whatever that might have been. Alex didn’t want to be involved, but had the feeling he already was in some way: all three of those parties had some interest in him. He frowned.
He’d need to have a good long talk with Isolde after all the craziness with midterms—she’d basically turned into a ghost outside of class time—and his application to Shale’s workshop was over.
“Well,” Khalik said, picking up his textbook. “That was a waste of a study break. Back to it, I suppose.”
Thundar groaned and followed suit.
Alex did as well, opening up his notebook to the notes on mana manipulation. While he was also studying for midterms, he had something much more important to prepare for.
Val’Rok had finally given him permission.
Tomorrow, he would Challenge the Exam for Credit for Mana Manipulation.
“Welcome, welcome!” Val’Rok greeted Alex from the doorway of a small classroom. “Just leave your bag by the door and come in.”
They were in one of the highest towers in all of Generasi, and daylight poured through the glass of the massive windows, though it wasn’t a cheery light.
The day was a rainy one, just like it had been when they’d first come to Generasi, and he could see students moving quickly through the courtyard and across campus with umbrellas of waxed fabric, or beneath spells that shielded them from the elements, or at a run with books clutched against themselves.
Alex had grown his forceshield as large as he could and then simply set it to hover above his head. It had kept the rain away very nicely.
“Thank you professor,” he said, shifting his bag off his shoulder nervously.
Though the classroom was small—likely a seminar room for upper year or graduate students—it seemed enormous to Alex at that moment. Part of his mind told him not to worry: he knew the textbook for mana manipulation almost as well as he did Dexter’s General Alchemy of Potions and he knew Dexter’s almost as well as his own notebook by now.
Yet, another part knew that Val’Rok’s letter of recommendation was riding on this, and that was making him jittery. Without that letter, he figured it’d be a lot harder to convince anyone to hire someone with his limited experience. There was also a sort of momentous nature to the exam.
He’d been writing tests for years in the church school in Alric, but this was his very first exam in university, his first exam that involved a magical subject, and one designed for students so advanced, they could skip an entire first year course.
He would feel pretty stupid if—after all this build up—he just ouright failed.
“Alex?” Val’Rok suddenly leaned in very close to him, widening one very large reptilian eye to stare at him from inches away.
Alex gasped, stepping backward.
“You alright?” the lizardman asked and—for a moment—Alex was sure he was about to start advancing menacingly on him. “You look as pale as a sheet. Don’t be nervous.” He smiled, revealing his sharp teeth. “I wouldn’t have recommended you for this if I thought you couldn’t do it. To quote some of my students: ‘you got this’.”
“Uh, thanks, professor.” Alex gave a weak smile. It was a little silly, he realized. He was able to keep his head enough to think and adapt strategies when dealing with monsters and imminent death, but the thought of an exam made part of him want to throw himself through the window?
‘You’re ridiculous, Alex,’ he mentally mocked himself.
“So allow me to introduce you to your invigilator, Sinbrok,” Val’Rok gestured to an incredibly short man with a golden, braided beard and shaved head, sitting at the front of the room. The little man waved back, and Alex gasped.
There he was this morning admiring his own physical gains, but this fellow—despite maybe only coming up to his chest—had muscular arms that were thicker around than Alex’s thighs.
Alex felt his pride deflating by the heartbeat.
“Sinbrok is my teaching assistant for MANA-1900, and he’ll be watching over you today—both for the written and practical portion—if you have any questions, you ask him unless the question is: ‘what’s the answer to this question?’.” Val’Rok threw his head back in his high-pitched, giddy laugh. “Alright, let’s get you set up.”
First, the professor cast the same spell of dispelling magic on Alex that professor Jules had, in case he’d brought in any magical effects that would allow him to cheat. Then he pointed Alex to a desk in the middle of the empty classroom, directly across from Sinbrok. With a final few words of encouragement, he left Alex to it.
The dwarf student padded over to Alex’s desk and examined his supplies: one simple pen. “Right, you’ll have an hour and a half for the written test, and then an hour and a half for the practical.” The invigilator placed the exam booklet and a work-booklet beside it. “The first part is the multiple choice portion and the second part is essay questions. When you’re finished, just raise your hand and we’ll move onto the practical. If you need to use the privy or get a glass of water or anything, let me know and I’ll escort you. There’s no need for any spellcasting during the written portion of the exam, so if I sense any mana or hear any incantations, that’ll be an immediate fail. Understand?”
“Yep.” Alex nodded.
“Right, then.” Sinbrok tromped up to the desk at the front of the class. He drew a large hourglass filled with blue powder from a bag that looked much too small to hold it, then pressed his hand over top. Alex felt a shift of mana, and the powder within shuddered then decreased in quantity as though some of it had been sucked away by a mana vacuum. “Hour and a half,” the dwarf said, flipping the hourglass. “Begin.”
Alex took a few deep, meditative breaths, acknowledging his own nerves and the raving in his mind, then detached from them.
He then flipped the exam sheet open.