First thing Alex did was carefully read over the entire written exam just in case there were any instructions hidden like in Jules’ lab-books. He sighed when he found that there weren’t any, and began.
The exam wasn’t going to be easy: if he’d tried taking it before studying as thoroughly as he had using The Mark, he might’ve been only able to answer one or maybe two questions with confidence.
Even having the textbook mostly memorized, he still found that there were questions that he wasn’t sure how to answer. As he felt now, though…
He cracked his knuckles.
He was ready for most of it.
Alex tore into the exam with a vengeance, his pen almost flying across the pages. He didn’t really need to consult The Mark for most of it, either: whether for questions on the history of mana manipulation’s development, the exact process of different forms of manipulations, or a list of which common spells made use of the art, he was able to answer with the speed that he wrote his own name.
He skipped some of the harder questions in favour of answering the ones he knew the answers to first: it made sense to get as many easy marks as he could quickly, and then go back and struggle with the more difficult ones later.
The last three questions were more obscure, and weren’t covered in material directly from the textbook. To answer those, he had to use reasoning and the knowledge he had to make educated guesses. He tried The Mark, using it by writing down his answer repeatedly while thinking about the skill that the question was testing. The images it brought up helped him narrow his answer, and focus on the parts that it had focused on as ‘successes’.
Unfortunately, since it used his own memories, it couldn’t add any information that he didn’t already have or that he hadn’t already experienced.
In the end, he finished, then read over the exam one final time before nodding at it and raising his hand.
Sinbrok looked up from some other work he was marking, blinking in surprise. “Already?” He glanced at the hourglass, which had only shifted half of its blue particles to the bottom bulb. “You’ve still got forty-five minutes.”
“I’m done. If I keep at it, I’m just going to be crossing out and rewriting the same answers.”
The dwarf shrugged. “Alright.” Sinbrok snapped his fingers and spoke a short incantation.
The exam booklet shuddered and slammed shut, sealing itself around the edges with a thin metal that flowed out of mid-air.
“Well, that’s one way to stop people from sneaking into an office and trying to change their answers,” Alex remarked.
“Yep.” Sinbrok grinned widely, revealing that some of his teeth had been replaced with prosthetics forged of a silvery metal; it looked similar to the metal now sealing the exam booklet. “If anyone tries to pry the seal open, the metal carries a spell that’s set to literally scream bloody murder like a frost giant running from a barbarian.” He laughed. “And if they run off thinking they got away, well no such luck for the little cheat because the metal copies their name and prints it across the exam book, revealing their crime and shame for all to see. So, anyone who tries changing their answers really doesn’t have a very good day.” Sinbrok finished, rather matter of factly.
He spoke another incantation.
And something strange happened.
Alex felt a very familiar surge of mana, and immediately knew that a teleportation spell was being cast. His mana sense seemed to sharpen, and his eyes widened. Even from his distance from Sinbrok, he felt the mana of the spell so precisely, that he could almost feel the shape of its magic circuit.
Unlike Baelin’s teleportation spell—which was so overwhelmingly powerful that all he could feel was its might—this spell was simple enough that the magic circuit was far more clear. It was like the difference between staring into the sun and looking at a cheery fireplace.
He blinked in amazement, until Sinbrok waved his hand in front of him. “Hello? You okay, there? Do you need a break?”
“No.” Alex blinked. “No, I’m fine.”
The magic circuit was gone from his senses so quickly, that he might’ve thought he imagined it if he didn’t look for his exam booklet to find it gone.
“Don’t you worry,” Sinbrok said. “I just teleported your exam to another teacher’s assistant for marking. Depending on how fast you go with the next part, it should be done by the end of the test, and I can give you your result in a jiffy.”
“Wait, really?” Alex asked.
In the church school, he remembered his teachers sometimes taking several days, or even weeks to mark tests.
“Aye, we use a little magic to help speed up the process, and it’s only one exam after all. Now then.”
Sinbrok drew a clipboard and box from beside his desk. “Alright, for this one, you’ll be showing me your mana manipulation ability by way of a spell, by way of an internal manipulation, and by way of devices.”
The invigilator placed the box on the desk and took out a series of five rings, a pair of gloves that were covered in glyphs, and a strange object that looked like a series of small cubes put together in a jagged shape.
The dwarf wizard picked up one of the rings first. “Which sustained spells do you know?”
“Forceball, forcedisk, Wizard’s Hand and force shield,” Alex said.
“Ah, I see someone’s taking Professor Ram’s course. Which one are you most comfortable with?”
Alex felt mana surge as Sinbrok channeled his magic into the rings one by one. He watched as each grew until they were large enough for Alex to fit both his head and shoulders through the openings.
The wizard then threw them into the air in different directions, and they abruptly stopped, floating above in different parts of the room. “Alright, those rings are built to disrupt the mana connecting you to your spell: your task is to fly your forceball through each of the rings while being disrupted. You’ll be timed on how many times you can complete the circuit within the time limit.”
“I see,” Alex said. “Alright, I’ll give it a go.”
Concentrating, he conjured his forceball.
It winked into being in front of them, shining brightly. “Tell me when.”
Sinbrok stared at the forceball for a moment. “That’s uh…that’s awfully large, and you’ve got a lot of mana in there.”
Alex shrugged. “I made a few modifications,” he said proudly. “There’s a reason why I’m most comfortable with this one.”
“Y-yeah,” Sinbrok said, pulling out a strange circular device.
He clicked a button on the side of it, and it opened up: a series of twelve tiny metal orbs floated in a column over it and began orbiting a central octahedron. “Alright, bring your ball into the centre of the room, and send it toward each ring that begins to glow. You will have three attempts.”
Alex ordered his forceball up to the middle of the room and waited, holding his breath.
The orbiting spheres paused, frozen around the central shape for a moment.
“Go!” Sinbrok clicked another button.
The spheres began to spin. One of the rings began to glow with emerald green light.
Alex shot his forceball forward; he tensed as it passed through the ring…and then he burst out laughing.
As his spell entered the ring, he felt a disruptive interference buffeting both his mana and his mind. It threatened to shatter his concentration and connection to the spell…just like The Mark did. Only, if The Mark’s interference was the equivalent to an entire war-party blowing their horns beside his ear in unison, then this interference was like someone peacefully playing a flute in the next room.
He barely even felt it.
At that point, it became a game to him as he guided his forceball through the rings, weaving through each of them as they glowed. In no time at all, he had finished the course.
“Again?” he asked.
Sinbrok only gaped up at him and then clicked off the device. “Er, sure.”
Alex guided his spell through the course two more times, each time improving his time and generating an increasingly shocked reaction from Sinbrok.
“Ah…alright, then. That’s enough.” Sinbrok finally muttered after the third time. He squinted at his time-keeping device, noting the positions of the floating orbs. “Well burn my beard, I think you might’ve just gotten some kind of record.”
He busily scrawled down the results on the sheet on his clipboard, then slipped on the gloves. “Right, give your hands.” He wiggled his gloved fingers at Alex. “These’ll let me feel the flow of your mana pool as you use professor Val’Rok’s mana regeneration technique.”
Alex took the dwarf’s gloved hands. “Oh my, holding my hand already? And you haven’t even bought me lunch!”
Silence filled the room.
Sinbrok turned away and coughed.
“Just…uh…” Alex muttered. “Do me a favour and pretend I never said that.”
“Never said what?” the dwarf said. “Now let’s get this done.”
Alex watched the teacher’s assistant’s face as he adeptly moved his mana pool to massage all the pathways suggested by the technique simultaneously. By now, the movement was as easy as breathing for Alex.
Sinbrok whistled, letting go of Alex’s hands. “Alright, then, no second try necessary.” He took up his clipboard again and made a few more marks.
“Now, this is your final challenge.” He placed the strange shape in front of Alex. “Your job is to feel the pathways of mana within this device and return it to its natural configuration.”
At this point, Alex was almost giddy with excitement, and nearly twitching with eagerness to get at the device. Sinbrok sighed and handed it to him.
The device was clearly designed: mana manipulation would get it to change shape, but there was a specific subtle pattern to its internal mana configuration that he’d need to figure out to have anyhope of getting it into the correct shape. Thankfully, with how sensitive his mana senses now were, the patterns were about as ‘subtle’ to him as an oak tree draped in a red dress, dancing along a hillside on its roots while singing Sigmus carols.
His mana shot into the device and began to trace out the correct configuration through all the cubes. Once he had that down, he realized that what he was supposed to do was activate one or two cubes at a time, sliding each around one by one until they locked into their correct places.
He would do one better than that.
Spreading his mana through every cube at once, he activated them all simultaneously.
The device whirred and snapped as every cube rotated around each other simultaneously. Its shape seemed to melt as the cubes swarmed around each other and finally snapped into their proper places all at once. The result was the device returned to its proper shape: a large cube composed of smaller ones.
“By my fathers and mothers…” Sinbrok murmured, scrawling down the results on his sheet. “I can’t believe it. Are your parents wizards?”
Alex shook his head.
“Do they run a mana device shop?”
Alex shook his head, and a smile sprang across his lips.
“…did a wizard take you as an apprentice when you were young?”
Alex shook his head, and this time his smile turned just a bit proud. “Self-taught.”
Sinbrok blew out a breath. “Then I’m going to hate to see you by the time you graduate.” He wrote down the final results. “Alright, have a seat. When the exam book gets back, I’ll tell you what’s what.”
The two of them only had to wait for a little bit before Alex felt a familiar surge of mana. Magic circuitry formed in the air above the desk then the book rematerialized in the middle of the circuit.
A new seal had been applied to it, which Sinbrok broke with a single word. He flipped it open and whistled, then handed it to Alex, who took it with a mix of excitement and trepidation.
Sending up a brief prayer to The Traveller, he glanced down at the top of the first page.
He had to fight the urge to scream in triumph.
“Well. Bloody. Done.” Sinbrok wrote down the last of his notes on the practical sheet. “So. You got full marks on the practical. Obviously: you’re a bloody mana monster. 100% percent on practical part of the Exam for Credit, can’t bloody believe it. I’ve seen third years struggle with The Arrarubix Box more.”
He handed him the sheet. “I put some notes on there for Professor Val’Rok to read. I can’t put in bonus marks, but if anyone deserves them, you do. Welcome to the honours list, friend.”
“Honours list?” Alex asked.
“It’s a list we post in each department after midterms: it’s the top ten achievers in each level of our courses. It let’s us—and the students—know who’s in line for an achievement.”
“Oh, cool!” Alex said. Then he paused. “Is there an Isolde von Anmut on one of the lists?”
Sinbrok threw his head back and laughed. “Better question is which list is that name not on? Shame about potions, though.”
“Aye. A little…technicality cost her a place on that list.”
Alex winced, and wondered if that technicality was named ‘Derek Warren’.
“Anyway, enough gossip. Take your booklet and sheet to the professor’s office, down the hall and around the bend, past the double doors. He’ll get you your certificate of completion. Best of luck, and I hope we see you working with the department. Good mana manipulators are rare among wizards, and wizards in general are rare enough as it is: we always could use talent.”
Alex’s footsteps echoed through the halls as he half marched half-strutted toward Val’Rok’s office. Even his forceball—carrying his bag—was bouncing in the air beside him, he was so happy.
This was it.
First exam done.
One course complete.
And his second letter of reference was coming.
If he didn’t have a terrible singing voice, he might have burst into song. His mind froze. Well, he didn’t haveto have a terrible singing voice if he didn’t want to, did he? Not anymore, at least.
He hummed to himself, using The Mark to correct his vocal tones as he continued on. Alex came to the curve in the hall, where the double doors Sinbrok had told him about were.
Except the doors were open.
Inside was a spacious office: within that office was a writing desk with a familiar figure sitting at it.
Alex paused for a moment.
“You were getting better,” Baelin said, his deep voice booming into the hall and startling Alex. “Why did you stop?”
A flush of embarrassment washed over Alex’s face. “Uh, hello Cha-uh, Baelin.” He paused, considering the chance. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”
“Why certainly, these are my office hours after all. Come, keep a lonely old goat company.” The chancellor waved him into the room. He paused, and his eyes squinted at Alex for a moment as the young man stepped inside.
A flick of the Baelin’s eyes toward the doorway caused both doors to shut with a creak. Luckily, Alex didn’t hear the sound of a bolt sliding.
“Hm,” the chancellor stared at him for a moment. “Interesting. Alex, could I ask you a question?” He tented his fingers in front of him.
“Sure,” Alex said.
“…have you ever been subject to a…magical event before? A catastrophe? A mana explosion?”
He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but it felt like the chancellor was staring right at his shoulder.