The place where Thundar’s club met was in a part of campus that Alex had never been before, even though it was fairly close to the Beastarium.
Much of wizardry involved horticulture.
There were a number of reasons for this, the primary one being that people needed to grow plants for food, have plant material to weave clothing from, or for various medicines. In his magic lore class, they’d learned that from oral histories, early writings and the accounts of long-lived races, mortals first applied wizardry to the task of creating reliable strong crops and easing the work of farming.
Another reason was that many disciplines in alchemy required magical plants and fungi of various kinds to make potions, tools, wands, staffs and other magical items.
So, it wasn’t surprising that the University of Generasi would boast one of the most impressive botanical gardens in the entire world. Though it was called a garden, it was more of a small forest, completely contained within magically hardened glass and constantly monitored with spells that controlled temperature, humidity and sunlight.
Long brass pipes extended over the glass walls and ceiling around the garden, complete with nozzles to spray water magically pumped in from an underground source. The glass enclosure’s ceiling rose a hundred feet into the air, leaving plenty of room for even tall, alchemically valuable trees to be grown with little trouble. The scents of fresh earth, spicy fruits and vegetables, earthy mushrooms and fragrant flowers filled the garden’s fertile patches, which were crisscrossed with stone pathways for students to walk on.
It proved to be a popular place: in addition to the staff and alchemical students checking on what they were growing, many other students bustled through the paths. Some were seated on the many benches throughout the garden studying or enjoying an afternoon meal. Others were walking slowly through the pathways hand-in-hand, lost in each other’s faces more than in the gardens around them.
At certain areas in the garden, there were wide, circular patches of stone where pavilions—made of naturally growing bushes that had been magically twisted together and shaped into buildings—stood available for students or staff. On many of them hung the familiar wreaths of dried grape vines surrounding wooden boards painted with monsters.
It was within one of these that they found Thundar’s club.
Students of various ages—though Alex noticed that quite a few were older—were stretching upon the stones. They all wore comfortable clothes, and several of them waved to Thundar as he arrived.
“This is Alex,” the minotaur gestured to his friend. “He’s going to be joining us today if all of you don’t mind.”
No one protested, and Alex was greeted with a few welcoming smiles and verbal salutations in half a dozen languages, which Alex returned in those languages.
By now, his practice with different tongues had progressed to the point where he could manage simple conversations in about four different languages, if he counted the common tongue.
He was still working on the accents, though.
“Do we need mats or something?” Alex asked, eyeing the stone.
“No, this whole thing is aaaall on the feet,” Thundar said. “We’ll be standing, but it can be done sitting if someone needs to. Ah, there’s the leader.”
Alex looked up and saw a young woman approaching the group. Though she looked human, Alex could see a pair of large fox tails emerging from her trousers, just around the base of her spine. She was moving quickly and adjusted a pair of spectacles that were sliding down her nose.
“Sorry I’m late!” she said. “I was marking, and lost track of time.” She dropped her bag beside her and quickly went through some stretches. “Did you stret-Yes, yes I see that you have been. Never mind. Stupid question.”
Alex and Thundar looked at each other, as they went into their own stretches.
Once the entire club had finished up, the young woman looked around. “Ah, new faces, new faces, I see.”
Alex followed her gaze, realizing that he mustn’t be the only one attending the club for the first time.
“Well, welcome to our little gathering. And welcome to everyone who’s returning.” The leader bowed to the group, and the group bowed to her in turn, with Alex scrambling to do the same.
“For all those who are new, don’t worry about never having done this before: it’s easy to learn. I won’t talk very much through the class, but the movements are slow, relaxed and easy to pick up, even if they are harder to master. Would anyone like to explain a little about what we do in our club?”
An older man toward the front of the group cleared his throat. “This is what’s called ‘The Cleansing Movements’,” he said. “While meditation is about focusing on the breath to relax the mind, The Cleansing Movements focus on the body to relax it, exercise it, and redirect bad energy from it.”
“That’s right.” The leader pushed her spectacles back up the bridge of her nose. “And today we’ll be doing the same as always: two sets of one hundred and eight different movements of the body. After the first set, we will have a fifteen minute break. Try not to fill the break with too much talking, instead, reflect on your experience and feel your body. If any of you practice meditation, the break would be a good time to do that. Sound good? Alright, then let’s get started. Please follow my movements. I will say the name of the move as we go through it together. And remember, learn by observation and do not judge yourself. Open your thoughts and let your body flow into the movements.”
Her tails wiggled. “After the lesson, I’ll have a little talk with the newcomers and correct any major issues I observed.”
For something that was supposed to be relaxing this had a real ‘sink or swim’ quality to it.
“Oh wait, wait, wait!” she paused. “I almost forgot. To all newcomers, would you please take off any shoes, boots or sandals. It’s important to feel the ground with your feet as you’re practicing this, and to have your toes freed up.”
Alex glanced up at Thundar, who grinned down at him and tapped the stones with his hoof. “Your puny ‘foot coverings’ are overrated anyway.”
Alex rolled his eyes as he slid his boots off.
He watched as the leader placed her feet together and the rest of the class followed. Scrambling, he copied their position, using The Mark to begin the process of correcting his movements and enhancing his learning.
As he suspected and hoped—despite the exercise being similar to a combat system—it didn’t cause The Mark to react, just as the Spear-and-Oar Dance didn’t.
In the first movement, the leader spread her feet so that they were a little beyond shoulder width apart—a stance similar to one of the positions from Fan-Dor’s dance—and bent her knees slightly. The class followed her, all of them breathing in deeply, and breathing out slowly.
As Alex followed her position, he wiggled his toes on the ground. The Mark showed him an image of his toes when they’d just contracted, and he noticed that the instructor’s feet were gripping the stones. He adjusted his toes to do the same, and was flooded with more images of his own recent actions, showing that he’d done the right thing.
For a moment he frowned, wishing that The Mark helped him in the same way when he was practicing spellcraft or even combat. He acknowledged that thought and feeling on the inhalation, and let it pass on the exhalation.
It was what it was.
Sometimes things would be easy.
Sometimes things would be frustrating.
He just needed to adapt along the way.
Following The Mark’s instruction, he kept his shoulders down and his neck straight so that the top of his head pointed directly toward the glass ceiling of the gardens.
He began following the leader’s arm movements: she extended them forward, keeping a slight bend in the elbows and some slackness in her hands so that her palms and fingers were facing down toward the stones. She then began to make a circle in the air with her arms—vertically, so that her arms rose up toward the ceiling, then sideways, then back down toward the stones.
After a few repetitions—during which Alex used The Mark to correct his own form—she switched to the other direction and then changed to a different movement, one that almost looked like a guard position.
Pivoting her hips, her right hand pushed up past her shoulder while her left hand dropped down past her hip. Both of her hands looked as though they were pushing aside blows or incoming attackers. Or at least, that’s how Alex imagined it would look for his purpose.
He watched closely, his excitement building as the club continued to go through the one hundred and eight movements. Each move was slow, relaxed, and timed to coincide with their breathing, and they all involved soft movements that gently extended or contracted the limbs.
Many of the movements were simply relaxing and helped stretch the body. When combined with Theresa’s meditation techniques, Alex felt the remaining dregs of anger drain away, allowing his mind to at last relax, and his emotions to calm.
He realized that the issues still remained: deep down, he was still frustrated and somewhat embarrassed that he was having such difficulty with force missile as a combat spell. He still hoped that some miracle would allow him to have a breakthrough that would let him grasp the spell in time to hand in his report. Then he would show professor Ram the true results of his labour.
As his thoughts continued to calm, he remembered something that Baelin had said: ‘A Proper Wizard knows their limits.’
That applied to him now more than ever: he had done his best with The Mark, and he’d run into a wall. He was working on overcoming that wall, but—realistically—he wouldn’t be able to do so by the time the assignment was due.
And that was okay.
Ram might think that he wasn’t completely applying himself, because it could look that way from the outside. In the end, though, it didn’t really matter what Ram thought. He was trying his best and he knew that. He was succeeding at his own pace, and had enjoyed major successes in many areas that he wouldn’t have thought possible when he first received The Mark.
That was something to be thankful for, and focusing on one troublesome spot would only cause him more grief than necessary.
Right now, he was at his limit when it came to combat-oriented spells. That was okay. He would focus on other spells while working to overcome that limit. Slowly and safely.
By the time the club had finished the first one hundred and eight movements, he felt much lighter in spirit and fell into his regular meditation routine with ease. One of the feelings he noticed within himself was gratitude: toward Professor Ram and Thundar.
Ram had meant well—even if he was harsh about it—and his provocation had caused Alex to join Thundar in his club. The ‘Cleansing Movements’ were fantastic: he could see a number of them working very well if he had to deflect physical blows.
It would take time of course. He would need to learn the movements and then adapt the right ones for movement and defence in such a way that they didn’t trigger The Mark, but, thankfully, he’d found the start of another path.
Besides, when he imagined combining The Cleansing Movement with the Spear-and-Oar Dance, it looked really, really cool in his mind.
He felt gratitude toward Thundar for showing him this: it helped bring him back to calm and generate a new way to defend himself.
Maybe they should make him leader of the cabal…
An image came to his mind, one of the minotaur barking orders and demanding tribute from the others.
…or maybe he’d just make him a hearty meal instead.
“A meal? I won’t say no to that,” Thundar said as the club finished the practice session. “But…ain’t it a little soon?”
“Never too soon to have good food with better friends,” Alex said as he slipped his boots back on.
“And I’m not going to say no to your cooking,” Thundar laughed, stretching. Alex noticed the minotaur’s eyes following the club leader’s tails around. “But it’s a little premature, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
Thundar finally looked back at him, then jerked a thumb toward the grape-leaf wreaths on the gazebo. “You want to make another big meal for Festival of Ghosts, right?”
Alex froze. “The what now?”