Mike watched the others coalesce around Marius. Their Angmari instructor greeted them one by one while Mike hung back by the bench. When everyone had arrived, Marius led them down the street and deeper into the park. When they reached the overpass above the path to the lake, Marius stopped them atop the bridge.
"Today's training will be significantly more intense," Marius told them. "We will begin by floating down to the edge of the lake."
Varanelli growled a curse, bringing a harsh smile to the lips of Marius. "If you cannot bring yourself to jump, return to your car. I don't need cowards in my army. If you fail to follow instructions and are injured during this test, your training is likewise over. I won't waste time on incompetents." He pointed to various parts of his body as he spoke. "When I give you a charge, you will apply the kinetic talent to your body. Do not include your head. This will interfere with your sense of balance, which you will need. Also exclude your legs from your region of control. The force of gravity on your lower extremities will keep you oriented head up. Always levitate in a standing position."
Marius gave each of them a charge, then leapt over the bridge to drift downward into the night.
"This is insane," Varanelli muttered.
Smith went to the railing and looked down. "If we all refuse to jump, he won't kick us all out."
Pushing Smith out of the way, Mike swung his feet over so that he was sitting on the railing, precariously balanced over the drop. "I might not be the smartest guy around, but I'm no coward." He activated the charge he had been given, extending his corona out around himself with the animas and expanding his mind with the nous. Mike seized himself from the neck down through the shoulders, chest, abdomen, and hips, then took a deep breath and hopped free.
He bobbed up and down in the air, unstable, carried forward by his momentum. Mike reduced his upward force so that he began to sink towards the ground. Despite the urge to look behind him and see which of the others would follow or not, he didn't dare twist about for fear of throwing off his trajectory. The lift provided by his corona was straight up in relation to his body posture, which he intuited could become a problem if he started shifting his orientation about. He didn't have faith he could right himself if he introduced turbulence.
The fall took several minutes. Mike reduced his rate of fall the closer he came to the ground, until he touched down gently onto the crushed limestone path not far from Marius. He let out a breath in a nervous chuckle. "You should really mention flying in your next recruitment speech."
Marius ignored him to watch the sky, and Mike turned to see the other five descending in slow motion. They touched down at more or less the same time, giggling in glee and high fiving one another.
"Very good. No one is cut from the team today," Marius said. "I hope each of you worked on enhancing the surface tension of water last night. Your next task is to walk across this lake." And he led the way, strolling across the dark liquid without looking back.
Mike marched forward, drawing out the gravitas precursor to reproduce the feat he had done the previous night with his bowl of water. His first step almost undid him as the surface flexed beneath his weight like a trampoline. He recovered his balance, however, and fell in behind Marius. Behind him, someone splashed into the water. Once more, he chose not to look in favor of completing the task at hand. Besides, based on the sound of the exclamations, he knew it had been Varanelli.
When he reached the other side, he turned to stand on the bank beside Marius and watch the others. Varanelli had stationed herself between Smith and Srinivas for the walk. Jimmy walked away from everyone, intense concentration on his face as he made his way. And Spencer . . . damn it, Spencer looked to be having the time of her life as she skipped across the water.
"You somehow manage to be both my best and worst student," Marius said as they waited. "I suppose the same could have been said of me."
"Maybe I'm not so hopeless after all," Mike said. "So who was your teacher?"
"He was a demon," Marius said.
Mike's head whipped around. "You can't be serious."
A smile tweaked the man's lips. "He went by Nallit, the name of the primary demon from a religion on my world. The man was in truth a Chekowan defector."
"And what's a Chekowan?"
"A Chekowan is much like an Angmari, only imagine that these space invaders don't speak a language identical to yours."
Mike blinked. "So all of this . . . ."
"Yes, we seem to be repeating history to some extent. Though my end goals are far different from those of Nallit. I'm not training the next batch of saviors to steal a starship. I want to protect this planet and get as many people into space as possible. Sometimes I think I'm a monster, but I could never match the evil of that man."
The others made it off of the water and Marius began to walk, leading them further into the darkness of the park. "The simple, intuitive use of nous is to expand your mind, what my people call mind-vasting. But it can also be used for several varieties of telepathy. The method we will study tonight is called meme-casting. It allows you to broadcast simple thoughts. The range is limited, so you shouldn't expect it to effect someone if you can't see the whites of their eyes. It is also omnidirectional, so don't expect to target individuals when this is an area effect."
Marius raised a finger. "And now for the hardest part of this. Take the nous infusing your mind and extract it back into an inactive state. Come to me when you are able to to do so." He took two steps back and hopped onto a bench directly in a reclined position like it was a pillowtop bed.
Within two minutes, Spencer approached Marius and he sat up to mumble instructions. Mike turned away to continue his efforts in peace. Then Jimmy marched over to their teacher with his head held high. Smith followed soon after. Then Srinivas. When he was about to make a snarky comment about showoffs to Varanelli, she suddenly jumped into the air in a celebratory fashion and ran to join the rest. Mike scowled at no one while he struggled to undo the vasting of his mind. It felt as impossible to him as removing the whiteness from rice. The nous had taken up residence in his head and would not obey his command to evict.
For half an hour, he tried to ignore eager exclamations and alien emotions imposing themselves upon him. Then he had to give up because the charge had faded too much. Mike walked over to the group, shaking his head when Marius raised a brow. They each received another charge and Marius led them back to their cars.
"Tonight, I want you to practice telepathy. Mike, for you the goal is to practice nous manipulation. Remember to not exhaust any of the precursors until all of them can be used up simultaneously. Tomorrow night we will be meeting at the south side of the hot metal bridge."
Srinivas leaned forward. "Where is that?"
"By the Hofbrauhaus," Mike said.
Annoyance flashed across the face of Marius. "Do you navigate the city exclusively by the location of drinking establishments?"
Mike thought it best not to respond. After a moment, Marius turned in a circle to surveil their surroundings, then vanished into the sky like he had been shot from a cannon.
Varanelli planted herself in front of him. "I don't want to get lake water on my seats, so Smith is driving my car back to the apartment and I'm riding with you. Hey, have you been drinking? You stink like beer."
"I wound up wearing the beer instead of drinking it tonight. Our glorious leader is somewhat of a teetotaler. I'll explain on the ride home."