It took about a week for me to finish my preparations for our departure — our boat was ready to set sail after only two days, thanks to Alexis’s help with crafting the sails, but there were still many things to sort out before leaving, the foremost of which being my dwindling supply of undead.
I had lost most of the Legion in the battle with the Empire, and of the stash of cadavers I had left back home only the dregs had remained. Ravenrock and its surrounding villages still had a couple of dozen assigned to their protection, but which I considered adequate for when I was around to back them up, but would hardly be enough in the event the Empire chose to push through to Ravenrock.
Not that I believed they would. The fliers I had set to spy on them had reported that the Rhinians headed straight for Ardenburg after defeating my army, which made sense — it was common knowledge they’d long wanted to annex Canneria, and that they only held back because they couldn’t justify the expenses. But there were two reasons Ravenrock was different — first of all, it had little economic and strategic value. Most of its revenue came from wealthy retirees. On the contrary, annexing this barren chunk of rock would have meant they were obligated to invest in its infrastructure, investments that would take centuries before turning a profit.
The second reason was superstition. They would have known they failed to kill me — our location on top of the hill had been in plain sight, and anyone with a pair of binoculars could have seen me get back up.
But at the same time, they would have seen the Heroes defeated, and the belief that only a Hero could slay a Villain ran deep in our culture. If they pushed through to Ravenrock, they would have me up against a metaphorical wall, which was a dangerous place to be, as an aggressor.
Instead, they would take their win where they got it and leave with Canneria in their purse.
At least, that was how Cameron had put it, and he’d apparently spent several weeks spying on the priests — and frankly, this made him much more qualified than myself at predicting their actions.
In any case, I opted to bolster Ravenrock’s defenses with the last available corpses, just in case they needed the extra help. I proceeded to spend the next three days in an attempt to add another enchantment to their repertoire — particularly Haste, which would amplify their combat potential several-fold. But adding another Aspect to the pile had proved to be exponentially more difficult than adding Fate had been, and I was unsuccessful in the end.
That wasn’t to mean I was giving up, though. I packed half a dozen of my more compact wights, stashing them in the Sparrow’s hold — I would have plenty of time to experiment during our months at sea.
It was unfortunate I could only take such a small contingent with me, but space was at a premium on our little corvette. I didn’t mind all that much, as I was sure I could turn this into a learning opportunity. We would be heading to check out a number of dungeons — perhaps I could find a way to prevent the monsters from fading to nothing and turn them into my minions? It was worth a try, at least.
And so I boarded the Reborn Sparrow, who had been dutifully waiting for us at its makeshift dock just along the coast. I held a piece of parchment in my hand, a letter to Jenna, one I hadn’t finished writing just yet.
After all, just because I was leaving the continent didn’t mean I would just let the thief get away with my life’s work, oh no.
“Boss, are you okay?” Sarah asked, giving me a strange look as joined me at the bow.
“Yes? Why do you ask?”
“You’re clutching that paper as if it murdered your whole family, is all.”
I looked down at my hands, and indeed, the letter-to-be had become a crumpled mess. With a snort, I folded it in four and stashed the paper in my sleeve pocket. I would have to write it again from scratch. “A letter to Jenna. Just thinking about it is enough to get me incensed,” I said.
Sarah puffed out a laugh. “Wait, what? Isn’t that the lawyer?”
I nodded, crossing my arms.
“Honestly, I still can’t believe that’s a thing,” she said, leaning forward over the railing. “Ogre lawyers and plagiarism lawsuits in fantasy-land. All while fighting armies and gods.” Sarah was silent for a few moments. “It all sounds like a bad dream, honestly. Or a bad joke, even.”
I breathed in the salty air of the sea as I thought about my next words. “It is what it is,” I said. “For you, it might sound like something fantastic. For me, it’s just… life.”
“Yeah, I get it. It’s just, sometimes my mind wanders and I half-expect to just wake up back home in my bed, but… I don’t even sleep anymore. Hell, I’m dead.”
“For what it’s worth, being both dead and alive is not the standard fare in our world,” I said wryly.
She snorted. “Yeah, hence the lawsuit. Still, it’s…”
“Expounding on the weirdness of it all?” Alexis asked as she approached, and I turned around to take a look at the newcomer. She wore a nonchalant expression, but behind it, she was coiled like a spring. Still, she was making an effort to mend fences, so I tilted my head to her in greeting. She took her place at the railing next to Sarah, holding a bottle of ale in her right hand. “I thought I heard something about lawyers.”
“Boss is suing a guy who stole his research and passed it for his own.”
“Ah. Yeah, that makes perfect sense,” Alexis said, taking a swig from the bottle. “Want some?” she asked, offering it to Sarah.
“I’ll pass. It’s not really my thing,” Sarah said.
“I’m going to add ‘mind control’ to the pile of weirdness,” Alexis said after a few moments.
Sarah winced. “I was only under for a few days… can’t imagine how it must have been for you, all these months.”
“Yeah, this ale isn’t nearly strong enough for that conversation,” Alexis said, her face expressionless.”
“You can’t really get drunk anymore,” Sarah noted.
“Isn’t that a bummer?” Alexis paused for a moment, then turned to me. “Hey, did you ever christen this boat?”
“Did I what?” I asked with a frown. One of the words had sounded distinctly foreign.
“Guess that’s not a thing here. Does the boat have a name, then?”
“The Reborn Sparrow,” I replied.
“Huh, that’s a good name. Nice and meaningful. Cheers to The Reborn Sparrow!” she yelled, bringing the bottle high in the air — then she bent over the rail and threw it at the hull. The bottle exploded in a shower of glass and yellow liquid.
Sarah mimicked a toast. “To The Reborn Sparrow.”
I watched their little ritual with amusement and brought my hand up in a fake toast upon Sarah’s meaningful look. “I have no idea what that was supposed to be,” I said with a smile, “but I believe with that, we should be ready to set sail.”
And so we were off, with the infamous Archipelago as our destination. Sarah and Alexis lingered around the bow, reminiscing about their life on Earth, while the boys had gone below deck — or at least, I thought they did. I hadn’t seen David beyond his boarding, though Alexis had assured me he was skulking about. I remained on the deck, near the back of the ship, watching as the land grew smaller in the distance.
Not long after it had disappeared completely, I was surprised by a presence intruding on my quiet, and I turned around to see Cameron approaching with a look of eagerness in his eyes.
“You said you’d teach me about magic once we left,” he said with no preamble.
My eyebrows shot up to my hairline. “Not wasting any time, I see.”
“No time like the present, right?” he said with a shrug, as if trying to appear less excited than he was.
Leaning back against the railing, I spread my hands in a welcoming gesture. “Fair enough, then. Now, you probably expected this question,” I said, earning a grimace from the boy, “but how much do you already know?”
“So, when I got here, I already knew some stuff about how to work magic, as if on instinct,” he said.
I nodded. We’d already established that the System taught him some of the basics, though how much was still unclear to me. Perhaps now was a good time to elucidate that mystery.
“But did it give you any specifics? Specifically, did it implant in you the knowledge on how to form specific spells?”
He tilted his head, his brow furrowing. “I don’t remember very well — the first few days were a mess of confusion, not to mention the haze on top of everything. But I don’t think I knew any spells from the start. It was more like, I had an inkling of how to shape a spell and make it do what I want,” he said. “Oh! And how to draw mana. That was the first thing.”
So, he was given intuitive knowledge of frameworks, intent, and mana, the three fundamental components of spellcasting. It looked like we wouldn’t need to go over the basics — but at the same time, a suspicion bubbled up in my mind.
“The shape you speak of, that’s what we generally call a framework,” I said. “They usually vary a bit from one mage to another, but recently I discovered some that were vastly different from the norm, so I’m curious — what do your frameworks look like?”
“Um, do you mean, like what kind of font I’m using?” he asked, a puzzled look on his face.
But now it was my turn to be confused — the System was able to translate the Heroes’ speech, but not all concepts had an equivalent. “Fawnts?”
“You know, like the shapes of the letters?”
Aha! It seemed like my suspicions were true. “So your frameworks take the shape of written words, then?”
“Yeah, is that weird or something?”
“Before you, I had only seen a framework use writing or a writing-analog exactly once,” I said, a smile blooming on my face. I now had a link between the soul-devouring spell and the System — whoever had created that spell was familiar with the System’s way of constructing magic. “Around here, the conventional way to form a framework is to base it on an object with a similar purpose to the spell.”
“Huh, yeah, that makes sense,” Cameron said, then went silent for a few moments as he furrowed his brow in concentration. “Actually, no, it doesn’t. What do you do when you want to cast more esoteric stuff? Like, spells that don’t have a physical equivalent?”
I shrugged. “My specialty revolves around those types of spells — I use imagery related to construction, such as ropes, pulleys, and scaffolding in order to ‘connect’ ideas, so to speak. It is a big generic, for sure, but in the end, the framework is a crutch. If your intent is focused enough, you don’t need the framework at all.”
“That’s… I want to say that’s insane, but clearly, it’s working,” he said, much to my annoyance. “But it sounds like your efficiency will be lower compared to having a more solid shape.”
“That is true,” I conceded, and for a moment I wondered if perhaps I should try to scrap and re-learn my entire framework construction paradigm. “But that is the case with esoteric spells, anyway. The farther from reality your goal is, the more effort you need to put into the spell. But we’ve strayed too from the purpose of this talk. You said your best magic was Force, yes?”
Cameron nodded, his gaze now filled with determination. “I’ve also dabbled in Matter, a bit.”
“I’m not surprised. Those two go well together. In any case, I want to see where you stand at the moment. You know how to do a fireball, yes?”
I activated Soul Vision, the spell-enhanced sight like a worn pair of glasses to me, and pointed to the open space in our wake. “Cast it in that direction, first, and we’ll start from there.”
The boy nodded grimly and closed his eyes to concentrate. I followed the threads of mana as they coalesced before him, dancing nimbly before settling into a script-like shape. His framework wasn’t at all like the runic glyphs of the soul-devouring spell — instead, it flowed like a river, with sinewy lines and twists and loops.
He pushed his intent into it, and I barely held back a grimace — it had a lot of power behind it, but it was rough, amateurish. Like someone had simply given the power of an adept to a fresh apprentice.
Cameron released the spell, and it flew over the ocean for several hundred yards before exploding. A mediocre performance, by my standards, and disappointing given the raw power the boy had at his fingertips.
He looked at me eagerly, and I almost felt bad about the lecture I was about to give him.
“First of all, your framework looked great. Clearly, you put a lot of effort into that,” I said, earning myself a sheepish smile from the boy. “The same cannot be said for the rest of the spell. Your intent needs a lot of work. Are you focusing on it at all? Not to mention…”
The boy’s face fell, but I wasn’t anywhere near done. He had an impressive amount of talent, and I wouldn’t allow him to squander it. By the time I finished with him, he would be a proper mage.